Anna Webber

Photo by T.J. Huff

Anna Webber (b. 1984) is a flutist, saxophonist, and composer based in New York City. Her bio positions her work between avant garde jazz and contemporary classical music, but it would also seem to draw on hip-hop, rock, metal and other popular styles.

These populist tendencies may explain why, unlike a lot of music which might be classed “avant garde,” Webber’s creations are so visceral and entertaining.

I always feel in good hands listening to Webber, that she’s not only technically adept, but sensitive to how her music is perceived. She seems sympathetic to the listener: dissonant melodic cells are looped so that the ear can parse them; complex polyrhythms might be framed with a steady, bumping back-beat; teeming microtonal clusters are doled out in small palatable chunks. Attention is rewarded with pleasure.

Webber’s latest recording is called Idiom, a kaleidoscopic double album split between her long-standing Simple Trio (with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer John Hollenbeck) and a 13-piece ensemble of virtuoso New York improvisers and classical musicians (plus conductor).

For those looking for a short introduction, check this brilliant cat video she made to promote her 2016 trio album Binary.

Our interview was conducted over email in June 2021.

Have you practiced today? What’d you work on?

Yep. I fall under the category of “people who hyper-organize their practice time.” I’ve always done this, it helps me make sure I’m touching on a bunch of different aspects of my playing every day (and I make sure I reassess my practice routine regularly so that I’m staying relevant to what I want to be working on currently, and not just going over the same ground over and over again).

Current focuses are on muscles that I want to keep strong for when I actually start playing with humans more frequently – so spending time on improvisation, time-feel, and sight reading. A challenge during the pandemic has been trying to recreate the feeling of interacting with other people while there has been only rare occasions to actually interact with others. I’ve ended up improvising along with a lot of recordings. It’s a one-way street, but at least it helps.

The basics of your practice:

Where do you usually do it?

I’ve usually been lucky enough to be able to play in my home. There were a couple years where I lived in a small building with thin walls and needed to get a practice space, but generally speaking I like not needing to commute to practice!

For how long?

These days, a couple of hours. That’s varied a lot over the years – when I was in college I liked practicing between eight and twelve hours a day. I’d spend all day in the practice rooms, then go see shows at night. I guess I must not have had much homework. I mellowed out to six-ish hours after I graduated and actually needed to earn some money. I still feel bad for my roommates.

When I went to grad school, I could only book two hours a day in the practice rooms, and so my routine got even shorter. It felt scary to cut down so much, but my practice routine quickly became much more efficient, and I also realized that having time in the day to do other things made me a better musician (and a more well-rounded human).

Do you generally have a clear sense of what you want to accomplish in a given session or are you more free floating?

Very clear. As I mentioned earlier, I hyper-organize my practice time. Unless I have a lot of music that I need to learn quickly – in which case that takes priority – I break up my practice time into ten minute blocks. That feels like the amount of time I can really focus on a given exercise. The specific things I’m working on vary, but the basic categories I try to hit on a daily basis include sound, technique, rhythm, repertoire and improvisation. I know that sort of structure is not for everyone, but it works for me!

Favorite exercises to develop instrumental technique:

A full, centered tone 

Overtone series exercises on tenor, Moyse book on flute

Accurate intonation

Intonation depends on context. But practicing intervals with sine-wave drones is helpful.

Strengthening relationship between what you hear and play

Play slowly.

How do you find new instrumental textures and learn to incorporate them into your playing?

I’ll start with the caveat that I don’t think anything I play is “new.” But generally speaking, a lot of my extended technique research in my practicing routine comes from going for something on a gig and not quite making it. If I’m sort of hearing something but not quite able to execute it yet, then I’ll take the time to figure out exactly what it was I was going for.

I try to be curious about any sound that’s new to me. What are the parameters? Can I play it throughout the range of the instrument? Can I play it at every dynamic level? Can I attack it in a variety of ways? What happens if I use a loose embouchure or a tight one? Etc. I also work on consistency and endurance with any sound that feels uncomfortable; I want to make sure I can always reproduce that specific sound.

How do you divide practice time between your instruments?

I split it in half.

Do you “practice” composing in the same way you practice instrumental technique?

I don’t think they’re totally analogous, but you get better when you do something all the time. When I’m writing music, I sit down and do it every day, whether I’m “inspired” or not. Just remember that every great composer did not write great music all the time, and not every piece needs to see the light of day! Also, edit your own music.

Where’s your phone while you practice? Do you struggle to focus?

My phone is my metronome, it’s on my stand. Sometimes I put it in airplane mode. But if I’m engaged in what I’m playing, focusing is not an issue. Practice time is pretty sacred to me, it keeps me centered and sane. Why would I waste it?

Do you listen to a lot of music? Where/how do you do your best listening and how analytical are you about it?

Yes. Depends on the type of music. Some music is good to listen to with scores. I also like listening to music on the subway, though that is only good for certain types of music. These days I do a lot of listening while going for walks. I’m not super analytical about it, but I definitely try to listen to music in an environment where I can actually listen to it, and where my eyes aren’t distracted by a screen. 

How do you cope with not practicing?  Do you take instruments on vacation?

I cope with it very well … I do not take instruments on vacation. It always feels nice to come back to my instruments after some time away, and as someone for whom flying with instruments is a huge stressor, it’s a relief to be able to occasionally fly without them. Being able to easily take time off is an advantage woodwind players have that brass players, for example, don’t have. But I think there’s a lot of value in not working all the time.

Has the need for intensive practice ever caused friction in relationships?

I was very single when I was in my “I practice all day” phase, so maybe that’s an answer to your question in and of itself. But – no. My husband’s also a musician, we both practice every day. No friction there!

Name one good:

Music method book

De La Sonorité by Marcel Moyse

Jazz flute performance

Gary Thomas on this George Colligan piece “Ancestral Wisdom” – changed my life.

Non-musician whose art you find inspiring

David Lynch

Hot drink

Coffee, obviously

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