Saturday, August 10, 2013

True Confessions of a One-time Flutist: A Ramble

Now that I am exploring the world of Facebook, I have had a chance to really look at my past life as a flute player, because a good hunk of the people I used to know, know me as a flutist.

When I started playing flute at 13 there were many really good flutists around, but I figured that because my mother could no longer play (due to a hand operation that, unbeknownst to her, put a pin in her thumb), I was simply taking her place. There was a bit of the "dutiful daughter" wrapped up into my otherwise rebellious early adolescence. I happened to begin playing the flute at a time when I was falling deeply in love with music, so I worked very hard and managed to get myself to the level of Juilliard acceptability in a couple of years. Let's say that I packed six or seven years' worth of practice into three.

Back in the early 1970s in Boston there were not many people who played recorder seriously, and the idea of playing a one-keyed flauto traverso seemed unthinkable. The general mindset was that the modern flute could play all of that music with more projection, better intonation, and a lot more musical ease than its older ancestors. The music I liked best was really old music and really new music, so I never really connected with the bulk of the flute repertoire, even though I played it all. Thankfully for flutists, the flute repertoire has expanded immensely due to people who have contributed the IMSLP, and 40 years of composers who have written meaningful new music for the instrument.

I decided not to get a Master's Degree at Juilliard because I thought it was immoral for someone like me, who had to struggle so hard to find work as a flutist (regardless of the quality of my playing), to try to make a living encouraging young flutists to pursue professional flutistry. I had a few good years of professional adventures as a flutist, and everywhere I went I found that there were far too many qualified flutists for the jobs that were available. I observed that getting work as a flutist anywhere would be a challenge that had more to do with luck, looks, and personal relationships than how well I played. I learned to play the recorder and the baroque flute, but finding a way to make any sort of living playing those instruments proved frustrating. The early music world was in its infancy, and the relatively small people who were able to play early music professionally had their handful of baroque flutists and recorder players, and they didn't need any more.

When Michael and I moved to Illinois I soon discovered that all possibilities for modern flute playing were closed to me because all the flute positions in all the local orchestras were held by perfectly competent people, but I was eager to try to make some kind of a musical life as a baroque flute player. I was lucky enough to find three like-minded people to play with, and formed a triosonata group. We played concerts together for a few years, some of which were sponsored by the Illinois Arts Council. I did a lot of private teaching, and had a lot of success with my students, but when I applied to teach in the college music department, I was rejected (twice). I don't know why.

Fortunately I found work as the classical music director for the college radio station, so I got to work with college students in what I thought was a healthier capacity than teaching them to become professional flutists. The rejection that I felt from the musical community in my town hurt me a great deal. My triosonata group fell apart, and I had nobody to play with. I tried to put all my musical energy into the radio station and into writing reviews, and I put my personal energy into our (very young) children. I baked bread. I sewed. I read. I considered homeschooling.

I loved being with my children, but when I was alone I was miserable. I needed to play, but playing the flute was personally painful for me because playing the instrument brought up all sorts of feelings of foiled expectations. It's still difficult for me to play the flute without feeling like I'm about to cry, so it remains in the drawer most of the time. I didn't stop playing, but somehow I managed to get up the courage to begin playing the violin, an instrument I had "bombed out on" (my father's words) in the sixth grade. I bought a violin from one of my radio station students, and I began practicing.

I didn't stop being a flutist, but nobody called me to play the flute for anything. Somehow it didn't matter much to me because had a new focus in my life, and I was determined to play the violin as well as I played the flute. I bought a viola at a yard sale in my neighborhood, and formed a string quartet with people who were really good players (every string quartet needs a violist), and now I live a pretty active musical life filled with chamber music, orchestral music, composition, teaching, and even Renaissance music.

I'm writing this to share with the friends I knew when I was a flutist to let them know that I didn't abandon the instrument they love so dearly. In many ways it abandoned me. And I was lucky enough to find a piece of wood that could keep me afloat and bring me to a far healthier musical and personal place.

1 comment:

Erin said...

How fascinating Elaine - I knew a bit of this from you mentioning pieces here and there in earlier blog posts. I studied flute through elementary and high school and considered very seriously going on... but looked at what the options were for flutists and there just wasn't much. I chose journalism school instead (ha! just look how that industry is turning out...) but part of me wished I had gone to music school.