Congratulations to my Graduating Niece the All Star Musician

My 17-year-old niece Rachel McKinzie is a gifted flutist and the fact that my musical skills are limited makes me all the more in admiration of her talent.

Rachel star flutist

Rachel star flutist

She started playing flute in second grade. Then she studies the viola for 2 years in Australia. Back in the states in 7th grade, Rachel began private lessons on flute, her primary instrument. She became the 4th chair and invested in a new pearl flute with a solid silver body and discovered her true gift. In 8th grade, she also began playing alto sax in the jazz band. Then she added piccolo, which she explained, “is basically a flute pitched an octave higher and easier to hear in ensemble because it is a more piercing sound,”

Next she added saxophone to her repertoire. Whereas I may have inherited my father’s gift of coordination to perform any sport easily, Rachel inherited her mom and dad’s musical gene. She can imitate any tone or pitch, and read notes that to me looked like stick figures dancing on lines.

In high school, she was chosen to play piccolo in the top ensemble. As a sophomore she auditioned for the prestigious Cleveland Youth Symphony (CYWS) and made it into the piccolo group one, while continuing private flute lessons and playing jazz sax for Shaker Heights Marching Band.

Rachel and brother Mark - Shaker Heights marching band

Rachel and brother Mark – Shaker Heights marching band

Though more reserved by nature, at a young age she daringly auditioned for Cleveland symphony and orchestras and band and found the courage to perform in churches and halls packed with people in front of the discerning ears of judges.

When she discusses music her blue eyes sparkle with enthusiasm. The musical lingo sounds like a foreign language to me, but she graciously answers questions and explains terminology I should have learned in primary school. Her long fingers dance across the solid silver keys of her new flute. She has the ability to purse her full lips on the instrument to recreate an exact sound.  If God created a physique perfect for wind instruments, surely my niece has it.

“It’s highly technical – roll of keys, turn head, adjust posture, stand relaxed but straight, as if a string is pulling your head and spine into alignment,” Rachel explained patiently. “Flute is harder than the tuba because only half of the amount of air enters the instrument, so you have to breath more.”

In her senior year she earned the place of  first chair flute for the school orchestra and jazz sax in marching band.

“The role of first chair is to make sure your section is playing technically correct,” she told me, “which is not easy because if the sound isn’t perfect, you make people come early before school to practice.”

Listening to her talk I thought how much mastering an instrument is like playing a sport. Discipline. Drive. Practice. Precision. Teamwork. A musician, too, enters the zone especially when performing.

Like an athlete, Rachel practices daily primarily on flute, beginning each 45-minute session with warm up exercises.

“I have to be careful not to play too much piccolo because the embouchement is different on flute and I don’t want to it to interfere with muscle memory.”

As my niece and I watched the Olympics together last August, I asked if there were parallels between the skill of playing a musical instrument to an performing as an athlete.

“It’s nowhere near as physically taxing, but mentally every bit as challenging. It demands so much concentration and focus not to be distracted by the audience.”

“There isn’t a music buzz like runner’s high,” Rachel explained, “but when I play a technically difficult piece I have a sense of accomplishment.”

“For me the success of my practice is determined by whether or not I like what I hear. If it doesn’t sound good to me, if I can’t find the sweet spot, then it is harder to keep going.”

It reminded me of streak shooting in basketball, when releasing the ball, muscle memory took over on the jump shot making it almost effortless.

Whereas Rachel loves the performances, she finds the audition the scariest because there is no accompaniment. Yet throughout her career, she regularly tested her skills against the best in state competitions like the Ohio Federation of Music Clubs where she has always received highest ratings.

As the MVP of every musical award, Rachel, graduated with honors and will attend Butler on scholarship.

Mom passing on the love of music to the next generation

Mom passing on the love of music to the next generation

Like most students, Rachel had a long inventory of tasks to fulfill her senior year: college applications, personal statement, service projects, academic deadlines, marching band. And at the top of her “to do list” – practice flute -where she will continue to leave her mark on the world, one note at a time.


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  1. What a wonderful tribute to a lovely and talented young woman! (I never knew about the difference between playing flute and tuba – and who knew it was twice the work to play the smaller instrument?!)

  2. Yay Rachel! I hope that you love Butler as much as my sister Ruth and I did. I have already sent a glowing recommendation to the Kappas telling them to choose you! Congratulations. And what a nice Aunt Pat you have to blog about you!

  3. Sis, Exquisite is Right! That Rachel can MAKE MUSIC! So proud of you Rachel and congrats to the Parents for supporting her for all those years! A great tribute to those talented, dedicated and artistic musicians all over Pat! How empty the world would be without MUSIC. A reminder to keep plucking those guitar strings and singing with the ipod, computer, radio…..whatever is the music source these days! Play on!

  4. I have a quote from my “musical kid” Music is Life! Raising a child who loves music was foreign to us. My husband was a 4 sport athlete and I sung in the choir, but didn’t understand the passion for music that he was obviously born with. He literally sang before he could walk and never stopped! He played trombone in the band & orchestra, sang in several choirs & countless theater performances. He earned a scholarship for college and continued his passion in college. He just finished his 3rd year of teaching Jr. High/High School Choir. So you see-to him-Music IS Life! Find your passion in life and nurture it!

    • Maybe your son inherited his uncle’s musical ability or perhaps you had more vocal talent than your realized. Sooner or later, we all have to give up the sports we love, but music lasts a lifetime long after the body wears out.

  5. As a former flute and piccolo player in good ol’ SHS band, I am impressed with Rachel’s dedication and level of practice. I once had a beautiful silver flute, but I lost interest once sports became more accessible. It sounds as though she is very talented and ready for a wonderful college experience.

    • Thanks, Jean. I was daunted by trying to learn to read music…looked like a foreign language, still does. However, I still enjoy strumming my guitar, playing by ear, and singing off key every now and then.

  6. Your niece is quite the accomplished musician and young lady! Having taken flute lessons after retirement in 2006, I know what dedication is required to achieve the expertise and reputation Rachel now owns. Needless to say, I found writing a much easier creative outlet and my flute now stands in the living room waiting for the day I come back to it. Congratulations to Rachel and her family, and to you for understanding the parallels in sport and music accomplishments.

    • Sherrey, learning to play flute is a noble project for retirement. I agree writing, even with all its frustrations, seems a whole lot easier than playing flute. So I will leave that art to Rachel and enjoy it vicariously through her expertise.

  7. Pat, what a nice tribute to your niece Rachel. I thought I would pass along some information that you can share with her. My sister, Beth, has a friend from her Sterling High Class (1982) who attended Butler (Class of 1986) and majored in music (and business). She also is an accomplished flutist. Karen Sheely still lives in the Indy area working for the IRS, and I believe plays in the Carmel, IN, Symphony as Principal Flute. I figure it never hurts to have a network and I know Karen would be welcoming… All the best to Rachel on her graduation and on entering the next chapter of her life.

  8. Congrats to Rachel and best of luck at Butler! She’s going to continue with her music, isn’t she?? Hope so, for it sounds as if she truly loves it (and is good at it!). Practicing for long stretches of time can be challenging in itself, but when it’s a labor of love, it becomes exhilarating!

  9. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend Rachel’s recent Senior Recital. It was an absolutely beautiful performance and I was moved to tears. Rachel has a true gift. Thanks for sharing it with all of us, Rachel.

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