Confessions of an Occasional and Breathless Flutist

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

I majored in piano in college but I needed to take up a minor instrument of my choice as well. As if my daily practice of scales on the piano wasn’t enough to torture my two evil big brothers (here I say “evil” with much affection), now I have to add hooting and hissing to the daily cacophony as well. Most of my fellow pianists took up voice, mainly because it’s convenient and free. But I just couldn’t imagine myself singing diva-like (think Maria Callas and NOT Pops Fernandez) operatic songs from “La Traviata” or “Carmen.” I did have grand illusions of myself though to be one of the few female woodwind instrumentalists in the orchestra or to be the female version of Jean Pierre-Rampal. So I decided to learn to play the flute. I thought what could be easier? It’s such a small instrument. And it’s straight so it wouldn’t be that hard to control the air inside it. Furthermore, although I knew that I would be taught mostly classical music, I was excited at the thought that on my own, I could play romantic songs like “Moon River,” “Somewhere in Time,” or “Nearness of You” at the full moon on an open window amidst the pollution and noise of buses in nearby Edsa from our house in Kamuning. Obviously, then, I was young and delusional.

At that time, during my freshman year in college, I had an athletic scholarship for swimming. Since I was the last child in school, my Dad would give me the monetary value of my assessed tuition fee. That’s how I was able to afford my flute.

The flutist in our choir in Kamuning (I will not disclose his name so that he will not be made liable for any harm or injury done to the human race by my flute-playing) brought me and one of my evil big brothers to this dark dingy music store in Quiapo with a torn and faded picture of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music (and not neatness and personal hygiene). Apparently, it was the ukay-ukay (second-hand) store for musical instruments. Mr. Choir Flutist checked out the flutes and found me a top quality Armstrong flute, supposed to be a very good brand. I got it for a big discount, perhaps because of the dinginess of the store and that the flute was… ahem… slightly used. Hey! I was only sixteen then and didn’t know much about hepatitis and didn’t care yet whose lips touched the flute I was about to buy.

I got my flute for about the same amount as my tuition fee for the entire semester – THREE THOUSAND PESOS (P3,000.00) or about sixty dollars. Now I don’t know which makes me feel older – that I got a good flute for only sixty dollars or that I was old enough to have a tuition fee of only sixty dollars for college. Here’s my flute now, twenty years later… a bit rusty… but less so than my playing.


Anyway, when we got back to Kamuning, Mr. Choir Flutist gave me a preliminary flute lesson. He gave me the detached headpiece and taught me to blow a sound. He gave a demonstration, “oooooooooo.” It was only one note but it was magical. It was hypnotic. I was so excited and couldn’t wait for my turn to create the same piercing beautiful sound so he gave me the headpiece. I blew…. “pffffffft.” And thus, my flute was christened with my saliva.

It wasn’t as easy as it looked. If that small straight wind instrument was so hard to blow, I just can’t imagine how I could play those bigger wind instruments with complicated shapes like the tuba, french horn, and saxophone.

That week, I had my first flute lesson at the orchestra practice room on the sixth floor of the Education Building of the University of Santo Tomas (UST). Students weren’t allowed to use the elevators then so I had to climb all six stories while lugging my flute. Haaay…. my first ever flute lesson and I’m out of breath even before I started.

My teacher, who was an elderly man, taught me how to put the pieces of my flute together, how to hold it, the fingering, the embouchure (the formation of the lips), and others. After hours of daily diligent practice for three whole weeks, I learned how to play a grand total of one note, the G.

Oh G! Oh tortuous shrieking hysteric hissing puffing G! How you tortured the ears of my evil big brothers while I tried to perfect your sound. How you caused me much embarassment as the Bakal Boys (in English, the Metal Gang, named such as they were students who majored in brass instruments such as the trumpet trombone, etc.) who hung out outside the orchestra practice room snickered at the eternally funny sound you made.

But I persisted with the flute-playing (if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to graduate). And I knew I was getting better because our dogs Guard and Fighter (along with all the dogs in the entire neighborhood of Kamuning) changed their angry growling to appreciative howling. Of course I don’t talk dog language, but they may be praying to the moon to make me stop.

Soon I was playing Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” and Saint-Saen’s “The Swan”… or at least some of the notes of those pieces. But my teacher wasn’t satisfied. He would urge me and say, “Put some expression. Play real music hija.”

And I would look at him unbelievably thinking, “Expression?! Expression?! Can’t you see I’m turning blue? And you want me to put expression?!”

Well, I didn’t exactly say those words out loud as it’s hard to talk when you’re about to pass out.

Eventually, either because of pity (for himself) or because he just wanted to get rid of me, my flute teacher passed me in my minor instrument.

Now that I’m in the Foreign Service and living here in Cambodia, you, dear reader, must be snickering thinking what all that huffing and puffing with the flute and torturing my evil big brothers, the Bakal Boys and the poor dogs’ howling were for in the great scheme of things.

Well, first of all, I live in a country where western instruments are hard to come by. There must be, what… a total of twenty pianoes in the country? I’ve seen a few stringed instruments, and there is of course, the Royal band who plays for the king. Suffice it to say, the fact that I could play the flute (even if it’s just a few notes) is a novelty here. Next, Filipinos are famous for being musically inclined (almost all the bands here are Filipinos). Whenever there is a diplomatic function and a musical number is needed, everyone would look at the members of the Philippine Embassy and say, “Pheee-leee-peen, Phee-leee-peeen! Good-good in music!”

And so twenty years after I bought my flute from the dark dingy store in Quiapo, I’ve developed what I call my “star complex” (perhaps a little less in intensity than Sharon Cuneta’s) where I play on stage and get drunk with the polite applause. I figured that I need to learn only six songs and my star can shine brightly. My evil big brothers may not be here to torture when I practice, but there’s always Honey. Sure enough, I’ve played Ryan Cayabyab’s “Nais Ko,” Ernani Cuenco’s “Nahan” for Filipinos, diplomats, even ministers. How do I get away with having a star complex with little musical talent and asthmatic-sounding flute-playing? Simple, I choose my audience. These diplomats and ministers are brilliant in diplomatic and official business. But music? I rest my case.

My next gig is on Friday, coffee morning for the ASEAN Women’s Circle (a ladies’ group of the ASEAN Embassies in Phnom Penh) and I’ll be playing a very jazzy version of “Misty” (where I could be as helpless as a kitten up a tree) and “Wave” by Antonio Carlos Jobim for a more samba beat.


Another secret to performing without talent is to play popular catchy tunes and get a talented professional guitarist for the accompaniment to whom I can say, “We’ll play what I know because I can’t play what you know.” Another cheat tip is to have one of our attaches (who has a deep mellow Frank Sinatra-ish voice) sing every other stanza so that I could catch my breath. Wish me luck that I don’t faint from breathlessness. :)

I don’t know if this could be considered story-telling but I’m writing this in response to Lorelle’s blogging challenge “Tell Us a Story.”

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  1. Hey toe! I remember I heard you play the flute in law school. You’re very good at it! Good luck with your gig this Friday. Sana when you come to the Philippines I can hear you play the flute again. Tsaka sana andito ka last year when I got married…request ko sana mag-play ka ng flute…hehehe.

  2. Uyyy, good luck on your gig!!!
    Sana tumugtog ka rin dito. Aabangan ko ha? :D

  3. Great story! And it is a story. You bring up my own memories of musicianship.

  4. Wow! You can play ‘Rondo alla Turca’ on a flute? It’s already a hard piece to play on a piano what more on a flute? BTW, AC Jobim’s ‘Wave’ sounds good on flute. Especially when accompanied by a classic guitar. :-)

  5. Toe, you’re so humble. I bet that you’re very good at the flute.

    It was climbing the six stories not made you out of breath, right? And not “lugging” the flute. :) I still remember the first few weeks Reggie started playing the flute. I know what you mean by that piercing sound. But once I heard him play at school, it was just music to my ears.

    When Ryan tried out for instruments, he found the holes in the flute very small and harder to blow. That’s why he picked the trombone. It’s easier for him. Do you have asthma, because Reggie does and I don’t know, I think the breathing exercises by playing the flute could be actually helping him.

    Guard is Bantay right? What’s Fighter’s actual name? :)

  6. LOL, I enjoyed reading this and I wish I could hear you play – Misty and Wave are among my favorite songs. Hmmm, perhaps you can do a podcast so we can listen to you. :)

  7. Ladybug, haha! Did you notice that in law school… I was already playing the same things? Misty and Wave… that and about 2 or 3 others are all I know. :) For weddings and stuff, I do have my friends from UST who I can recommend. If I go home, it would be to see you and the girls… sobrang miss ko na kayo and our pigging out. :)

  8. wow! you’re really talented! good luck on friday. pero kaya mo yan. ikaw pa. i hope we can hear it sometime.
    was supposed to take saxophone lessons before, but when i heard na maiipon ang saliva, nandiri ako. hehehe :)

  9. ZJ, you’re back from Japan? Parang I saw you yesterday taking a romantic stroll with R. :) I have no choice about the gig on Friday… there’s no one else to do it… Fatima and Reggie are monotones. Hehe! :)

  10. Hi Lorelle. Thanks for visiting my blog. I’m so happy because I learn so much from your blog. I enjoyed this challenge a lot. So you also play music?

  11. Sngl, my Rondo alla Turca has many notes missing… and it’s very slow. It sounded weird when I played it on the flute. :) But it was the last movement of my Mozart sonata when I had my piano graduation recital.

    So we both like the same music, huh? Yes, Wave does sound good on the flute. My guitarist on Friday is not a classical guitarist. He plays in a pop band. But he’s quite good… doesn’t strum too much and gives a good bossanova beat.

  12. Niceheart, really… I can play a few decent tunes which I don’t mind playing for non-musicians. But I would never ever ever play in front of my former schoolmates and teachers in the Conservaotry! That would be horrifying! :)

    I hope to hear Reggie play sometime. He must be good if he can play in a band (I never did). That’s what I like also about instruments other than the piano… you can play in a group. Piano-playing is too solitary most of the time. I have asthma… but only as an allergic reaction. I do think that learning how to belly-breathe when playing wind instruments helps a lot. It’s good Ryan is learning the trombone. It’s quite challenging… not only because of the blowing but also because of the slide. You need a good ear so the notes won’t be pitchy. I’m glad your kids play instruments. Learning music, especially in a group, is a big help for children’s intellectual and emotional development. Its benefits encompasses more than the musical.

    As for Guard, our dog… hahaha! That’s another long story. But he’s not Bantay, he’s really Guard. My evil big brother named him so that when we call him, “Guard, Guard!” people would think we’re rich because we have a security guard. :)

  13. Thanks Bugsy! :) Hmmm… podcasting sounds like a good idea… let’s see if I can learn it by tomorrow. :)

  14. Thanks Tin-Tin. Playing wind instruments really is like being in saliva nation. :)

  15. mabuhay from Canada :) I play the flute too….or at least I used to…

  16. Hi Angelo. Thanks for visiting my blog. I know… my flute-playing is also supposed to be “used to.” But sometimes, I just need to perform something. :(

  17. Hi Tonette,

    I read your blog regularly and enjoy it very much. Kamusta ka na dyan?

    Wasn’t it your anniversary last thursday? Just writing to greet you. How many years na ba?

    your cousin from cold and wintry Down Under,


  18. Hi Lydia. Wow! Thanks so much for remembering… four years na! We’re happy here but can’t wait to be recalled back to Manila in two years. I know you’re doing well in Australia because I’m a silent lurker in Jim’s blog. :) So weird that it’s winter there and it’s so hot here. Hope you can visit us sometime. Well, we want to visit you… is Sydney very far from Melbourne? It’s our dream to watch the Australian Open. :)

  19. Ay, romantic stroll ba? In broad daylight ha! :D Sabi ko rin nga kay R na kayo yung nakita ko e :D Pumunta kami ng Lucky Supermarket to stock up. Oo, two weeks ago na yata nung bumalik ako. How was your gig today?

  20. hay naku, ako I never learned to play any musical instrument. my parents wanted to enroll me to piano lessons but I didn’t want to. bad girl he he. I sing though – sa mga videoke he he.

  21. ZJ, I didn’t faint. Yehey! :)

    Jane, mas masarap mag-videoke. Piano lessons could be boring sometimes. :)

  22. You are right toe, playing these instruments looks easy but so hard to play. I once submitted myself for the school band and wanted to learn playing a hirn instrument but gosh how I struggled and faltered; with all those salivas stuck into the instrument if one does not really know how to put wind in it properly. The instructor was so patient to me but in the end, he just gave up and said maybe, you’d be more adept at some other things…

  23. wow, you’re so talented and humble.

    so what happened to your concert? wish you could do podcast so that we could hear it!

  24. Major Tom, haha… your instructor is very diplomatic. :) But the breathe control is really hard no? I imagine the horn is even more difficult

    Thanks Mmy-Lei. :) Actually, I’ve been playing “Misty” and “Wave” for years now… I don’t know much else. So hindi naman ako nagkalat. Sana nga I could podcast… but I don’t know how. Achaka ano ba kailangan don? Tape recorder? :)

  25. I miss playing the piano. I am even thinking of taking lessons again because I forgot all my pieces.

    I hope you can record one of your pieces so I can hear it naman.

  26. Sorry for the delay in responding to your question. I’ve been traveling a lot lately.

    Yes, I do play music. It’s a very important part of my life so I could identify with your story. Even as I write this, finally home after 4 months of travel, my husband is next to me in our shared office practicing his classical guitar. After many years of self-teaching, he is finally taking online and in-person lessons and loving every moment of it. Music in our lives is very important.

    Thanks for asking and thanks again for such a wonderful story.

  27. when I was a kid, i wanted to learn to play the guitars pero walang pambili ang parents ko. Ngayon, i encourage my kids to take up any musical lessons they want.
    by the way galing pala ako sa blog ng aking wisheart ann “apple of my eyes”

  28. Maybe I should have selected the trumpets or trombones; they don’t seem to be as hard…

  29. Noemi, you play the piano too pala. I don’t play my old pieces anymore. I do more accompanying of singers and instrumentalists because it’s more inter-active. :) I still haven’t figured out how to podcast. I don’t even really know what it is. But hey, I learned to blog diba? :)

  30. Lorelle, online and in-person guitar lessons? Wow! I’ve never heard of that before. Very interesting and creative lives you and your husband lead… travelling, photography, blogging, writing… and music.

  31. KD, thanks for visiting my blog. Regular nga ako sa blog ng wisheart mo. :) Be careful what you ask for though… baka drums ang gustong pag-aralan ng mga anak mo. I’m sure they will love it and you’ll never have any peace and quiet in the house. :) Haha! But seriously, I’ve read that involving children in music helps them in their emotional and intellectual development… not only musical. So it’s good that you encourage them.

  32. Major Tom, I think the trumpet and trombone are difficult too… but the horn really is something else because diba it’s very long when you stretch it out. But the sound of the horn is very resonant and powerful.

  33. Toe, what a charming story. I really enjoyed reading it.

  34. Hi Kulas. Thanks and I’m glad you enjoyed this story. :)

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