I was 8 years old the first time I held a flute. I can’t say it was love at first sight. Music lessons were required in my house. My sister was assigned the piano. I, the flute. But over time, as my sister banged out her hatred of the piano downstairs, I was upstairs stamping my feet in frustration because I couldn’t get the music right, and I desperately wanted to. I was sure there was something that I could say in melody that I couldn’t in words. Eventually, I made phrases and paragraphs and then whole stories. Music became my second language.
Alas, I was musical but not facile. My “Flight of the Bumblebee” was more like the lumbering of a cargo plane. The fast passages of my Mozart concertos drew comparisons to clumsy ballerinas. I graduated from college with a degree in music education, not in applied flute. My professional aspirations dead, I still kept studying, played in community groups, for my children, and at family gatherings, and, 20 years ago, at a friend’s wedding.
And then I stopped. Diagnosed with a jaw misalignment, I was advised not to play for a year. A year turned into two. It would take so much effort to get back into shape. Two years turned into three.
But one day, coming upon my stack of dusted-over music in a closet needing clearing out, I decided to see what would happen if I played. Just a phrase or two. No pressure. So I went to where I kept my flute, and it was gone. Disappeared. Lost, stolen, misplaced, forgotten in a move or on an airplane. I was ashamed that I hadn’t noticed earlier, had lost something so valuable. And so I decided it didn’t matter if I played. The more time that went by the more I was convinced that, as someone who used to play well, playing badly would be intolerable.
Is that the definition of aging? To stop doing something you used to do well because it has become too hard or because you refuse to be less than what you were.
I convinced myself I didn’t miss it. I thought nothing about the fact that I only listened to piano, violin, and cello music anymore. Accidentally hearing a piece of flute music on someone else’s radio, through an open window, while holding on the phone, or catching a video of Lizzo, I created a barrier between me and the sound. I made it part of another life.
My husband knew better. I am in the kitchen when John comes in. Casually, he puts a thin black case on the counter. At first I’m thinking it’s a hallucination. My old flute mysteriously risen from its hiding place. But then I see the metal plate with the inscription. “Dear Judi, Keep making music. Love, John.” That wasn’t on the old case. This is a new flute.
“It’s just like the one you used to have,” John says as he tells me how, six months earlier he called the Powell factory where he knew my first flute came from, and ordered this one.
I don’t like game shows with their contestants screaming when they open the right door or solve the puzzle or beat the clock. But as I click the small buttons on the case and reveal the silver instrument inside, I am practically on my knees, dumbfounded. “Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God,” I pant. And then I remember, in the middle of the night, I had woken up and, unrelated to anything I can remember, thought, I wish someone would just give me a flute. Had I sensed its presence in the house, felt its yearning for my fingers and breath to make it speak? Or was it my yearning reaching its apex?
So, again, I am stamping my feet in frustration. I search for the music but it is elusive. It darts in, indulging my fantasy that I have lost nothing. Then it evaporates as the sound comes out in a whisper, if at all. My fingers trip over each other. My face aches. My lungs strain. I think of my father who, as he lost the ability to retrieve words as his Alzheimer’s progressed, said they taunted him, dancing before him but not allowing themselves to be caught.
I berate myself, criticize my ineptness, my feeble tone, my inability to sustain the high notes. I hear Nancy Aronie whispering her Chilmark Writing Workshop mantra, “It’s about the process, not the product.” But I’ve tasted the product, and am impatient with the process. But what choice do I have? Hand back this most precious gift? Not the flute itself but the music.
On the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we recall our sins and atone for them. I have a recurring sin. I waste my talents, my strength, my intellect, my purpose. The flute is becoming my instrument of atonement. Already there has been a payoff. When my family came for Passover this year, the first time in three years all 19 of us were together to celebrate the Exodus from Egypt, I got the piano tuned and told my grandnieces to bring their violins. After dinner, my cousin Bobby, who is a pianist, the girls, and I rehearsed and performed a number of Suzuki selections. Then Bobby and I played one of our old standbys from the past, Gluck’s “Melodie” from “Orfeo ed Euridice.” It is a beautiful minor-keyed lament, a story that tugs at my minor-keyed heart.
With the sound of the last note (perfectly played) echoing and fading, I wondered how I ever thought I didn’t need this.
When I decided to become a writer, I still had my old flute. When the writing got tough, I practiced. When practicing became frustrating, I wrote. But playing and writing are really the same thing, a way to tell stories, to reveal who I am.