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Oregon Family Magazine

Instrument of Torture, or the Magic Flue

08/31/2022 ● By Rick Epstein
The instrumental-music teacher cast her net into the fourth grade and pulled me into her boat, wriggling weakly. My dad asked, “Well, which instrument would you like to play?”

“YOU know,” I said. I was already on record as wanting guitar lessons, more as part of my overall plan to become a cowboy than from a burning desire to make beautiful music.

“You can’t choose the guitar,” he said, “because it has to be an orchestra or band instrument.”

“Saxophones are cool,” I said.

“They’re too big and heavy,” he said. “I lugged one of them around for half my childhood. Pick again.”

I was out of ideas. It seemed to me that the world’s musical needs were already being met by thousands of musicians who played better than I ever would. My poor efforts would be unnecessary. As for self-expression, I had plenty of avenues for it, ranging from writing stories and drawing pictures to playing with matches and tormenting my little brother.

So I had no counterproposal to make when Dad said, “Go next door and see if Mrs. Williams will lend you Patty’s old flute.”

A more spirited boy might have said, “But Dad, that’s a GIRL’S instrument. You might as well send me to school in a dress.” But I went along with it because all the instruments that boys usually played, like trumpets and drums, were loud, and if you didn’t know what you were doing, instant shame would be yours. My big brother played the clarinet, a five-piece contraption that required too much assembly and a lot of fretful attention to reeds that had to be pre-moistened and were always wearing out. I didn’t think a musical instrument should be making so many demands on its owner. A flute would be small to carry and quiet to play – a minimal instrument for a kid wanting to minimize the instrumental experience.

My dad had a special regard for music, possibly because Uncle Joe, the big brother he idolized, had been a professional trumpet player. Dad made me practice for 20 minutes every day. But mine was a magic flute; it slowed down time to where those 20 minutes took up most of my spare time.

After two years, I applied for permission to give Patty Williams back her flute.  Dad let me quit, but discerning a pattern of behavior, he added The Flute to a growing list of things I had quit (such as Cub Scouts and Glee Club) and he would throw it all up to me whenever he felt I needed to hear it. 

Last year, my daughter Marie, then 9, signed up for clarinet lessons in school. I rented an instrument for her, and seeing a second chance for myself, I bought a used clarinet for my own honkings and squeakings. Where before I’d been put off by the clarinet, now all the fussing it required seemed to be part of a reassuring ritual. More importantly, my involvement with the clarinet would be part of a stellar bit of parenting: Marie would be my teacher, thus racking up all kinds of self-esteem, and we would play duets, communing in philharmonic bliss. It would be a great way of interacting with a child who is too old for bedtime stories.

It worked well for a couple of months, except for the duets. Marie saw them as emotionally freighted duels, and if her horn squeaked, she’d retire in tears. That took some of the joy out of our lessons, and practicing, never a favorite activity, slipped to the bottom of my list of things to do. It’s been months since I picked up my clarinet.

Now my wife tells me that Marie is frustrated with the clarinet. She doesn’t play it very well, which makes her angry and sad, but does not move her to practice. She’d like to quit, but she doesn’t want to disappoint her father. 

I’m sorry to know that making music does not lift her spirit or soothe her soul. But I’m going to let the poor kid off the hook; with my musical history, I deserve to be disappointed.