I first learned to play the flute in the first year of secondary school. At the open evening for prospective students and their parents, I’d been handed a piece of paper that had a list of musical instruments; I had to tick the one that I wanted to learn how to play. I’d learned recorder in primary school (in common with most British 7-9 year-olds – well, the ones which weren’t doing violin or guitar); I’d wanted to learn guitar but Mum had said “maybe later on”. I could have chosen to do guitar in secondary school – and, indeed, I was tempted – but then I spotted that one of the options was flute. My mother was really pushing me to take up clarinet as it’s one of her favourite instruments and she never got to play it herself, but I wasn’t too keen and stubbornly decided that was it – I was definitely going to do flute.
Mr Beech, my music teacher, lent me a series of flutes out of the music room cupboard – each needed some work done on it before it could be played, which meant I learned the basics of flute maintenance and repair at the same time as I learned how to play (and meant he got all the school flutes serviced for free). He was a flute teacher himself, so he taught me for 18 months until other commitments meant he couldn’t carry on teaching me. I switched to another teacher for a while, but her main instruments were really clarinet and piano; she was learning flute herself at the time and eventually it became obvious I needed a proper flute teacher. I would also need my own flute.
The nearest flute teacher was in Watford; that, plus the necessity of having my own flute, meant my mother had a handy excuse for making me give up flute. It was a great pity, as I loved playing flute. I’d got to grade 4 and bitterly resented having to give it up.
I eventually picked up a second-hand acoustic guitar at a car boot sale for £5 when I was 15 and taught myself how to play. Over the years I’ve gotten into various other instruments; I have a sizeable collection of recorders and whistles (including a couple of wooden antique fifes, one of which belonged to my grandfather), an electric guitar, a Yamaha acoustic guitar, a Tanglewood electro-acoustic that needs some serious repair, a mandolin and a violin that I started to teach myself how to play. And a Buffet Crampon 228 silver flute which I picked up dirt-cheap from a guitar shop on Shaftesbury Avenue back when I was working for LUL.
The flute sat around for a while; I was too nervous to play it in front of Sava, my late ex, as he was a professional flautist and ridiculously talented to boot. He never did get to hear me play. Last year I resolved to get back to flute properly but then all the health issues cropped up and the flute was pretty much abandoned to gather dust on the shelf.
Fast-forward to a few months ago when after a hiatus of a little over 4 years, I took up morris dancing with Royal Liberty Morris in Hornchurch – and dragged Dani along with me. I took my guitar and joined the musicians, but a couple of months ago Mark (RL violinist) emailed me a PDF of the RL tunebook, and on a whim one afternoon I picked up my flute one Thursday afternoon and had a go at playing a few tunes. Despite being hellishly rusty from not playing properly in over 25 years, I didn’t do too badly, so I took the flute with me to morris practice that evening – and I’ve been playing it ever since.
I’m now playing it daily for at least an hour a day, and recently I’ve found I’ve been stepping that up a bit – sometimes playing 3-4 times a day for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour each time, and my playing (and confidence!) have been coming on in leaps and bounds. I’ll never be as good as Sava was – he had a rare and true talent you don’t get very often. But I think I can certainly reach a reasonable level of accomplishment, though my fingers after so many years of breaks and damage aren’t quite as nimble as they were in my early teens. But they’re getting pretty fast. My head is full of folk flute tunes at any given moment, and when I’m not playing I frequently find my fingers are itching to play – and playing with Ian, Mark and Terry is tremendous fun and fulfilling in a way that is almost spiritual. It makes the 1½-2-hour journey to Hornchurch for morris practice well worth it just to have the chance to play folk music with others. This Sunday (as per my previous post) I’ll be playing the flute in public for the first time in over 25 years with Royal Liberty, and I’m looking forward to it immensely.
I only regret that I didn’t do this sooner. I wish I could have played flute with Sava, even just the once. Playing the flute feels as though it is bringing me closer to him though; when I fluff a tricky bit, I can hear him in the back of my head telling me not to stop but to just keep playing. And when I master a piece, I can hear/feel/almost see him smiling approval with a cheerful “That’s my Rosie!” It’s like sharing a small part of his spirit.
I’ve fallen in love with my flute in a way I never have with any other instrument, to the point where it almost feels like an extension of me. I finally feel as though I’ve actually earned the right to call myself a musician. A flautist. And now I understand why, of all the instruments Sava mastered, the flute always remained his greatest love.