Close this search box.

Back in the Flute Loop

Craig Roberts | December 2012

Note: The October Teacher’s Studio offered suggestions to teachers with adult students returning to the instrument after years away. Craig Roberts provides a view from the other side of the music stand.

    I was very proud of my dad. He was a darned fine clarinetist, a pro since the age of 14, who played under the batons of such diverse but equally demanding leaders as Jimmy Dorsey, Fritz Reiner and even Merle Evans – the latter two being the directors of the Chicago Symphony and the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus Band, respectively. My dad was so good that one of the great ivory ticklers of the century, Artur Rubenstein, once halted proceedings mid-rehearsal to announce to Fritz and company that my father rendered “the most beautiful tone” he had “ever heard from a clarinet.” 
    Like many lads, I emulated my hero and prevailed upon Dad to teach me music. Naturally, the clarinet was my first choice of instrument. However, it was vetoed on the grounds that the intrusive mouthpiece would compromise the anatomical craftsmanship of Dr. Earl Shepard, my orthodontist. Instead, Dad bought me a flute; an instrument upon which he doubled and posed no particular danger to my wire-bound dental assembly. I admit to being somewhat miffed since I viewed the flute as “girly” and played only by such creatures as the mousy, stringy-haired lass named Nancy across the street. My disappointment was assuaged a bit, however, when I was actually presented with the shiny, new Artley (chosen because my dad actually knew Don Artley). For that matter, my view of Nancy brightened considerably in later years.
    My father undertook his tutorial task seriously, grounding me thoroughly in arcane music theory while warning me against undue expectations of virtuosity and briefing me frankly on the considerable rigors of a professional musician’s life. While he didn’t discourage me openly from a tootling career, he made it clear that he’d prefer I pursue almost any other line of work when I came of age.
    Under Dad’s kind but uncompromisingly exacting mentorship over the next few years, I became a pretty good flutist, but far from the gifted specimen that he was. He cast a long shadow. I did okay in competitions – usually placing third or fourth – but could never approach the airy brightness and facile fingering of the unsmiling, snooty young women who, inevitably, took the top honors. I got discouraged.
    The final blow came after I joined a local chamber music group and fell under the spell of a gorgeous and quite accomplished young cellist in the ensemble named Rose. After several weeks of sitting near her, watching the fluid flow of her bow arm and the phrase-accentuating tossing of her auburn tresses, I screwed up my courage and asked her timidly for a date. She was the first female I had ever approached with such a stomach churning request.
    The foray was disastrous. Rose refused without even bothering to invent a lame excuse for denying my wish. I was crushed but, knowing of her artistic perfectionism, I chose to blame my lack of musical rather than social skills for the declination. Now viewing the flute as a happiness-crippling adversary, I thrust it aside for several decades. Though I vaguely considered unearthing it from time to time, family, career and other more dynamic pursuits kept me from assembling its three bits again. Eventually, I gave the flute away to a niece.
    Not long ago, however, an evening of tapping toes to the joyful noise from a fiddle, tin whistle and bodhran trio in an Irish-themed pub got me to thinking fondly of making music again. Impetuously, and perhaps influenced a bit by beer, I logged onto eBay that very night and bid successfully on a sight-unseen old Artley Wilkins Model. (Apparently, a sentimental attachment to the brand lingered).
    While I waited anxiously for the United States Postal Service to lay my new acquisition upon my stoop, I set about inspiring myself by listening to some masters of the instrument. I had been out of the flute loop for so long that I thought James Galway was still the latest and greatest young artist among us (even though I’d shaken hands with the greybeard master after a concert in York, Pennsylvania a couple of years before). I was aware that Jean-Pierre Rampal and Julius Baker had long since departed for the great stage in the sky, but I had never even heard of Emmanuel Pahud. For that matter, looking over a roster of contemporary virtuosos left me with the same blank feeling I have when I review a Today’s Birthdays list of popular entertainers in the morning paper. 
    At any rate, with the aid of You Tube, I rapidly became familiar with, and in awe of, such transverse luminaries as Pahud, of course, plus Nina Perlove and Rhonda Larson. I also discovered the intriguing beatbox artist, Greg Patillo.
    Duly inspired, I ordered a method book. Once again, I referenced the distant past. What I obtained was an insanely expensive copy of the Altes Method, Vol. 1. This thing, like most of the instructional manuals I remembered from my youth (other than the blue Rubank Elementary school band book my father disdained) was a 19th century relic. Not fun. Ernest Wagner’s Foundation to Flute Playing was a step forward chronologically but still wasn’t terrifically attractive to someone like me who had graduated to the “music doesn’t have to be a slavish chore” school of thought. I then got a copy of William Kincaid’s mid-20th century tome, The Art and Practice of Modern Flute Technique. It was distinctly more enjoyable and is the book that got me started again although I later moved on to other resources as well.  
    Once my flute arrived – okay, once it arrived again after a needed overhaul – I set about retraining. I figured the most challenging task would be reforming and fine tuning my embouchure. I was wrong. That would come later. First, I had to work on the literal foundation of playing. Although I am in pretty fine shape for an oldster, I found standing and holding the instrument in proper form rather wearying after about a half hour. That seemed ridiculous given the fact that the flute is among the most lightweight of all orchestral instruments, but there I was with aching upper arms and a mildly stiff neck. I concluded that part of my discomfort was being precipitated by a lack of oxygen. My upper body muscles weren’t being properly nourished, I figured because I was forgetting to breathe. I got so wrapped up in trying to remember proper fingerings – especially the opening of that pesky D# key – and producing something resembling a decent tone and tonguing with some semblance of synchronization, that I was inhaling inconsistently and with shallow breaths. Once I spent a week or so concentrating on reacquainting myself with my diaphragm, my aches largely disappeared. (Of course, that could also have been due to the coincidental toning of my muscles). 
    My embouchure was still a limp mess. In fact, it is still iffy at times on upper middle register notes (like B and C, for some reason). So, I next began a curriculum of critical self-analysis and lip-pursing experimentation to correct the cracking and fluffing that were the hallmarks of my musical efforts. I still don’t have the unerring accuracy of tone production that I would like and the whole idea of introducing subtle coloring into my playing is laughable at this stage, but I’m working on it.
    I am not beating myself over the head about a failure to achieve perfection these days. In fact, though I have yet to even approach my level of teenage playing, I am having a ball. Flute playing is an enjoyable hobby now, not a quest. I regard my flutes – I have four of them today – as collectible toys. My Artley has been joined by a gorgeous Jack-Moore-era Armstrong Heritage, a surprisingly vintage Haynes-like 1940s coin silver Selmer and, most lately, an 1880s simple system or “Irish” blackwood flute. I plan to employ the wooden flute in the study of liberally ornamented Celtic music (the inspiration for my return to music), facilitated in part by Matt Molloy recordings and a terrifically entertaining text for any flutist, Grey Larsen’s The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle, a volume I discovered online.
    And that brings me to a final “then and now” observation. The whole world of flutes, flute study and flute playing is much sunnier now than it was 40 years ago. Flutes themselves have improved dramatically. As has been stated many times by many people, a top-shelf student or intermediate flute of today can be the equal of a pro model of yesteryear. While the premium and most prestigious hand-built models are still well beyond the reach of most of us, a really good instrument that easily meets the needs and desires of adult amateurs can be within our grasp. Additionally, resources for learning are prolific and joyfully available now. Through online videos, I have learned phrasing and breathing techniques from Emmanuel Pahud, and embouchure control from James Galway. I have viewed masterclasses by some of the most formidable artists around the globe and been inspired by many others, pro and amateur; none of whom I could have heard let alone seen just a few years ago.  
     There are still moments and even entire evenings of struggle and frustration as I strive to re-learn my old craft, but with a new, relaxed outlook, a nothing to lose attitude, and all the toys and tools for learning and entertainment available currently, I am, all in all, having a blast. It’s great to be back.
                   Thanks, Dad.