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Distinguished Bay Area flutist becomes a voice for endangered species

Photo Courtesy: Viviana Guzman
Photo Courtesy Viviana Guzman

As her feet balanced on the paddle board and her hands tightened around her oar, Viviana Guzmán paused mid-stroke to listen intently to an eerie sound in the distance. She was paddle boarding along the shoreline of Half Moon Bay when a young humpback whale breached next to her board. 

This humpback whale encounter occurred on July 16, 2016 and attracted media attention to Guzmán. There are seasonal whale sightings in Half Moon Bay, but Guzmán was able to capture the event up-close on camera. A friend also collected video footage, and Guzmán posted the compiled video to her YouTube channel, which now has over 900,000 views.

Artistic director of the San Francisco Flute Society, Guzmán has been actively engaged with the Bay Area community of musicians and is continuing to contribute her expertise in performing the flute for local organizations. Guzmán has recently announced that she will dedicate a portion of the proceeds of her next musical production towards efforts in preserving the vaquita, a critically endangered species of porpoises. 

“I wondered what I could do to help the environment, and narrowed it down to contributing my efforts to saving the vaquitas from extinction. There are so many other species I want to help that are also in danger,” Guzmán said. 

Her latest album “Traveling Sonata” received a Grammy Nomination, and Guzmán is composing and producing a new nine-track album which will feature and incorporate melodic whale communication sounds with flute pitches. In a carefully constructed series of pieces, she will record her own flute compositions in conjunction with her own whale sound recordings from Half Moon Bay. Quoted by the New York Times as “An imaginative artist,”  the alumna of The Julliard School had already received national and international praise for her works and accomplishments in the field of music.

The discussions and feedback Guzman received after encountering the humpback whale in Half Moon Bay opened the door for her personal and professional involvement in environmental awareness efforts. Guzmán attended numerous events covering the topics of environmental issues, and the fight to save the endangered species of the vaquita caught her attention. The vaquita is the most endangered cetacean in the world, one of the leading endangered mammals in the world and are being being rapidly decimated by illegal gillnet fishing in Mexico. Fewer than 60 vaquitas remain. She is aiming to combine devotion for music with her love for the environment in the album.

During most paddle board outings, the professional flutist would bring her waterproof flute to practice amongst the waves. Bumping into the humpback whale inspired her to combine her musical endeavors with environmental awareness issues.

“During my weekly swimming and paddle boarding routines this past summer, I would hear whales and go home to imitate their pitches on my flute. I want to combine my voice with their voices,” Guzmán said. 

Guzmán chose to use the Native American flute due to its haunting and deeply spiritual sound. She wants the sounds in her pieces to be similar to those she experienced while swimming and paddle boarding near humpback whales this past summer.

Steven Dibner is a formal colleague of Guzmán and the associate principal bassoonist in the San Francisco Symphony. He has also witnessed Guzmán’s discipline and work ethic in the musical realm. Guzmán’s strides toward dedicating her musical pursuits to aiding environmental awareness issues comes as no surprise to him. He highlights the fact that her selflessness is what will contribute to her success in contributing to efforts in saving the vaquitas.

“Viviana has always had [the] bigger picture in mind and this effort shows that. She always has others in mind,” Dinner said.

Marc Teicholz, another former colleague of Guzmán, is a musical instructor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and describes her as fearless. In the time he has been able to work with her, Teicholz witnessed her enthusiasm for music and her passion to help others.

“She throws her heart and soul into everything that she does and cares for others,” Teicholz said.

This is the first album that Guzmán is dedicating to efforts in saving an endangered species, and is the beginning of what may be the future primary focus of her musical career. The new album is tentatively set to be released in late-March of 2017.