Memories of a Mediocre Musician
My mother was the driving force behind my musical childhood. While I’m not sure who introduced me to Shirley Temple, my mother was the one who ensured I was registered in tap dancing lessons shortly thereafter. With tap came ballet and jazz. Soon, entire Saturday mornings were spent at Linda’s Academy of Dance trying to hone a grace that did not come naturally.
It was a given that I’d eventually play and instrument in the high school band. As a six-year old enamored with Shirley Temple and all things dance, I posited the idea that I’d join the Color Guard. I’d been to local high school football games and seen my cousin dance across the field with colorful ribbons, sparkling flags, and wooden rifles. I could see myself standing proudly at attention, crisp flag snapping in the wind. Home in my bedroom I’d change into a dance leotard and practice twirling rulers or umbrellas. I was a natural – I’d soon be leading parades through the streets of Burke, Virginia. This idea was quickly dismissed by my mother. I’d be playing an instrument.
My choice of instrument, however, was left up to me. Piano lessons had begun in kindergarten, so I could read music on both clefs.
No percussion, though. Percussion was for boys. Boys who never took Piano.
I’m not sure what led me to the flute. It was likely the sheer girly aura of the instrument. This affinity was only enhanced when I learned that my sixth grade math teacher, whom I adored, was a noted flautist in her youth.
I began my study of the instrument in seventh grade – already two years behind the other students at Victor Junior High. I spent most of my young career as a flautist torn between the realization that I likely would not advance much beyond mediocrity and the suspicion that such self-awareness alone would make it so. At twelve, I’d reached the pinnacle of musical self-actualization.
In high school, I surrounded myself with immensely talented musicians. My friends had both the gift and the drive. I had neither, but wanted desperately to be right there beside them.
The pinnacle of musical achievement at Adlai Stevenson High School was admission to the sacred Honor Band. Auditions consisted of both prepared pieces and sight-reading. For the musically-uninclined, “sight-reading” is when you are presented with a musical composition you haven’t seen before and are asked to play it on the spot – the idea being that the more-developed musicians will thus rise to the top. Such blind reading had the power to completely unravel me. I was far too aware of my shortcomings in this area, and always flailed at this point in the audition. I never rose above Symphonic Band, Honor Band’s less-talented kid sister.
It wasn’t until college that I was able to play the flute for fun. University of Illinois had several different levels of bands and orchestras, and I joined one comprised largely of non-Music majors. Everyone in the room was there out of sheer love of the sounds we could produce together. There was no competition, no feelings of being lesser-than. Our conductor shared our love of performance and was welcoming and encouraging to all.
I haven’t touched my flute in years. While I’m sure I could still play my scales out of sheer rote memory, any real aptitude I had has left me. I can still read music, but rarely put this talent to practice. I could tell you that auditions made me a stronger person more receptive to constructive criticism (they did), or that not making Honor Band in high school had no long-term detrimental impact on my life (of course it didn’t – but that’s not to say I didn’t bawl for a week when I heard the news). Being a so-so musician surrounded by gifted friends was difficult, but I wouldn’t change a second. Despite the struggle and the tears, being musical (even at a mediocre level) has greatly enriched my life.