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Q and A: Nicole Mitchell

Jul 7, 2020, 10:56 AM by National Flute Association

Nicole Mitchell is an award-winning creative flutist, composer, and educator. Learn more about her here. She will be speaking on the Pioneers and Trailblazers panel as part of the Summer Series on Wednesday, July 8, at 11:00 a.m. CDT.  


There’s a distinct and wonderful uninhibitedness about your music. How do you get to that place?
Improvising and playing the flute are a life path, a spiritual practice. It's a place of raw vulnerability. If you allow yourself to let go, the music plays itself and you can be a witness to something bigger than yourself.
What do you associate with the idea of “pioneers” and “trailblazers”?
This subject of pioneers and trailblazers is a perfect focus for a statement I'd like to make to the NFA. The name of the organization "National Flute Association" and the mission of the NFA "to encourage a higher standard of artistic excellence for the flute" are expansive definers for the NFA. Nowhere in the NFA mission does it talk about a focus on western European classical music, which indicates an expansive vision, and yet, for too long, the NFA has had a limited vision of mostly focusing on precisely that. Efforts to be more inclusive have opened doors to shine the light on a few people of color who are master performers of European classical music (and perhaps a few jazz musicians), but it shouldn't be just about including Black and brown people in a mostly white field (western classical). I'd like to see the NFA expand its scope of flute attention to celebrate excellence in non-western and traditionally non-white musical practices. There is an incredible diversity of music worldwide where the flute has an important role to those practices, including jazz and creative music, or fife and drum, or bansuri, or Fulani flute, Cuban jazz, charanga, salsa, Argentinian jazz, Irish music and so much more. I would like to see a new vision for the NFA where pioneers and trailblazers of all different styles of music are celebrated and inspire young flute players to realize the incredible array of directions they can take as flutists. One of the most important flutists in the world right now that is impacting youth by the millions is Lizzo. She's a perfect candidate of someone who can inspire young flutists to know their possibilities.   
In a 2018 New York Times interview, you said, “There’s no more delusions about the fact that we don’t treat each other any better, as people, than we did thousands of years ago. So this idea of progress that we’re really focused on in our culture isn’t real in a lot of ways.” Do you still feel that way?
The institutionalized (economic, educational, police, personal) violence on Black and brown people today worldwide is more visible to everyone than it ever has been. What's changed is that more white people right now have been standing up against white supremacy. Yet most people and countries continue to focus on the advancement of technology (new iPhone, new car) as a way to define progress. We need to recalibrate our ideas of progress toward minimizing all human and biological suffering. The first step to do this is to improve our ability to coexist in celebration of our differences. We can embody that with our institutions like the NFA and the ensembles we play in by including diverse voices in decision-making, while we can also develop new infrastructures/organizations that empower histories and traditions that have been previously excluded or devalued.
What would you say to flutists who are feeling discouraged, stifled, or stuck right now?
Know your blessings and work from your place of power to make a positive difference. That power can be your identity, your culture, or something you believe strongly in, and the flute and music can be a vehicle to manifest that power. If you are facing a closing door, perhaps you need to move towards being a leader rather than fitting in. I was rejected from numerous conservatories when I wanted to go to college, and yet I still was eventually able to achieve one of my dreams of playing in a highly respected orchestra for five years. But more importantly, that rejection I faced as a Black person in classical music and a woman in jazz pushed me to make my own music, to create my own environments that I wanted to play in. That opened up other dreams where I could open doors for others. You have the power to do this. As artists we have great access to imagination. Imagination is one of the most needed human resources right now. It's our ability to imagine new worlds that we want to live in that will get humanity closer to manifesting positive change. Music and art are key to sparking inspiration in human consciousness.