Blowing into bottles: Remembering George Bures (1949-2020)

Near the end of fifth grade, my classmates and I had the opportunity to try out for sixth-grade band.

We didn’t have to know how to play an instrument yet. We were to rank our top-three instrument choices, and then, in front of Band Director George Bures, try blowing into these instruments, beginning with our top choice.

My concert flute head joint.

I desperately wanted to play the flute. However, some older students warned me that when they were fifth graders, they also had wanted to play the flute, but they ended up with their second or third choice instrument because, no matter how much Mr. Bures guided them during their tryout, they could not properly blow into the concert flute’s embouchure hole, or “blow hole.”

I did not want that to happen to me. But I didn’t have a flute. I didn’t have a way to prepare and to make sure that when Mr. Bures put that flute head joint under my lip, there would be no question in his mind that I was flute material. The only thing I could think of doing was to gather various glass bottles, and to practice blowing into them.

I tried different bottles, of varying neck lengths. I concentrated on the shape of my lips and what position produced the strongest tones. A cousin laughed when I demonstrated this. She told me how we blow into a bottle to produce sound and how we blow into a flute are not the same thing. I told her she was probably right, but what else could I do?

When the day came, I walked into Mr. Bures’ office and noted the various instrument heads he had sprawled out. He welcomed me and verified that the flute was my first choice. I said it was. He invited me to sit.

I recall his smile. More so, that his eyes smiled. He leaned forward, glowing as he nestled the head joint into the nook beneath my lower lip. I blew.

There was a pained, airy sound. Not quite a note, but not just wind either. He leaned back, and encouraged me to take a moment to catch my breath. Then he leaned forward again and asked me to try a second time.

And there it was. A real sound. My heart raced and I blew harder, as if affirming that I was the person creating this sound.

After school, I called my friend from a nearby town to tell her my news. She was a year ahead of me in school and also a flautist. Her approval pleased me. I wrote about it, and other related musings, in my diary. “Whenever I see my band form, and see the part, ‘flute,’ I get real excited,” I wrote on April 28, 1992. “I want to play it quickly. I really don’t want to wait until summer.”

This “wait until summer” is a reference to summer band lessons, which was when rising sixth graders began formal learning. I was part of a 3-person group that met Mondays and Wednesdays at 9:30 a.m. throughout June. “The only song I can play is ‘Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,’” I wrote on June 18. “But I’ll get better.”

I did get better. I was involved in band until I graduated from high school in 1999. Mr. Bures later went on to retire. I haven’t seen him in years. However, I was deeply saddened when I learned he died September 23 of COVID-19.

Of all the memories I could have thought about when I read his obituary, I thought back to that day in his office. I recall Mr. Bures’ warmth and enthusiasm, and how it was the first of many times I would witness his passion for music and education.

My heart is heavy after hearing of this loss. I send my condolences to his loved ones, as well as my heartfelt appreciation, for the literal and figurative instruments he placed in so many young people’s hands.