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.
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.
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.
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.