Getting back into flute

I think the last time I sung in a concert (where people paid actual money to hear it) was back in 2005, when we lived on the opposite side of the planet. I had begun to really miss having a musical outlet, and somehow I had managed not to end up in a choir, so what to do …

Start playing the flute again?

I learned the flute when I was at school, from year 6 through to year 12. During those 7 years, apparently I got to a half-decent level, since I received a music bursary to cover the payment of my music tuition (although, in hindsight, it might’ve been a scam to try to get more students into the choir and orchestra). But, in any case, putting in hours of practice every week for that many years must lodge some of it in the brain. Maybe even if it is about twenty years later.

So, in June, a friend mentioned that her orchestra might be interested in having another flautist around while one of theirs was on an overseas tour, and would I be interested in trying out for that. Would I? Yes!

It was to my astonishment and continual surprise that I was allowed to rehearse with the great bunch of people that is the Napier Community Orchestra all the way up to the concert that we performed today. Thank you to my fellow flutes (Belinda, Naomi) and oboe (Anne) for allowing me to come along, as rusty as I was.

It’s not like I hadn’t been doing anything musical for the last twenty years, and performing with choirs in the intervening time turned out to have really helped my sight-reading. Also, never underestimate the advantage a “mature age student” has over young students in self-directed learning.

Still, it was with a lot of excitement and perhaps even more terror, I sat down on stage this afternoon and played in a concert where, for the first time ever, I was the accompaniment to a choir. It was great, and I hope I get the opportunity to continue with it. Having a musical outlet is very satisfying.

If others out there in Internet-land are interested in opening that dusty flute case that they’ve had stashed under the bed and getting some music on, then I hope the information below will be of some use and encourage you to try getting into the flute again.

Playing the old instrument

If you’re like me, you’ll probably discover that your flute doesn’t quite hit all the notes as well as it used to, at least not without a lot of pressure on the keys. Unfortunately, while the metal parts of the flute are likely to survive well, the cork and pads can degrade. In particular, the pads can go hard over the years and then no longer seal the holes when you press on the keys. To fix this, I had to get my flute serviced, at a cost of a couple of hundred dollars.

You can get flute services at places like Wombat Woodwind & Brass or The Music Place. You can also speak to a flute teacher or the like for their recommendations.

Another thing I found was that, compared to when I was learning flute at high school, electronic tuners are now widely available at reasonable prices. I found it incredibly useful to practice my long notes with one in front of me to help me learn which notes I needed to adjust to keep in pitch. It was a real eye-opener.

You should be able to find something like the Temby Smart Tuner or Korg CA-1 in most music shops for $20-$30.

Another thing that I didn’t expect when I picked up the flute again is that my ability to assume the traditional flute playing posture (flute held out straight to the right) was not what it used to be. This made it harder to keep in pitch at the beginning.

You may also want to check out Jennifer Cluff who has some helpful info on returning to the flute.

Playing with a group

One of the things that Jennifer recommends in her link is finding a reason to play regularly, such as with a partner, with a teacher, or in a group. Since my opportunity to resume playing was based on playing with a group, that clearly helped me.

I had forgotten many aspects of playing in an orchestra. It was strange and interesting to rediscover them.

Firstly, there was the counting. In a choir, I had the music for other parts (or at least the accompaniment) to look at when I wasn’t singing. However, orchestral parts are full of rests. So, I had to learn to count again.

It reminded me of dancing, where you need to really learn the basic steps for your feet, so that they could unconsciously go at it while you focus on all the leading-following stuff. For the orchestra, I needed to be always tracking the beat and my count through the rests. It was something I’ve been working hard at, and can still improve.

Secondly, there was tuning. Again, I worked hard at this and can still improve. Learning how the different notes on my instrument needed to be adjusted up or down as I played them was extremely helpful. I also found marking that info on my score to remind me was also good for when the playing got intense.

I’ve come across some fascinating information on the physics of flutes by the University of NSW that helped me understand the finer aspects of flute tuning. I’m not sure if it was helpful, but I like to have the background knowledge.

Lastly, it was amazing when all the different parts came in together, but it was also very distracting and made it difficult to hear if the instrument was behaving (over/underblowing, etc.). I think the brass section knows exactly how distracting and loud they are, but what can they do – they’re brass. This, in particular, made playing in a rehearsal (or performance) very different to playing at home for practice. I really had forgotten this. Practicing against a recording of the piece helped me deal with this somewhat. I think repeated exposure at rehearsals will help more.

However, playing your flute with a group is only possible if you can find a group. It sounds like there aren’t so many in the northern / western suburbs of Melbourne, so here are the ones that I have heard about. Of course, they require different levels of proficiency to join, but may be a useful place to start. In no particular order:

If you give it a go, all the best!

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