A harmonizing repertoire
Renowned flutist Emi Ferguson teaches importance of musicality at UB and Julliard
Two years ago, Emi Ferguson stood on Ground Zero wearing all black. She had passion and sadness in her eyes as she confidently stood in front of thousands of people while the notes of "Amazing Grace" purred out of her flute.
Audience members at the 10th Anniversary Memorial Ceremony of 9/11 cried and held each other as Ferguson made playing the patriotic song look effortless and let the music lightly sway her body. When she finished the song on a resounding whistle, there was a moment of silence as the audience absorbed the emotion she left on stage before applauding.
This was one of Ferguson's favorite performances because, not only did it move her, she was able to speak with members of the audience and hear how the music helped or supported them.
Ferguson, whose performances have been praised by the Vancouver Sun as "hauntingly beautiful," is now an adjunct assistant professor of music at UB and a flute performance expert. She is driven by her passion for the musicality, history and sound of classical flutes, particularly from the baroque era of the 17th and 18th centuries. She has performed all over the world, working with renowned composers, and occasionally still does. Today, she commutes between UB and Julliard teaching students the fundamentals of sounds in music.
The young musician teaches at UB on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and then flies to New York City for the rest of the week, flying back to Buffalo by Sunday night or Monday morning. She said her schedule is a whirlwind of events - she doesn't have time to think about how hectic it actually is.
At both UB and Julliard, Ferguson teaches ear training, in which students perform in front of the class without instruments, sometimes singing, in order to hear the basics and fundamentals of what make up the music. She said the biggest difference between the two universities is, at Julliard, the students solely study music, but at UB, she gets to teach students of various disciplines. Also, at UB, she offers private flute lessons.
One of her private flute students is Megan Pszonak, a junior nursing major pursuing a minor in flute performance.
Students like Pszonak are the reason Ferguson loves teaching at UB. Ferguson believes many fields, like medicine and law, require skill sets similar to music.
"They all require people who are very dedicated and focused and people who are able to be flexible in high pressure or in all sorts of situations," she said.
"My favorite thing about her is she pushes me to be better, as dramatic as that sounds," Pszonak said of Ferguson. "But she is really always there encouraging me and telling me I can do more with the flute than I would have thought about doing on my own."
Pushing students to reach their potential is one of Ferguson's fundamental teaching methods. She also believes all students should experience performing in front of others, posing the question: "If we aren't doing it for people, then what's the point?"
Aside from encouraging her students, she is there to comfort them. Ferguson knows from experience the music world is a critical place. Auditions and competitions are subjective because "one person can say you're the best, while another says you're the worst, but your playing hasn't changed, it's only an opinion," she said.
Ferguson doesn't have to go through the challenging process of auditions anymore. At this point in her career, she is often recruited by word of mouth.
But she didn't always know she wanted a life of music and performance.
Growing up in London, England, and then Boston, Mass., she was the only musically inclined member of her family.
Although she had been playing the flute since she was 6 years old, Ferguson was apprehensive about committing to music full time. After high school, she took time off and considered attending medical school. But she realized she couldn't imagine her life without music.
She ended up at Julliard, and graduated in 2012 as the first person with undergraduate and graduate degrees with scholastic distinction in flute performance. During her time there, she was the only flutist accepted to Julliard's inaugural Historical Performance class.
Now, she plays the flute three to four hours every day - practicing, teaching or performing, she believes musicians shouldn't stop playing when they leave school.
Ferguson plays the classical, baroque and modern flutes - depending on the era the piece is from - and she said the flute has been revolutionized throughout time, comparing it to the way horse carriages have evolved into automobiles.
"You get to understand how audiences would have heard the music back then or what composers were actually composing for," she said. "What we do today is beautiful and takes a lot of work, but it's detached from how people would have heard it on the instruments back then."
This unique style has provided her the opportunity to be the only flutist of her kind to work with famous conductors such as James Levine, William Christie and her favorite, Pierre Boulez.
Ferguson said although it's always intimidating to work with these famous conductors or composers, "living legends" that she had read about and studied in her music history classes, they are just people who have a lot of knowledge to offer.
And now that she's not a student, she doesn't have teachers critiquing her playing. Instead, she has her fianc?(c).
The musical duo met at Julliard. She joked that when they perform together, "it usually ends badly" because they are both very opinionated. But, she couldn't imagine her life without him.
"He is one of those people who will be brutally honest with me and everything in my playing," Ferguson said. "He's one of my best teachers and listeners, especially because I've been out of school. It's great to have someone to give me that feedback of what works, what doesn't work or what I need to work on."
As she gets older, she believes she should practice more often.
But with her busy schedule, she has learned to prioritize and efficiently use her time. And she passes those skills to her students.
When Ferguson was studying at Julliard, she said she had a teacher who focused on technique and exercises; he rarely let his students play music. She said it was like a basketball team only doing pushups and running laps, never playing a game.
In Ferguson's lessons, she teaches musical technique but also requires playing.
Pszonak enjoys Ferguson's style of teaching. Her previous flute instructor at UB was an older man who focused on technique, and while Pszonak enjoyed his knowledge, she said he wasn't as relatable as Ferguson.
Ferguson hopes to continue teaching at UB and Julliard to help students on their musical journeys for as long as possible. She advises all music students to "keep going and believe in what you're doing."
Her next performance in Buffalo is April 15 in Slee Hall, but she has various performances in New York City, Massachusetts and Texas before then.