Saturday, December 08, 2007
The Magic Flute
In fifth grade, I told Mom I wanted to play flute. Not trumpet. Not sax. I wanted to play the flute. And even though we were on welfare and had no hope of doing any such thing...Mom found a way to get me a flute. And it's a good one, a Gemeinhardt, that cost her $450.00 which she paid in installments.
And so I practiced, and at first it was boring, but then I fell in love with performance. Because it wasn't ME that made the sound...it was the flute. I was just a medium who transmitted the sound. So even in my shyness, on stage when playing, I could still take a back seat to the instrument that filled the void.
Concerts were easy, because I'd been in many, every year at school, and band concerts were no different. In sixth grade, I was allowed to play "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" for our Christmas Eve program at Church. They had called for "young instrumentalists" and so it was that I found myself at an audition. The music director asked me to play something from school. As this was in the years before the rabid secularization of our public schools, we were playing authentic Christmas music, and so there was no need for me to learn something different. And they determined my audition as a 6th grader was sufficient, thus I was welcomed to the Christmas program as a soloist. It was a great honor, for most of the instrumentalists were placed in a group.
On that night, I was excited and confident as I sat with my family, and on cue I walked up to collect my flute from the organ console. My music was in place so I turned to face the "audience"...and realized the church was FULL. In fact, it was OVERFLOWING. Wow. I started shaking.
The pianist began to play, and I could see from her expression that she saw my sudden attack of stagefright, which became realized when not even a squeak debuted from the silver in my hands. I tried to take a deep breath. The director looked at me, concerned.
I was in front of everyone, mostly people I didn't know. I didn't want to disappoint anyone...most of all, myself. I HAD to play. I had to play for Jesus. This was my gift to Him.
The director whispered, "Are you ready?"
I nodded, the piano began, and this time, there was sound, albeit very faint. But I bravely forged onward, determined. I was shaking, and feared my poor flute would rattle from my cold hands and clash onto the tile steps under my feet.
But I played, and the vibrato was never so... um...consistent...as on that night. Then I sat down to thunderous applause and hung my head, thoroughly embarassed. My performance was dismal. They were applauding the fact I didn't faint and knock the microphone over. I was certain I would not be asked back. I was certain that if I WAS invited back, I would decline.
But I was called the following year, and even prior to that, for they'd seen it before and they'd been there before; stage fright happens to everyone. It's all a part of learning and stepping out to offer of ourselves. Sometimes that precipice seems larger than life.
I kept on with my music, and over time, I became more involved with my church, playing more or less regularly. I aspired to be the main flautist at the church; I wanted eventually to be a professional. The dreams were as grand as my abilities were humble. But my mother could not afford lessons, so I just practiced hard and did my best. And eventually, some generous souls payed for lessons for me. It wasn't often, but only here and there. Then Mom began to give me money for more regular lessons, so through high school, I was able to obtain private insruction weekly and monthly, which greatly enforced my practice, and held me accountable when I failed to live up to goals. And believe you me...my teacher could tell when I hadn't been practicing sufficiently. There was no need to turn in a record; it was obvious. She also taught me wonderful techniques to assist me in learning especially difficult passages.
And my teacher? None other than the church's main flautist who had played piano for me when I made my debut there. She herself had become the music director there; and I her student. When she was elevated to director, I took her place as flautist.
I still remember our sessions in her dining room, the metronome on top of the piano tapping away. I remember the red oriental-patterned rug, the darkness outside, the cold metal warming in my hands. She stood next to me in the cool of the winter evening, giving me music for an upcoming Mass, assisting me with scores for competetions, providing me with challenges and taking away music that was beyond my ability. There was a time for everything. I had to trust her to tell me when I was ready for the next level. Each lesson was a gift; I could never have hoped for private instruction. And I learned later on that most of our lessons were, for the teacher, pro bono.
Although the hours of practice were difficult, I still remember those times with great nostalgia; I remember starting a piece and quitting for the night, completely convinced I would never be able to play it sufficiently, only to take that same piece to competetion months later, and impress the judge with my ability to navigate notes most high school students feared to brave. I did not play it perfectly, but rather intuitively. So it was that my technical ability always suffered; I always did well with my prepared music but sight-reading was forever a challenge. I believe this ties in to my complete inability to understand math. As music is very mathematical, it stands to reason that sight-reading would be beyond my immediate comprehension.
My teachers all encouraged me on to greater things; I could be very successful as a musician, they said. I should study music. And in fact, I was a semi-finalist for a music scholarship at Concordia...and had to drop out of the running the day before my audition due to circumstances beyond my control. So close....
I played in college, but by then, I was no longer tied to a parish for most of my time was spent at college, and working. I wasn't attending Mass anymore...unless I had to go with Mom. And some weekends, I was working every shift I could so I missed Mass, and then returned to school, 2 hours away, immmediately after work, only to return to work again a few weeks later when I made it "home". The church wasn't "home" anymore. That meant that when I did perform, it was for school or in th orchestra pit in the theatre. These events were wonderful, but they weren't Mass. It wasn't the same.
I was without roots. I was without an anchor. I was without God in my life.
In 1994 I went to Mexico for a semester, and upon my return I did not enroll in Concert band...I didn't have the time in my academic and work schedule. And so I never returned to music. I was not challenged. And I had no venue to offer my music, and so it fell by the wayside.
(As an aside...IC...is J.H. still the director of the Concert Band there?)
And I never picked it up again. I see now that when I stopped offering my music to God, it stopped being meaningful. I used to think it was all about performance, but now I realize it was all about the offering, even from the most abject imperfection. My gift to God was all I had to offer, and He increased the gift according to what was needed, and according to what He needed to do to bring me into the perimeter to recieve His Saving Grace.
Once I left God...I also left my flute. For music makes no sense if it is not offered for His glory.
Tonight I picked up my flute and played a few notes. Rusty...but not without hope. I can't remember how to play, or how to read notes, but with some instruction, the miniscule muscules in my fingers can remember the patterns. With practice, the sound will be pure and true again, like water. I always thought the flute sounded like water, and I was amazed when that resonating sound emanated from this piece of silver with what seemed like little effort.
What used to be so simple is now decrepit from unuse, like a dry creek slogging over stones and through gravel.
What used to be so beautiful when offered for God's glory...is just a fond memory from which I must wipe the tarnish and the cobwebs that muffle the sound.
My flute is old, and in fact, a sticker from my audition at Gustavous Adolphus still graces the case. The silver is tarnished, and the cork is old. The pads are worn, and I fear the metal will never shine so brightly as it did so long ago when I first offered my hesitant and shaking notes to the infant Jesus.
If only I could offer those notes again...if only I could wipe the tarnish away, take this instrument up again, and play. I want to be immersed in the water of sound that is the notes cascading from the silver lightly balanced in my hands. I want to be lost in the melodic interludes, sacred arias, and traditional harmonies that transcend time and space. I want to take a back seat to the instrument that cries out to the very Glory of God, and in the next movement mourns in tones only music can convey. I want to pick up my flute and play with complete abandon and be transported through this offering.
If only a bit of polish was all it took...if only it was a matter of a little practice, I could pick up my flute and play again. And this time, I would never stop...