In honor of Classical Music Month, Caught in the Act tapped Straz media relations manager and classically-trained flutist Natasha Brown to chat with Clay Ellerbroek, principal flutist of The Florida Orchestra for nearly 15 years. Ellerbroek initially began his instrumental studies on the trumpet, but transferred to the saxophone soon after and later discovered the flute through his cousin. He has traveled extensively – even visiting Cuba and China – to share his music with the world.
When did you realize playing flute was more than just a hobby?
Clay: Well, I think just my interest in music in general kind of led me to that decision. So, there was never an aha moment, but it all happened very organically. It’s just something that I loved doing and I continued to do and I was almost obsessed with it. Then I started taking lessons, and somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that maybe I could do this in real life, so to speak. It just kind of went from there. Now, I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have the flute.
What is your favorite musical experience with The Florida Orchestra at The Straz?
Clay: I think actually being able to stand in front of the orchestra and perform as soloist with The Florida Orchestra – that was definitely one of the highlights.
What is your most memorable travel experience stemming from your music career?
Clay: If I’m speaking in terms of being with The Florida Orchestra, it would definitely be our cultural exchange with Cuba in 2011. That was really significant in a lot of ways. One, just being an American, being able to go to Cuba. This was just as the embargoes were being lifted and relations were really starting to thaw a little bit. So that was very exciting, and it was a whirlwind trip. I think we were there for maybe three or four days, and we were doing so much while we were there. It was really fantastic, and the people in Cuba were so warm and welcoming. That was very special for me.
But I’ve also been to China with the San Diego Symphony. This was back in 2013. So that was fun, because … I’m thinking, when else am I going to be able to go to China?
What do you wish audiences knew when they attend an orchestra concert?
Clay: Overall the misconception is that the orchestra is stuffy and it’s for the elite and it’s elitist and it’s not for everybody – that couldn’t be further from the truth, because it is for everybody. We play pop shows, we play movie scores, we play, of course, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, all those guys. More recently, we’re really expanding the repertoire, commissioning new works and highlighting composers of color, women composers, more contemporary composers. I think there’s something for everyone and it’s just music. We do everything from popular music to the classics.
What are some of your favorite things to do in Tampa?
Clay: One of my favorite things to do is when we’re rehearsing at The Straz is to just walk around the area by The Straz. So much has changed in over the years that it’s nice to be able to witness the change as it’s happening. Everything revolves around food for me, for some reason. Just exploring the restaurants that Tampa has to offer is another one of my favorite things to do.
If you were not a musician, what do you think you would do for a living?
Clay: Well, seeing as one of my other passions is cooking, it’s another thing that brings me joy – I think I would probably do something in the kitchen, or involving catering, or something to that effect. It’s something creative. I was always taught that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. So, while I do work very hard at playing the flute and cooking, it’s still very enjoyable for me. It seems like I never mind putting in the hard work.
The Straz has placed a great emphasis on the importance of arts education. Do you teach? If so, how has being an educator shaped you as a musician and as a person?
Clay: I teach privately. Obviously, my schedule doesn’t allow for me to have a huge studio. So, when I do teach, at most, I have maybe four, maybe five students. But what I love about teaching music, especially to younger students, is music encompasses so much. It’s team building if you’re playing in an ensemble. It’s math. It’s problem solving. So, I mean, it has all these other applications that maybe you don’t realize right away, but it has so many life lessons that you can learn from studying music or studying an instrument. Especially for younger students, I think it’s such a valuable experience in development.
It’s creativity and it’s art and culture – and it’s part of the human experience.
Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
Clay: Love what you do. Practice hard. Always be curious. There’s never just one way to do something. Find several solutions to the same problem, because in a sense, it’s like trying to solve a puzzle. There’s more than one way to reach a conclusion. And just tenacity. If you love what you do and it’s what you want to continue to do, then never be satisfied. And always practice. Practice, that’s the main thing.