Friday, April 19, 2013

Translating Flute

I am learning to play the flute.

Why the hell would a 32-year-old woman try to learn to play a new instrument? Or any instrument at all for that matter?  (These are the things my fellow soccer moms wonder.)  Because this is the kind of shit I do.  That and ballet classes, and self-portraits, and grad school, and translating Old English poetry, and a lot of other things mothers don't typically even think about, or suspect that their neighbors are up to.  Take that suburbia.

I played saxophone and french horn in school, and I got especially good at the sax.  I was emulating Lisa Simpson then.  Outcast nerd with saxophone who hates the school band music (the vegetarianism waited until I grew up). But instead of jazz like Lisa I wanted to play rock sax.  I'd listen to the radio and play the solos by ear.  And in the early nineties, there were plenty of sax solos wafting o'er the airwaves.  Like a river flowin' into the ocean...

Now my inspiration and instrumental role model is Ian Anderson.  (Who else? Well, Peter Gabriel plays the flute, but it's not quite the same.) I've been into Jethro Tull for about ten years, and all through my 20s I dreamed of being in a rock band.  I always pictured myself playing rock flute in that band, and singing in a folksy voice.  Always doing a Tull cover or two.

So a few years ago I got my chance to play in a cover band, and I became the lead singer.  And I sang bluesy, not folksy.  And the Tull in our catalog was null.  I was instrumental to the band line-up, yet even with all my multi-talented influences I remained ironically non-instrumental.  I honed my vocal craft for four years, but always felt terribly lacking.  I didn't have anything to hold.  Sometimes I had hand percussion.  Other times, just idle hands. I'd pick up a tambourine and shake it lightly enough that it was inaudible, just to have something to do.  Most of the time I just danced wildly.  The few times I offered my saxophone abilities during practice discussions, the band was skeptical. 

That venture has ended, so as a singer I've been longing to perform in some way or another. I loved the rush of being up front, the euphoria of getting lost in my own sound-making.  But I don't have a band now, and no one is impressed by just singing. Everyone has a voice. You have to be able to do something.  ENTER: FLUTE!

Despite the flute having the same fingering as the sax, and despite my early, demonstrated ability to merrily meld with woodwinds (maybe "graft" would be a more woody metaphor...but the flute is silver anyway), many told me "You can't do it!"  No one said "You're too old to learn new music stuffs," but it may have been implied.  They did say, most pointedly, that I wouldn't be able to muster the wind for a flute.  Wait! -- I belted out "White Rabbit" and "Sweet Child of Mine" at earbone-jarring volumes, always garnering that cute comment from one or two in the audience, "Such a big voice for such a little girl!" I think I can manage to blow some good air into this thing with the holes on it.

So I've been working on it for about a month and a half.  My basic music reading came back at two weeks.  My sight reading came back at four. The fingering came back at four weeks too.  Then the simple Yiddish song "Tumbalalaika" committed itself to my memory, allowing me to practice embellishment without slowing down to fiddle with my tangled, confused digits.

I still can't keep time when I learn a new song.  That will come, I'm sure.  I still forget notes when there are flats and sharps not in the key signature. I think the memorization of tunes will come better once I'm not using so much brain power to get my fingers over the right and proper holes and to tell B from D on the staff, and so much muscle power to keep the flute from flying out of my grasp whenever I play C sharp. (You have to let go of all but one pinky key, and that key depresses forward. TweeeeeetfllubbupwhoAAH!)

Let it float...
Maybe the problem there is that I think of my flute as something I need to grasp? It's like learning to ride a dirt bike.  You grip too hard over the jumps and get sore arms because you're so afraid of falling off.  I'm afraid of falling off the flute, and my hands start to cramp from the effort of keeping it close. What should I do with it?  Let it sort of float there? Someday...

Too much grasping.
So after six or seven weeks of practice (with 1/2 hr lessons most of those weeks, with a gal who is happy I want to learn rock flute), putting a few folks songs in the vault, and reading Amazon reviews that said "My fifteen-year-old daughter sight read it and played it right off the bat!" I bought my first Jethro Tull flute solo book.  It will be here Monday.  I can't wait. 

In fact, I couldn't wait so much that I looked up Bourée and started playing it. It actually is easy to pick up right away!  And I'm not even fifteen!  All the trick is in the timing and the embellishments.  There are still some symbols I have to figure out, but I can feel where the trills should be, and I know the movement of the song even if I don't properly interpret all the lines and dots.  I have the notes, I have my Tull records, I have my woodwinded mind -- I think I am set.

The title for this post came from overly philosophical thoughts I began to have while playing a Tull song for the first time.  I couldn't believe what I was hearing.  There's a line in The Sun Also Rises about an American woman speaking French and being surprised at it coming out French.  And then talking too much just to hear herself magically talk French.  That's what it felt like. 

Then tonight I thought about having to relearn to read music, and then to add in all the other info on the page besides just the notes (notes on notes, paratexts...), then interpret it for myself to make it sound agreeable, and like actual music. I thought about the acts of reading, writing, and translation.  I think my knack for Old English translation, silly as this may sound, has been helped along by my learning to play the flute. I began the two endeavors together this semester -- translating OE, "translating" flute -- and they are remarkably complementary.

I was Bourée-ing after I put the kids to bed tonight.  It was great to hear my 8-year-old son call down to me, "Hey, I can hear the song now! Doo doo DEE, doo dee DOO, doo dee DOO, doo doo DEE..."

(And then after a few clinkers he called down "Mama, would it help if you just put on the record?")


  1. Good luck with your adventures into becoming a flautist!! i'm currently attempting to teach myself to play the ukulele. i don't have your musical talent, and it's slow going. But music is always worth it!!

  2. Impressive! And congratulations on becoming a "master". I wish I had half of your stamina.


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