Fri. Sep 22nd, 2023

It’s been well over 30 years since I first reached into a school crate and pulled out a plastic descant recorder, and yet I can still remember the visceral thrill I got from coaxing birdlike sounds with my fingers and mouth. I was a shy five-year-old – I hadn’t started speaking until I was two – and although it might seem corny to suggest that this eight-holed baton acted as some kind of magical wand for my confidence, I don’t think that my trills and toots are wholly unrelated. They gave me a voice.

Like most of us, I was introduced to the recorder during rowdy group classes at my state-funded primary school. But unlike most of us, I chose to keep playing it well into my 20s, swapping my plastic descant for a larger wooden treble in order to tackle the baroque melodies of Telemann (with a hit-or-miss approach). There was something about its sensitivity to touch and breath that hooked me: a tender and earthy warble (if played well) v a squealing and screeching racket (if played badly).

Perhaps that’s why I fell for it so fervently. It’s arguably why the 600-year-old instrument is so regularly mocked as the Marmite of the woodwind world – a description I bristled at only last month when news of its impending extinction in UK schools gave rise to yet more jibes. It may well be a shrieking tool of torture for some. But for me, and so many others, it’s provided a gateway to some of the greatest, and most beautiful, music I’ve ever heard.

“In another world I would have loved to be a singer,” Evelyn Nallen muses as we discuss our shared love of this much-maligned instrument. Nallen made her debut on BBC radio as a recorder player at the age of nine, and, up until her recent retirement, taught the instrument at the Royal Academy of Music’s junior department. Nallen was also drawn to the recorder for its anthropomorphic qualities as a young child. “The recorder is the nearest thing to the voice that there is,” she tells me. Practising when she was younger, in the 1950s and 60s, Nallen would listen to popular singers in order to develop her skills. “I mean, if you want to learn how to phrase something, listen to Frank Sinatra.” A fast vibrato? “Listen to Nat King Cole.”

At the heart of the recent headline flurries lies a much deeper story about the future of music in schools in the face of successive funding cuts. Added to this, a Covid crisis that has dissuaded many children from picking up shared classroom instruments. It’s not just a crisis affecting the recorder: the numbers have dropped for woodwinds in general. “There was a time when you couldn’t turn around without bumping into a flute and clarinet,” says Nallen. Now they’re being taught privately. Perhaps what has fuelled the crisis for recorders more specifically is its ubiquity – which has fostered a kind of devaluation as a result. “Being cheap is a double-edge sword,” Nallen says. Yes, it makes the recorder accessible, but it can also be taken for granted, “because you can just throw it into a cupboard drawer.”

Sarah Jeffery, a classically trained recorder player and educator.
Sarah Jeffery, a classically trained recorder player and educator. Photograph: Claudia Hansen Photography

And yet “it’s a vastly complex instrument,” says Sarah Jeffery. “It’s even a little bit dangerous”, she adds with a smile, “because every little move you make can be heard.” My first encounter with Jeffery, a classically-trained recorder player and educator, was via her YouTube channel Team Recorder, a platform where she publishes weekly tutorials on all aspects of playing and music-making. Started in 2016, and triggered by a frustration that “there was no information about the recorder online at all,” Jeffery filmed her first video sitting on her bed, and it immediately took off.

“I try and keep it real,” she says. “One week I’ll be talking about French baroque ornamentation, and then I’ll do a tutorial on Taylor Swift because that’s what I’m listening to,” she laughs. The channel now boasts 191,000 subscribers, and has brought her into contact with passionate communities from all over the world.

“Music should be fun,” she emphasises. But her YouTube channel is also there to inform. Where there is indifference, there is also ignorance. Quipping aside, how many of us could name a recorder outside of the four types – soprano, alto, tenor and bass – that we tried at school? “The smallest is the garklein which is an octave higher than the descant at 15cm,” Jeffery says, taking me through the upward size shifts. “Then there’s the sopranino, followed by the descant, treble, tenor, bass.” She pauses. “Great bass, contrabass, sub great bass, sub contrabass, sub sub great bass, sub sub contrabass.” She gasps for breath. “As it stands, the longest recorder is 4.8 metres.” How do you play that? “They’ve actually coiled it like a bassoon,” she says. It still stands at around seven feet tall.

“The recorder, as we know it, has existed for centuries in many forms,” Jeffery reminds me. The earliest known document that refers to “a pipe called recordour” was written in 1388. What this means for players in 2023 is that there is a huge variety of music to explore. The golden age may have been in the baroque period of the 1700s (that’s your Handel, Vivaldi and Bach) but one of my favourite composers in my mid-teens was a late Renaissance Venetian called Giovanni Bassano. Even Henry VIII was a devoted player. Upon his death, in 1547, a collection of 76 recorders were found in his personal collection.

skip past newsletter promotion

Interior with a young Man holding a Recorder, c1610- 1621. Artist: Cecco del Caravaggio.
Interior with a young Man holding a Recorder, c1610- 1621. Artist: Cecco del Caravaggio. Photograph: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy

But to consider this woodwind instrument as solely a historical artefact would be wide of the mark. I wish I had kept the letter I wrote to the NME, when I was 18, begging for work experience. In it, I listed all the pop records I loved that featured my beloved recorder: Van Morrison’s Streets of Arklow, Jefferson Airplane’s Comin’ Back to Me, the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday, Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Were they persuaded by my playlist? It’s hard to tell – but either way, I got the gig.

Since its baroque-pop revival 50 years ago, many musicians have embraced its lithe and woody sound. From Sufjan Stevens to Jonny Greenwood – who in 2019 paid tribute to his childhood recorder classes when accepting his Ivor Novello award. “Since the 1960s, there have been more pieces composed for the recorder than in all the centuries before,” Jeffery says. Even in my own sheet music collection, the 17th-century preludes of Jacob van Eyck are sandwiched between the 20th-century English pastoralism of Robin Milford. Its reach goes far beyond the confines of the Greensleeves folk ballad we’re all familiar with.

In fact, it’s riding a bit of a wave with soundtrack composers right now, Jeffery tells me. In 2020, for instance, Star Wars spin-off The Mandalorian aired its first episode to the eerie soundtrack of a trio of bass recorders composed by Academy Award-winning composer Ludwig Göransson.

“I’m always surprised when I hear of regular bands playing recorders now,” Charlotte Barbour-Condini says with a smile. “When I was younger, there was a hesitance on my part to tell people that I played it, and that I took it as seriously as the violin.” Known for being the first recorder player in the BBC Young Musician prize’s history to win the woodwind category in 2012, much has changed since Barbour-Condini first began playing at primary school. It didn’t take long for her to discover the many benefits of its freewheeling individuality.

“It’s not an orchestral instrument so there’s not many expectations around it – you can kind of do what you want,” she says. For instance: “Nobody’s going to ask you to join the symphony orchestra to play some Mahler.” Bearing this in mind, recorder players are encouraged to do their own thing as they advance in skill. “You’re actively looking for repertoire far more than if you were a violinist,” she explains. “At the [Royal Academy of Music] we collaborated a lot more with the composing department than others.”

Tali Rubinstein, contemporary jazz and classical recorder player.
Tali Rubinstein, contemporary jazz and classical recorder player. Photograph: Sandra Emmeline

For many recorder players, it is this sense of freedom that enables them to keep pushing the boundaries of what the instrument can do. Only recently, Tali Rubinstein, an Israeli American contemporary jazz and classical recorder player, bought two amplified recorders so that she can play around with effects. With few recorder reference points in the jazz world, her development as a player has been pretty self-determined: Rubinstein is looking to explore and the recorder’s versatility helps her with that. It makes such a beautiful sound, she muses, but it’s also incredibly reactive: “The tiniest movement changes everything.”

People tend to disparage the recorder because it’s a training instrument, says Barbour-Condini. But its recent decline is also connected to a wider issue, she underlines, and that’s the increasing marginalisation of music in our schools. “If anything can survive, the recorder can,” Nallen predicts, optimistically. What it needs, Jeffery urges, is to be valued.

In 2020, I picked up my treble recorder after nearly a decade of neglect. It would take a global pandemic and a lonely lockdown for me to search for it beneath a pile of dusty magazines. Was I simply looking for a distraction? I like to think that my excavation ran deeper than that, bringing me closer to the day I fished one out from the school crate. My playing may be rusty these days, but the feeling it gives me is strangely the same. A trill and a toot. Those birdlike sounds, giving me a voice.

#vastly #complex #dangerous #defence #recorder #Marmite #woodwind #world #Music

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *