Flute Camp

Before the summer even started, I realized this is the year of “drive kids around”.

So when my flute teacher–after only two lessons–asked me if I was interested in flute camp, I hesitated.  I have too much to juggle with the children, work...and life.

But, isn’t it good to learn something new, and to have a bit of fun?  And, isn’t that what camp is?

Shutting out the little voice in my head, I blocked off the dates in my calendar.

I should back up, and explain my flute experience... my limited experience.  I have only taken classes with the beginning fourth graders for one year, three years ago.  I played once a week after school for a few months of the year for two years, and I participated in band camp with my sons two years.

But I followed this with essentially no practice, nothing but six lessons.  Although I am proficient in the saxophone and piano, and sing often as well, my skills on this instrument can be only be charitably described as “beginning”.

Still, I think if my teacher invited me to enroll, I must not be that bad.  I even figure it is a good example to be setting for my kids: adults continue to learn, too.  Adults make time for themselves.  

The first day, we introduced ourselves, all thirteen of us.   One person plays at UVM.  Another was selected for the All State band this past spring. A retired gentleman tells me: “Basically, I do house work, yard work, and play the flute. I play four, five, six hours a day.”  One says she has played for 50 years.  Another one has studied music at Oberlin College & Conservatory.  Everyone (except me) has taken private lessons for years.

I begin to feel a sense of doom.

Still, I am excited to be there.  I proudly list it as one of my “two good things of the day” at supper.  I chuckle as I recount to my family how the others are all better than me.  

But by the end of the long two and a half hours of the second day, I am barely holding it together when I leave.  I have forgotten how to finger basic notes.  Every single piece has sections that are just unplayable for me at my level.  One song has only a few measures I feel like I should even attempt, and I seriously consider simply telling them all that I will not even try to play this piece.  I’m sure that I’m only making the rest sound bad.  My quartet group is gathering to play early, but there is no way that I can join them for extra practice–mom duty calls first.  And while others are struggling with some parts on some songs, no one else is as bad as me.  I’m quite sure of it.   

On the way home, I remember how my own kids have started camp, only to come home dejected.
Others were better, faster, stronger, scored more goals, read faster, caught on quicker.  Things came to them harder than they anticipated.  Camp was just not fun, they complained.

OK, now I sympathize more.  I even wonder if I should have broken my own rule about sticking with something; maybe I should said it was OK for the kids to not return when they begged to quit Here it is Tuesday, and I am seriously thinking I should just stop. I am not worthy of the others in the group. I go to bed after posting on Facebook that I am “wondering how bad one can play and still remain in flute camp.”  

But now it’s Wednesday, and I return, mostly out of a sense of “it’s the right thing to do”. I am frustrated by the time this is taking.  I have things I should be doing.  I can’t play the music anyway, so what’s the point?  They’ll sound better without me.  

I declare to myself that I will finish flute camp.  It’s only three more days.  I paid for it already anyhow.

But I will not necessarily play at the concert on Friday.  

I studiously avoid my quartet group as I find a place to sit, and put together the wretched silver thing that only makes melodious sounds for everyone else.  These other three musicians have gathered at noon–noon, a full hour that has no room in my schedule!  They have practiced our most difficult piece, which is equal parts astonishingly beautiful and impossibly hard.

I shut out the thoughts of all that I am supposed to be doing, and remind myself that I am supposed to enjoy my two and a half hours at flute camp each day.  That’s what I tell the kids when they say they don’t want to go: You will have fun.  (Because saying it means it will come true, right?)

We start with one of the pieces that I most dislike.  Oh, it’s lovely, and I applaud the teacher’s choice as it’s perfect for the group, pushing us all to listen and follow each other, to play cohesively, to extend our skills.  

But for me, there are only four measures–four!–that I can get any sound out.  It’s my nemesis, these lower notes, the ones for which I shape and reshape my lips, and blow again and again into the little hole, only to hear some scary, ghostlike whisper.  I once again apologize to the young man seated next to me, since I play essentially nothing on this piece.  More incredibly, even when I do play (on those four measures), I manage to make mistakes, stupid ones even for my level. B flat?  B natural?  How do I play the two of them again? It’s only the first note I was taught; why has it suddenly left my head?

Today, as we begin to play, I am astonished that the confident assertions of the teacher have come true.  Some of these lower notes actually are–finally–coming out of this wicked, evil instrument with which I’ve actually chosen to torture myself!  I didn’t get lost when we played another song! My fingers followed the notes; I actually played F# when I was supposed to!  And I realize that I can indeed hear the pitch–and even adjust it, just as she has been telling us to!  All miracles!

I want to jump up and down, but this is a serious group.  Plus, I have the distinct impression that most wonder what on earth I am doing in this camp anyhow.  They would be appalled to even hear that I’m excited that I remembered a correct fingering, I think.  I swallow my absolute joy and just reward myself with several mentally loud “Yay me’s!”.  

Then I look up and see a kind face from an incredibly accomplished flutist across the room.  “You got the low note!” she says with a huge smile.  And the compassionate soul next to me also says, “You did it!  It sounded!  I told you it would!”  

Maybe they are human after all, I decide, as I enter in for the fourth day.  I get a few more notes right, and I once again pat myself on my back.  I decide to concentrate more on the beauty of the rest of the players’ notes, and cut myself even more slack. I can recognize how far I’ve come, even if it is still so far beneath all the rest of them.

I join the quartet with a sense of fear.  Again, these dedicated adults have all practiced for at least an hour, together, without me.  As the teacher has reassured me several times already, my part is doubled on this more difficult piece, with the assistant teacher playing right along with me.  Between her reassurances and my newly reclaimed attitude of playing for my improvement, I relax more.  When we collectively stumble, I begin to wonder if the others also worry about how they are playing?  Plus, I realize that I did not cause the problem.  I am not making them sound bad, even if I am not necessarily improving their sound, either...

Now we prepare for the concert on the fifth day.  I’ve spent most drives home wondering if I should play with the group.  For the quartet, I am easily replaced by the assistant, I know.  For the rest, others have my parts, too.  I will not be missed musically.  I don’t want to play if it detracts from the group’s efforts.

Today, after four incredibly hard days–so much more demanding than I thought that they would be--I come to a decision:  I need to perform on the final day.  It’s the right thing to do, on so many levels.

But even more importantly?  I actually WANT to end my week with the performance.  I am excited for my kids to hear what I’ve done this week.  Yes, I’ll hear my own mistakes; they will undoubtedly make an appearance, probably many appearances, actually.  But I’ll also be listening to the harmonies and rich tones this group has pulled together in just a few short days.

And over it all, in a little bitty voice of my own, I’ll be saying a couple more “Yay Me’s!”

Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools–now at the high school, middle school and elementary school levels.  She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment, the Brattleboro Town School Board and the Early Education Services policy council.  Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..