For a couple of years in high school, my flute was like another piece of me. Dragged through interminable practice sessions and lessons, from one side of town to the other. Waved around in band practice and sparkling as it led the younger flute players in ensemble. In the school yearbook, the quote next to my name was “I had a flute lesson, sir”; my fellow students regarded my constant disappearances from class with a high level of suspicion. You see, I was the only student in my small year doing music for the HSC. Our senior campus was in Balmain, a half-hour drive from the rest of the school in Surry Hills, where the music department was. So, like any 17-year-old with unsupervised travel time, I would drag my heels, especially if it meant missing a few minutes of biology or modern history (sorry Mr Galea and Mr Miller…I loved your classes but free time was too tempting).
I think I got quite good by year 12, to the point where my flute teacher recommended to my parents that I take it seriously and purchase a much better instrument than I’d been using. I’d had a few basic student flutes over the years (including one that I lost after leaving it at a diner that I shouldn’t have been at…I still feel bad about that). I’d seen beautiful flutes with intricately engraved lip plates and gold keys. I’d heard Jane Rutter had one with a gold head joint, or somesuch thing, which sounded too fancy for words. We went along with my flute teacher to a flute maker’s shop in Drummoyne. I don’t remember which flutes I tried, nor what the budget was, but I knew the flute that I came away with was far superior to the ones I’d played up until that point. Solid silver headjoint made by that flute maker, John Lehner, on a sterling silver Pearl Flute body and footjoint with open-hole, silver-plated keys. So much silver!
But of course I got used to my fancy flute very quickly, and it got a bit dinged and mistreated. It went from being an instrument of wonder to an instrument of torture, much like everything in my HSC year. But it got me through my exams (only slightly traumatised), and once on the other side I wondered what I would do with it. I thought maybe I should continue with exams and get my AMus, then I could teach. I thought perhaps it would be nice to join the orchestra at university. But I got sucked into theatre instead and eventually the flute got tucked into its red velvet bed and lay virtually untouched, save being moved from house to house and occasionally brought out for a sentimental play.
Fast forward 20 years and I’m having lunch with Monte, a music educator, and his wife Kathy, who go to our new church. It was one of those wonderful meals where you just talk and talk and talk, about big things and small, where you just connect at so many junctures. I love talking to creative souls! Upon finding out I once played flute up to grade 8, Monte said “you should join the symphonic band!” and I nodded enthusiastically even though I had no idea what that was. He texted me the details of the conductor and before I knew it, I was nervously heading off to the other side of the river to sit in on a symphonic band rehearsal with my long-neglected flute.
Once I eventually found the place after bumbling around in the dark for 20 minutes (my sense of direction is not the best), I had a great time. The other two flautists were friendly and tolerated me sight reading along. I felt the thrill of making big music with a big group of musos again, a thrill I hadn’t felt, well, since high school. I’ve played in bands and led music at church for years, but playing orchestral music, even when at a sight-reading, limping-along stage, is just something else.
I think I kept up pretty well, but my high notes were terribly screechy and my tone wasn’t fantastic. I’m just out of condition, I thought, and of course a poor tradeswoman blames her tools, right? Luke, the conductor, gave me the details of the pieces I’d need to play for the audition and I went home and started to practise.
Oh my. My fingers were like stumps of lead. Rather than flitting up and down on the keys, they were lumpen and heavy. My lips, unused to forming that embouchure, started to hurt. My shoulders started to ache as I held that upright posture. But I was playing again. I could feel the rust starting to shift as I repeated passages again and again on these basic, technical pieces. I actually started to understand the importance of nailing scales! This was a revelation in itself. Of course I also went back and played the familiar, beautiful pieces that I had ingrained in my brain all those years ago, and revelled in the sound I made.
Somehow, here, in this house where we have no common walls and our neighbours are a few metres away rather than within arms’ reach, I didn’t mind making sound. I used to hate practising in our last house because I didn’t want people to hear my mistakes, the repetition required, the faltering and stumbling. How ridiculous and vain. But here, somehow, I felt freed.
Then I started to examine my dear old flute. Tarnished in the bits where my polishing cloth wouldn’t reach. The pads weren’t sealing properly on some keys. There was that dent. Then the footjoint dropped off while I was playing and there was another dent. Hmm.
I started to wonder about the quality of the instrument and realised hey! I could look the brand up on the internet, and find out a bit more about it. I typed in the model number and although that particular model has been superseded, and the flute is considered an intermediate flute, it’s worth…how much?!
I looked again at the dent. I felt terrible.
It made me realise how many things we take for granted as young people, those of us who were privileged enough to grow up with parents who tried to give us every opportunity they could afford. My high school years coincided with the period of time in which my family had been reasonably wealthy, so of course I was bought a high-quality instrument that there’s no way I could afford to buy now, as an adult. But I’d had no understanding of just how much it was worth. Much like scales, I guess.
So I auditioned for the symphonic band, standing in the foyer of the old music building at the University of Tasmania, with my leaky-keyed flute, apologising all the while and making several mistakes. I hadn’t really been nervous until the moment I started playing and then suddenly I wondered what on earth I was doing. Why did I think I could do this? Sure, I might have a great instrument, but I hadn’t played in years and here I was auditioning for a place in a band that people work their way up to. Suddenly the feeling of being judged and found wanting that I remembered from those exams all those years ago threatened to flood me again.
“Do you want the good news or the bad news?” Luke paused. “Well the good news is you got in. The bad news is you have to put up with me as conductor.” He gave me the number of a local woodwind technician, we headed in to rehearsal, and just like that, I was a proper flute player again.
Today I got my flute back from the technician. It gleams. The tarnish has been buffed away, the keys all seal. The high notes are blissfully clear and the low notes seductively rich. And the dent? It’s gone.