The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

May 9, 2012

Toot That Flute

The boy's been learning the fife for several months now. It's a bit of an uphill/downhill situation with him. Uphill struggle to get him to practise, and then it all goes downhill during the holidays when he doesn't even look at the instrument. No, no, I jest. He has learned the B, A, G notes rather well, and even if he has a bit of a problem distinguishing a quaver from a semitone (is there a difference? I don't know), he does manage quite well to follow the score.

It is the usual condescension towards the recorder that prompted us to put him up for flute. Who plays recorder seriously? was the question topmost on the lips of the mums in school. The flute, on the other hand, that's an instrument of poise, elegance and character.

Because of a bit of miscommunication with the boy's flute teacher before he started, we got into a three month rental of a flute, which, when she saw it, turned out to be the wrong instrument for learning, and 'anyway, it is not very good.' She said that the fife is the beginner's instrument and is cheap, and - were we to purchase it from a little shop in East Croydon - would get a teaching book with it.

The intention was for the boy to have weekly 1/2 hour-long lessons at school, and practise at home about 10 minutes a day. The result was a bit more uneven - some days went without practise, and other days he'd manfully struggle for half an hour at a time. 

His little fingers had trouble covering the hole, and for months he wasn't even able to consistently produce the correct sounds. Embouchure, we were told, it's all in the embouchure. 

When he got a bit better, he was asked to write a line or two of music to practise. His first composition was a bit confused - as I said, he had little idea about the beats and lengths of each note. Having just that day learned about 'slurs', he liberally applied them to his piece. He forgot to give it a title, and when prompted by the teacher, announced that it would be named 'The Lonely World of Emma'. It did sound a bit melancholy. We are still not sure where the title came from, and he is cagey about his inspiration.

Recently, he has moved onto the D and E notes, and these are giving him particular trouble. Playing the fife is about dexterity in the finger movement and their correct positioning atop the holes, and he is flummoxed by the switch from E to G, say, where the big fingers of the right hand are lifted from the instrument and only the left hand is used.

Now the teacher wants him to progress to the apprentice flute. £125 for this. We were a bit stumped by the cost. How long would he continue on this instrument before moving on to the next level? If it was a matter of months, perhaps we could rent the thing. But if he could use it for a year or two, we'd need to buy it. In the event, it turned out that renting it for a few months cost as much as buying it outright, so I trudged over in the rain and cold and dreariness to Croydon a few days ago and procured it.

Immediately the boy wanted to play it. This flute doesn't appear to have any holes, only keys. He was unable to elicit any sounds from it. He'll have to retrain his embouchure and all that starting next week. Meanwhile, he has several days' worth of work on the fife left.

On Friday were the woodwind finals of the BBC Young Musician of the Year 2012 series. To our surprise, a recorder featured in the competition category finals. So much for it not being a serious instrument. Take that, supercilious mums on the school run. There was also a flute, a clarinet, a bassoon and a saxophone. Seeing the recorder (played by the youngest competitor - Charlotte Barbour-Condini - all of fifteen years old), the boy sniffed with disgust. He was in support of Luke O'Toole, the flautist. 'I am a fan of Luke,' he admitted to his mother before he went to bed.

When Charlotte played, he kept sniffing. 'When is Charlotte going to stop?' he asked. 'The recorder is boring.'

'Be nice,' I said.

'Oh yeah, it is a fine thing,' he said. 'My teacher teaches the recorder. I wish I could learn the recorder.'

A couple of minutes later, he said, 'Boring. How long can we just keep listening to music?'

Then he said, 'Why are her eyes closed?'

He stayed up till Luke's turn to play the flute. 

'I am very good at the flute,' he said. 

Then he went to bed. This morning, almost the first thing he wanted to know was whether Luke had won.

I checked the programme on BBC iPlayer. When he saw Charlotte Barbour-Condini being interviewed just before the winner was announced, he said, 'Charlotte, Charlotte, Charlotte, stupid Charlotte.'

'Hey,' I said.

'Actually, she is nice. Did Luke win?'

Luke did not win. Charlotte won. What an achievement! She was smiling through her tears.

'Look,' said the boy. 'She is grinning from ear to ear.'


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