Improvisation, Hope, and Looking Ahead

I’ve been playing the flute since the 4th grade, which at this moment means I’ve been playing for seventeen years. Setting up my instrument is something I don’t think much about - I take the flute out of the case, put it together, play a few notes, and start my practice session, rehearsal, concert, etc. 

I’ve been burned out for a while, and the pandemic hasn’t helped. When making music becomes your main source of income, it can be difficult to still love it while relying on it so heavily. Not being able to perform during the pandemic (which is the most fun part of the job!), I lost my direction and sense of purpose.

As we’ve started up our virtual Civic Orchestra season, we had a Zoom studio class with one of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra flutists. I admitted to my section mates and myself (embarrassingly) that I wasn’t preparing any music at the moment and that I really just wanted to ask questions. So when we started the class, I said, “Here’s the thing: I haven’t practiced much since June, and I haven’t felt motivated either. I’m not super excited about the flute right now. I recently even started a full-time job.” I expected the instructor to say something like “you have to be practicing because auditions will happen eventually!” or “I’ve been doing this crazy amount of practice,” etc. Instead, they started to talk about improvisation and their relationship with their instrument.

They had each of us improvise in the style of a piece or excerpt we were working on. There were no right or wrong answers, only encouraging one another to experiment. We discussed the idea of “narrative improvisation,” or telling a story with your improvisation. Our instructor talked about a mental exercise with a jazz musician that “detached your musical spirit away from ‘stuff’ like technique or tone.” The jazz musician would have our instructor pick the flute up or reach out for it and see what they felt inside. If there was any sense of attachment, he would say “don’t pick it up.” They did the same exercise with a music stand. And when our instructor felt neutral and detached from all of those feelings, they started playing, and described the experience as liberating, as if something new had happened. A fresh start. 

A fresh start.

As of this past weekend with a newly-elected president, I finally feel that a fresh start is possible. For the first time in a long time, I have hope that life will improve. With this newfound hope, perhaps I’ll be able to pick up my instrument without worrying about the future or ruminating over the past and instead remain in the present.

-Written by Alex Hoffman

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