When asked what the best part of playing the piccolo is, Jeff Zook audibly grins: “I love the fact that we play the melody all the time.” Since 1992, Jeff has held on to the melody in the DSO flute section, rising high above the stage; he feels the most at home when he is at the center of the sound.
Being a soloist comes naturally to Jeff. Even when he’s not at Orchestra Hall, he finds that a change of scenery is needed to keep his creativity in check. When the need for inspiration strikes, he takes short solo trips to destinations off the beaten path on Michigan’s west coast, meditating, reading, writing, and of course, practicing. He’ll experiment with different headjoints —often considered the most critical part of the instrument, the headjoint is the part of the instrument blown into to make the flute sound, providing different strengths and tonal widths in various parts of the octave—and flutes, trying to create unique and interesting sounds. In unknown settings his goal is to make his flute vibrate in a new way.
That’s what he’s always working toward: a more perfect sound. As his teacher and former DSO Piccolo Clemente Barone once said to him, “Every time you play a piece, you must strive to play it a little bit better than the last time you played it. Otherwise, a job just becomes a job.” Jeff takes the sentiment to heart in every performance, looking for new ways to play even the most iconic pieces. “After all these years in the orchestra, when I sit down and play ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever,’ I’m always thinking ‘how can I play this a little better than last time?’”
With this mindset guiding him, Jeff likes to be challenged in his playing; he remembers the recording process for Copland’s Grohg & Billy the Kid with then-Music Director Leonard Slatkin, which earned a Grammy nomination. The piece called for Jeff to play an Irish whistle in the key of A flat, which he was happy to do. There was just one problem: “I had to seek out a man to create an Irish whistle in the key of A flat. They do not exist,” he laughs.
Classical and pops are equally enjoyable in his eyes, but as a piccoloist Jeff is biased towards Prokofiev. “[Prokofiev] uses the orchestrations in an absolutely fantastic way where the piccolo gets to be a colorist, it gets to be a soloist, it gets to be the leader of the entire orchestra at times. I get to change my character and personality to make the music fantastic.”
During this past year, being a soloist wasn’t necessarily a choice. With the unmatched acoustics of Orchestra Hall often out of reach due to smaller ensembles playing socially distanced digital concerts, his home recital hall was the next best thing. And what he’s really enjoyed during the pandemic is virtually collaborating with his colleagues in the flute section and making videos for the Intermezzo series— a specially curated monthly offering of content to keep subscribers connected to the stage when they can’t be in the hall. “Even though we’ve all been distanced by our homes, these projects have really helped us grow as a section,” he says.
“ I didn’t know why it was so unsettling at first, but then I realized it was because there was nothing coming back. It’s an eerie feeling to end a great Beethoven symphony, and for there to be silence.” ”Jeff Zook on playing in Orchestra Hall without audience
Where Jeff finds the most growth and fulfillment though is as an educator. He believes teaching is what he was put on earth to do. He revels in the achievements of his students, saying time and time again that, “There’s nothing more satisfying then when your previous student ends up next to you in an orchestra.”
When he’s teaching, Jeff aims to give lessons that reach beyond just scales and arpeggios. “As a music teacher, the biggest compliment I got was from a high school student who said, ‘thanks for teaching me how to play the flute but thank you also for teaching me how to think.’ Those moments where you feel like you’re enhancing someone’s ability to make decisions in their life through what we do are what it’s about.” He feels a responsibility to carry on the legacy of the DSO piccolos and flutes before him, so he uses teaching to influence the next generation of great musicians.
Even with decades of experience, Jeff is still a student himself, “I feel that if I’m not learning from my students, I’m not being the best instructor, because that would mean I have a lack of humility, so I strive to learn things from my students.” During the pandemic, he’s taken the initiative to learn from flutists and piccoloists all over the world. Past experiences playing abroad revealed differences in the way other countries approached music. This changed with the advent of the digital age, “Styles of playing have really amalgamated around the world, and I think that’s due to the Internet. It’s an incredible resource, [when I was a young student] we only had LPs that we had to go to a record store to buy.”
“ I’ve been blessed with some of the best teachers in the world, and it gives me great joy and pleasure to help younger players find their passion for music.” ”
Over the years, Jeff has observed a lot of changes in the symphonic world and hopes the future of music will include many more perspectives. “Detroit is a very diverse, ethnic metropolitan area. I would like to look out into the audience and see that represented more, and to know that those in the hall feel equally at home in the hall as we do on the stage,” he says.
As for what Jeff is looking forward to in the short term at the DSO, it can be summarized in one word: “Jader.”
“ (Jader) came at the perfect time. We need his positivity, passion, and electricity. He brings the orchestra to a higher level simply by stepping on the podium.” ”
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