Honkin’ on the Flute

flute_bannerI’m enjoying playing the flute again and doing it on my terms with few expectations. The pure tone and free-blowing breath of playing the flute makes it a fun, meditative exploration. It is an alternative challenge to playing the saxophone since I still have a lot of work to do towards mastering the technique of the flute. It’s also a great instrument for Brazilian Jazz and Choro music, jazz improvisation, and the occasional band ensemble.

Flute has always been my favorite double but it is often frustrating to deal with the way it aggravates my tendonitis…and my psyche. Lots of demons pop up around flute since practicing etudes and technical exercises reminds me of my struggles with playing classical music in college. I want to challenge myself to become a better flute player but I don’t want to ruin the joy of it with too much pressure to get better.

shakuhachi flute
Shakuhachi flute

Hippies love flutes.

It has taken me a long time to get to my current level of proficiency. My involvement with the flute has gone through phases over the years: sometimes it gets played every day, and other times it sits in the case for months at a time. I started noodling on it in high school, but even getting a whisper of sound left me dizzy with a head rush. I kept working on it through college but could never develop any proficiency with it. Then when I moved to San Francisco, I discovered it was the instrument of choice for many hippie jam bands…plus it was perfect for the confines of apartment practicing. When I worked at the Haight Ashbury Music Center, I practiced on the Japanese Shakuhachi flute, which was like weight lifting for my flute sound. I also carried my flute in my backpack and practiced it whenever I had a chance. Same story when I moved to NYC, except now there was more pressure to play it at a higher level for gigs and recordings. Over the course of 35 years, I’ve made friends with the flute and have gotten halfway decent on it.

“Everyone know flutes have no sound.” Buddy Rich

I’ve been ruminating on the idea of how to continue to find my own relationship with the flute—how to have fun with it and play it in a way that is meaningful to me. My challenge is to be true to my own musical experience, and to steer clear of the judgmental vibes, snootiness and competitiveness that surround playing the flute. It’s hard not to get caught up in the neuroses and uptightness I encounter around serious, classically trained flute players. The best antidote is to claim NOT to be a “real” flute player. I’m a jazz improviser at heart and I quickly rebel at the tyranny of written music—this is what sets me at odds with the classical world.

Well, on the flute, it’s not exactly honking…

Tassajara Bakery
Tassajara Bakery

Lately I have been reconnecting with the youthful feeling of playing flute in my early days in San Francisco, immediately after I finished my music degree in college. I remember riding my bike to Tassajara Zen Bakery near the Haight Ashbury neighborhood for coffee and a scone, and then riding to Golden Gate Park to practice the flute outside, often on a cliff over looking the ocean. I was exploring the instrument in my own way, outside of school, teachers and critiques. It was the beginning of my process of discovering who I was as a musician, and I was doing it on the flute, an instrument that did not come easy to me.

Recently on a visit to SF, I recalled that memory and felt compelled to stop at that bakery, even though it hasn’t been Tassajara since 1999. “Tassajara Flute Playing” is my new mantra to keep me connected with how I want to play the flute (and music) when my head drifts into the icky-ness of expectations, regrets, and baggage. At this point in my life, playing the flute is a spiritual process, a “get out of jail free” card for a continuing musical journey. Who cares if my intonation isn’t always perfect, or I still finger F# like a sax player, or high notes above three ledger lines make me dizzy? For me, anything I accomplish on the flute at this point in my life is for my own musical enjoyment…and if occasionally people even pay me to play it in public, that’s a nice bonus!


Some of my flute playing:

Flute (and saxophone) on Jason Parker’s excellent Nick Drake CD.

A RA at Jazz Vespers, w/ Adriana Giordano, Jeff Busch, Dean Schmidt, Julio Jaregui

Piano8Flute by Doug Palmer, w/David Messler, piano.

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