When Monique Gunnels was 13 years old, she auditioned to become a flute player with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and was accepted.
" 'We can use you for now,' " she was told by then-conductor Harry Kruger. "I knew as soon as someone better, someone with more experience came along, I would be replaced."
But that never happened.
Fifty years later, the 63-year-old Gunnels will perform tonight for the last time with the orchestra as the concert season ends at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts. The CSO will present "Three Russian Masters" with an appearance by world-renowned pianist Claire Huangci.
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"To stay with anything for 50 years is truly remarkable," said George Del Gobbo, now in his 27th year as CSO conductor and music director. "Monique has always been stalwart and dependable. She is a true professional in every sense of the word."
Gunnels laughed and said that through the years, she feared Del Gobbo would come up to her and say, "We need to talk."
"I am glad I am getting to leave when it is my decision," she said.
Gunnels said arthritis, a dislocated finger on her right hand and carpal tunnel syndrome played a part in her decision to leave.
But there was more.
"It has been getting a little more difficult to make myself practice at home, and you have to really work hard to get the music right, especially the more difficult pieces," she said.
The orchestra members came together from different cities on Thursday for the performance and rehearsed together four times a day to get prepared.
"It is exhausting," she said.
Through the years, the result at showtime has always been worth it.
"It is such a high to be part of something this moving, this special," she said.
Gunnels wishes more people in the Columbus area would come to share the experience.
"There are people who never think about attending a performance, who would say 'wow' at what they see and hear," she said.
Gunnels said it has been a thrill working with great classical artists. However, being on stage with such non-classical performers as Dizzy Gillespie and Don McLean has been especially exciting.
Gunnels is the CSO's second flute and said she has learned a lot working next to first flute Jim Zellers.
A married mother of two grown children, Gunnels has mostly lived in Columbus, except for a little more than year in Montgomery, Ala. She received degrees from Columbus High and Columbus College.
Gunnels taught in the Muscogee County School District for 28 years and retired in 2012. She now works part-time as an elementary resource teacher with the Columbus Regional Mathematics Collaborative at Columbus State University.
Gunnels said she began playing the flute in the fifth grade because it was "small and shiny."
The summer before she began high school, she received a scholarship to attend Musemont Fine Arts Camp in Pine Mountain, Ga., a two-week camp founded to foster arts for high school students in Georgia.
It was at Musemont where she met Kruger and Columbus High band director John Kendrick, who was a member of the orchestra.
Kruger's wife, Natalie, was her flute teacher and spoke to her husband about Gunnels.
"She's pretty good," she told him.
That led to the audition.
"I was no child prodigy, but being part of the symphony, I felt like I was pretty hot stuff," she said.
Gunnels doesn't know how she will feel when the next season begins without her on stage, but she knows one thing is for sure.
"I'll be there," she said.