Close-Up: An Interview With Flutist Gillian Derer

Flutist Gillian Derer is entertaining – and inspiring – thousands of people online with her fun and motivational videos. Gillian stops by on Close-Up Culture to chat about her musical journey, creating content, the importance of practice, and much more.

Hello Gill, welcome to Close-Up Culture. Can you tell us about your background and your earliest memories of picking up a flute?

I grew up in Tillsonburg, a small town in Ontario, Canada, with my mom and dad, brother, and three cats. Aside from singing, which I always loved to do, I didn’t have much music in my life until I entered grade seven, which was when we began learning band instruments through the public school system. I was assigned the trombone for my main instrument, and played it in the school’s band, but I was a kid who walked to and from school, and the trombone proved to be much too heavy for me to carry back and forth. I switched to a lighter instrument in grade eight- the lightest instrument, actually: the flute!

Starting my instrument at thirteen was very late compared to most of my colleagues now, especially considering I didn’t begin private lessons until I reached grade ten. Sometimes I still feel like I have to prove myself, while equally feeling like I have to work extra hard to catch up to my peers who have been playing their instrument since childhood. I wouldn’t change a thing, though- I’m so happy to be where I am now.

Why were you drawn to playing the flute and what do you love most about this instrument?

Funnily enough- I wasn’t really “drawn” to the flute in any way when I began playing it. As I mentioned, it was the fact that it was light and fit compactly in my backpack that made it appealing! After about two years of playing the flute in public school, I began to become more drawn to music and the way it made me feel, and I sought out private lessons. I loved practicing on my own and working towards goals, and I also loved playing in band and feeling like I was a part of something.

Now that I’ve been exposed to almost a decade of incredible flute music and players, I can safely say I’ve completely fallen in love with the instrument- particularly the challenges our repertoire presents, how the flute blends with other winds and strings, and the way I feel I’m able to express myself through the instrument. 

How often do you practice, and how do you strive to keep improving?

I’ve learned throughout my years as a musician that it isn’t the amount of time practicing that creates a successful musician- it’s the quality of the practicing! I strive to practice between three and four hours a day in two separate sessions (three to four hours would be far too much at one time!). Extremely focused practice is what leaves me feeling inspired and motivated because I truly feel like I’ve achieved something in each practice session.

They don’t all go this way- sometimes I’m exhausted and can’t get away from my phone- but seeing my own progress motivates me to continue improving. Another thing that keeps me inspired to keep working is surrounding myself with incredible musicians who remind me what it is to be driven, disciplined and musical. 

You get to play great concerts and meet lovely people through your instrument. What has been the most memorable experience you’ve had playing the flute?

My absolute favourite part of being a musician is the incredible people I get to meet, the musicians I get to collaborate with, and the concerts I get to play and see. There have been a lifetime of memorable experiences already, but attending Domaine Forget in Quebec, Canada, this past Summer has to be the most memorable experience so far.

Domaine Forget was a two week summer festival in which I studied from some of the world’s most incredible flutists, had the chance to collaborate with some incredible musicians, and made friends for a lifetime. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have been there and the people I was so lucky enough to connect with! The musician community is a truly incredible thing to be a part of, and the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic really reminded me of that. 

You remind myself of violinist Esther Abrami in the way you are connecting with people online and inspiring more people to get into music. Can you tell us about the content you create and the impact you’d like to have?

That is an incredible compliment- thank you! I began creating content during the lockdown in 2020, in which all musicians were mourning their cancelled concerts and their time collaborating with colleagues. At the time, I was posting videos of myself practicing as a way to keep myself accountable and inspire other musicians to continue making music even though they felt alone. I had no idea I would one day have the reach I have now, and I am so grateful for my platform! I have continued to post videos of myself practicing to remind musicians that the process is important, not just the end goal.

I also create motivational content to inspire my fellow musicians to keep working and creating music even when it feels too challenging (which is a lot of the time!). I also love to post classical music jokes to remind myself and others not to take themselves too seriously; we’re all humans, after all. Connecting with musicians from around the world has been a dream, and I’m so thankful that social media has given me the chance to do that. 

What would your advice be to anyone considering taking up the flute or any other instrument?

Music is fun, no matter your goals or your level! Anyone can play an instrument- it’s an extremely rewarding hobby, as well as an extremely rewarding career, if you choose to take it that far. If you choose to take up an instrument, make it your goal to include others as often as possible; this is what music is really about. Play for your mom, play for your dog, play duets with a friend, play on the sidewalk. Play for others, play with others, and watch others play!

Music is a language, and it’s all about communicating with others- so don’t feel afraid of sharing your music. Do it! It’s the best part! My last piece of advice would be to always set goals for yourself- big or small. Challenge yourself. You are capable of more than you think. 

Outside of the flute, what other passions do you have?

Recently, I’ve taken up swing dancing with my pals from the conservatory. We’re all musicians, so we’ve got rhythm- but the footwork is another story. Although I appear very extroverted, I’m really an introvert, so I also enjoy a lot of hobbies alone: craft-making, reading, writing, and tending to an abundance of houseplants. Other than that, I’m passionate about being happy and making others around me happy too. 

What are your plans and ambitions for the future?

Right now, I’m pursuing my Artist Diploma under the tutelage of Susan Hoeppner at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. I’ll graduate in 2024- and then who knows? The best thing about being 22 is every door is open. I could go back to school and continue studying, I could freelance, I could take orchestral auditions, take on more flute students, or perform in a chamber group and tour the world. My main ambition is to make a living playing the flute, and however that comes to me is good. 

See Gillian perform live with the Royal Conservatory Orchestra – https://www.rcmusic.com

Check out Gillian’s YouTube channel – Gillian Flutes

Follow Gillian on Instagram – G I L L (@gill.flutes) • Instagram photos and videos

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