“I cherish the flutes as much as the bowls of water that I use when I sit in front of my sanctuary”
I am a very bad flute player. I only know a few dozen jigs, two hornpipes, one reel, 14 polkas and that’s it. But musical instruments have helped me in my life. In my youth, I only played when I was happy. And in middle age, I only played when I was sad. When I was young, I always wanted to improve myself and impress others. But in the end I was playing for no reason other than the strange feeling of being alive that the sound of the notes gave me.
When I was young I went to visit a Pied Piper who lived near the shore of Lough and although he knew I was coming he was in bed when I arrived. His wife said he was resting, and I was taken to a living room that smelled of furniture polish, and heard her knocking on a bedroom door in the hallway.
The musician was a little groggy when he appeared. “I’m taking an afternoon nap,” he explained as he threw himself onto a sofa, and his wife brought a tray of porcelain teacups and saucers, a small plate of gingerbread cookies and with nuts and a hot silver tea pot.
Weather and ginger nuts
Me and the musician sipped tea and although he knew I had come for a lesson he spoke as if my visit was a total surprise. We discussed the weather for centuries, and I finally said that I recently bought a flute and was eager to learn.
“Is it a fact? He said, as if it was news to him, although my desire for a lesson had been discussed over the phone with the woman the day before.
After dipping the last ginger nut cookie in his tea and consuming it all in one sip, he spoke her name and motioned for her to go get the flutes.
“They are in the bath,” he explained.
She went out and returned in a few moments with three flutes, all wet, and she spread them out on a low table in front of the master, as if they were sacred objects.
“Where is your instrument? He inquired.
I took mine out of its case, put it together and put it next to the others.
“So is that your flute?” He asked, slightly amused.
– It’s true, I replied.
“Not worth a curse,” he said.
He hadn’t even touched it.
“You always have to have a good instrument,” he says. “This is the only lesson I can give you. All those flutes on this table are doing fine. But these are not great flutes. These are not the best flutes. So in the end, they’re not really worth a curse.
Soft and delicious
In fact, it was a great lesson and I never forgot it. I am not a musician. And no amount of masterclasses of gifted artists would make me a great talent. But a good instrument will get the best out of the poorest student.
A few years ago, I invested in a fine flute, made by Sam Murray, and the notes coming out are sweet and delicious to the ear. I also have an excellent Chinese flute that Little Lotus brought to me from Beijing two years ago. It takes tiny strips of rice paper, each about the size of a fingernail, which I attach to the highest opening of the instrument with garlic juice, before playing.
When I blow into the instrument, the rice paper vibrates, creating a musical note as delicate as a gentle breeze blowing through the reeds on the surface of a lake.
I have a long flute which also came from China many years ago. It consists of three pieces of bamboo and near the mouth a medieval poem is carved into the wood. Even the County Down Star Chinese sounds when I blow this wonderful instrument.
And I have a little wooden flute that comes from Korea, which can only make three notes, and which is used for meditation practices. They are all excellent flutes, and every now and then I line them up on the table and watch them as I remember the old musician by the lough.
I have come to treasure the flutes as much as I treasure the bowls of water that I use when sitting in front of my sanctuary. I cherish them as much as the old chalice that I used a long time ago at the altar and which is forgotten on a shelf in my office. I cherish them like the bells of a hermitage that might call me when I wake up, not because I have mastered them, but because they have mastered me.