Naissance [ney-suh ns] noun, a birth, an origination, or a growth, as that of a person, an organization, an idea, or a movement.
I was intrigued when an aging, redheaded World War II paratrooper veteran, named Doug Wallace, Jr., came to my elementary school. He was the junior high band director. He invited my fifth grade class to join band the next year when we would move up to Cedar Bayou Junior High. Mr. Wallace brought lots of shiny, new instruments that day and demonstrated most of them. The flute alone held my attention: my eyes went to it as if seeing my soul mate for the very first time. It was not a palpitation-inducing love at first sight; it was a gripping bond, quietly and subtly taking hold in my spirit.
I had studied the instruments of the orchestra in music class. I had seen a flute played on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. The Houston Symphony Orchestra had even given a little concert for our school. But, I had never seen a real flute up close.
It was as if I had stepped into a new existence. I wanted to touch it, to hold it, to play it. Instead, I filled out a card with my name and contact information. At the bottom, I had to choose two instruments that I wanted to play. I wrote down flute first and then thought hard about what my second choice was. Nothing. I did not want to play any other instrument. Finally, I scribbled down saxophone for choice number two. In my heart, I vowed that if I could not play the flute, I would not be in band.
At an evening meeting with the parents along, I met with Mr. Wallace to choose my instrument. He held a flute up to my mouth, explaining that it was unlikely that a sound would come out. It usually takes a couple of weeks for new flute students to learn to form their embouchure and produce a sound. Not for me. I still remember his bemused smile when a clear, albeit airy, C-sharp sounded. He signed me up for flute and I agreed to join the band.
Determined not to waste money on a frivolous pursuit, my mother paid $15 for a flute she found in a garage sale. That old Artley sat in my room smelling like a drawer full of tarnished silverware. The case was worn and the felt inside had oil stains from fingers and key oil. Dirt and dust may have blackened the case, but the flute, battered, pitted, and simply wonderful, held my interest all summer. When my mother was not paying attention, I would take it out and blow another C-sharp. Pushing down the keys improperly just made for worse sounding C-sharps: I tried anyway. I could not wait for school to start so I could learn to play.
I was so talented on the flute, better than almost every other sixth grader. I was one of the best players of any instrument in beginner band, period. And, I needed to be the best at something.
My life was a façade, whose building blocks were a pretense of being happy and normal. At home, unspeakable abuse occurred to me almost daily. Whether I was beaten or sexually abused, fear was such a constant in my life that I didn’t even recognize it. Feeling anxious was where I started the day. To me, being scared only meant being suddenly surprised. I only noticed abject fear, the kind so significant that you can taste the adrenaline in your mouth.
Cruel, harsh words were the diet I consumed. My father’s rage manifested in brutality, both in actions and in speech. The rest of us hid the darkness. I was instructed to keep our family’s personal business at home, and I was an obedient, albeit lonely child.
My family seemed normal to others, or tried to appear that way. Like many women during that time, my mom stayed home and took care of the house and the kids. My dad had a forty-hour job at a plant, making a decent wage and benefits. Later on, he added a side business and my mom helped run it. My sibling and I were scouts, played sports, went to church, and joined in numerous extra-curricular activities. At home, we suffered.
School was my refuge. The Band Hall became my home. Band members were my family. My flute was salvation.
If there is one point in my life that I can definitively say, “That changed the very fabric of who I am,” it was that moment in fifth grade when Mr. Wallace held up a flute. It called to me.
I became completely awakened to the beauty of the flute: the timbre, the feeling of holding it unsteadily in my smaller hands, the sensation of vibrating silver beneath my fingers, the large gulps of air I inhaled to make it sound, the feeling of exhaling through a carefully formed embouchure. I breathed life into that instrument. In return, it breathed healing and restoration into me. It tethered me to my fragile humanity and kept me whole.
I questioned my worth as a human being so often that I didn’t realize I was asking the question. But, when I picked up my instrument, put it to my lips, rested it on my chin, and air left my body to animate it, I knew who I was. I felt a deeper sense of self, a connection to beauty and goodness. In dark moments, being a flutist was enough to ground me and inspire me.
Sometimes, I try to imagine who I would be had I not become a flutist and it is not possible. I would not be who I am without my flute. As I have grown and healed from the horror that was my childhood, I have discovered other wonderful parts of myself that make me who I am. My best self was born, however, with a silver tube, outfitted with keys, levers, and wonder. Over forty years later, I still play. I still love it.