And so I put away the flute one last time…

by markcarlson on June 13, 2011

Playing flute in high school

Yesterday was my last day as a performing flutist. After having played flute for some 51 years, I am willingly and with no regret putting the instrument down, opting instead to spend more time composing. I have so much music I still want to write, and, truth be told, I have accomplished most everything I wanted to do as a flutist.

This change-of-life has been looming for some time. I was exhausting myself with composing, teaching at UCLA and SMC, running Pacific Serenades, and performing, all at the same time, year after year. It took a long time for me to realize that something had to give, and as a result, two years ago, I took a trial hiatus from flute playing for a little more than a year. During that time, I realized I was content not to be a performer, but as I had already scheduled a number of performances for this season that has just ended, I decided to give it my all and then retire in peace.

I’ve often joked that performing was the price I had to pay for my love of rehearsing. Getting to play great music with wonderful musicians has always felt like a gift from on high, but playing onstage was never quite as fun for me. I was myopic enough to assume that this attitude was the norm, until eventually it dawned on me that many of the musicians I most admire actually enjoy performing. Imagine that! It was so revelatory—and such a foreign concept to me!—when I recognized that my fellow Pacific Serenades musicians were actually having fun onstage. From that moment on, I made it a life goal to know what it was like to truly enjoy performing.

Eventually I succeeded at that and did enjoy the next several seasons of performing. But there are still only so many hours per day, and now that I am just one year away from age 60, I am vividly aware that there are only so many years in a life, too. Now, I’d rather spend those limited hours and years composing, and that makes me very happy.

I am so grateful to have spent all of these many years performing. It has made me a better composer, a better and more complete musician, and a more integral part of the musical community than I would have been otherwise. I’ve been blessed by getting to work and play with many amazing musicians, both professionally and casually, and I am glad that they count me among their friends and colleagues.

I’ve had a handful of performances that I am truly proud of, and when listening to recordings of those, I think that they were as good as any I’ve heard of those pieces. Also, I made a few recordings for CD that I think are excellent.

And I’ve always enjoyed being able to produce a beautiful tone on the flute. All of my teachers were devoted to the ideal of an open, big, warm, and noise-free sound. It is that kind of sound that has made me love the flute, and the pleasure in making that sound has been one of the things that has kept me playing all of these years. In today’s world of flute playing, that ideal seems to have been supplanted by a harder, edgier, more closed sound, so much so that on those rare occasions when I hear the kind of flute tone that I love, my heart jumps for joy.

It is a beautiful sound, and I will miss making it.

Other than that, I am happy with my decision. And so, I say farewell to you—my beloved instrument, my constant companion for most of my life—with deep gratitude for all you have given me.


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Knowing when to call it quits: The Who
June 28, 2011 at 9:43 am

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer June 14, 2011 at 7:45 am

I came looking for “After the Sun has Set” and found your blog; a happy accident!

I’m in exactly the same boat as you (or as you were) regarding performing–I love the rehearsal process, the act of creating and shaping and making the music come to life, but I have such a communal approach to it that it always seems sort of bizarre that other people would want to come and sit passively to watch other people make music; I want to get them ALL involved. 🙂 Sorry I never got to hear you play flute..

Anyway, I’ll still email you about the song cycle, but I wanted to give a brief shout here too–have a good one!


markcarlson June 19, 2011 at 11:25 am

Thanks, Jennifer! Finishing up the piano version of After the Sun Has Set is my first priority of summer break, which begins tomorrow!


Janis Hatlestad June 14, 2011 at 9:18 am

Dearest Mark,

When I first saw the caption of this article, I yelled silently, “No-o-o-o-o-o!” because I will so much miss hearing your lovely tone, and I could not agree more about the joy in hearing a big, rich open tone. Yet, you have never compromised technique to achieve your beautiful tone. As one of your admirers and audience members, I will truly miss hearing you perform. However, I do understand the need for life balance and the time and energy involved in playing the flute. As your friend, I support your decision with my whole heart.

Looking forward to next season of Pacific Serenades and your new chapter devoted to composing, teaching, and presenting (if not performing) fine music.



markcarlson June 19, 2011 at 11:26 am

Thanks, Janis! What a wonderful compliment (or, several of them!).


Lisa Carlson Parrish June 14, 2011 at 9:53 am

Thank you for explaining to us your reasons for retiring. And congratulations!

As usual, this is beautifully written; the last paragraph caused a collision of tears and laughter for me. When I was little, I was always so honored (and utterly aware of the privilege) of being allowed to carry your flute for you. I would clutch it tightly, as I was ultra aware of not only its value, but its power and beauty as well. Your constant companion was a gift to those of us lucky enough to hear the luxurious tone you coaxed from it. It was our pleasure to hear you, for as long as you were willing to share your gift of performing with us.

Enjoy composing and I’m sure I speak for all of your fans when I say we look forward to hearing your new works of aural art! Have fun and relax! <3


markcarlson June 19, 2011 at 11:27 am

Thanks, Lisa! Yes, very few were even allowed to hold my flute—in the case! Obviously, you were a trusted ally.


Kent Carlson June 14, 2011 at 11:39 am

Dear Mark,

Whereas I have already been missing your exquisite playing for years now (so hard to commute from Germany for your concerts!), I must admit to no small amount of sadness to know I may never hear your special and moving approach to the art of flute-playing again.

Nevertheless, I am so happy for you that you have a clear vision and no regrets about moving on with your choices. It’s been a good run, and you have brought deep emotional inner contact to many devoted listeners along the way. May your time now working exclusively as a composer and educator be profoundly rewarding and at least as fun as rehearsing.



Bruce Olstad June 14, 2011 at 4:38 pm

Wonderfully said, Mark. Your words are a great reminder that change, while perhaps unsettling, is a natural part of any life; and that the greatest joy and challenge for us is to continually uncover what motivates us and makes us truly happy. As usual, you are an inspiration.

Here’s to many, many more years of beautiful, new music from you!



Sr. Helena Marie June 14, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Hi, Mark. Hmmm…Yes, I understand. I’m glad you have made the decision to focus on composing. You’ve paid your dues as a performer, and, yes, there is only so much time, one realizes, especially as one approaches 60, and happy birthday! Interestingly, after giving up the piano for 33 years, I am suddenly interested in practicing again. I’ll have to tell you about it. Happy composing!


Ann Pittel June 14, 2011 at 11:38 pm

This is the saddest but most well written and only instrument obituary I have ever read. I am not good with endings and plan to do what I have been doing until I literally and physically cannot do it anymore in spite of my wanting to engage in many of my other interests. I guess I amjust bullying reality and think that I can keep life from not changing if I just can keep doing what I do best and what I love best as long as I can. But it is a trade off and other things get shelved, wanting to have it all, see it all do it all. A tough choice: to put one’s lifetime instrument away in a case, begging to come out on at least some occasion to be played again. Perhaps you could lend the flute to one of our students who is talented but cannot afford such a good flute and pass on your flute as a legacy of your own success and talent with it. Just a suggestions. A flute probably still wants to be played even when its owner needs to move on. What thinkst though?

In any case (flute case or otherwise), I wish you the best of success with your composing, plunking the piano or any other thing you wish to accomplish. You deserve it!!

Best regards,

Ann Pittel, Director
Cornerstone Music Conservatory


markcarlson June 19, 2011 at 11:32 am

Thanks, Ann! I will keep it for myself for awhile, but I have always planned to will my various flutes–including my alto flute and piccolo–to UCLA or some other institution that will allow them to be used by students who cannot afford good instruments. Of course, flute construction has evolved since mine was made in 1966, so younger players might find it too old-fashioned.


Paul Lindenauer June 15, 2011 at 2:48 am

So long, it’s been good to know you….blowing dandelion fluff into the wind, watching the ocean surge and recede, packing up and moving house….and closing the case forever. What was it like to open the case? Much different than closing for sure.


Bill Sullivan June 15, 2011 at 11:41 pm

Mark, I think you are passing in to a new creative period in your life. Many great composers, artists, thinkers and performers have had different periods in their outputs. Beethoven, Mahler, Picasso, Monet, Horowitz and Leonard Bernstein – all passed through different creative epochs. And, with the passage from one period of creation to the next came new ideas, fresh perspective, rebirths of style – continuity and greatness redistributed and redefined. And how the world has benefited from those changes of period, not just in the cornucopia of new treasures and fresh masterworks, but in the deeply human example of how a single artist and thinker can consciously evolve from one font of beauty and creativity, and in to another. We shall cherish the treasures of the prior periods of your creativity, and look forward to the next.

-Bill Sullivan
Pacific Serenades Board Member since 2001


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