Notes: Respect For The Recorder

From L to R: tenor, alto, soprano, sopranino

Impressively, the recorder set we ordered arrived before Christmas. Perhaps less impressively, we – both of us are learning to play – didn’t get around to actually trying them until after Christmas…but once we did, we were hooked!

The first day of “playing” the recorders was spent getting oriented to them, in part because they were completely new instruments to us and also because there were four different sizes and we hadn’t yet staked a claim on a favorite. I had already suspected I’d like the alto or tenor recorders best due to the deeper sound, and I was right.

From largest (and lowest pitched) to the smallest (and highest pitched), they are: tenor, alto, soprano, and sopranino. This Harmony set also comes as a quintet, with a bass recorder, but it was out of stock until later in January, so we opted for the quartet, instead. The bass is even larger and lower pitched than the tenor recorder, and requires greater reach than the others; the tenor recorder also has a key to allow reach to the very last hole.

So, with our first attempts to play the recorders, there was, frankly, an embarrassing amount of squeaking and a few actual squawks, and the dogs were perturbed (though I reassured them that, one day, they’d be treated to Bach’s Badinerie). Undaunted, we resolved to keep working at it, canine criticism be damned.

After four practice sessions, we’re able to play very simple pieces, like “Merrily We Roll Along”. Without many squeaks. And, importantly, we’re able to read the music. It’s gratifying to go from putting together the instruments on day one, wondering how they’ll sound, and then creating unpleasant notes to – by day three – being able to play a recognizable song and to like the notes you’re playing. Progress is sweet!

While I’m typically a book learner, I did find that YouTube was helpful to supplement my book. Mr. Klotz, for example, had short lessons that were easy to follow (yes, aimed at grade schoolers, but still helpful) and that made me realize that I’d been blowing too hard, not covering the holes completely, and breathing incorrectly; once addressed, the sound was greatly improved. Thank you, Mr. Klotz – and, yes, I’m practicing daily!

At first, we tried playing each of the different recorders each practice session, but have realized that it probably makes the most sense for us to pick one and focus on it (at least initially) – the reach varies quite a bit based on the size of the instrument, and it can be difficult to switch from one to another since the space between holes can vary quite a bit. The sopranino, tiny and high-pitched, poses the opposite challenge, with very little space between holes and thus many opportunities to “fat finger” notes.

Sopranino

Another lesson learned is that the fingering for recorders in key of F (sopranino, alto) is completely different than for those in key of C (soprano, tenor). While key of C fingering can be used on key of F recorders and sound ok when played solo, it doesn’t sound quite right when played with a recorder in key of C.

Alto

Listen to me play “Merrily” on the tenor recorder (key of C):

Listen to Mr. fMf play “Merrily” on the alto recorder (key of F), with key of C fingering:

Listen to both of us play “Merrily” together, same recorders, same fingering:

Do you hear how the song sounds slightly off key when both recorders play together? To play with other instruments, the alto really needs to be played with correct (key of F) fingering. Because of this, we’ve decided to focus on learning key of C recorders first, then key of F. Honestly, though, I’m fighting the urge to try to learn both, concurrently.

So, just a few days in, I think that the recorder is a fun, affordable, and (potentially) mellifluous instrument that I look forward to playing more skillfully. And, despite its image, it is a real instrument, actually played masterfully by professional musicians in orchestras! How did I not know this before??

As 2020 comes to a close, I look forward to continuing my recorder journey in 2021. Badinerie, I’m coming for you…someday. And if you’re thinking about learning an instrument – regardless of your age – just go for it! You’ll be better tomorrow than you were today. May 2021 be better, brighter, and more musical!

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