Everyone’s a Critic

Once upon a time, I played the flute.

photo by Jennwith2ns c. 2009

This flute, actually.

There were certain things that were unspoken but foregone conclusions in my family growing up. Things like: we would all read aloud together on Sunday afternoons. And: we would all go to college. Also: the same college. And: we would all play a musical instrument. Mom was already trying to teach me to play the piano. She is very good at playing it, and very good at teaching it, too, as any of her countless piano students and their parents since then could tell you. In spite of the fact that I practiced (it wasn’t like she wasn’t going to find out if I didn’t), I was probably her all-time worst student, because I just could not handle critiques from my mother, whether deserved or not. There was a lot of yelling and crying and key-banging in those days. Funnily, I don’t remember any of those activities being participated in by her, but . . . there was still a lot of it.

In 5th grade everybody in my class had to learn to play the recorder, and I was pretty good at that, but let’s face it–there are very few scenarios where even “good at the recorder” doesn’t translate into “shrill in enclosed spaces.” Plus my mother was still desperately trying to teach me the piano; by this point I think she had elicited my dad’s assistance. He had given up piano as a child himself, but he was still musically literate and for some reason I was less prone to yell at him. (Watch the movie Brave and you will see this dynamic explored by Pixar. It’s not the most compelling movie in my opinion, but maybe that’s because the mother-daughter conflict is not the most compelling one either. Nevertheless, I feel they do a pretty good job depicting it.) Probably everybody in the family was counting the days until I was old enough to start band at school, at which point I would learn a new instrument and, ideally, take lessons from someone to whom I was not related.

Near the end of 5th grade when my classmates and I were all tootling on our recorders well enough that some semblance of a tune could be discerned, the new band teacher came to our class and had us try out the mouth pieces of a bunch of wind instruments. I figured out the weird blowing-across-the-top action of the flute mouthpiece instantly, with the best tone of any of my fellow experimenters. It was at that point that any further deliberation about whether I would play the flute like my two aunts, or the trumpet like my father, or the trombone like my uncle, or something more obscure and more cool but maybe less versatile (frontrunners being the oboe, the French horn and the bassoon) came to an end. I have since sometimes wished I had chosen an instrument a little more expressive and raucous, but I didn’t, and as all other attempts to master any other instrument have failed or at least not succeeded, I conclude I was, am and always will be a one-instrument kind of girl, and that that instrument is the flute.

Somehow my parents found me a used silver flute for $100. (How did they do that before craigslist?) As it turned out, under the tutelage of my new flute teacher, Mrs Hall, I got pretty good. Not good enough to turn the flute raucous like Jethro Tull, but good enough that both Mrs Hall and my mother dropped numerous hints that maybe I should be a music major in college. It wasn’t going to happen–words will always be my First Art and besides I couldn’t get into the Wind Ensemble–but I did take a couple of semesters’-worth of lessons there.

The problem was, after that, the flute gradually fell into disuse. Mom continued to try to encourage me to play, enlisting me to play flute/piano duets with her in church whenever I was home. In London I began to learn to improvise (not particularly well) with the worship leaders at church there, and I continued the practice at Then Church when I returned to the US. But now I’m at Now Church and, because I work with the children I don’t have time to participate in the music, so I haven’t actually played my flute for about four and a half years. I’ve rather got to the point where I’m afraid to. I find reading music more difficult than I did, just because I haven’t in so long, and practicing enough to “get my chops back” is sort of a deflating idea, literally and figuratively. So I rest on my laurels, just enough to miss my past greatness (this is all in my head of course) but not enough to return to it.

The thing is, if you want to earn an extra twenty bucks or so before Christmas, teaching music lessons isn’t a bad way to do it. Recently I got back in touch with my school, tentatively asking if they needed a flute teacher to whom to refer band students. Today I unearthed my flute, and a beginner’s flute book, and began the process of de-rusting.

But here’s the thing. Because I haven’t played in so long, of everybody in the house, only Oscar has ever heard me, and that only once. Today I opened the case, assembled the instrument, and began to play. Immediately, Oscar ran and hid in the coat closet. Shemp came over to me and looked at me with pleading eyes before giving up and curling in the fetal position on his bed. Meanwhile, Rosie the Cat bounded down the stairs and began meowing at me from a kitchen chair. When that didn’t work, she began circling me and the table (on which I had put the music book) like the Israelites at Jericho. However, I was the one blasting away on a musical instrument, and none of her caterwauling was going to knock me over, so finally, she gave up in a huff and scooted out the cat door.

My Paul was not home for any of this. It’s probably a good thing.


20 thoughts on “Everyone’s a Critic

  1. I loved playing the flute, but my junior year I moved to mallets. Took piano for 10 years and hated every second of it….but I was good. It was the recitals that made me hate piano. To this day, I will not play in front of anyone. The house must be empty in order for me to plop in front of the piano. My animals didn’t really care about the piano, but my singing was something different.

    One day I was taking a shower and just belting out a tune. My house was empty, so what did I care. All of a sudden I hear this howling. Is everything ok? When I stopped singing, my dog would stop howling. Once I figured it out I kept of doing it, just because it made me laugh. She never did it again, but she must have really liked that song!

  2. I studied music to the point of getting a degree in it, and could never handle a wind instrument. That’s why I like piano; it doesn’t really matter if your remember how to play or not – at least the sound will be reasonable.

    We tried to get our son interested in flute; we managed to get him an indescribably awesome PURPLE flute, but unlike you, he couldn’t quite manage the embouchure. Perhaps when he’s older…or maybe it’s time for me to revisit the wind camp.

    • I had this feeling you we’re going to say you were musical–as I was writing this post, even. I do regret not sticking with piano, though I have a hunch I never would’ve got fantastic at it, because I’m not a great multitasker and reading the treble and bass clefs together was always sort of difficult for me.

      A PURPLE FLUTE? How on earth did you find that??

  3. Oh MAN this post brought back some memories. Wonderfully done!

    FWIW, I just took a 3 hour – “how to start teaching yourself to not really read music but just play chords on the piano” course that my town’s adult education program (oh, programme, sorry) put on. It was fun and maybe someday I will practice and learn to play piano. I need to figure out how to trick the kids into thinking they are getting quality time while I play scales and crap.

    • Heh.

      Yeah–mom just told me today that you were “taking piano lessons.” That’s awesome! We can start having agonising family performances when we all get together now. Woot!

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