I quit the flute for eight years… and it made me a better player. Here’s to owning our unique flute stories, however unconventional they might be
“How long have you played the flute?”
I’m going to let you in on a secret. It took me years before I felt answering this question without offering up some sort of vague “for a long time” answer. I had been convinced that my story was unconventional, and not in a ‘ooh, that’s interesting’ sort of way, but a ‘oh wow, and you doing this for a living?’ sort of way.
I felt embarrassed…
It seemed that most serious musicians I encountered either at music school, various camps, workshops or in the professional world had started playing very young, like 5-6 years old young.
I didn’t start taking flute lessons until I was 15 and then took a massive eight year break in my 20s. Surely, my younger, stupider self said, this meant I so far behind most players that I would never amount to anything.
Hopefully, you can hear how ridiculous that sounds.
It’s ridiculous on so many levels. First, I was beating myself up over decisions that had already been made and were not something I could change no matter how much I wanted to. Second, I was mentally self-limiting myself, not even granting myself the chance that the hard work I was currently doing would pay off regardless of when I started playing. Third, not everyone has the same musical journey.
Not even remotely. And that’s super cool.
Embrace your uniqueness
There are so many different flute stories out there. We all take our own singular path, that winds and leads us down interesting, wholly unique flute journeys that are equally wondrous and scary, inspiring and terrifying. But that’s what’s so cool about being a creative! We all have our own journeys and stories to tell from along the way!
I wonder if it took me so long to have this realisation because as musicians we’re not the best about talking candidly about our journeys (it’s so easy to worry that we’ll be judged for having taken a wrong step somewhere down these roads of ours). But I am sensing a shift in the classical music world—or at least in the flute community—that is becoming so much more supportive of our fellow players and better values mental health. (Or maybe this is just the echo chamber I’ve created for myself because these are things I value. But is that such a bad thing when it comes to finding a supportive community? Let’s not get sidetracked…)
So in an attempt to help anyone else who might feel the same way I once did. Here’s my story, both the ups and the downs.
My story, warts and all
I grew up in a musical household with a piano teacher mother who loves Rachmaninoff as much as the Rolling Stones and an electric bass-welding father who jams along to everything from blues to bluegrass, I have always been surrounded by music.
But when I was 5 or 6 years old (the age I assumed most musicians really started playing), I was too busy pretending I was a unicorn, running around the backyard to be bothered with music. My mom tried to teach me the piano, she was a piano teacher after all, but I just couldn’t get anywhere with it. (Sadly, to this day, I’m still rubbish at piano. How does anyone even read two lines of music at once??!?!? Come on people.)
Fast forward about four years and the fifth grade band put on a concert for my fourth grade class in hopes that they might inspire some new recruits for next year. The ensemble played the theme song from Jurassic Park and I was HOOKED! If you got to play songs like that, why wouldn’t you join a band? (Incidentally, to this day, I have never performed that in any ensemble… but a girl can dream…)
When it came time to choose an instrument for the school band, I had my heart set on sax. I had visions of me on stage with cool sunglasses, just wailing on the sax.
The school had hired loads of instruments for us to try, and after honking on a saxophone, the organisers shared a pained look as they ushered me towards the flute, which I had also listed as a possible instrument. My mom had her old high school flute that she let me try at home, and while I really wanted sax, I knew that if I played flute, we wouldn’t have to buy a new instrument.
As soon as I tooted the flute, the band director said, ‘That’s it! You’re on flute!’ At the time I assumed it was because I was sooooo bad at the sax that they insisted I stuck to the quieter flute. Little did I know that being able to make a sound on the flute the first time is almost unheard of (they didn’t know we had a flute at home), so of course they put me on the flute.
I was heartbroken but band sounded fun, so with my sax dreams dashed, I accepted my flutey fate and joined the band. That first year I stunk – I had bagged myself last chair of the flute section. (I really was that bad.)
And then for middle school, I had moved towns and changed schools. There, as a pimply, awkward new kid, I found a real sense of community in band. These were equally goofy kids, and I felt seen.
That tiny change, feeling like I had a community, completely changed how I viewed band. Within a year, I worked my way up to first chair of the flute section, and really learned to love my flute.
After another move, this time across the country, for high school, I realising how important music was to me. I finally asked my parents for flute lessons. That Christmas, when I was 15, I opened a box of flute CDs by Jean-Pierre Rampal, James Galway and Jethro Tull (because everyone needs a bit of rock flute in their lives) and a note saying I could start lessons in the new year.
I started lessons and after a few weeks my teacher asked me what my goals were. When I said I wanted to go to music school for flute, she attempted to be as diplomatic as possible, telling me (in almost as many words) that I wasn’t good enough and that I should really have a backup plan.
(As I write now, I feel like this might have been the source of my original anxiety. My teacher made it very clear that because I had only taken a couple of private lessons but would need to start thinking about applying for music school in a couple years if that’s what I wanted to do, that didn’t give me much time. Ah, Katerina, if only you knew how much weight those words held…)
But I thankfully had presence of mind enough to fire her as my teacher and find someone else who believed in me. (It was from that moment I knew that I not only wanted to perform, but to teach, helping other students like me who had the passion but needed someone to believe in them and help give them the steps they needed to get where they want to go.)
I not only made it into music school, but graduated highest honours… with a degree in Flute Performance! Take that Katerina!
But… it wasn’t all roses.
I worked hard during that degree, but as someone who started a bit late and had rushed through the first few years of my playing in order to get to a standard that could apply for music schools, I often cut corners. I didn’t spend as much time as I should have on things like tone, tuning, or healthy technique. For me, playing fast (even if messy) and with passion was what I considered successful.
It may come as no surprise that by the time I finished my degree, I was having such bad pain in my left arm and wrist. On one my many ‘recovery days’, when the pain was so bad I had to avoid practicing, I came to the conclusion that the life of a professional musician was off limits for me.
Instead of thinking ‘maybe I should do some remedial work to fix my technique so that I can play without pain’ I thought, ‘if I can’t even get to the end of music school without having trouble playing because of pain, how will I ever make it as a musician.’
So a took a break. A long eight year break from serious playing!
Instead, I went to do a masters in Ethnomusicology, which felt safer. I could stay in music, without the pressure of having to play. (Don’t get me wrong, I loved that degree and the life it helped me create, travelling the world listening to music and eventually becoming the editor of the leading world music magazine.)
I continued to teach minimally throughout this time, as a way of staying connected in someway to my instrument, but never practiced as such. I was only playing during the lessons with my students.
Needless to say, I finally got to a point where I realised that I wasn’t really helping my students if I had given up my own musical development.
So in 2015, it was time to come back to the flute.
This time, I wasn’t working on trying to get into music school or finish a degree. I was playing because I love playing. This allowed me to come back slowly and consciously, working on correctly my posture, technique and embouchure. I can now play with joy and without pain.
Even still, I had lost eight years worth of work. And for a long time, this felt like a scar on my record. Proof that I was a fraud.
But if I hadn’t taken that time away, would I have done all the remedial work? Would I have rediscovered my passion for the flute? Who knows. I’d like to think I would have eventually, but if I had continued in the same way for even longer, all those habits would have been even harder to kick and likely I’d be in the same place as I am now anyway.
So, I started relatively late and I had a massive break. But rather than feel embarrassed any longer about these, I know that they are what helped shape me into the person, player and teacher that I am today and I wouldn’t change that for the world.
The decisions I made helped me find a passion particularly for teaching and building a supportive community as a musician and I’ve been able to create a successful career doing these things I love, while valuing my own professional development. My own journey might mean I’ll never be the next Jasmine Choi, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t have a fulfilling flute career, and I hope that this goes some way to prove that your story, as different as it might be, can mean the same thing.
This blog is for you, the flute lovers with a path that has taken you unconventional directions. It’s for the late bloomers, the comeback kids, the dreamers, and anyone who dares to embrace the joy of music, no matter how messy or individual their journey may be. Celebrate your uniqueness, it makes you who you are and that is a wondrous thing.
What’s your story?
I’d love to hear your story! What diversions in your path have helped shape who you are as a flute player today? Let me know in the comments!