An Interview with Rebecca Gilbert

The discovery of interconnection, on the stage and in the zendo.

Zen Bow: Were you raised in a religious or spiritual tradition?

Rebecca Gilbert: My mother had more of an interest than my father in making sure we had a spiritual path, so we were enrolled in a Sunday School at a Methodist church in our small town of Lomira, Wisconsin. My parents only went to church regularly during the months my younger sister and I were enrolled in Sunday School. During that time of Sunday School studies, I also sang in the church choir.

ZB: Was yours a musical family?

RG: Not particularly. One of my grandmothers played a little piano, I only ever heard her playing Christmas carols, and I had an aunt who played some accordion.

ZB: What was the first instrument you played?

RG: My first musical experiences were in the church choir.

ZB: You have a decent singing voice?

RG: I wouldn’t say that. In a past life I may have been a singer because I have these latent fantasies of being an opera singer. I dream about it a lot, and when I play the flute I think about it as my voice; that is, I feel the sound as an extension of my voice. I never really was trained [as a singer] although I had a teacher in graduate school who, as part of her pedagogical technique, had us take voice lessons, but I never really, really sang.

But I was only in a choir for a short period of time—maybe a year when we were going to church. I was young, maybe ten years old, and it wasn’t a children’s choir. It was the adult church choir. I have this memory of connecting with everybody who was singing—connecting with their voices—and I still love the sound of a great chorus. I love chanting in the zendo, just being able to hear how we’re all resonating together. And that sense of our bodies and our spirit and our energy all combining.

ZB: When did you learn to read music?

RG: I learned in music class at school and I played recorder in school before I played the flute. The music program in our rural Wisconsin community was incredible. You learned to read music, to play the recorder, and when you chose an instrument you had a private lesson once a week instead of recess. That was helpful in keeping us from learning bad habits, and it accelerated our early progress.

ZB: When did you start playing the flute?  

RG: In sixth grade as part of a public school band program

ZB: Were you expected to practice every day? For how long?

RG: My parents gave me no parameters about practicing. I had a goal-oriented, type-A personality which kept me self-motivated with my flute practice. But I almost quit after we moved the summer between my sixth and seventh grade years.

We moved to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, outside of Tulsa, and the culture shock from the rural Midwest to the suburban Southwest was an enormous challenge. The band program at my new school was focused on pep band/marching band music for football games where the focus is on the brass players, this kind of balls-to-the-wall, blow ’em away approach to playing music, which I wasn’t interested in.

Plus, in the new school the band wasn’t as good and, though my family are rabid Green Bay Packers fans, I had never been interested in sports—and, in particular, hated football. When we moved to Oklahoma I had been playing flute for only a year and that’s when I was ready to quit.

ZB: When did you start thinking that you might be a professional musician?

RG: This was a process which came after a series of events that led me to the choice. At that point, when I was so disheartened, my mother saw an opportunity for me to maybe invest a little bit more and she found me a private teacher, my first private teacher outside of school. My teacher was a professor at Oral Roberts University, so I used to go onto this gilded golden campus for my lessons.

At the same time, I remained in the school band. Ironically, the marching band was very competitive and we were the top in the state. It was actually one of the first experiences that taught me what level of artistic excellence you can achieve with hard work. We would get up in the morning and be at band practice at 6:00 in the morning before school started. There were high expectations. It required a very intense commitment. I didn’t love the music, the venues, or having to march or any of that, but I did absorb and appreciate what it was like to do hard work as a team together.

And the private lessons worked! There was no orchestra at the school, no strings at the school, but I auditioned and won a spot in the Tulsa Youth Symphony and then I absolutely fell in love with the sound of the orchestra…in particular the lush blend of the string sections and the way the band instruments were positioned as solo instruments in the texture of the sound.

Later in high school I won a position playing Principal Flute in the All-State Orchestra and was recruited by the Flute Professor at Oklahoma State University, who opened the door to what a career as a professional musician would look like.

ZB: Is it “flutist” or “flautist”?

RG: Every person who plays the flute could have a different answer, but the question comes from the European roots of Western Classical music. The word for flute is pronounced with a specific accent depending on the nationality of the player. So if you lived in Italy, the word flute is spelled flauto, pronounced with an Italian accent and then you might choose “flautist.” As I am American, and play the flute, I prefer “flutist.”

ZB: How long have you been with the RPO? What was your audition like?

RG: I joined the RPO in 1996. The audition process is quite interesting. It starts with applying for the job and receiving a list of required repertoire to prepare. Then you perform for a panel of musicians who sit behind a screen in rounds and sort through the candidates with a voting system.

ZB: Do you have any anxiety before auditions and performances? How do you deal with it?

RG: Early on, I developed a routine including specific steps that set me up to be in a reliable physiological/psychological state for performing. For instance, I always do a cardio workout, refrain from caffeine, and eat the same things before performing. It’s like training for an athletic event: you want to neutralize anything that might get in your way (example: caffeine) and feel confident that you have control over your body and mind. Now, of course, I do as much zazen as I can before performing. It helps me feel more energetic and activates my intuition.

Now, as I am getting older, my physical routines have changed a bit and I am doing more yoga and Pilates as well as cardio. Playing the flute requires an asymmetrical body posture, and because of that I have had to pay more attention to physical maintenance in the past few years. I also watch what I eat all the time because I am performing all the time.

Another of my pre-performance rituals, believe it or not, is watching reruns of Little House on the Prairie. I always loved watching them as a girl and find them soothing, grounding, and capable of opening up my heart. Listening to inspiring music also has the same effect on me.

Auditions are a little different because you are playing, literally, to a wall. You have to re-create a performance setting in your mind because of the screen, and you don’t have the interconnection with and responsiveness of the audience. When I coach younger musicians before auditions, I emphasize the importance of imagining the audience as they are playing.

ZB: When did you first start meditating or first come to the Zen Center?

RG: I started Zen practice in 1999, only a few years after moving to Rochester. Before finding the Zen Center, I had a sporadic interest in meditation and a simple meditation practice I started a few years before moving to Rochester. I was inspired to look for a community of practitioners after attending a weekend sampler workshop at Kripalu, where I attended a combination yoga/meditation class. I loved the feeling of connecting with the other practitioners in the room and it reminded me of the feeling of connection I feel when I am performing. Also, I had an aspiration to go deeper with my practice and wanted to find a teacher.

ZB: What attracted you to Zen practice?

RG: I’m an introverted extrovert who needs plenty of quiet and grounding for the emotional demands of my performing career. I am also healing from family and sexual assault trauma.

ZB: You’re in a very competitive environment. How do you balance professional ambition with the notion of ego attrition?

RG: I think in some ways I escaped some of the pitfalls of pursuing career ambition because I was so naïve. My early musical experiences were well out of the mainstream of the classical music world, and I always just felt lucky that things kept working out for me. I didn’t have a lot of expectations, and that set me up for feeling pretty grateful and humble. My last flute mentor, who was the Principal Flutist of the New York Philharmonic, often tried to encourage me to think bigger than I naturally thought.

I love the alchemy of performance and the feeling of connecting with the audience. This has been the most compelling thing about why I gravitated to a performing career. / / /


Rebecca Gilbert joined the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra as principal flute (The Charlotte Whitney Allen Chair) in the 1996–97 season. She has performed as acting principal flute of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and guest assistant principal flute with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood. She has been a member of the Zen Center since 1999.