A Flute Tale


When I look at this photo, I see all the things I know to be against healthy posture in any and all flutists. My eyes are to the far right, when by putting the music stand more in front of me I could be looking straight ahead. My mouth is not looking very relaxed, the pulled-down corners, and stress lines show that. And that head bend!  Ouch!

That photo was probably taken when I was about 18. I loved playing the flute more than anything else in my world, and this was just one of the amateur orchestras I was part of for a few years. Not sure which one: Bennington Heights, Richmond Hill, or North York come to mind. North York rehearsed in Earl Haig Collegiate in Willowdale. For me the time spent in these groups was done for experience, but also in the hope that someone would recommend me for actual jobs!!

The first really big actual job was the Hamilton Philmarmonic, when Lee Hepner was conducting. I auditioned in 1961 (I think it was) and got the job. Now let me add the fact that my teacher, Keith Girard, a long-time member of the Toronto Symphony, had played for years under Lee Hepner, and had received a call from Lee asking Keith for his best students to come and audition.

The biggest surprise, even beyond the fact that I got the job, was that Keith received another call after the auditions were over. This time Lee asked him which of his students he thought should get the job, and Keith recommended me!! The other applicant was someone I admired immensely, who I always thought much superior to me in every way.

I was part of the Hamilton Phil for 10 seasons. The next year I became Co-Principal Flute for the Niagara Symphony, in January of 1974.  Not long after that, the whole woodwind section was shuffled and I became the Principal. That was beyond a dream come true! I moved with my daughter, Kira, to St Catharines after 2 years of commuting from Toronto.

For a lot of the years in the Niagara Symphony, the Principal Oboist was a guy named Ronnie Richards. I remember him telling me that I should learn the Alexander Technique. I foolishly didn’t look into it, thinking I had no problems and my posture was correct for playing the flute.

Fast forward to 1984 in the spring, and a church in Buffalo. I was part of a trio made up of flute, violin and harp that performed at weddings and had been doing so since 1977. In the middle of one of our pre-service pieces, I suddenly could not produce a sound on the flute. It was as if my face froze.

Well, in a trio like ours, the flute has the top voice, the tune, you might say. It was lucky for me that particular job wasn’t for flute and harp duo, another combination we made available to people. I asked Dianne Humann, who is still in the first violin section of the Niagara Symphony, to take the flute part and I made an effort to play the harmony that the violin usually played.

I thought with some rest I would be back to normal in no time. The harsh reality of it was that I had great difficulty finishing that season with the symphony, barely able to squeeze out the air for the one remaining concert. It was a Pops concert, so the music was less demanding. A proper Masters concert with any major flute work would not have been possible.

Over the summer things didn’t change, and it was horribly clear that I would have to give up my position in the orchestra. This was a huge blow. But I still thought in a few months things would be resolved.

It was like always being able to walk, and suddenly not being able to tell your feet to move or how to do the job. The messages to my brain did not get through. I could not form the shape needed with my face and lips to produce proper sounds on my flute.

I continued teaching, often showing students how to finger passages, but without being able to actually play them.

Finally I went to Dr John Chong, the founder of the Musicians’ Clinics. He and his staff tried everything, gave me every test imaginable and nothing was found. After three years and facing a lumbar puncture to look further, I decided to pack it in and I took up the recorder.

I added several piano students to my large following of flute students, and practised the recorder. A concert series even happened for 4 seasons, with a  following of loyal supporters and sponsors. In 1989 I took the ARCT exam in recorder. In order to even apply for this exam I needed to do all the theory I had never learned. In 2 years I did 11 exams, and passed the ARCT with flying colours in 1989.

I still owned a flute, and just by demonstrating to students, gradually was recovering my ability to sound like a professional. By 1994, I was playing enough to want to have help keeping it intact this time.

Dr Chong listened and watched me for about 30 seconds, stopped me and announced perfunctorily, “It’s your neck!”  This was  eleven years later. What had happened in the medical world and also because of Dr Chong’s constant researching, was that Repetitive Strain Injuries were by then known to occur in a vast number of other occupations besides the ones that had been previously documented.

What followed was a totally new posture, and Alexander Technique lessons. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_technique.  I was very lucky to have Steven Glassman as my teacher. He was in Niagara-on-the-Lake most summers at that time, to do classes and lessons with Shaw Festival performers. The Principal Flute in the Niagara Symphony for all the years since I left, Doug Miller, gave me Steven’s name. Thank you, Doug! You are a world-class flutist and have been an inspiration to me all along.

It was wonderful to perform again, and I even was hired for a few symphony concerts! During the next 11 years I had the great honour to perform with Timothy Phelan, Classical Guitarist.  Tim is another world-class musician, a real soulmate in the realm of music. Our collaboration has always been magical, one of those rare things when both people feel the music in exactly the same way. If you listen to the samples for Guitar and Flute or Violin on Tim’s Wedding Music page, that’s me playing the flute after 1995, my renaissance.

Dr Chong videotaped me while playing so I could observe the more correct position I was learning for my neck. My embouchure, the mouth shape, also changed and for this I thank Ivan Jakubek, flutist and best repair and overhaul man in the business. His comment that one should stay as natural as possible really hit home and stayed with me.

The truth is that today, at the age of 72, I have no problems with producing a good quality of tone on both my flute and my piccolo. I only play in an amateur local concert band now, and I never take my instruments out of their cases from rehearsal to rehearsal.

In an effort to recover my flute career, I also took the ARCT in Flute Performance, my diploma is dated 1997. I was 53.  The practising involved for that, in particular the technical side, has left me still able to easily play any passage I come across. It still amazes me how proper preparation, even learned so late, stays with one literally forever.

My teaching changed drastically, with a real emphasis on correct posture, and the proof was clear in my continued ability to demonstrate anything on demand.

I have no regrets, and my latest involvement with Dr Chong has taught me even more. This time around it was pain management, for a chronic problem, probably rooted in my long years of incorrect kinked neck posture while playing. An earlier blog talks about that amazing experience. http://www.flutesandflyingsquirrels.com/2015/10/20/life-can-start-at-70/

Lesson learned, and thankfully remembered: Never Give Up!!




Jellybean and Jonny in our cage, first time w. Buddy on roof Jan 5, 2016

Here are Jellybean and Jonny, inside OUR cage for the first time!  Buddy is on the roof.

Thank goodness for Petland’s advice yesterday. So simple!!  Take the food out of their cage and put fresh food, plus treats into our cage.  It took a while but they finally got up their courage, once hunger kicked in!!

We had set the two cages facing each other from the first day. Our cage has a very large door that opens down like a castle gate, becoming a lovely platform.  We call it The Patio.

Since Saturday, when Andy brought them home from the Humane Society, they’ve socialized quite a bit. No squabbling at all.

Jonny has had three flying adventures, and improved his landing skills each time. Yesterday came and went and he decided to play it safe. No work-out for the little wings yesterday. We are careful to close their door when we leave. Until they prove they can manage that’s what we’ll do.

Usually our cages are open all day, so that is something to look forward to.

Jellybean has only flapped her wings madly two or three times a day, going nowhere, but it sure cleans the feathers out of the cage!!  Perky, who was our birdie for about 4 years, used to do the same thing. She couldn’t fly because her wings had been over-clipped so we thought the flapping was an exercise. Now we aren’t sure, and won’t know until Jellybean is airborne.

Stay tuned!!