“I don’t know – maybe I should call my flute teacher, the one who teaches me,” said my flute teacher to my mother. “It could be that she’s taking a little longer to get the knack of the tone because she hasn’t got the right shaped mouth. Some people don’t.”
I stood in my flute teacher’s living room, sheet music piled on the piano and book shelves, and cat hair everywhere. Me in my skinny legs and school uniform, silent and balancing awkwardly on one foot. I had wanted to play the flute before, but now I really wanted it. I would show them I could do it.
It was four years later. We had driven for about two hours and got lost for one hour, my parents arguing over the right directions, and then we arrived at the small specialist flute shop, somewhere in the heart of London. I walked in and there was one wooden bar, glass cases all round, bright lights and long flashes of silver. I have the vaguest memory of the man who helped us as having half-glasses and a grey beard, but this may just be my brain conjuring the appropriate character for such an occasion. We showed him my Pearl flute, hypnotically husky and richly purple on the lower register, but thinner when it got higher.
He nodded, took out a Trevor James. “This has a solid silver head. It should make a difference.”
I blew – and the sound came out so easily. I was surprised at the difference in volume. But the man shook his head, and began rummaging under the counter for another. “Wrong tone – try this.”
Flute after flute was shown and blown while my sister and brother played and whined, and we whittled it down to one. A bit like the Pearl in the lower register, but with a golden, fast-spiralling ribbon of sound on the top notes.
“It’s an investment,” my parents told themselves, aloud, as they saw the price tag. I wondered if I should break it to them that they were unlikely to ever see that amount of money made by my flute playing but then I figured I might not be allowed to have it, so I kept quiet.
It may not have contained unicorn hair but I felt its power as I walked out with my Yamaha 411, solid silver body and head.
It was the morning of my Grade Six exam, and I was alone in my room, fingers aching and the stupid sticky keys just not going down where they were supposed to. I took a deep breath, and tried again. I would lick those semi-quavers and I would get the counting right.
I played the eight bars and made more mistakes than I had in the two hours previous. I had left it too late to properly practise, and now I would be going into an exam unable to play the piece. What on earth would I do?
I stared at the music again. F sharp, B natural, ticker-ticker-ticker-ticker dah dahhh. I could do this. I tried again, and the second dahh petered out into painful squeak. I would never be able to get it right. I would fail my exam.
I picked up my flute and hurled it onto the bed. It was the precise balance of needing to do something physical to purge my anger, but not actually wanting to destroy my expensive flute. It bounced up, as if in slow motion, and landed back on duvet, with a rebound bounce. It would have been fine had my leather music case with its metal bar not also been lying on the bed. My hot tears cooled on my cheek as I stared at the large dent in the head of the flute, and hoped my mum would not notice.
I took my Grade six exam that morning and passed with merit.
When it came to two weeks before my Grade Seven, my teacher sighed in exasperation.
“If it were anyone else, I would be withdrawing them from the exam now. But you pulled it out the bag for Grade Six, so perhaps you can do it again?”
For my Grade Eight, I learnt Mozart’s Flute Concerto in G (third movement). I’m listening to it now as I write this: James Galway’s notes like a child’s laughter, so quick and pure. I smile with fond tears for my frustrated teenage self. I battled with it for so long – and what did it matter, really? I mastered that piece and the Poulenc enough for getting through the exam, and had only one piece left to learn and then I would have passed my Grade Eight – as far as you can go.
I never took my Grade Eight. I would never be a concert-standard flautist. I always learned pieces only well enough to get through an exam, never really to perform them. It was, in many ways, an exercise in getting away with the very minimum. Did I even enjoy it or was it just all about the challenge?
For a while, I could only listen to this Mozart piece and reflect on my “almost”s. Now I just listen and enjoy it. I was never a James Galway. I did not want all those scales, those musical sit-ups, the endless running up and down stairs with one’s fingers. I just wanted to blow and it sound like birdsong.
I brought my flute to church, all the while that I was cursing my flute and flinging it on my bed at home. And in church, with the band, I didn’t even really look at the music. The melodies were so simple, I could improvise harmony, floating somewhere over the top with my own notes and tune.
Perhaps I am the person who needs to learn in community, perhaps I needed to worship with it to really love it, to be free. In church, I did not play it. I sang with it, without thought, and my heart soared along with the notes.
Over to you:
- Do you play an instrument? What has been your relationship with it?
- “I needed to worship with it to really love it, to be free.” What things in your life fall into that category?
Joining with Amber on Mondays for concretewords, where we practise writing by communicating the abstract through concrete things – a horse, a book, stairs – and today the instrument. These concrete words posts have led me on a journey through childhood and nostalgia and spiritual maturity – I write and that’s what comes out at the moment.
Amber is taking a break from concrete words and I will be hosting for the next little bit. The prompts for the next few weeks are as follows:
Feb 25 – the instrument
Mar 4 – the dress
Mar 11 – the bottle
Won’t you join me? Link your post below and read and comment on others’ abstractions on the instrument. For more info about ‘how to’ use the concrete to write the abstract, read Amber’s introduction here.
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