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My Band Geek Heart Soars When I See Lizzo’s Flute Skills Appreciated Like This

Lizzo playing flute in Library of Congress archives. Image: screencap from Washington Post.

In all the ways that people like former-The Mary Sue Fandom Editor Briana Lawrence have explained and more, I am a huge fan of Lizzo. Because I spent a decade of my life as a flutist (and a bad cellist) 30 minutes south of where Lizzo grew up and for several years was working towards getting an undergraduate degree in music education, with teaching middle school in mind, I have an extra special place in my heart from her as a fellow band geek.

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That’s why I get very excited when Lizzo gets more love for her flute skills. Recently, this happened when she played a former president’s 200-year-old crystal flute.

On Monday, September 26, Lizzo accepted an invitation by the librarians and stewards of the Library of Congress to visit their collection of over 1,800 flutes since she was in town for her DC concert. One of the most treasured flutes in the collection is one gifted in 1813, by France, to the (unbeknownst to Fox News) fourth U.S. president and writer of the constitution, James Madison. This invitation is part of a long tradition of inviting popular musicians like Yo-Yo Ma and Lionel Richie to play historical instruments. Most people found out this even happened when a viral clip of her playing that particular flute at the concert later that night.

Instead of defending her against the haters who pretend to have degrees in archival work and experts in metallurgy, I would much rather look at the memes that engage with the historic nature of this event—like for example, the joy in knowing that Madison (many who owned at least 100 enslaved people) would be horrified if he knew this happened.

From one flutist to another

Because, like Lizzo, I grew up and went through wind ensembles (and marching band) around mostly people of color I didn’t really see the flute or playing any instrument (wind or string) as something that was associated inherently with race. Like, sure, movies showing people in powdered wigs, and occasionally there was a composer who was so nationalistic they opt’d out of Italian music terminology, but elsewhere, not really.

However, as I got into high school, I started to see how the world of classical music was very, very white. This was reflected in the people in competitions outside of my school district, Drum Corps International clips, and when I attended professional performances (musicals, operas, and symphonies.) Keep in mind, that this whole time I’m in the second most diverse area in the U.S. Beginning college, I started to be confronted with how racialized, like everything else, music performance was. This fully realized reality made me gravitate to those who I realized the world saw as “exceptions.”

When Lizzo really broke out in 2018 and 2019, the main thing I noticed above all else was a beautiful Black woman playing the flute. Her voice and twerking was second to the vibrato. Also, instead of it being the butt of a joke like Anchorman (which is still funny, don’t get me wrong) and SNL, she plays it because she loves the instrument and that’s a part of her identity. Lizzo danced, sang, and played the flute at the Grammys, y’all! Iconic.

She didn’t need to play this particular crystal flute to advance her career. However, I think that institutions that want to connect more young people to be interested in history and contribute to the centuries of classical (broadly) music canon need her and others like her. That is, mainstream artists of color engaging with traditionally white spaces (like Be Alive) in their own way to free the imagination of kids that didn’t grow up like Lizzo and I beyond just early childhood programming like Little Einsteins and Sesame Street.

(via NPR, featured image: screencap from Washington Post.)

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Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.

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