Shining tunes of flutes sing through uptown

Their white wigs and long, shiny-buttoned coats hark back to George Washington's time, where their fife-and-drum corps has its roots. With people so eager lately to invoke the Constitution, what better way to get back to the root of things?

But the only foundational principles on anyone's mind pertain to music. The players from the U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps are just five of the 2,000 flutists descending on Charlotte this weekend.

The emissaries from the fife-and-drum corps left the percussionists at home, and they replaced their own piercing fifes with gentler, 18th-century-style flutes. Their sweetness helped the National Flute Association launch its annual meeting at the Charlotte Convention Center.

By Friday afternoon, the conventioneers were there in force, and the convention center was enveloped in silky, silvery tones. There were flutists warming up on the plaza; flute ensembles playing in the concourse; flutists trying out instruments in the exhibition hall; flutists playing mini concerts in ballrooms.

"Unity Through Diversity" is the convention's theme, and it's being borne out everywhere. Flutists play Bach, north Indian ragas and jazz. Workshops explore playing styles, teaching methods, career-building and flute maintenance.

Some of the sessions go beyond those classic topics.

The flute professor from Ohio State University, Katherine Borst Jones, introduced herself at a panel discussion with her name and this: "I'm a breast cancer survivor."

The disease holds special threats for flutists. Surgery harms muscles in their shoulders, chests and arms, making it difficult even to pick up their instruments. Side effects can impair their breathing. Chemotherapy and radiation sap strength they need to practice and perform.

Tamara Kagy, an Ohio flutist and another survivor, recalled that when her cancer was diagnosed, she had a recital coming up. Her doctor said she'd probably have to call it off.

"Those were the magic words - telling me I couldn't do it," Kagy said. She got busy with stretching and exercise. It worked.

"I gave the recital just before I lost my hair," she said.

Borst Jones found that sitting through chemo sessions was boring. One day, she took her flute into the hospital with her.

"I started improvising - just playing sounds that felt good," she said. She made a habit of it. Playing actual compositions "didn't feel appropriate. But playing what was in my heart did feel appropriate."

Others at the hospital felt it, too.

Helping children

"There is no typical child," said Kathy Blocki, a flutist and teacher from Pennsylvania. "We all have different ways our brains work."

Blocki discussed her experiences teaching children with ADHD, autism and other conditions. Scientists are discovering that music can be good for them, she said, by helping the brain build new circuitry. And the children can learn to play expressively.

They need an ingenious teacher to help. Autistic children can learn when skills are broken down into components they can absorb one at a time. Children with trouble focusing can zero in when the teacher finds a way to catch their imagination.

One of her students couldn't keep up with the pulse of a metronome, Block said. She told him to imagine that each click was a land mine that would blow him up if he lagged. That worked.

Learning to interact

The climax of that session was a performance. Marilyn Resmini of Virginia told about her daughter Emma, an 11-year-old prodigy. Emma has soloed with the orchestras of Pittsburgh, Dallas and Washington.

Emma began studying the flute at age 3. She was so shy that when someone she didn't know spoke to her, she would throw her favorite blanket over her head. During her first 2 1/2 years of lessons, she only spoke one word to her teacher: Asked how many quarter notes were in a certain spot, she blurted out, "Four!" - then covered her mouth with her hand.

The flute has helped Emma learn to interact with the world, Resmini said.

Emma stepped onstage and played a flute classic: a sinuous Claude Debussy piece, "Syrinx." It floated out in shapely, warm phrases. An adult flutist could've been proud of it.

Afterward, a smiling Emma thanked well-wishers who complimented her.

"I've gotten better," she said.

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