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I was 51 when music came to me again in the haunting, ethereal strains of R. Carlos Nakai's Native American flute. His recorded music was playing like some spell of an ancient magician, and I was helpless before the mournfully mesmerizing, haunting howls of the cedar flute.
Something inside me--inside a me that I did not know--screamed with an uncommon urgency, "You must make this sound." But the last time such an inner voice spoke to me, I spent ten years writing two novels, hundreds of freelance articles and stories, along with a six-year stint as a humor columnist for a local newspaper. All the while bemoaning the fact that summers were too short and the school year was too long. I had myself convinced I was a freelance writer who happened to be teaching, rather than a high school English teacher who happened to be writing. The suffering stopped when I realized that I was a teacher before all else.
Now here I was again confronting a new, alien muse calling me to make a primal sound with a stick of wood that I knew nothing about.
This particular muse must have had its wires crossed and its circuits malfunctioning. "Hello, Muse! The name's Saggio. Italian American from the Bronx, NY. You must have dialed the wrong number. I'm an English teacher who happens to be writing. Do you have a new story for me, maybe a poem? No? You want me to play the Indian flute? You can't be serious. I'm not the least bit musical. Dial up Mr. O'Brian. He'll give you the scoop."
But even while my mind chattered away, Nakai's flute song wove an inescapable web in me, through me, around me, like some acoustical version of a Yuwipi blanket.
Didn't you hear me? I'm an English teacher! A writer!
But that sound, oh that sound, would not leave me alone, and I was wrapped in its warmth, its love, its suffering. And I surrendered to it, riding its velvet back beyond time and space to uncharted territory, to a mystical within and a magical without.
My life would never be the same again. I was to become a flute player who happened to be a high school English teacher. And, once again, a writer who is compelled to tell the story of his Native American flute journey.
The Confused Muse
I was born into an Italian-American family in the Bronx, New York, surrounded by dim lit tenements, elevated trains, and the incessant honking of horns. I remember my mother playing the radio all day and singing along with Doris Day, Perry Como and Frank Sinatra, while she went about her housework.
That was my initiation into the power of music to transport the spirit. When Mom sang, the tenements disappeared, the rushing clack of trains played rhythm, and car horns provided harmonious backup.
When I was ten, Walter Milatz, a kid down the street, jammed an old harmonica in my mouth and said, "Knock yourself out." Even with several notes awol from the instrument, I quickly managed a passable rendition of "Oh Susanna." My God, I could make music like the radio! Walter let me borrow his harmonica for a few days, and when he finally pried it from my hands, my musical career went on hold until a couple of years later when my mother signed me up for clarinet lessons at North Avenue Elementary School.
Mr. O'Brian, the 6-foot-5-inch, 330-pound music teacher, glared and bellowed and gritted his formidable teeth when I screeched out my first notes. This was not the sweet voice of my mother crooning along with Frank Sinatra. My spirit went into hiding and so did I, in the boys restroom every day for two weeks until Sandy Selkirk ratted on me and Mr. O'Brian banished me forever from his clarinet class and musical instruction.