Although these days I can’t seem to get my nose out of technical manuals, I’m still a voracious reader. Books I have read more than once in recent years include “A Soprano on Her Head: Right-Side-Up Reflections on Life and Other Performances” by Eloise Ristad, “The Mists Of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley and “Savitri” by Sri Aurobindo. The technical manuals on my nightstand include topics such as Final Cut Pro and Flash 8.
I receive a daily digest in my email from a local forum for moms. One of the queries really got me thinking. It was from the mother of a young girl who had decided she wanted to play flute. The school’s band director offered a list of recommended flutes from a couple of manufacturers. The mother was appalled by the prices of the flutes and wanted to know if the other moms on the forum agreed with her that spending very much on a first instrument was foolish. She felt she should get the cheapest thing she could find until certain her daughter would “stick with it.”
This is a subject that has always troubled me a bit. A poorly manufactured instrument will cause the music student to be unable to make a beautiful sound, and to abandon music lessons with the notion that the problem is the child, not the instrument. And a poorly made instrument usually lacks a soul… but more on that in a moment.
When I was 8 years old, I too decided I wanted to play flute. The school recommended that students rent instruments from a particular store so my mom dutifully did just that. It was a terrible instrument – but how could mom have known? She did not play flute. I worked with this instrument for a long time and never really made the music that I wanted to make. I learned my parts and played in the school band and later the school symphony. But was not all that inspired and basically accepted the fact that I was not very good.
I had always had a savings account and had been putting in any birthday money and money from chores. It had amassed $200! A graduating senior that I knew had decided to sell her flute. I offered her my $200 and she accepted. This was an amazing instrument. All the lights came on and a connection was made. The notes soared to the heavens. I couldn’t wait to play it every day. Songs, melodies bubbled up from some magical place. My breath went in and the flute sang back to me. It was a synergy of 2 souls, no longer 1.
Once a year, the school band had closed door competitions to choose “first chair” for each instrument. I was in ninth grade. It was the day of reckoning. The flute players went behind a closed door. Each flutist played in turn and the rest of the band voted on who was best – and who would be first chair for the year. They voted with applause.
As you may know, students form “cliques.” You’re either out or you’re in. I was always out. There was no hope of me winning anything but a closed door competition. I won hands down. Or I guess I should say “we” won – this wonderful flute and I as a team.
I still have that flute, although it’s past its prime and no longer my only flute. I parted with it recently for a day when a friend’s 11 month old son passed away from cancer and my friend’s brother, a band director who came in from out of state, was asked unexpectedly to perform at the funeral. February had been cold and gray. But that day, the sky was bright blue and the sun was warm. Through his tears he played beautifully, and I know that special flute offered up the magic and love I have always found in it. Although it has played in hundreds of performances, I know this was the most important one of all.
And even though it was not my first flute, it was my first special flute and led me to the path I am on to this day.