I felt as though I was dying during those weeks, stuck in my case, with no air, no light, no music. Eventually one wintry day when Lucy was doing her homework, there was a knock at her bedroom door. It was Silvia. ‘Lucy,’ she said. ‘I have a really pretty piece for you. I wondered if you might like to play it in my Christmas Candlelit Concert?’
Lucy did not reply.
‘It’s low and easy,’ coaxed Silvia.
I heard Lucy get up. There was a pause, then: ‘What is it?’
‘It’s ‘Little Donkey’. I think you’ll be able to play it. Would you like to try?’
‘I…don’t like Ds,’ said Lucy.
‘I know… Nobody does, at first. But they will get easier….and…’ I felt Silvia’s hand stroking my case, ‘… Pearly….Pearly must be sad. She wants to play.’
Lucy unclipped my case and stared down at me. There was a long moment where I thought she was going to slam the lid down again, but, no, she put me together and played, slowly at first, ‘Little Donkey, Little Donkey, On the Dusty Road… EEG…E, FFA…F, EEG…E, bottom D, two, three, four’…oh, she could do it! The relief. We worked over several weeks not just to play ‘Little Donkey,’ but also ‘Away in a Manger’, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, and ‘I’m Walking in the Air,’ at the concert. The thing I will always remember is being entirely lit by candles. I had never played by candlelight before. What fun it was to send the soft liquid flames darting through the darkness into the clapping audience.
Silvia and Madame were patient and kind. Over those weeks we practised going from C to D and back, from B to D, from A to D, from G to D, again and again. We played ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ about fifty times: this stuff could drive you insane. I knew that. But I kept calm and held it together because I loved Lucy.
Silvia and Madame made it more fun for us by making every tune into a duet. Madame’s tones were so sweet blending into mine that I began to understand harmonies. This was painful, because, as soon as I heard a new blending of sound, I was filled with cravings: it was as if I was addicted. I just wanted to create the sound again, but had to wait, in the muffled land of my case. Waiting, always waiting, for our next lesson….
Lucy sometimes left me out of my case. Silvia had said this was a good thing, explaining that part of the barrier to playing is the case. ‘Yes,’ I wanted to say: ‘part of the barrier to me being out in the world is my case!’ I was glad to be out, as, since the concert, I was obsessed with light. I had been practising and, with a little concentration, I could criss-cross beams, explode the most miniscule slanting rays into golden drops and send stars skittering across the ceiling. Also, if I was out of my case, Lucy would play more. Straight from school she would play ‘Twinkle Twinkle’, then go off to eat. She would come back and play ‘Kookaburra Sits in his Old Gum Tree’, then do some homework. Then she would play ‘Molly Malone’, ‘Greensleeves’, then, if I was lucky, the scales of F major, G major and E minor. We flutes like to work, you know.
On a good day, when Lucy played for an hour or more, I would go to sleep at night pleasantly sozzled with the music, gently fatigued, my keys, pads and wires tingling. The tunes kept singing themselves through the night, in echoes in my mind, and Lucy’s mind, for she suddenly started to progress faster and faster.
Over the months, little by little, we were playing more complex things. For her Grade 1, Lucy learnt ‘Edelweiss’. We experienced a break-through with this piece. It is a simple melody, holding such calm within it that it put us into a trance. Our tone was improving. When Silvia accompanied on piano, the sound seemed to soar suddenly. I can’t explain, because I didn’t understand why, but it was like magic, and that night, cradled in my case, I felt that melody becoming part of who I was, linking up with all the other tunes inside me like a lattice holding me together, connecting me with the world.
For Grade 2, we learnt our first ‘swung’ study, full of jazzy accidentals and little grace notes. At first Lucy was reluctant, and neither of us really understood the feel of it, but when we were on about our tenth try, playing along with Silvia and Madame, the tune suddenly managed to teach us that it was just a joke, a funny story with unexpected twists and turns, so we started to enjoy it, even love it. Lucy finished the tune laughing out loud.
Later, around Grade 3, we moved on to chromatic scales. These include every possible note, and are wonderful if you are a flute as you want every key to be exercised and kept nifty. We learnt graceful Sicilianas, lovely lilting pieces in six quaver beats per bar. Some of the pieces were so fast I felt dizzy and like my head-joint was spinning, but with excitement. Lucy and I got on so well by this point that it wasn’t like she was a person and I was a flute…it was more like we had merged into one, like I had become an extension of her mind, or she an extension of mine. As soon as she picked me up, we were off, we didn’t have to think about it any more.
The year after, we were practising diminished sevenths, F sharp minor, A flat major, trills. We played taut and bouncy Irish jigs. We puzzled over strange modern tunes by Hindemith. You don’t always know if you are playing a wrong note with Hindemith! They all sound wrong. Until you know the piece, that is, when they start to sound right, and then even like they couldn’t be any other way. We had a go at low jazzy numbers like ‘Smoke Gets in your Eyes.’ They have lots key changes and ‘rubato’ bits where you slow down and speed up again. It takes a lot of control to do that right. We both fell in love with ‘Dance of the Blessèd Spirits.’
As the pieces got harder, with fiendish rhythms or slurred octave leaps in semi-quavers, Lucy would get discouraged and start thinking it was just impossible. But Silvia always said, ‘One bar at a time, Lucy.’ So we would tussle with just one bar, sorting out the rhythm, the notes, playing it very slowly until we had it all right, linking it to the bar before, the bar after, then gradually, gradually speeding it up.
One day, we were in the middle of playing Fauré’s Pavane. The music bowls you along in a calm but intense way. It hypnotises you with its haunting minor melody. I was concentrating on helping Lucy not to rush, subtly slowing her down by holding on to the notes slightly, as the piece is much better really quite slow, wistful. I was also bridging the gap between notes whenever Lucy gasped for breath. Her mother came into the room but we carried on playing. We were loath to stop, as we had reached the best bit. ‘Lucy!’ said her mother.
We stopped, in the middle of the phrase. Looking back, I can see how sad this is. I didn’t realise it at the time, at all. I was just impatient to get back to the work.
‘I have a surprise for you,’ said her mother. ‘Here.’
Lucy put me down. I didn’t pay much attention. I was just longing for Lucy’s breath to allow me to voice the next phrase. I just wanted her mother to go away. But then I heard the click of sophisticated, oiled catches and the sharp intake of breath. ‘Oh!’ said Lucy.
The light in the room changed. There was a brutal flash, a painful brightness.
Lucy laughed. ‘A new flute!’ she exclaimed.