I play the recorder. I started when I was about seven. Recorder in the UK is a starter instrument, people often dismiss it. Popular between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries it lost favour after the transverse flute, with it’s powerful tone, was introduced.
I loved the recorder, and, for my small, rural school I was good at it.
When we moved to Canterbury my parents took me along for group lessons on a Monday night and I met my first “proper” teacher. I took my first music grade lessons.
I went to a girls’ grammar school for my secondary education and music was a big thing. Many talented people attended and often they were part of the county music orchestra or even, in some cases, the National Youth Orchestra.
Towards the end of my first year one of the school’s music teachers told me about a proposed county recorder ensemble. I went up to Maidstone for an audition and became part of the “second” training ensemble. I spent two days in every school vacation practising with others from across the county, and each year we went away for a residential trip. We finished each weekend with a concert
When I was fourteen I was granted the honour of a solo in a school concert. I practiced for weeks, working hard to get the notes in the sonata right. My fingers sometimes stumbled but I was working hard, eager to please, afraid to let the school down.
While I was about as ready as I could be to perform the piece I was in no way ready for the stage fright.
Under the glaring spotlights in the school hall my carefully practiced performance fell apart; I couldn’t get my breath, my hands were clammy and my fingers slipped over the notes, my face was hot and tears leaked from my eyes. It was dreadful. I stumbled through the performance and hurried from the hall to the green room full of shame.
No one told me it was good that I’d tried, how much courage it takes to stand up and perform. A suspicion began to grow…
I played with the county group, eventually making it into the “A” team, for over five years. I had a group of friends there I enjoyed spending time with, we exchanged letters in between our meetings and I felt like I belonged. Once we took part in a national music competition and got to play at the Royal Festival Hall in London. They were good times.
When I was about seventeen I changed recorder teacher. Rather than the thirty mild drive up to Maidstone on Friday evenings (which on British roads is a long way!) I was to learn with a teacher in Canterbury. I was working towards my Grade 8 exam, which is the highest exam in offered my British music boards. The music school was sited in the old town gaol, memory walks through wonky corridors with uneven floors lit by yellow un-shaded bulbs.
I didn’t get on with the teacher. I didn’t understand what he wanted me to do, he seemed to get flustered when accompanying me, and I got frustrated because I didn’t understand him.
One day a letter came in the post. He said I had too many holes in my muscial knowledge and he was no longer prepared to teach me.
I was crushed. It confirmed what I had suspected all along, that secretly I was no good. I didn’t even think to challenge him, to ask him why someone who had been learning music for eight years and had music theory qualifications was not a suitable pupil, to ask him why he wasn’t up to the task. I didn’t take my Grade 8. And I stopped playing music.
For years not playing was an ache in my chest. But I knew the truth now and I couldn’t go back. It was all too much. To face down that failure, to revisit the shame and embarrassment. I told myself I didn’t have time, that I’d disturb the neighbours, that there was no point playing on my own.
A few times I looked for a teacher, but the children were young and we were poor and music lessons are expensive, which is something you don’t realise when your folks are paying!
Time passes. It must be about thirty years since I quit playing music.
This week I met up with a woman I was at school with. We haven’t seen each other at all in three decades.
She also was a recorder player. She asks if I still play. I give a brief, throwaway story about getting sacked by the teacher. We use humour to hide pain in my country. She is shocked. You were good, she says. I knew there was someone else who played and I couldn’t remember if it was you, you were really good.
When we part company she says I should pick up my recorder again.
I think about it for two days.
I don’t tell anyone, but I order a music stand.
It arrived this afternoon. I go upstairs and shut the bedroom door. I unclip the case where my recorders lie. I have a rosewood descant and an ebony treble.
I set some music on the stand. Looking at the notes I don’t recall any of the fingerings. I start nonetheless. I play for around twenty minutes, occasionally stopping or stumbling, my fingers showing my brain the way; muscle memory is a powerful thing.
As I pack up, I pick through the music books. They are dusty, covers faded. A few I enjoy, but many are pieces chosen for examinations or at the behest of instructors.
It comes to me, a word from the gods; maybe it’s time for some different music?
Time to find something I enjoy playing, because playing is enjoyable. Time to explore music because it delights and creates joy.
I find a damp cloth and wipe down the instrument cases. I sort the music into two piles one to archive and one to practice. I go to the computer to order cork grease and a book of folk music.
The metaphor rattles around my mind. Time for different music. How many parts of life does that apply to? How has it taken me thirty years to realise it?
Time to sing a new song, to explore, to find out what I like. To take pleasure in this art just because, not to pass an exam, or impress a teacher. To let go of a sad story; to stop forcing myself play other people’s choices and seek my own.