“Music is something shared across all cultures. It’s something we all instinctively experience, when we hear our favorite song and feel the need to dance and sing. So perhaps, being a musician is simply the ability to make music. It’s the desire to contribute to this rich emotional conversation.” — Tatiana Thaele in The Flute Practice
The seemingly endless coronavirus pandemic has brought heartache, from mundane to tragic, to people everywhere. During the year-long shutdown, musicians were deeply affected as their livelihoods often depend on performance, which usually means playing with other musicians.
Percussionists, keyboardists and string players can mask up and play, but COVID puts wind musicians at a particular disadvantage. Wind instruments are powered by, well, human lungs, which means inhaling and blowing. And flutists are possibly at the greatest disadvantage because we don’t blow directly into a mouthpiece but more downward and across, creating a potential droplet-spreading free-for-all.
Finding the flute again
Being a professional musician was never in the cards for me. I didn’t have the talent or the determination for it, but I did enjoy playing music. I started piano when I was seven and flute when I was 10, and both have stayed with me, off and on, into middle age.
After a long flute hiatus, I blithely signed up to play in the Charlotte Symphony’s annual Pro-Am concert in 2019, thinking it would motivate me to pay attention to my flute again. Along the way, I started to believe I was in over my head and that Alexander Pope was correct when he wrote “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
But it turned out to be one of the most delightful experiences of my life and one that indeed got my flute-playing back on track. It also led to some wonderful friendships, which, in turn, led to an invitation to join the Charlotte Flute Choir.
Discovering the friendships behind the music
Lest you think a flute choir consists of nothing but standard concert (or C) flutes, our group includes piccolos, alto and bass flutes, and occasionally a contrabass flute. For certain pieces, we’ve also welcomed a bassoon and a bass clarinet. All of this creates a depth and richness of sound that might not be expected from what many people consider to be a “tooty” instrument.
I was intimidated the first few times I rehearsed with the group. They were all good. Very good. Much better than I was. And they’d been playing together for a long time. But they were also kind, welcoming and encouraging, assuring me that I could do it. And in time, I found that I could do it (or at least most of it), although that never stops me from requesting the easiest of the parts. In a flute choir, you typically have about five parts with Flute 1 usually being the most difficult.
A typical conversation when music is handed out goes like this:
“Andrea, would you like Flute 5?”
“Is there a Flute 12?”
“OK, I’ll take 5 then.”
The flute choir rehearses weekly and plays all kinds of music with the year’s big focus being holiday music. In 2019, we gave a number of concerts in November and December at the Southern Christmas Show, at a church, and at assisted living and memory care facilities (which is as heartwarming and gratifying as you’d imagine).
2020 was quiet . . . too quiet
We rolled happily through the holiday season, took our customary break and looked forward to starting new music in January 2020, anticipating a spring concert. Except by January, the COVID news was grim and warnings had begun in earnest. Hoping for the best (and fearing the worst), we took a wait-and-see attitude, thinking we might resume the following month. But in February, as no one needs reminding, the world as we knew it started shutting down.
In the fear and chaos that ensued with the onset of the pandemic, the inability of an amateur musical ensemble to gather and rehearse is of small concern; we knew that.
Like everyone else, I was disappointed, but I also knew I had an opportunity. I would practice, practice, practice! I would use the extra time to work hard. Lots of scales, pieces for fun, pieces that challenged me, technique exercises — you name it, I practiced it … for about two months.
Then the newness of all the practicing wore off, and I felt adrift. I missed playing with my flute choir friends, and I missed the satisfaction of hearing the pieces come together. And what was the point of all this practicing with no endgame?
My motivation evaporated, I played less and less until finally, my beautiful flute had gone untouched for months. And like so many other side effects of COVID, this wasn’t great for my emotional health or my perception of myself as a musician.
Finding our sound (and each other) again
And then, May 2021: the word came down that we would resume rehearsing in June. Oh, happy, happy day! My cats, who had wholeheartedly embraced the fluteless quiet of our home, weren’t thrilled, but I was. I was going to play music again with my people.
In June, armed with our COVID vaccination cards and masks to enter and exit the rehearsal space, we reunited for the first time in 18 months.
Our sound was a little rough, at times. We missed some notes. We fiddled with Christmas music in June. We worked around a piece with a missing piano part. I, personally, could not seem to follow key changes to save my life. None of that mattered.
In August, Christmas music was handed out in earnest because, miraculously, two socially distanced holiday concerts were booked and stayed on the schedule. We played at the Southern Christmas Show and gave one concert at an assisted living center. (It was a toss-up as to who enjoyed it more, the flute choir or the residents.) We were back in business! And more importantly, we were together — making real and glorious music once again.
For information on the Charlotte Flute Choir, visit charlotteflutes.com or facebook.com/charlotteflutes. Once again, COVID and its variants may have other plans for us, but we hope to resume rehearsing in January.
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