For Elena Pinderhughes, Each New Release Is a Snapshot

The sought-after vocalist and flutist, whose collaborator credits include esperanza spalding and Herbie Hancock, spoke about artistic versatility, vision, and the perils of perfectionism.

November 21, 2023

As a flutist and vocalist, Elena Pinderhughes has racked up credits with an impressive range of collaborators—from Carlos Santana to Childish Gambino to Ambrose Akinmusire—in addition to her genre-bending solo work. On the eve of her Signature Series performance this fall, which would feature an ensemble of Berklee students, Pinderhughes was a guest at the Gathering, the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Justice’s long-running event series. She joined Terri Lynne Carrington—the institute’s founder and artistic director—and current students for a lively discussion about navigating the challenges of music school, developing an artistic voice, cultivating a community of collaborators, and more. Below are some key insights from that conversation. 

Grow with Your Peers

Reflecting on her own time in music school, where she studied flute and voice with a focus in jazz and classical music, Pinderhughes spoke about the importance of surrounding herself with friends (such as pianist/composer James Francies, vibraphonist Joel Ross, and others) who attended concerts together, not merely as passive observers but with a keen interest in immersing themselves in the inner workings of what was happening on stage. She recalls spending time after concerts trying to shed and workshop the same music—a simple way to learn from the artists that inspired her.

“It’s important to seek opportunities to play with legends, but it’s also important to craft groups out of your peers to play and grow with,” said Pinderhughes.

Mastering Versatility

When asked about her extraordinary range spanning classical, jazz, hip-hop, and beyond, and about touring with artists such as Herbie Hancock, Common, Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah (previously Christian Scott B.M. ’04), esperanza spalding B.M. ’05, Vijay Iyer, Lionel Loueke ’01, Carlos Santana, and Josh Groban, Pinderhughes stressed the importance of learning each genre thoroughly and being confident in its vocabulary in order to do justice to the opportunities she receives.

“If you want to do different styles, which Berklee offers many opportunities for, study those styles—from the start to the finish and not just the music of the current era, and you will find yourself comfortably and stylistically fitting into different settings and being taken seriously,” she said.

Honing Her Artistry

Pinderhughes also offered some insights on how she spent some of her college years honing her artistry. In particular, she advised students to take composition classes and explore multiple styles with all kinds of musicians.

“If I could say one thing about my college experience,” she said, “it’s that I focused on my own sound, prioritizing that over practicing chops. My opportunities from Herbie [Hancock] and Christian [Scott] came because I could do both styles of music, because they wanted my sound.”

I’m actively learning the skill of embracing my music and avoiding perfectionism. I try to think of releasing music as a snapshot of me then.

— Elena Pinderhughes

Seeking Mentorship and Trusted Opinions

Discussing her awe-inspiring journey so far, Pinderhughes attributed a lot of her success to being prepared for opportunities that came her way, but most importantly, to finding mentors for different aspects of her life and career who helped steer her in the right direction.

“A lot of people will have different opinions about things,” she said, “but it’s important to seek opinions from people you trust to look out for your well-being.”

Avoiding Perfectionism and Finding Room to Grow

When asked how to overcome the fear of releasing music, and how to know when a project is done, Pinderhughes said, “I’m actively learning the skill of embracing my music and avoiding perfectionism. I try to think of releasing music as a snapshot of me then, and there’s an okay-ness to accepting that I’m changing and there’s room to grow. If I’m not happy with something I’ve released, I will perform it differently, remix or reharmonise it.”

Quoting Quincy Jones ‘51, ’83H, Carrington added, “You never finish a track, you just abandon it.”

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