While I was learning the saxophone, my best friend Mary Beth played the flute in our band. We had many classes together and would sit next to each other as often as we could.
One day in Earth Science class, we had a substitute teacher and were watching a video. The lights were turned down, and the substitute told the students that we could sit on the floor. So I snuck over to a corner of the classroom to crouch underneath a desk with Mary Beth and I asked her if I could look at her flute. I ended up spending the entire 50-minute class studying her band book and trying to learn all the notes. I realized that many of the fingerings on the flute were similar to the saxophone. I was so inspired by this discovery that I told her, “I am going to learn how to play this so I can sit next to you in band!” When I got home, I looked through the newspaper’s classified ads for used flutes and found a listing at a local pawn shop. When we arrived that rainy evening, the owner showed us where the musical instrument section was. There were two flutes—a tarnished, silver flute and a shiny, nickel-plated one. Naturally, I chose the shiny nickel flute, even though the silver flute was of a higher quality, and I begged my mom to get it because it was at a discounted price. Thankfully, she agreed!
I absolutely loved playing that flute. “Oh my gosh, this is it,” I said. “Forget the saxophone!” Within a couple of weeks, I worked my way up from the back of the flute section by winning weekly chair challenges, and eventually I reached my goal of sitting next to Mary Beth. My band director recognized my work ethic and told me about an upcoming Macon Symphony Orchestra concert which was featuring a flutist. It was life changing for me. It was my first time seeing my local symphony perform and the soloist that evening, Dr. David Klee, would eventually become my teacher.
Even though my love for the flute continued to grow throughout middle school and high school, my parents expected me to go into the medical field just like they did. It took several conversations with my high school flute teacher, Kelly Via, to convince my mom to let me apply to music school. He told her, “I think Norman has done well here in Georgia and has what it takes to pursue this professionally.”
I submitted several audition tapes for college, but had no idea how competitive it was going to be to go to a top music school. Even though I had done well during my time in Georgia, I wasn’t getting considered for auditions anywhere. I was a big fish in a small pond. Out of six schools that I applied to, I was rejected by five, waitlisted at one, and preparing my late-application to an in-state school. Luckily, I was removed from the waitlist and accepted at North Carolina School of the Arts. Even though it was not how I envisioned my collegiate career in music to start, I was excited for this new chapter.
That humbling experience instilled the drive, work ethic and resilience I needed in order to succeed.
There were many times throughout college when I considered quitting and coming home, but my mom would tell me, “Norman, your professors are hard on you because they see your potential. Even if you think you can’t handle it, it’s your choice to decide if you can. There is always something to learn and room for you to grow.” I still think of these words often and find them universally true for all.
Hillary: This is your 10th season with the Great Falls Symphony, and you’ve won so many auditions for other professional orchestras that I think you're going to have to start turning down some job offers!
*Norman currently holds principal flute positions with the Great Falls Symphony, the Fort Collins Symphony (Colorado) and the Wyoming Symphony.
It’s crazy to think, right?! My journey as a musician is continuously evolving and I’m still learning. It’s just one of the reasons I love this career. Even amidst all the practicing, teaching, and performances, I have had to learn how to get inspired, to stay motivated, and most importantly, to find happiness in my everyday life.
For a couple of years, the pursuit of happiness was an idea I struggled to understand. I thought tying my happiness to my career or successful auditions would make me happy. And, it did. Temporarily. But, as a musician, many of us, including me, experience many rejections and failures–which means associating happiness to career success is not a good idea.
Several years ago, one of the most impactful interactions I had was after playing some excerpts for a colleague. After several failed auditions, I was preparing for another one and wanted her insight as an audition panelist. She said, “Norman, when I listen to you, I hear so much talent, but it sounds like you’re trying to prove yourself instead of making the audition about the music. It sounds like you’re entangling your happiness and self-worth with your career too much, and that isn’t sustainable or practical.” This feedback was so hard for me to hear because I knew it was true deep down. She was telling me the problem wasn’t even my playing, but that it was me who needed work and refinement.
She said, “After this audition, I think you need to take some time to discover where your happiness lies so that your music making can be filled with freedom and joy. That is how the best music is created.”
I stopped taking auditions for over two years and really thought about her words. I realized there was a lot of truth in them. I wasn’t happy and I was tying up my emotional well-being in my career. It was a real dilemma for me because I didn’t know where to find happiness outside of my constant need to prove myself. That two-year break from auditions helped me change my perspective, not only on my career, but also my view on life. I think everyone needs to really stop and think about where their happiness lies.
Angela: How did your time of self-reflection change your perspective about your future?
I still get excited about finding new professional opportunities—that hasn’t changed. I discovered that having variety in my profession, like playing with different people, in several communities, brings me joy. I’m no longer doing it for recognition or validation. Now, I try to share and connect with as many people
as I can with my flute and music.
Angela: What do you think makes the Great Falls Symphony unique?
I believe that all orchestras should be a reflection of the community they serve. They each have their own unique location, traditions, and people. The Great Falls Symphony does this through its local programming, world-artist soloists (like Joshua Bell and James Galway), and the people who make up the organization as a whole—from the musician to the patron to the student and everyone in between. It is also amazing that we have nine, full-time, professional musicians who get to live, work and create music here. This is very unique for a city of our size and I am so thankful to have the opportunity to do what I love in Great Falls!
Hillary: Your origin story is so inspiring. I would never have guessed that you experienced such significant roadblocks in your craft, because when I hear you perform, it’s with such precision and excellence. Knowing how much you’ve overcome and how much resilience you have hopefully encourages the next generation of music students who face similar roadblocks. We are so glad you are here to mentor and teach our kids!
I am so fortunate to share my experiences with our Great Falls community and my involvement with the Great Falls Symphony! I love making a positive impact on people of all ages through my personality and music. Striving for excellence and playing with joy is something I work on every day, even when it seems hard. Just like my flute-playing, I am nowhere near perfect, but it doesn’t stop me from trying to get better because I know my positive choices can help others be better too.
On why he switched from saxophone to flute, his drive and discipline, and the pursuit of happiness
Executive Director Hillary Shepherd and Development Director Angela Costley sat down with Norman to discuss his origin story as a flutist and talk about his life over the past nine years with the Great Falls Symphony.
When I was in 5th grade, I joined my school band on the saxophone because my parents had told me that my grandfather was very good at it and hopefully I had the “musical gene” to play like him. I remember participating in a saxophone sectional with my band director and the group was working on articulation, or separating the sound with the tongue. Everyone was doing well, but when it was my turn, I just honked and sounded like a strangled goose. I was never great at the saxophone, but I eventually figured it out after several weeks of practicing. Fortunately, that experience helped spark my curiosity for music
and playing other instruments.
Angela: Tell us a about your history, your childhood, and how you discovered the flute.
I grew up in Macon, Georgia, a town about twice the size of Great Falls. Music was always present in my life, especially in my Filipino household. My grandmother could not read music, but was very talented and could play songs after hearing them once or twice. My dad loved karaoke and would encourage me to sing with him, even if I didn’t know the tune. My family enjoyed music and we always found opportunities to dance to
it or create it regularly.
Norman at ages 17 and 11
Helping kids discover music is one of Norman’s great joys.
KACIE Q PHOTOGRAPHY
The dedicated support of our entire community makes Norman’s story possible! Our collective pursuit of artistic excellence demonstrates how much we can achieve when we work together.
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