Growing up overseas brings a host of amazing experiences that kids back home miss out on, from travel in interesting places to learning different languages easily, from exotic pets to having two homes.
But you miss out on things, too. You don’t always get to know your grandparents well. Your blood-related cousins may be almost strangers to you while the kids you grew up with overseas become more like cousins. With every amazing opportunity comes an opportunity that “normal kids” consider routine but which you might have missed out on.
I entered high school band for the first time my junior year of high-school, the year I returned from Africa. I landed back on US soil in mid-July, and began classes at my American high school about six weeks later. I had had flute lessons, first from a fellow missionary mom and then from a teacher at my missionary boarding school, but I’d never played with more than one other person. I had learned recorder in fourth grade like everyone does and had kept playing recorder and loved it very much. But it was a toy instrument to most people (and still is considered so today, by many.) Flute was a real instrument. I had a used flute which I knew I was lucky to have; it wasn’t easy to find traditional band instruments in West Africa.
By junior year, most of my band-mates had been in band several years, since sixth grade. I, brand new to band, was in way over my head and pretty much all of the music was too hard for me. I cried a lot. I gave up and stopped playing sometimes, simply holding my flute and faking it. My second year was a little easier, but everything was quite difficult. I couldn’t play in the highest registers at all. (Now I know this was my flute, not me. At the time, however, I thought it was just because I wasn’t any good, and nobody told me differently.) I couldn’t hear when I was sharp or flat. (I’ve since learned, through experience in choir singing, that something about being deaf in one ear makes it a lot harder to distinguish tuning in close-harmony chords). And as a bottom-rank flutist, I sat with most of the rest of the flute section and the director to my left, deaf, side, and the bratty, obnoxiously trumpets right in my hearing ear. This didn’t help me, either.
I don’t think I even want to discuss marching.
The woodwinds teacher seemed to have little patience for the more average students under her tutelage (my youngest brother, a clarinetist, had a very different experience with the same teacher some years later). I was frequently out of tune in ensemble playing but couldn’t fix it and nearly always had to be told I was out of tune and in which direction I was out of tune. I simply couldn’t hear it. (Even today, when I can tell that two tones are not in tune with each other much more easily, I have great difficulty telling whether one is sharp or flat of the other.) My motivation suffered terribly. I started to rarely ever practice. What was the point? I never felt like I got better; the slope upwards to win approval from a disinterested teacher seemed too steep. I started sometimes skipping lessons. My teacher’s lack of interest in helping me continued to decline, understandably so.
Status markers abounded in the flute section. Good students got recommended for step-up or intermediate instruments, with open holes and a B-flat foot. I, as a mediocre student, was never recommended for a better instrument.
Fifteen years after high school, I was able to buy a solid silver flute very cheap, as it was a C-foot flute from the 1960s, back when having a B-flat foot flute wasn’t considered a marker of a “good flute.”
It was a revelation. I cried when I played it. It was so loud! and warm! And it spoke so easily! I realized then that while my lack of practicing had contributed to my lack of progress, that had happened as a result of playing a poorly-made, “student level” instrument for years. The very first thing I did with my new flute was take out all the corks in the open-hole keys, mentally shouting down my high school woodwinds teacher as I did so. I was able to play it with no trouble at all; two decades of recorder playing meant my fingers were well-used to lightly sealing instrument holes, exactly as I knew they would be (but had never been allowed to even try in high school.)
When I had a child, she proved to be acutely musically sensitive. So much so that sounds and songs stuck in her head for days. When she was small, she would often hide or cry if I played flute at home. So my new silver flute didn’t get played much at all for about fifteen years.
As my daughter moved into her teen years, she took up choir, guitar, and piano and has become a very musically-inclined person. In my mid-40s, I got out my flute again. I couldn’t play much, and that not very well. I could barely make octave jumps, one of the first things a flutist learns. The pads on the flute weren’t in great shape. The flute needed some serious repair work. Research online revealed that re-padding and adjustment could cost as much as $600, prohibitively expensive for me. But I had many mixed feelings about having the flute repaired anyway. Playing things I used to play left me frustrated, sad, or angry, or all three. There was little joy in attempting to play. I had forgotten much (and I hadn’t been very good to begin with.) I realized that if I were to start playing again, I would probably need embouchure help from a real teacher. More money to spend I did not have and would have had guilt about spending even if I did.
I tried playing sometimes, but it hurt to try. It was too hard, the hill to climb too steep and more importantly, the desire to do the work, too little. I had lost too much. I didn’t realize it yet, but I no longer loved the flute.
I couldn’t figure out why my feelings were so mixed, why even thinking about repairs often made me upset. I thought about selling my flute. What stopped me was knowing I’d get peanuts for a good silver flute with a wonderful voice, due to the out-of-fashion (for better instruments, at least) C-foot. That, and worrying that I’d someday get past my mysterious anger and hangups over my flute and regret selling it.
I had also, gradually, over my recent attempts to play my flute, come to wonder why my high school woodwinds teacher, who had, on several occasions played my flute and who was an accomplished flutist and piccolo player herself, had never suggested to me or to my parents that my flute was pretty darn awful, and might even be bad enough that it was hampering my ability to learn. Nor, despite the fact that she was an experienced teacher and had been teaching woodwinds and band for quite awhile, had my deafness in one ear ever been considered. It has, at times, made me angry. I sometimes think about overwhelmed, embarrassed, and lonely teenage me and I cry for that girl.
Last week I found myself unexpectedly in tears over music again, this time at news that John had decided to learn an advanced and challenging solo trombone piece. Why?
After a long talk with John over drinks outdoors on a beautiful late summer evening, we came to the conclusion that I had maybe continued with flute partially out of obligation rather than a pure love of the instrument. I felt I should continue playing it, because my parents had bent over backwards to find me an instrument and because, well, I had already learned it, wouldn’t want those lessons to go to waste (I’m a former missionary kid, of German immigrant stock, and a Midwesterner: the struggle to not be wasteful is painfully real) and, well, I didn’t hate it. Furthermore, as we talked, sitting out in the garage in the kind of weather that makes January in Wisconsin worth it, it became clear my feelings about the flute were also tied back to a lot of embarrassment and frustration from my band experiences, which were mixed at best and wracked with humiliation at worst.
I love recorder, though. I always have. When my fellow fourth graders left our dinky plastic recorders behind with relief, I took mine home and tried to play hymns. I kept playing recorder. I managed somehow to advance a little in the instrument, and my senior year of high school I saved up and paid for a simple wooden recorder. When John asked me what a better wooden recorder might cost (and I answered: about half what the work on my flute might cost) and then suggested that money might be better spent on a well-made wood recorder instead of repairing my flute, I knew we had found a way through this mess, because a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. As we sat there and chatted, I thought about attempting to learn something really challenging with a new, warm, broad, chiffy wood recorder and for the first time in a long time, I got excited about the thought of the challenge instead of feeling defeated and broken and sad.
The other I went through my binder where I have stored loose music since college. I tore out every Class B flute solo I had been assigned (we didn’t get to pick pieces for competition in high school; they were assigned to us. I wasn’t good enough for Class A in flute.) I tore out the hated duet I was assigned to play with another flutist from band. I tore out the photocopied pages from my Rubank lesson books. I tore out several other bits of “flute repertoire,” none of which I have any interest in ever working on.
I took the whole stack of music and I threw it in the trash. It was the best thing ever. Then I took out my Hohner pearwood recorder and the early music book I bought when I was in London on my way home from Cote d’Ivoire and I played recorder for twenty minutes, something I haven’t done for years. It felt good. And to my surprise I had not lost nearly as much in recorder as I had in flute, maybe because I’d always found recorder a joy to play, free of a teacher who seemed like she had decided I simply wasn’t trying.
I have fallen down the rabbit hole of shopping for factory-made but professional quality wooden recorders. I’ve pulled out my ancient, musty alto recorder, which my parents got from a traveling evangelism team in Monrovia. I’m re-teaching myself the F-instrument fingerings. And I’m practicing all my old soprano music. I may be able to buy a new recorder next summer. I feel relaxed and happy about the search for the right instrument and the wait for the right time, instead of sad and angry like I always would when I thought about spending money to repair my flute.
Making music is fun again, now that I’m no longer a flute player.