The Case for Flute as a Hobby

In this day and age, where attention spans are short and productivity is a virtue, hobbies feel like an opulent luxury, but picking up a hobby like the flute could actually be good for your health!

Flute playing as hobby

This blog was first published in Babel Flute on March 20, 2024.

Since when did hobbies fall out of fashion? In this day and age, where attention spans are short and productivity is a virtue, hobbies feel like an opulent luxury (unless you’re able to prove that it was ‘time well spent’) Our leisure time finds itself under siege by the same metrics that rule our working hours: if it’s not making us money or future-proofing our lives, then it’s a waste of time.

You knit? You better be selling those socks and cat sweaters on Etsy. Like taking photos? You know you could monetise those on Instagram, right? Even gamers aren’t free from the commoditisation: if you don’t stream, then who are you? 

The side hustle is the new king. These so-called leisure activities have to make us money. Or, at the very least, they must be justified by their usefulness. It feels easier to find the time for running if you’re training for a marathon than if you just enjoy getting out to the park, or learning French because your business works with French clients rather than because you love the sound of the language. 

So where does that leave playing the flute? Are we allowed to play for the sheer sake of enjoyment? How can amateur players justify finding time in their busy schedules to allow for a hobby like the flute? Sure, it’s easy enough to manufacture usefulness – working towards an ABRSM exam, or putting on a concert at your local church – but are these the right reasons to pick up your flute? 

And what about those of us who do make a living playing the flute? We define our musicianship in economic terms, but doesn’t that take away the joy of it? Are we less of a professional if we still want to play for our own enjoyment? 

Here, I’m making the case for reclaiming the flute as an end in itself – a hobby that enriches our lives beyond the demands of productivity or the economy. There are both philosophical and physical arguments for why reclaiming the joy of playing for playing’s sake is not just a small act of rebellion, but a crucial step towards a more fulfilled and balanced life.

Why can’t we have fun anymore? 

Our peculiar relationship with time and leisure can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution. As our economy and way of living changed drastically, so did our working life.

As Oliver Burkman points out in his book Four Thousand Weeks, “Some historians claim that the average country-dweller in the sixteenth century would have worked for only about 150 days each year […] But industrialisation, catalysed by the spread of the clock-time mentality, swept all that away.” 

Suddenly workers were being paid by the hour, and therefore their very existence could now be quantified in terms of economic output. They were allowed to do whatever they wanted in their non-working hours, as long as it didn’t impact their working hours. There was now a qualification on our leisure time. This helped plant the seeds for what is now a deep seated belief that any activity not contributing to future value is frivolous, if not outright wasteful. The sanctity of leisure for leisure’s sake began to erode, replaced by a culture that views busyness as a badge of honour. 

Burkman says, “We have inherited from all this a deeply bizarre idea of what it means to spend your time of ‘well’ … In this view of time, anything that doesn’t create some form of value for the future is, by definition, mere idleness. Rest is permissible, but only for the purpose of recuperation for work, or perhaps for some other form of self-improvement.”

The pandemic did seem to momentarily crack the foundation of this belief. Finding ourselves lonely and stuck indoors, many of us turned to activities we had previous considered as a waste of time: jigsaw puzzles, colouring, knitting, sourdough bread making, practicing flute… But those days spent mindfully colouring within the lines seem long gone, as life has slowly returned to normal and placed its old demands on our time. 

And flute playing once again feels like a luxury many of us don’t have time for.

It’s time to goof around

Speaking of our perverse view on leisure time philosopher John Gray says, “Nothing is more alien to the present age than idleness.” But he asks, “How can there be play in a time when nothing has meaning unless it leads to something else?” 

Learning music, in fact any creative activity, requires ‘play time’ – not ‘play’ as in to play your instrument, but ‘play’ as in to goof around, to experiment, to be curious.

There’s a great lecture by John Cleese in which he talks about creativity as a mode of operation. Creativity, he says, “is a relaxed… expansive… less purposeful mode… in which we’re probably more contemplative, more inclined to humour (which always accompanies a wider perspective) and, consequently, more playful. It’s a mood in which curiosity for its own sake can operate because we’re not under pressure to get a specific thing done quickly. We can play, and that is what allows our natural creativity to surface.” 

But as it’s more relaxed and less purposeful, creative play is shy. We have to coax it out by actively making time in our schedule for it. Otherwise, it easily gets shoved to the side in favour of all those other countless activities that feel far more pressing. 

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

While we’re in the land of philosophy, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had some interesting (albeit pessimistic) thoughts on the futility of pursuing our passions. He wrote in his The World as Will and Representation that wanting what you do not have is suffering, but so is possessing it as that means your pursuit is over and your life full of emptiness and boredom. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. 

Contemporary philosopher Kieran Setiya elaborates: “When you aim at a future goal, satisfaction is deferred: success has yet to come. But the moment you succeed, your achievement is in the past. […] In pursuing a goal, you either fail or, in succeeding, end its power to guide your life.” 

If we define our flute playing in projects or goals rather than playing for sheer enjoyment, we’re going to find ourselves in a perpetual state of disappointment. Having yet to win an audition or achieve a grade, our success is always tantalisingly out of reach; and yet as soon as we achieve them, we have nothing else to look forward to. 

“The problem is not that you will run out of projects,” Setiya explains, “it’s that your way of engaging with the ones that matter most to you is by trying to complete them and thus expel them from your life. When you pursue a goal, you exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were to make friends for the sake of saying goodbye. […] In pursuing goals, you aim at outcomes that preclude the possibility of that pursuit, extinguishing the sparks of meaning in your life.” 

Oof. That hits hard. 

The solution, then, is to invest yourself more fully in the process, to enjoy playing, not as a means, but as the end itself.  

The defence for atelic activity 

Setiya highlights the difference between ‘telic’ and ‘atelic’ activities (from telos, Greek for ‘purpose’). The former refers to activities that have an end goal: to read a book, take a class, travel to work. Each of these has a termination point: finishing the book, completing the class, arriving at work. They are pursuits that are defined by their end goal.

Atelic activities, on the other hand, are endless – like music. They are activities that can be enjoyed for their own sake, without a definitive objective. They can be engaged in repeatedly, without ever diminishing in value or meaning because their worth is found in the experience itself, not in the outcome.

Learning the flute is a perfect example of an atelic activity. There is no final destination, no chance at arriving at a place where you’ve ‘done flute.’ Instead, it’s the process of learning and playing that offers fulfilment. These atelic pursuits enrich our lives, Setiya says, “since they cannot be completed, your engagement with them is not exhaustive.”

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t set goals in your flute practice. You work towards a grade, prepare for an audition, or learn a piece to play at a friend’s wedding because those goals give you a brief hit of dopamine from having completed it. But when you feel mired down in the thick of it, feeling like you’re spinning your wheels and not getting anywhere, it’s worth taking a step back and reminding yourself of the bigger picture and find joy in the process. 

The value of engaging in more atelic activities extends beyond a philosophical exercise. There are studies that prove that making time in our lives for ‘leisure’ activities (those aforementioned atelic pursuits), we are not only happier, but psychically healthier. In this study, participants who engaged in more atelic activities noticed increased life satisfaction and engagement, and lower levels of depression. But more than that, they also reported lower BMI, blood pressure, and cortisol. 

The freedom of failure

Ditching the fanciness, perhaps these atelic activities are better known as hobbies, and one of the most liberating aspects of hobbies is the lack of pressure to be good at them. This might seem counterintuitive in a society that equates failure with defeat, but hobbies are things we do for pleasure, not because we’re good at them. 

And this where how we approach learning and playing the flute goes horribly wrong. There’s so much pressure, whatever your level, to be not just good, but great at it. My weeks are largely spent reminding students that no they don’t sound like Denis Bouriakov or have fingers as nimble as Jasmine Choi, but that doesn’t make them a terrible player. But they’re so dismissive of their own progress, no matter how impressive, because they’re not amazing at the flute. 

Hopefully, you can see how ridiculous this is? As musicians we’re taught to strive for excellence. So why should we be surprised if we beat ourselves up for falling short? 

And this is where flute players can learn a lesson or two from surfing. 

Writer Karen Rinaldi is a surf fanatic who has written a whole book about how much she sucks at it. Surfing has been her obsession for over 20 years, but she still stinks at it – “In the sport of (Hawaiian) kings, I’m a jester.” And that’s part of the reason why she loves it so much. “[I]t’s great to suck at something.” 

“In the process of trying to attain a few moments of bliss,” Rinaldi says, “I experience something else: patience and humility, definitely, but also freedom. Freedom to pursue the futile. And the freedom to suck without caring is revelatory.” 

There’s so much there to unpack in terms of our music practice: both in terms of releasing yourself from the tension of having to be good and just enjoying the process, but also in terms of our performance. The Inner Game of Music author Barry Green asked a bass student to demonstrate a mistake to the class, but after several attempts, she couldn’t. Instead, she found herself playing the passage correctly. She had given herself permission to fail and “it allowed her to stop trying. Her lack of trying, in turn, released the tension that was blocking her execution”. 

By giving ourselves permission to make mistakes (the freedom to fail), we are so much more likely to play in a relaxed (and often much more correct) manner. This simple shift of mindset can turn practice sessions from a source of stress into a playground for creativity, where mistakes are not failures but learning opportunities. 

While this can be incredibly freeing for the flute hobbyists out there, it also has huge implications for music educators. It’s easy for professional flute teachers to feel like they have no room for mistakes or failure: this is our job, not a hobby. But we have to be willing to try and fail, it’s how we gain the necessary experience to teach. If never we struggled, we’d never develop the pedagogical vocabulary to help guide students through the same issues nor the empathy to stick with them. 

You’re going to work whether you like it or not

While we’re on the topic of professionals, there’s a lot we can learn from championing the case for flute as a hobby. I argue here that we should be allowed to pursue our joy of playing the flute, to relish the process rather than be focused any tangible outcome (which admittedly is easier when it comes to music than say other hobbies like crafting where a finished object easily becomes a commodity). 

But what about those who make a living playing the flute? Our outcome is our livelihood.

We’ve chosen a job we love in the hopes of fulling that popular adage ‘do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.’ But surely it didn’t take any of us very long to figure out that this was complete BS. Of course, we love what we do… but it can still feel like hard, gruelling work, especially now that social media insists that musicians be not only great performers and teachers, but content creators, graphic designers, video editors, marketing specialists, etc… 

We benefit from reminding ourselves that even though this is our job and, yes, we rely on that end product (our salaries), we still need to make time to enjoy the process. Finding more time to reconnect with the joy of flute (what made us choose to start playing in the first place) in this high-stakes environment will serve as a vital counterbalance to the pressures of professional life.

Get out there and toot! 

In this brave new world we find ourselves in, where we are told every waking second should be spent as productively and purposeful as possible, the flute offers a moment of calm. Reclaiming the flute as a hobby, something done for the sake of itself, is a gentle rebellion against the commodification of our every minute.

So, to amateur and professional flutists alike, and indeed to anyone who has ever felt guilty for spending time on a passion that was deemed impractical or unproductive: get out there and toot! 

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