I first picked up a flute in fifth grade, when Mrs. Spradlin (then Miss Doepker) traveled to the elementary schools with a selection of instruments for students to sample. I signed up right away, daydreaming about the following year when I would be old enough to play in the band.
I gravitated to the woodwinds she brought with her, selecting the flute and trying my best to mimic the mouth position (embouchure) that she displayed.
I didn’t make a single sound.
I then picked up an oboe, and after a few tries, managed a series of honks. She smiled indulgently, praising my efforts and hinting that the oboe was a particularly challenging instrument (she was, and is, a gifted recruiter).
I knew right then that I would be an oboist. I ran into the house that evening to tell my parents I was going to play the oboe!
My dad looked over at me, laughed, and said, “No, sorry kid, we own a trumpet, a trombone, a baritone and a flute — you pick.” So that’s how I came to play the flute, and how my sister came to play the baritone.
My grandmother was delighted to learn I would play the flute, and she immediately arranged for me to start private lessons with Ann Wolford, esteemed local flute instructor.
In only a few weeks, I was hooked. I discovered how much I enjoyed the challenge of learning an instrument, how badly I wanted to excel at it, how much I enjoyed the rush of being on stage when we performed.
Most of all, though, I fell in love with the community it gave me. We had a shared purpose — and a shared diversion — and a time in the day where our normal social structures and cliques were upended in favor of the clean organization of a band.
The peace I felt walking into the band room, knowing my row, my seat, my music stand, was the perfect inverse of the anxiety I felt walking into the lunch room wondering where I would sit that day.
In a band room, I always belonged.
Years later, when I studied abroad in a small city in eastern Germany, it was an ache to belong that led me back to band.
I studied German through college, but I was still struggling with full immersion. Every day that my German improved, I felt more conflicted.
As my thoughts and dreams started to drift into a mix of German and English, I developed a deep anxiety that I would forget English, even while my German was only barely manageable. I had nightmares that I couldn’t speak and that my own thoughts were indecipherable to me.
One night, though, I shared with a program coordinator that I played the flute, and he immediately went to work looking for a place for me to play. We discovered there was a local community band — a Blasorchester — and after speaking with him, they had even found a flute for me.
I remember the first night I walked into the practice hall and discovered three things in quick succession:
1. I was the only person under 65.
2. I was the only woman in sight.
3. This was a brass band.
The sharp realization that this band, that by all measurable indicators was not built for a 20-something flutist, had welcomed me without question, was greater comfort than I had felt in weeks.
I returned every week for practice, attempting small talk with bandmates in-between songs, transposing the arrangements so that I could play them on flute, letting my thoughts drift into total silence while we played.
In a country where I was barely capable of navigating the local train station, I knew here, in this band room, I belonged, and even when I felt lost between languages, I knew I could come back here each week, and share the one language that I knew I wouldn’t ever forget.
The National Association for Music Education recognizes March as Music in our Schools Month. And recognizing that — and sharing my own story of how music has shaped my life — seems like such a small way of showing gratitude for the sense of belonging music education has given me.
I encourage community members to follow Wilmington City Schools to see how this commitment to musical education continues to shape the lives of local students. And I urge you to think of these students, their ambitions and anxieties and their developing sense of belonging, and perhaps attend one of their concerts.
We are fortunate to have a local school district that is committed to providing generations of students the gift of music education, and I am committed to ensuring my own children grow up with these same opportunities.
Kelsey Swindler is a graduate of Wilmington High School and former member of city council.