I Am Now Playing Flute in the Urquhart Memorial Concert Band
This all started because I mentioned to my friend, Andrew Cohen, that I had started playing the flute.
“You should join the Urquhart Band. You’ll really enjoy it!”
Andrew, a polyglot, a professor emeritus, and a trumpet player who at one time performed in the Harvard marching band, said this to me without ever hearing me play a note on the flute.
“You should join,” he says.
And I’m thinking, “My flute playing sucks.”
But he was insistent, ebullient, and, moreover, said he’d drive. So I packed up my flute and my portable music stand the following Wednesday night, and off we went to Alameda. That was this past summer.
Alameda is an unusual and quite interesting place. You either go through a tunnel or over a bridge to get there. There’s the “old” section of Alameda, made up of gingerbread houses and apartments dating back to pre-World War 2. And then there is Bay Farm Island, which contains newer housing—it’s like a gated apartment community, but without the gates.
And finally there are the military facilities. We were on our way to Coast Guard Island. Not only did we have to show our ID to a guard to get through the gate, but we had to be on “the list.” Andrew had gotten permission for me attend the rehearsal, so I was on the list.
As we walked into the rehearsal room, I was apprehensive; I’d never played the flute in any kind of ensemble.
Yes, I’m a musician. I can play jazz piano, I played the saxophone for 15 years (before I quit to spend more time composing), and I even have a degree in music. But the flute? That was, and remains, a “project” begun as part of my “retirement plan.”
The Urquhart Memorial Concert Band of Oakland, California—also known as The Oakland Band, The Oakland Community Band, and even the Oakland “Parks” Band—was founded in 1922 as the Oakland Letter Carriers Union Band. It has evolved since then. It is now a community band and a service band based in Alameda. Personally, I wish it was still called the Oakland Letter Carriers Union Band. But that was in the old days when there were enough musicians who were letter carriers to put together a concert band. Urquhart was the man who was the long-time director. Thus the “memorial” in the band’s name.
No audition is required to become a member. It costs nothing to join or belong. As a person in my late 60s, I am in good company. There are a few young players in their 30s or 40s, and one guy who is in his 90s. But the one thing the 30-40 band members have in common is their appreciation for concert band music and a desire to play. Most people show up by 8 pm every Wednesday night; we play until 10 pm, with a short break at nine.
When I met the band director, Joel Toste, who has been with the band many years, he was welcoming and cheerful. I introduced myself to the members of the flute section (all women), and disclosed that I’d been playing flute less than a year. “No problem! You’ll be fine! We all have to start someplace!” Etc.
Okay with me. Everyone seemed friendly and relaxed, and I was given some of the flute parts for the music we’d be rehearsing that night. We started to play. (I chose to play 2nd flute parts whenever possible. These aren’t necessarily easier to play than 1st parts, but they’re often in a lower register, which is a bit easier; and if you don’t play some of the notes, it’s not as obvious.)
First, a warm-up exercise. Then selections from Guys and Dolls; something from Ballet Parisien by Offenbach; an arrangement of Stardust; a Sousa march. Typical concert band music.
When I played tenor saxophone in one of the concert bands at Cal State University East Bay, I was introduced to this repertoire. It’s generally a mix of John Philip Sousa and other concert marches, some show music, light classics, and a variety of songs or suites written and/or arranged especially for concert band. A concert band includes reeds (flutes, saxophones, clarinets, oboe, bassoon), brass (trumpets, trombones, euphonium, French horns, alto horns, tuba, etc.), and percussion (various drums, mallet instruments such as xylophone, marimba, and vibraphone, and tambourine, etc.). Generally, no strings. Sousa was the one who perfected this type of ensemble, and he and his band were world-famous. (I read a biography of him last year—he was an incredible composer and conductor, and his band played constantly and everywhere, sometimes several concerts a day as they criss-crossed the US and Europe by rail. He became rich and famous.)
But I’d never played the flute in this type of situation. In fact, the only reason I’d ever even touched a flute is because big band jazz often requires saxophone players to “double” on the flute and the clarinet. In my early 50s, I’d briefly played tenor sax in the JazzSchool big band in Berkeley (it’s now known as the California Jazz Conservatory). I’d been stupid enough to buy both a flute and a clarinet—two instruments I then owned but could not play. My sax teacher at the time showed me the basics, but I never went anywhere on the instruments. After feeble attempts, I gave up on both.
Truth be told, in my 30s I once tried playing the flute, borrowing one from a friend of mine. She told me to “Look in a mirror and blow over the top of the mouthpiece as if it were a Coke bottle.” I went into the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and blew and blew and blew, trying to get some kind of note out of the instrument. A few minutes later, I woke up on the bathroom floor, dazed. I’d hyperventilated while blowing into the damned thing. I gave the flute back to her the next day.
But there was something about the flute that continued to call me. It’s one of those instruments on which you can play both jazz and classical music. In preparation for my full retirement, I decided I’d bring it back as a “lifetime project.” I bought a new instrument, an intermediate level Yamaha, and put it in my closet. In December 2013 I got it out and took one lesson with a local teacher, and started to practice.
Long tones. Beginner exercises. Patterns. More long tones. I read about the flute. I looked at flute blogs. I watched flute YouTubes. Long tones. Scales. Lower register; middle register; attempts at an impossible upper register. Metronome clicking all the way. More long tones. (Do you see a pattern?)
Then in the summer of 2014 Andrew introduced me to the Urquhart band, and I’ve rarely missed a rehearsal since. Sometimes there are two or three of us in the flute section. Occasionally, five. One time I was the only one who showed up, and there wasn’t much music coming from the flute section that night.
After a few months, I mentioned to Joel, the band director, that over the last 10 years I’d written music for concert band, virtually all of it for Middle School band. He asked me to bring in some arrangements. And thus it began.
First, we played Abby’s Nigun, a fun piece that I describe as being “based on an old Hassidic melody that I made up.” The band did a wonderful job on it and seemed to like and appreciate it. We played it in concert—the Urquhart band plays regular concerts for local retirement facilities and other types of agencies.
Then holiday time arrived and with it the Christmas music folders were passed out to the band. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer; Holly Jolly Christmas; The Christmas Song; Frosty the Snow Man; Sleigh Ride; White Christmas.
“Oy,” I said to myself, “we need some Hanukkah music.” So I brought in The Waltzing Dreidel, another original composition I’d written and arranged for concert band. Now two of my pieces are in the band’s repertoire. Hey, as long as they’re willing to play my music, that’s fine with me!
My confession is that I can barely play the music that the Urquhart Memorial Concert Band performs, and that includes music I myself have written. Composers typically write for instruments they themselves cannot play. I’ve written for cello, and I don’t know if I’ve ever held one in my hands. I once wrote a piece for harp and another for the trombone. I have no idea how to play either one. But I often recall a story I heard: A prominent violinist complained to Beethoven that a new piece of music he’d composed for him was too difficult to play. Beethoven replied, “My job is to write the music; your job is to play the fiddle.” Something like that.
So, here I am, faking my own music on an instrument I am still learning to play. But that’s okay—I’ve got people all around me who play quite well; and more than that, they’re friendly, accepting, and fun. And if they’re happy, I’m happy.
In the Urquhart Band I’ve found a home. In fact, in response to a request from a fellow flute player, I recently arranged a piece I’d composed for string orchestra, Tango Romantico, so it can be performed as a flute trio. Three of us tried it out, and it sounded pretty good! (I can barely play my part, but I did my best.)
And I’m still playing long tones almost every day, driving my wife and the cat (and probably the neighbors) nuts. But I need to do it. How else am I going to learn how to play?