Confessions of an Occasional and Breathless FlutistWednesday, 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.”