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Life is rewarding for Bruce Bodden as a physical therapist assistant and Spokane Symphony flutist

Aug. 7, 2021 Updated Sun., Aug. 8, 2021 at 1:06 p.m.

Bruce Bodden picked up the flute in fourth grade, went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in music and, since 1990, was the Spokane Symphony’s principal flute player. He died March 24. This weekend’s concerts are dedicated to his memory.  (Hamilton Studios)
Bruce Bodden picked up the flute in fourth grade, went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in music and, since 1990, was the Spokane Symphony’s principal flute player. He died March 24. This weekend’s concerts are dedicated to his memory. (Hamilton Studios)

Bruce Bodden spent his childhood “raised by wolves,” running wild with his siblings in Seattle, before picking up the flute in fourth grade. Why the flute? Because after watching his older brother struggle to carry a trombone for years and giving it up out of exhaustion, the relatively small size of a flute case seemed infinitely more manageable.

“When it was my turn, my parents said, ‘OK, make sure you find an instrument that’s easy to carry,’” he said. “So I just looked at the cases and chose the smallest.” Convenience came first, but his love for the instrument really began when he started taking lessons from Dorothy Bjarnason in the sixth grade.

“She taught me to have standards, to not be satisfied with something that wasn’t as good as I could get it,” he said. “So, by the time I was 12, old enough to realize what I wanted, I knew “OK, if you’re going to do this, you need to take it seriously.’”

And seriously he took it, playing, listening and critiquing his work before playing again and again until it was finally as good as he could make it. “And now, you know, I’m not very good at just playing something badly and just going, ‘Oh, well, maybe tomorrow.” No, it has to be at least better before I give up.”

After high school, Bodden earned his Bachelor of Music degree studying under Bonita Boyd at the Eastman School of Music. He then went on to study at Boston University, where he would complete “approximately half a master’s degree” under Leone Buyse.

Since 1990, Bodden has served as principal flutist of the Spokane Symphony. But in 2013, he decided to add a new skill set to his arsenal and enrolled in Spokane Falls Community College’s Physical Therapist Assistant program. He earned his license in 2015 and now works at Deaconess Hospital.

His journey into physical therapy started out of necessity, but the work, he said, has been remarkably fulfilling. “I realized that if I’d decided not to go into music and instead I’d gone into physical therapy in my 20s, I would be totally happy and fulfilled. I would not be a frustrated musician. I would be a fulfilled physical therapist.”

So now, in a heaven-sent best of both worlds scenario, Bodden lives fulfilled both as a musician and as a physical therapist assistant. “The amount of overlap is amazing,” he said.

In both cases, he said, you’re constantly having to pay attention to several things at once, and then also be able to remember and accurately record what you’ve observed. You have to read notes and record notes, remember dynamics, listen and observe a hundred different things happening around you.

“In therapy, the stakes are higher; it could have health consequences. Whereas if you mess up something in a piece of music, you know, nobody really gets hurt except you,” he said.

Switching between fine arts and sciences might seem like a huge step, but the kind of academic rigor he’d become accustomed to during his musical education came in handy. And compared to music, he said, studying for his PT exams seemed almost easy.

“We had a cutoff point in school with all our exams – you had to get 80%, or you failed. But in music? If you’re playing a piece of music and getting 80% of the notes, you’re terrible.”

Bodden remembered listening to one of his students practicing a piece of music and recording every mistake. “I thought, you know, ‘Let’s calculate how many notes there are on a page.’ It was very uniform, all 16th notes, so I could estimate, do some quick math and say, ‘OK, it’s this many measures per line, this many lines per page, this many notes in the whole piece.’ ”

With eight mistakes over two pages, the result came out to about 97.5% accuracy. “And it was awful,” he said. “97% is usually a high grade, but here it’s still terrible … and I’m not aware of any other field where 97% is considered terrible.”

To aspiring musicians, Bodden offered the following advice: “First, if you think you want to go into music, you need to make sure that you really can’t be happy doing anything else. The weeding out process never stops. Life is always asking you, ‘Oh you want to do music? Are you willing to do without this? Are you willing to do without that?’ And you just have to keep answering yes.”

“And second, don’t be afraid of being interested in something new. For a lot of us, once we’ve made this commitment to music, we’re afraid because it feels like a betrayal. But I’m here to say that you can find a career in a totally different field that is just as rewarding.”

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