Musicians who show the world who they are boldly and without any apologies are game-changers for us all. I am talking about artists who are openly unabashed about what they do. The ones who continually aim to unedit their artistic expression. The ones who tend to ignore sentences like:
…but classical players just don’t do that!!!‘
…but they might not take me seriously if I play *that* piece!
American flautist Beverly Brossman–a.k.a Bevani– is one of these people. Not only is her latest video a flutey cover-version of Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’ but she plays the track while joyfully skipping through the streets of Seattle.
Her international fan-base is well, mega. With thousands subscribed to Bevani’s Youtube videos (over 10,000 at last count), she represents the new crop of twenty-something musicians ( think Grammy artist Kevin ‘K.O.’ Osula) who’ve abandoned their previous classical career aspirations to crossover into performances designed for a more mainstream audience.
Bonus? She also has a beautiful personality to boot. We met up on Skype recently while we spent her morning in the USA (which was my evening over here in the UK) chit-chatting across the continents—cups of tea at ready, of course.
JQ: Bevani for those who don’t know your work, can you describe what you do as a flautist in one sentence?
BB: I’m a classically trained flautist who continues to break free.
JQ: But what do you mean by ‘Breaking Free’?
BB: This phrase means questioning all the confines I’ve put on myself (ex. I need to win competitions, I have to succeed, I need a boyfriend, I need to be nice, I need to look good) and breaking free from these; first by noticing them and then if possible, doing things from a place of complete joy and what feels good in my heart/soul. This is a very personal experience for me and is something I try to practice in all aspects of my life.
JQ: What does that mean to you musically, though?
BB: I used to believe that to be a really good musician I had to play perfectly, win competitions and receive respect and praise from other famous flute players. Now however, I feel how this is not true. In fact it’s about allowing myself to make ‘mistakes’ that helps me feel free while playing – then the focus no longer becomes not making ‘mistakes’ but how to connect to myself and the audience I’m playing for. I want to show who I am without any pretence, to play what I enjoy and be present within every note. It’s the experience rather than the result or praise I’m after.
Specific ways I’ve found that help foster this experience is by memorizing all my music, making eye contact with people in the audience, moving while playing, practicing improvising, playing songs that people easily connect to, and most recently writing original music. When I do feel that my nerves and resistance come alive in me, I think of it as a ball of energy that wants to be acknowledged and released. I can actually use this energy in my performance and play with it using it as fuel for opening, rather than fighting it and staying small.
JQ: I am curious: from what (or whom) are you Breaking Free?
BB: To me it’s an on-going journey of breaking free– slowly peeling away the layers that I’ve used as protection and hiding in my life. When I was 17 I started going to a therapist and she gently gave me space to say out loud my fears and shame I felt about myself. There is a subtle belief I’ve noticed throughout my life, which is that I’m doing something wrong, so something must be wrong with me, which leads to ‘I’ll never be good enough’. These beliefs create a variety of self-destructive situations where I then have to please people, or prove to them I’m worthy and eventually hide my power.
However as I’ve slowly begun to become more aware of these subtle thoughts and patterns the awareness shines its light and suddenly there is more room for me to expand or ‘break free’ from these beliefs. Ultimately I believe it boils down to breaking free from my own self-judgments and confines; ‘breaking free’ plays into all parts of my life.
In my family life I’ve had to break free from my parents in the sense that I’ve realized they are not perfect and don’t always have the answers; that they did their best with the information they had at the time. In my musical life it’s taken some unwinding and distancing from the classical world for me to step into finding my own personal joy of music.
BB: I started playing the flute when I was 7, using the Suzuki method. I had a very supportive and engaging teacher named Heidi Ehle. I could not have made it as a musician without her help and support. I’d say Heidi’s style was your typical classical training experience. I competed in the local competitions and performed in recitals a few times a year.
After that I attended the University of Puget Sound (UPS) where I studied flute with Karla Flygare and she whipped my chops into shape by helping me see the importance of scales and the metronome. I definitely had a wonderful experience playing music at UPS, winning the concerto competition, playing in recitals, and performing with the wind ensemble and orchestra. Yet, looking back I think I was still searching for a way to really enjoy and feel something while I was playing. Most often I was usually pretty nervous before a performance and had to concentrate really hard on the music, which left me feeling completely in my head and not in my body or heart.
This longing for something different took shape the last year of my master’s degree in flute performance at the University of California at Santa Barbara (USCB) when I joined a band called ‘Lotus Moon’, which consisted of a tabla player and sarod player. They were both hippie/white dudes, great musicians and nice people who performed under their Indian stage names ‘Gangi’ and ‘Vishaka’.
BB: Naturally these guys wanted to help me find my Indian name which we discovered was Bhavani, meaning Illuminating, Creating, and Imagining – heck yes! Later I combined this Indian name with my own name Beverly to create Bevani, which is what I use to perform under currently.
JQ: What was that like playing with the group as a highly-trained classical player?
BB: When I started playing with Lotus Moon it was a completely different musical experience. Something I was not used to and totally out of my comfort zone. They wanted me to just listen and play along with them! Huh!? You want me to solo, I have absolutely no idea where to even begin! This inspired me to look up Indian flutists and listen to ‘improv musicians’. I only had about two weeks to do my research before we were leaving for Bhakti Fest and performing on the small stage! I think we rehearsed twice before and even on stage didn’t know exactly what was going to happen (a little different style than the classical rehearsals) and while it was uncomfortable it was so good for me to experience the unknown and different way to relate to music.
JQ: It sounds like this was a musical turning point…
BB: As I wondered around the festival I noticed lots of flutists in bands playing along, improvising and having fun on stage, right then I knew I wanted to have this kind of freedom in my playing. Later that night I listened to the band Deva Premal and Miten and Manose Singh perform mantra music that immediately opened my heart. They were able to take their spiritual beliefs and infuse it in the music — the way they interacted with the audience was an invitation for us to truly experience something with them. This quality is something I admire so much and they are still a huge inspiration to me.
Deva Premal connects so intimately and spiritually to her music. Every time she performs it’s like a gift to the audience and there is very little ego. I love this too and want to continue to feel as if I was in the audience myself what would I want to receive. I love connecting my personal experiences and beliefs to the music I’m playing and Deva showed me this is possible.
JQ: Who else has musically inspired you over the years?
BB: I have to mention Lindsey Stirling because after I watched a couple of her videos I was immediately a fan. She took a classical instrument and made it cool and inspiring especially to young players – I love this! I want to inspire musicians to try new things, to be themselves and have fun while playing music. She’s not necessarily an established classical violinist but nonetheless has created a niche that works for her, where it’s about having fun performing and being herself is definitely what I’m after as well. Her videos are what inspired me to create my own YouTube channel and explore adding visuals to music. I do hope to meet her one day and maybe collaborate on something!
BB: The classical world has had an important influence in my life and now I’m setting foot into new territory – taking with me the things I’ve enjoyed! As a flute teacher I continue to teach classical music to my students along with all my other techniques (dance, improv, pop). My personal style of music now is much more mainstream. Ideally my body, mind and heart are all connected as I perform. To me that means having all my music learned by heart so that my body can move along with the music as I like.
JQ: And your albums?
BB: My debut solo album ‘Sacred Songs Within‘ consists of mostly classical tunes with my own added flare to them. I’m really looking forward to sharing my original album with people, which is going to be a Flute Dubstep CD and will be released probably in September 2015.
JQ: Let’s talk about your everyday. Where are you based most of the year?
BB: I live in Seattle, Washington, USA and this is where I grew up as well.
JQ: What does your typical day hold?
BB: 1-2 hours on the computer in the morning checking email/responding to fans and doing some marketing. Zero to 2 hours of practicing flute. Go to a yoga class from 12pm-1pm. Teach flute for 3 hours in the afternoon. Perform 1-2 times a week.
JQ: What is the one piece of advice you’d offer a flautist wanting to explore what you do?
BB: Start a YouTube channel now – start playing along with all your favorite pop songs – memorize all your favorite songs – improvise to beats – explore conscious movement while playing – start dancing for fun.
BB: When I say conscious movement this means really being aware of your body – I think it tends to happen to us musicians that we are moving our face or arms in a way that we aren’t even aware it’s happening– and this is fine– but the more connected you are in your body and feeling the music it can be expressed in you.
Yes, all my lessons begin with stretching to music. Because I’m also a yoga teacher I love to add body movement into lessons. I think the more aware we are of our body, its feelings and sensations the better off we are!
JQ: Can you give us some examples?
BB: So we start with stretching and then some bending of our knees with the beat of the music, then we might do some free improv dance. Next we add the flute first just playing a scale that corresponds with the music and maybe adding movement as well. This is something all flutists can try: how many ways can you move while playing one note!? I’d say just try spinning around and playing a note or bending your knees really deep and slowly standing up at a dramatic part of the music just to see how it feels to you are great ways to practice this.
At my last student recital all of my students choreographed dance movements to their songs and it was amazing! Some were more choreographed than others but all of them really enjoyed the process, this also meant that the song had to be completely memorized. To conclude I’m learning there are endless possibilities in life and music and it’s all a journey of coming home to yourself.
JQ: If people wanted some more advice from you about any of this how could they do this? And where can people watch you perform live?
JQ: Bev, you are truly a lady who inspires so many. Thank you.
BB Thanks so much for this opportunity Jessica. So wonderful meeting with you on Skype and I hope we’ll meet in person one day, too!
JQ: That I am sure of, Bev.
Thanks to the gorgeous photos of Bevani by Amaris Kristina Photography and Mike Wohlhart.