Recorder Meanderings

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Today for no other reason than it seems more interesting than what all isn’t going on in my life, I am going to discuss my recorders, recorders in general, why I’m learning to play these things, plans for the future and anything else mildly related that happens to come to mind. Run away now while you can!

For twenty years I owned a Aulos Soprano recorder. I think I bought it at an SCA event – I know I got my fife at Gatalop a few years later – but I’m not even sure. I would occasionally dutifully take it out of the bag, read the fingering chart, carefully match my fingers to what the chart showed, blow gently and scare anything within a hundred yards. Then I would put it back in the bag and try to forget I owned the poor thing.

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I had played mallet percussion in high school and college (both of which are probably happier now that I have long since graduated…) so I could kind of read music – translate that to I could pick out the notes, memorize them and then work out the rhythm. It wasn’t a good process but after I got the hang of a piece, there was no yelling for me to stop playing – I’m pretty sure that wasn’t due to desperation to have someone hit the poor keyboard.

But the reality was I couldn’t read music very well. That was my own fault – I knew I was in trouble when I was switched off of snare in ‘crash’ band to start learning bells (mallets). My mom had mentioned my ill fated piano lessons from first grade – I had not learned much then, either. I should have spoken up and gotten some additional help – or practiced a heck of a lot more. I did neither – too chicken for the first and too lazy for the second. The band survived – which is about the only contribution I made to field or concert (jazz was another story for another day!).

I kept both the fife (beats me where it is now) and the recorder for all those years. I could make noise on the fife – but not music. Recorder – I think that should be classified as ‘neighborhood torture’ on the few occasions I even tried.

One morning in June 2014, I decided to stop in at the local senior center – I had just attained the ripe old age of fifty and met their requirement. The schedule I received included a ‘Recorder and Music’ class Thursday morning at 9 am. Well, it was something to do if and when I ever had time.  I finally decided what the heck, took off and dropped by one morning. The class was on soprano recorder at the time – but I didn’t bring mine with me for whatever reason.

Then I lost my job that October. Okay that didn’t directly cause me to suddenly want to try again. What it did do was free up my Thursday mornings. Since job hunting was going nowhere fast (very fast, actually) almost a year to the day later, I dropped by class again.

This time, I showed up with my poor little Aulos. At that point, recorder hadn’t been an interest – I honestly hadn’t known there were any other kinds than soprano – hadn’t thought about it, either. But the class was now working on alto recorder. I got to borrow one briefly – I was in love! First off, I had an instructor who could tell me how to do it right – and then I had a recorder that didn’t sound like someone was trying to pull the tail off of a cat.

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It took three months to save up enough Bing points to buy my own alto on Amazon. In the meantime, I found a kid’s recorder book at the library ($.10!) and began practicing every day. My sincerest apologies to the neighborhood – it still sounded pretty awful. But slowly, things improved – notes started to sound like notes and not an owl with a bladder infection. That stupid little line began to be D not just the fourth one up.

The lower register was hard at first – if the note came out, it did so unintentionally. Everything (written) Middle C and just above wanted to remain silent – evidently someone read them their Miranda rights. But gradually, it started to actually sound off when I wanted it to – occasionally, it even sounded like the note it was supposed to be!

Then, that October, my Yamaha Alto finally arrived! I was working at Walmart by then so I splurged the $19 for a book and a thumb rest – and went back to class for the first time since June. The squawking was over – I was playing actual notes and finally it sounded like music!

Okay, not great music – still a beginner, after all – but a lot better than anything that had previously come out of any poor woodwind unfortunate enough to come into my grasp. And yes, I had learned the wrong fingerings – but that didn’t take long to fix. At that time, my goal was to get good enough that I wouldn’t mind playing at SCA events – and neither would anyone else mind my playing.

I bought more recorder books (Bing points are a good thing!) and practiced a LOT. This past Christmas, about a year and a half later, I played in my first two recitals. Christmas survived – and other than not being as fast as the kids, it was not too bad at all.

That October (2016), I had begun to save up Bing points for a tenor recorder. I had just enough in May – when Amazon started collecting tax. Grumble, had to wait another 19 days…

The very next class after my ill fated attempt to make that order, out of the blue my instructor loaned me his tenor to start practicing on! He said it was to slow me down so the class could keep up! (Note: no one who ever taught me music or directed me in concert will ever believe that!).

My thumb has a defect – it does not bend at one of the joints. Never has.  Writing was NOT fun – I was always slow and it hurt. Drawing, ditto. Recorder – yeppers. But it usually gets easier pretty quickly – usually.

Tenor recorders are meant for people with big hands and better thumb joints – OUCH! I couldn’t hold it to play for more than a few minutes at first – but oh, when I did it was so AWESOME! I love the lower register – it sounds wonderful to me!

Granted, all my recorders are plastic – none of them sound like a wooden – although they don’t actually sound bad at all. I tolerate the soprano – at least we’re not squawking anymore and I’ve begun to control it well enough that it sounds more like music and less like a melodramatic bird screeching. (I heard a Youtube video where a gentleman was playing the soprano and it sounded AWESOME. He was trained in classical Chinese music and it made a big difference!)

Anyway, two weeks later I surprised everyone with my own Yamaha Tenor!

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I love the Alto – it sounds nice even in the high registers (when I manage to hit the notes – seriously, what is it with high F?). But the tenor? Oh man, if my fingers would hold out, I could play that thing all day long!

So now I have new goals. First, working on my reading. It’s easy to cheat between the F and the C recorders – the fingerings are the same, only the notes are four steps different. So if I can play it on one, I can play it on the other. But they are written differently (neither soprano nor alto is written as it sounds) so I have to be careful to practice each as written – fingering high G on the alto becomes D on the soprano and remember to finger D for the soprano instead of G (completely different fingering and it’s the G above middle C – music is fun and confusing!). But it’s getting there – fewer stops to figure out what the heck I was just doing (okay, it’s REALLY easy to start using the wrong fingerings – and still get music…).

I’ll buy a sopranino because I promised to. It’s smaller and higher pitched than the soprano. Tiny squeaky thing – and it’s not even the smallest – that would be the Gar Klein (German for really little). I will NOT be getting one of those – I have heard it. No, no, and NO! Besides, the cheapest is nearly $30 – for a glorified dog whistle that no self respecting dog would come to? No way!

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[The Gar Klein, second pic above, is about as long as a man’s hand is wide.]

No, I don’t like high pitched recorders – what gave me away?

Next, I want to get good enough to audition and play in a consort or ensemble (consorts are recorder ensembles – ensembles can be any number of combinations of instruments). That’s going to mean a lot more ear training – I can distinguish notes but not the little variations – yet. If I get to the point where I can seriously consider auditioning then I will invest in wooden recorders. Probably individual ones – I don’t really care for the sopranino and gar klein and I doubt I could finger a bass – we can probably just forget anything lower than that. My hands aren’t that big. But we’ll see – I might splurge on a plastic set and see how the bass works out…

Hey, you’re still reading? Cool! I thought I’d lost everyone about paragraph three.

Anyway, whether or not I get good enough to audition successfully, recorder class has been the real highlight of the last three years. It probably worked out so well because I no longer have TV to distract me but what the hey – it worked! I can actually play real music on these things (soprano included). I will probably play at events when I am back on my feet and can go to events. Come Christmas I can play at church and maybe find some other opportunities. I read music now better than I ever did in all the years I played percussion (oh, and my instructor taught us something called soffegio that is WAY better than traditional counting for rhythm – seriously! Although I still have to count for harmony if I’m playing in a group.)

I can play recorder! Woo hoo!

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