Eclectic Autodidact: The art of faking it


I have a confession to make: During middle school, I committed a continuing act of academic dishonesty.

I am not speaking of the classes I slacked my way through where I was unable or unwilling to devote my full effort or the others I have failed. But there is no class I have completely lied my way through other than middle school band.

I had played the flute for a few years by that point but through the Suzuki method, which emphasized learning by ear rather than reading from sheet music. Being completely unable to read music, I was in an awkward position. I was perfectly capable of playing the notes that made up our songs. Unfortunately, the dots and squiggles on the bars were a foreign language so I couldn't tell in which order the notes were supposed to go. That actually turns out to be a better metaphor than I originally intended because I could piece together the odd line or two. I knew the G clef circled the G in one of its unnecessary curls and loops that make sheet music look like it was written by bored Irish monks. From this I was able to piece together small sections of music, but never entire songs. Thus band practice, and yes, even concerts, consisted of me pretending to play for long periods then joining in for a meter before resuming my chicanery. Fortunately for me, in the vast cacophony that is middle school band no one noticed.

I gave up the flute shortly after middle school. Fifteen years or so passed without any musical ability and then earlier this year I started teaching myself the guitar. Over the summer I practiced every day. Not every day in the literal sense but in the figurative one. In the course of learning to play I figured out the basics of reading music. Guitar was easier because the lines on the clef echo the strings of the guitar.

But as I was learning the guitar (not to imply that I have learned it in the past tense) and getting a grip on reading music, I began to suspect that I could probably pick up the flute again. The muscle memory was still there. But with my growing ability to read music, I could do it honestly this time and redeem myself. As soon as I found a flute I knew I could reclaim my honor.

Finding a flute, however, turned out to be trickier than first anticipated, unlike finding recorders, which seem to grow in handfuls in the shade of pianos. My old flute was gone. It wasn't at my mother's house and after a long search we determined it was given to my sister and from then to one of her friends and then to oblivion. That or my aunt has it. My old band teacher, toward whom I am feeling increasingly apologetic for my deception all those years ago, turned up one left behind by some graduating senior who no longer cared. However that turned out to be only two-thirds of a flute, and so one-third less useful than I needed.

On Halloween, Flo and I found a used flute in a music store that wasn't too expensive. As an added benefit, most of the keys appeared to work. I decided to go for it and give the woodwinds another shot. Of course I got sick the same night and was unable to attempt to play for a week or so. But when I did, I found that I was mostly right. As I had suspected, the muscle memory was still there. My fingers found the keys as though it had just been a summer break over which I had failed to practice, rather than a decade and a half. However, the organ memory has decayed somewhat. My lungs don't remember their part as well as the fingers. So the actual breathing part of the instrument, also known as the entire instrument, is taking some work to bring back.

My goal is to be skilled enough to practice in my own apartment. Unlike an unplugged electric guitar, the flute is not able to be quite so subtle. I suppose I could just practice the breath and fingering separately, but then how is that different from what I was doing in middle school band?


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