Sunday, August 24, 2008


During the first meeting of an SF City College music class titled simply “Woodwinds,” the teacher asked us, “Does the flute have an octave-key?”

The other two instruments to be taught are Sax and Clarinet, which do have special keys that facilitate movement between octaves (actually “registers”) but the flute simply doesn’t.

The simple answer is No.

But one of the students took the bait and suggested that a particular right-hand pinkie key might be what he meant.

“No,” the teacher said, “where is the octave key on the flute—anyone else?”

No one else spoke so I answered, “In your imagination.” This apparently was also wrong.

Then an experienced student, (one can take the class four times) piped up with what he knew would be the answer—“In the embouchure [lips].”

And that’s what the teacher said. … which is a correct answer to “How do flutists change register since the flute has no octave-key?”

I bit my tongue, as per my mom’s story from five decades earlier.

In the late 1950s I was about eight when my mom took a class at LA City College, some English thing.

One of the questions on her first homework assignment was “List five words that can be used as both a noun and as a verb.”

One of the words my mom listed was “see.”

The teacher marked that answer wrong, explaining that the noun was spelled differently, S-E-A.

My mom told us kids that the teacher was wrong. The noun “see,” as anyone should know who wishes to be thought literate in English, is the common name of a Catholic bishop’s jurisdiction. If nothing else, we’ve all heard of the pope’s jurisdiction as “The Holy See,” which is not, repeat not, a body of water.

My mom explained that the embarrassment the teacher would feel and any resulting backlash were not worth correcting such a small injustice.

At the time I dismissed her attitude as mere timidity—if a teacher mistakenly marked one of my answers wrong I would have raised Cain. I would have gone to the mat, hell, to the gallows, insisting that “see” is a noun.

Higher education prepares us to work for large corporate and governmental bureaucracies in which it is essential to agree with one’s superiors, even if they are dead wrong, unless disagreeing would somehow be a positive career move.

Theobald Boehm developed the modern flute that we see in western orchestras these days. There are flutes from various cultures, as well as historic flutes, such as the recorder, from European culture.

The first level of distinction, when a flutist is asked what type of flute he or she plays, is Boehm versus non-Boehm.

A major impediment to this discussion is the pronunciation of Mr Boehm’s name. Here in California it’s pronounced simply “bame,” rhyming with game lame tame same and name.

Anyway, next class maybe I can impress the teacher by announcing the flute octave key’s true location—in the trash heap outside Theobald Boehm’s workshop.

It's kind of strange to think that I'm going to get a grade for this.

Then I can really get on Mr McCarthy's good side, our teacher's name is Charlie McCarthy, by inquiring about the welfare of Mortimer Snerd.

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