Music Issue: Physical reminders of music’s power

By Katie Starr
April 18, 2013

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Editor’s note: As the Juno Awards 2013 prepare to celebrate the best of Canadian music this weekend, Western Journalism students help us celebrate the best in Western Music. Read the full Music Issue.

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Fiona Wilkinson’s career as a flutist was just taking off when it almost ended one night on Vancouver Island in 1980.

Wilkinson, who had recently been hired as a music professor at Western, was getting ready to play her first concerto in front of an orchestra. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon the day before her debut. Wilkinson was driving to the Courtenay Youth Music Centre.

That was when a drunk driver came out of nowhere and smashed into her car.


When Wilkinson woke up in the hospital, doctors gave her the news. Every bone below her waist was broken. The doctors also told her she might never walk again.

But, after months of hospital treatment, wheelchairs and canes, Wilkinson regained the use of her legs. Even though the injuries were all below the waist, it was a struggle to play the flute as the instrument requires the strength of the whole body.

“When you’re in university as an undergrad, you’re so concerned with getting the notes and the sound, you don’t really think about the physical aspects,” Wilkinson said. “But after the car accident I had to really think, how do we stand on both feet? How is our balance structured so that we can open up the chest to make this beautiful sound?” 

Wilkinson glances at her hands as she tells the story. Her fingers are long and slender, with a simple wedding band around her left ring finger and a soft French manicure glossing her nails.

Her favourite composer is Mozart, drawn to his “essence of good humour, incredible talent and cheekiness,” but she’ll admit to singer-songerwriter John Mayer as a guilty pleasure. Perhaps for the same qualities.

It was Wilkinson’s time in recovery that inspired her to write The Physical Flute in 1984, a book focused on the physical side of being a musician, from stretches and warm-up exercises to yoga and breathing techniques. The book was reissued in 2006.

“Music is all about a nod, an expression, a body movement to move it forward, the breath. All of the things that make a good conversation have to happen in a piece of music without any words,” said Wilkinson, who boasts 72,000 songs on her iPod. “It’s all about communication and making music as a team.”

Teamwork is an important aspect of Wilkinson’s career. Her specialty at Western is collaborative musicianship, and she is a member of three chamber ensembles that have played around the world.

In 1998, Wilkinson traveled to Taiwan as part of the Aeolian Winds quintet. The quintet, acting as Canadian ambassadors of music, stayed in beautiful hotels that had previously been royal palaces. But it was the other end of the social spectrum that most touched Wilkinson.

“We got to work with children in the school system where the poverty is incredible,” Wilkinson said. “Just to see how little they had and how much they had made of their musical program and their education with so very little.”

It remains Wilkinson’s most memorable travel experience as a musician in a career at Western spanning more than 30 years. It is a career she has balanced with marriage and motherhood, she said. And lots of music. Her husband, Barry Thomson, is a high school music teacher and their two children are also both musically gifted.

“I remember having to change a really, really dirty diaper once, when my children were babies,” she recalled with a smile. “And then running out the door in my princess gown and having to play the flute in front of this huge crowd and wondering if they had any idea what I had just been doing.”


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