Taking up flute again after decades?!

Franklin's flute

Tonight, on a whim, I decided to try out my flute yet again. Every couple of months for several years now I have pulled it out to see if I might want to start playing it again. Each time, I encountered serious problems with producing a decent sound at all, and thought that maybe I wasn’t meant to play the flute, because the embouchure is such a problem.

Interestingly, for the first time in several years, I found that maybe I can get back into playing flute.

This possibility pleases me, because the story of me and flutes goes back decades, and is actually rather sad but perhaps instructive.

Elementary school

The story starts in the last year of elementary school, 5th grade, when a bunch of us students were given the opportunity to choose and start playing a musical instrument. I can still remember Mr. Peters, the music teacher, asking each of us individually what we wanted to play.

At this time in my life (ten years old), I had received minimal musical instruction so far. I did not grow up in a sufficiently privileged family to receive formal musical lessons, and in fact had never even touched or seen in real life any other musical instrument than the upright piano we just got at home because my mother and younger sister wanted one. I did not listen to any music, had never gone to any kind of musical concert or event before, etc.

I’d asked my mother earlier what I should ask Mr. Peters to play, so I was ready to answer him.

I timidly asked, “Piano?” Mr. Peters smiled and said, no, that’s not something available in the music program. I then asked, “Violin?” Again, no. I was getting really embarrassed now, because I didn’t even know what a violin was: I’d never heard one or seen one, but it was a word planted in my head by my mother! (Only many years later did I find out that all Asian kids are supposed to play piano or violin.) Finally, I said, “Flute?” Yes, flute was an option.

So that’s how I started out on flute. I had never encountered a flute before. It was just a word to me. To this day I don’t know why my mother had this instrument in her mind.

Renting an instrument

Most of my classmates and I ended up renting instruments through the school. My father was not at all interested in my playing music and only because my mother thought I should learn a musical instrument did he cough up the cash to rent a flute for me.

I didn’t particularly like the flute, but I did enjoy getting started playing it. Mostly, I enjoyed the new social group I had: those of use who started on an instrument would gather and learn to play together. That was new to me, and fun.


However, I did not like practicing. I hated it. Worse, we were given time sheets to fill out indicating how much time we spent practicing at home every day, and have that signed by our parents as witnesses. Well, I wasn’t practicing enough, and got scolded by Mr. Peters. I started lying or padding my estimate of how much time I practiced (I still remember writing in “30” for minutes practiced inside little boxes). What did my father know anyway about what happened when I supposed got started practicing at home and then ended half an hour later?

Middle school

When middle school began, I took 6th grade band. Band ended up being the basis of my social life as it was. I still wasn’t really practicing flute. Furthermore, I had come to hate flute.

Bad instrument

One thing that happened was that flute rental was over, and I had my father buy me a flute. Of course, he bought a totally beat up piece of crap from some garage sale or something somewhere. It was a horrible instrument. The pads got sticky, the mouthpiece was bent, and it was just no fun to play, it was hard to make a good sound out of it, and I knew it was a lot worse than my elementary school rental.

I used that flute for another two years before I stopped playing it, forever.

Girly instrument

Another thing that happened was that most of the other kids playing flute was girls. Oops, I had ended up with a girly instrument! This was not a trivial matter, given that puberty was starting to kick in, along with a lot of social awareness and anxiety that I never had in elementary school.

The instrument I really wanted to play

Also, finally being exposed to a whole bunch of different instruments, hearing them, especially hearing the really good kids, I realized that I really wanted to play the cornet (from which there was a clear path to trumpet). I liked that the cornet/trumpet was prominent, loud, got the main melodies, everyone could hear it (not always the case with the flute parts!), and of course, it was not girly (although, interestingly, a number of girls did play it and were really good at it, and I had a crush on all of them).

Unfortunately, I knew there was no chance my parents would allow me to switch to trumpet. So all I did was dream about playing trumpet.

So I played flute in the 6th grade, and then in the 7th grade. I played without any enjoyment of the flute during those two years. I did enjoy the social bonding from band, but that was basically it. Also, playing in band allowed one to place out of physical education (don’t ask me why), and I dreaded gym class, so I stuck to music to get out of gym (a big mistake, in retrospect).

High school

9th grade

I skipped the 8th grade of middle school (for reasons beyond the scope of this blog post), and started the 9th grade of high school. Again, I took band in order to avoid gym. It was a miserable experience. Not only did I have to wake up super early to have my mother drive me to marching band practice at 5 AM before school classes started at 7 AM, but also, as a young 9th grader I felt particularly out of place among students who were as much as four years older than me.

Overall the 9th grade was a miserable part of my life, and band was just one part of that.

10th grade through 12th grade

After the 9th grade, because I threatened to drop out of school, the family moved to a different city and a different school after that, and I started 10th grade in a 10-12 high school. Because of my miserable experiences with flute and with band, and the fact that there was no longer a gym exception for being in band, it never even occurred to me to look into joining a band at the new high school. Of course, that was perfectly OK with my father, who never liked my wasting my time on music anyway.

This high school also had an orchestra, which I knew nothing about other than that it existed (remember, I had still never seen a violin in real life, upon reaching high school).

The rest of high school was another miserable part of my life.


I fell in love with music all over again in college, because of a kind of accident. There was a requirement to take courses from a “core curriculum”, and first semester of freshman year, I randomly signed up for “Piano Music of the 19th Century”. It was a great class. Combined with making new friends who listened to classical music, I started listening to a lot of music. I also started trying to teach myself piano. In retrospect, I should have tried to get real instruction, but I knew that there was no parental support for my “wasting my life” on a new musical hobby.

Buying a new flute

Another decade or so after college, I got the idea that maybe I should try out flute again! After all, the adolescent days of thinking it was “girly” were over. The flute has still never been my favorite instrument to listen to, but I already had a head start on it, and various other instruments are more expensive to play.

So I bought a brand new flute (the one pictured in this blog post). Unfortunately, I kept on having a hard time making decent sounds on it, until tonight.


Then I had the wild idea of finally realizing my childhood dream and learning trumpet. I bought a trumpet. I started practicing, but realized a couple of things. One was that it is a very loud instrument. I have neighbors and stuff. I got a mute.

More seriously, I found the pressure on my lips unpleasant, and the pressure in general gave me a headache. Reluctantly, I concluded that it was not healthy for me to really play the trumpet, and put it aside. Recently, I lent it to someone who is hopefully making more use of the instrument than I was.

The future

Regarding taking up the flute again as a result of tonight: I already started playing a new musical instrument this year, the recorder, and I already spend an average of an hour a day practicing it. (I also got started on accordion, but have not had time so far to continue with it.) So it’s unclear to me how much I can devote to restarting the flute. I’d like to spend some time at least messing around in order to evaluate whether it’s worth restarting. One nice thing about the flute is that it is very versatile and if I were to get competent at playing it, I could play it in more contexts than I can currently play the recorder in. I enjoy the recorder, but it has various limitations as an instrument (which is why in Bach’s time the Baroque flute came to replace the use of the recorder, and then the modern flute was invented).

comments powered by Disqus