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(still not a grown up though)

Did you learn an instrument when you were at school? Do you play it now?

It’s a shame so many of us let music playing fall by the wayside in adulthood. I suppose learning at school is easy — generally your lessons are during the school day and someone else pays for them. The importance of music lessons fades somewhat when you have to find the tuition fee yourself.

And the other thing is, once you’re out of school you have to try a lot harder to find opportunities to play an instrument with other people. You no longer have the built-in rehearsal schedule of a school band or recitals or exams.

Thank you for the music

I must say I am incredibly grateful for my musical education. Music was the fabric of our lives from the moment we were born (and in utero, of course). Mum sang constantly. I grew up knowing all sorts of hymns and harmonies without ever having deliberately learned them. She would sing in three-part harmony with Sandra and Heather at church and it brought them and others so much joy.

Although she hates the fact that she never learned to properly read music, I’m pretty sure I got my ear for harmonies from her. I’ve never struggled to find a complementary line to a melody, and almost always have been able to sing it confidently and in tune after hearing a melody through once. My love of singing is intrinsically part of my connection with my mum, and I cherish it.

Formidable pianists and grey-haired flautists

I learned piano from the age of about seven, but I hated practising and would do it in the most perfunctory way just to get mum off my back. The only things I really remember about those early piano lessons was going to the formidable Mrs D’Arcy’s home in Port Moresby and whenever she got frustrated with me she’d say, “Get it right or I’ll brain you!” (I didn’t know what being brained meant but it sounded violent and I didn’t want to find out).

In high school, I had another formidable teacher, a Russian woman whose voice I can still hear telling me off for my terrible technical work. I just wanted to play the dramatic pieces; why did I have to do scaaaaales?

I also started learning flute in high school. I progressed pretty quickly with this, probably because I could already read and understand music. My teacher Prue was like a little grey-haired storybook figure (not formidable, just quirky). She made me concentrate on scales too, but she called them ‘rainbows’ (because of the shape, going up the octave and back down again); most of her other students were in primary school and she felt they needed such picture language. I felt I was much too cool for her, but she was very patient with me and actually gave me quite a good foundation in flute playing.

It still felt like a betrayal when I left her for another teacher as I headed towards my HSC and final exams. But he encouraged me to really soar, and in Year 12 he took me along to a specialist flute maker to buy a custom solid silver headjoint. I thought all my Christmases had come at once. I was going to whiz through all my exams, do my AMus and then…

A young girl with dark hair and large glasses, wearing an orange dress and holding a flute case

And then, school finished. Music lessons were expensive. Who was I kidding? I was never going to be a concert flautist or play with the SSO. I started getting obsessed with theatre and music took a back seat.

As the years went on I would get my flute out occasionally and play over my last exam pieces just to prove I still could. I had nowhere to play, no one to play with, no reason to try and develop further. I overheard my brother say to a friend one day, “It’s not that impressive. She’s been playing those pieces for ages.”

And I kind of stopped.

Revival

But the music never went away. Of course it didn’t. It never does.

Midway through my 20s, I started going back to church again after some years in the wilderness. Church music had started to shift (for better or worse); it was the early days of Hillsong and the more pop/soft rock-type songs crept into church along with the hymns and strange 80s ditties I knew from childhood. I was intrigued.

The lady who played piano at church was, yes, another formidable woman, but she was also very kind. She was Korean and her name was Theresa. After church one day I was picking out the accompaniment to Shout to the Lord or one of those sorts of songs. The next week, she presented me with a folder of music and said, “You will play at church.” No negotiations would be entered into.

And so, I became a church muso. And I found I was rather good at it.

Even now, I am still so grateful for this gift that brings joy and encouragement to people. After playing at the 9am service last Sunday, so many people stopped me on my way out of church to tell me that “the last one is my favourite hymn of all time!” or that “I loved that little story you told along with that song” (the story was about mum and I singing together when I was a toddler) or “it is so wonderful to be able to sing confidently when you’re leading us!”

And church indirectly led me back to flute playing too. When we first moved to Launceston and knew nobody, we invited a couple back to our house for lunch after church one week. Little did we know that Monte and Kathy lived and breathed music, and in fact Monte had been the founder of a community music program that welcomed players of all ability levels and ages. He found out I was a flute player and said, “Here’s Luke’s number, give him a call.”

I had no idea who Luke was or why I was calling him, and said as much when I rang. He laughed, explained he was an conductor and booked me in for an audition for Symphonic Band, one of the University of Tasmania Community Music Program’s upper ensembles. And the rest, as they say, was history.

A wind orchestra from above

By taking up flute playing again as an adult, I have had the opportunity to play some wonderful music with some excellent people and have made some very good friends in the process. The community part of the program turned out to be as valuable as the music. Although I’ve been taking a break after five or six years in the program, it’s still a very precious part of my life and has contributed so much to me putting down roots in Tasmania.

In coming back to music as an adult with my own agency in terms of what I felt like playing and now with the internet (which didn’t exist when I last played), a whole world of possibility opened up to me. I could find charts in a couple of clicks. I could look up recordings on YouTube or Apple Music. I could find all sorts of arrangements of things and try whatever I wanted — I wasn’t restricted to what my teacher preferred and told me I would be learning.

I still won’t ever be a concert flautist, or play with the SSO (or the TSO!), but the richness and joy that I have rediscovered in playing both piano and flute as an adult is immeasurable.

If you learned an instrument as a child, and you still have it, why not dust it off and have a play? It will likely sound a little creaky, not quite as easy or fluid as you remembered it. But as your fingers remember what to do and the melodies take shape, you might find the playing unlocks something inside you, too.

Recommended reading

If this topic interests you, I recommend Whole Notes by Ed Ayres (now le Brocq). It’s a beautiful memoir as well as a wonderful reflection on the difficulties and rewards of learning music as an adult, and of playing music with other people.