'I cherish flutes as much as the waterbowls I use when I sit before my shrine'

Michael Harding: 'I am a bad musician, but I play for the strange sensation of being alive'

I’m a very bad flute player. I only know a few dozen jigs, two hornpipes, one reel, 14 polkas and that’s about it. But musical instruments have helped me through life. As a youth I only played when I was happy. And in middle age I only played when I was sad. When I was young I always wanted to improve, and impress other people. But in the end I played for no reason at all apart from the strange sensation of being alive which the sound of the notes gave me.

When I was young I went to visit a flute player who lived by the lough shore and although he knew I was coming he was in bed when I arrived. His wife said he was resting, and I was brought into a sitting room that smelled of furniture polish, and I heard her knocking on a bedroom door down the corridor.

The musician was a bit groggy when he appeared. “I take a nap in the afternoons,” he explained, as he threw himself onto a couch, and his wife brought a tray of bone china teacups and saucers, a little plate of ginger nut biscuits and a silver pot of hot tea.

Weather and ginger nuts

I and the musician sipped the tea and, although he knew I had come for a lesson, he spoke as if my visit was a total surprise. We discussed the weather for ages, and eventually I declared that I had recently bought a flute and was eager to learn.

“Is that a fact?” he said, as if it was news to him, though my desire for a lesson had been discussed on the phone with the wife the previous day.

After he had soaked the last ginger nut biscuit in his tea and consumed it in one swallow, he spoke her name and beckoned her to fetch the flutes.

“They’re in the bath,” he explained.

She went out and returned in a few moments with three flutes, all dripping wet, and she spread them on a low coffee table before the master, as if they were sacred objects.

“Where is your instrument?” he inquired.

I took mine out of its case, assembled it and laid it beside the others.

“So that’s your flute?” he inquired, slightly amused.

“It is,” I replied.

“Not worth a curse,” he declared.

He hadn’t even touched it.

“You must always have a good instrument,” he said. “That’s the only lesson I can give you. All those flutes on that table are okay.  But they’re not great flutes. They’re not the best flutes. So in the end they’re not really worth a curse.”

Mellow and delicious

In fact it was an excellent lesson and I have never forgotten it. I’m not a musician. And no amount of master classes from gifted artists would turn me into much of a talent. But a good instrument will draw from the most mediocre student their best ability.

A few years ago I invested in an fine flute, crafted by Sam Murray, and the notes that come out are mellow and delicious to the ear. I also have an excellent Chinese flute which Little Lotus brought me from Beijing two years ago. It requires tiny strips of rice paper, each the size of a fingernail, which I attach to the topmost aperture of the instrument with garlic juice, before I play.

When I blow into the instrument the rice paper vibrates, creating a musical note as delicate as a tiny breeze blowing through reeds on the surface of a lake.

I have a long flute which also came from China many years ago. It consists of three pieces of bamboo and near the mouthpiece a medieval poem is etched into the wood. Even the Star of the County Down sounds Chinese when I blow through this wondrous instrument.

And I have a tiny wooden flute that came from Korea, which can produce only three notes, and is used for meditation practices. They are all excellent flutes, and every so often I line them up on the table and gaze at them as I remember the old musician by the lough shore.

I have come to cherish flutes as much as I cherish the waterbowls I use when I sit before my shrine. I cherish them as much as the old chalice I used long ago at the altar and which sits forgotten on a shelf in my study. I cherish them like the bells of a hermitage that might call me to awaken, not because I have mastered them, but because they have mastered me.