Last weekend, I was intent on finishing an assignment for my community healthcare class. I had a friend who had some econ homework and we both decided that instead of being the lame people who do homework on a Friday night alone, we could be the lame students who did homework on a Friday night together. But upon walking down Middle Path, we found ourselves at a string quartet concert in Rosse. What started as a 5-minute pit stop of just standing outside the doors and listening in soon led to us taking a seat on the top deck and listening in on the rest of the concert.
At first I was worried about my assignment so when my friend kept saying “One more song,” I’d hesitate, but eventually cave. After the first few songs, I calmed down about my work and started to listen. The music was absolutely beautiful and watching the musicians play so passionately reminded me of my time playing classical music.
It’s crazy to think that I frequently forget I was a classical flute player for 8 years. At the ripe age of 11, I picked up my first flute, even though my instructor urged me that I was more suited for the clarinet. Nevertheless, I persisted and I owned my own flute. Band rehearsals were a sacrifice of recess, but I didn’t care. I was too interested in playing. Even though flutes only rehearsed one day a week I found myself at band rehearsals even on saxophone, trumpet, clarinet and low brass days. I simply loved playing and wanted as much time with our music teacher as possible. Those days we were all just learning our first notes; everything was so utterly simple.
I continued to play in middle school, where I first learned of the concept of “chairs”. For all the non-musicians out there, in upper-level music students are put in a seating arrangement that reflects how well they play. First chair is usually the ”best” or otherwise known as the principal player. Young me didn’t do too well in my first chair placement and found myself in 7th among the 12 flutes. I was devastated, but determined. Halfway through the sixth grade, I found myself in 5th chair, then 3rd and finally I was first chair for the remainder of my middle school career. I loved playing at that point. I was in the jazz band and learning some advanced flute technique. Every year I’d participate in optional ensembles for our district’s solo & ensemble contest and my teacher urged me to take on private lessons and even a second instrument, but I loved flute too much to let it go. I was also awarded for my performances with superior ratings in my ensembles, directors awards and was even named best musician by my concert band peers. At this point in my life, I loved playing and I loved music. I especially loved the slow, gentle pieces and playing Latin rock in the jazz band.
I remember my early years as a musician fondly. But, after listening to the quartet play all kinds of genres and with so much emotion, I started to think to myself: why did I stop playing? I couldn’t pinpoint a reason and then something struck me.
As with any field, as you progress things get more competitive. There’s greater stakes as you get better, and the expectations grow rapidly. As a musician, this is amplified. When you start with music, there is a focus on learning the notes and the rhythms. Eventually you learn all the notes your instrument could play—I could play in 3 different octaves by the end of my career—and so they complicate the rhythms, they add in sight-reading and the stakes just keep getting higher. By my senior year, I had a girl once tell me before a chair placement exam that I was playing a note incorrectly in the piece, and that she had been debating telling me for the last 15 minutes in hopes that she’d place higher than me. Even though she finally caved in and told me, it was only 5 minutes before I had to go and play my piece for my director. I found that over time, music was no longer fun. I had less time to practice and it showed in rehearsals. Also, the competition among my fellow musicians was so fierce, I didn’t feel like competing anymore.
To make matters worse, all my directors sought perfection. I was once yelled at for playing a wrong note and as a consequence, my director gave my solo part to the person in a chair below me, who was a year younger. Not only was it humiliating to be singled out in class, it hurt especially because I was playing the correct note, but my flute was so out of tune in the low octave the pitch didn’t align. At an honor band performance once I was randomly chosen to be a soloist, and was scolded for coming in a beat too early—but it was literally my first time reading the piece. The anxiety from all these hurtful experiences alone still haunts me.
So, when I was listening to the string quartet that night not too long ago, it made me smile at first. We often forget the beauty of playing orchestral music, and the calming presence it gives its audience. But also came with it the reminder of the negative energy that surrounds the competitive nature of being a musician.
I applaud those whose talent takes them far, but recognizing that music was something I didn’t want to devote any more of my time was a decision I didn’t take lightly. I do not regret quitting flute, even after parting with it only about a year and a half a go. Even though I don’t play in a concert band or orchestra anymore, I still admire classical music and its beauty. I appreciate music and its role in my life, and every so often I pick up my own flute and start playing it and it reminds me of my fondest times of being a flutist.