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  • The Joy of Bass
  • Joy Awaits You
  • The Joy of Consorts
  • The Power of Negative Thinking


The Joy of Bass

In the Seventies, when I started playing the recorder, basses were as scarce as Republicans in Manhattan. Just owning the instrument gave you cachet. Being able to play it put you on a pedestal. Music publishers in those days sometimes included in their editions an extra bass part arranged for tenor recorder, on the assumption that most groups didn't have a bass player. A friend of mine was in such a group, and when she and her cohorts decided to perform a piece arranged for SATB, they solved their instrumentation problem by leaving out the bottom line.

Nowadays it's assumed that if you're an advanced player, or even an ambitious intermediate, you will own a bass. You might also own a great bass, or even a contra. But for a long time, there was resistance. Basses cost money. Some people said they couldn't handle the stretch. Some groused about having to lug another instrument. Some whined about learning bass clef. Some feared that if they were the only bass player in the group, they'd be stuck on the bottom line for the whole session.

In time, we all grew up. There are stages in the life of a recorder player, just as there are stages in the life of a butterfly or a forest or a star. When you're starting out, you're timid, so you hide out on second alto lines or tenor parts. As you gain confidence, you head upwards. The soprano part is where the action is, so that's where you want to be. For better or worse, some of us stay there. But just as a young adult stops drinking soda with dinner and starts drinking wine, the mature player starts to seek out bass parts.

The bass player is the grownup in the room. A sensitive listener feel this every time the lowest part returns after a few bars of rest. While it's away, the upper parts flitter shrilly like kindergarteners on speed. Then the bass comes back, stern and dignified, and order is restored. In a recorder consort, the teacher will usually tell you to tune to the bass. In a baroque ensemble, the continuo is the boss. Sure, the top lines have the flashy parts, but who sets the tempo? The sound of the instrument is reason enough to love it. It's rich and resonant, like a fine operatic baritone. Few pleasures can compare with playing a solid low F at a cadence. The instrument vibrates. Your whole being vibrates with it. For that moment, you feel on the bottom of the world.

Joy Awaits You
Here Are The Facts

The recorder has been around since the Middle Ages. You'd think something that venerable would get some respect. But no. Too many people out there think it's just a folk instrument, or a starter instrument for school kids, or a pocket-sized pipe with a shrill, obnoxious sound. Even Anthony Baines, who wrote or edited dozens of articles and books about music and instruments, dismissed the recorder as "easy to play and cheap to buy," perfect for the musician who is both lazy and tight-fisted.

Sure, in some cultures recorder-type instruments are used for folk music — Israel, for instance, which produced those abysmal Gill recorders that were made of balsa wood and left splinters in your mouth. But in Western Europe, throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods (and that's a long time, let me tell you), the recorder was used for art music. Recorder consorts entertained Henry VIII. Bach wrote some of the solo parts in the Brandenburg concertos with recorders in mind. In the Baroque period, the recorder was one of the premiere solo instruments, right up there with the violin. There's a ton of serious music just from this era. Telemann alone will keep you busy for decades with his sonatas and duets.

Sure, the recorder is a great starter instruments for kids. You don't have to struggle to get a sound out of it, as you do with the flute; you don't have to futz with reeds, as you do with the clarinet and the saxophone and the oboe; and the finger holes on the soprano are easy for small hands to reach. But don't stop there! The instrument may be easy to learn, but you can spend a lifetime mastering it, as any professional player will tell you. And once you start exploring articulation and alternate fingerings, you will find that the recorder is as sophisticated as any orchestral instrument. It may not have the range or the dynamics, but boy, is it expressive! And no matter how good you get, there will always be another piece that's just beyond your technique. Like any other instrument worth playing, the recorder is inexhaustible.

As to the shrill and obnoxious sound people complain of, that's the soprano you're talking about, and a badly-played one at that. The soprano has a lot of big brothers, down to the F contrabass. Six feet tall, this monster has bottom notes that sound like the QEII setting sail. Now and then an instrument maker with time on his hands and trees at his disposal will make something bigger. Victor Mahillon, onetime director of the Brussels Museum of Musical Instruments, copied a Renaissance extended great bass in C. This thing is about eight feet long and virtually unplayable, but what serious musician doesn't love a challenge? A low consort — tenor, bass, great bass and contrabass — has the richness and sonority of an organ, and a lot more flexibility.

Is the recorder useless except for old music? Absolutely not. In Philadelphia jazz clubs, customers would laugh when Joel Levine got up to play his soprano recorder. They stopped laughing after the first few licks. Go on You Tube to hear a recorder quintet play "Purple Haze," the Jimi Hendrix classic. Go to Europe and hear conservatory-trained musicians play new works for the recorder. Adventurous composers have discovered that there's more to this instrument than a sweet sound and nimble articulation, and they're making the most of it. For most amateurs, though, the recorder means the Handel sonatas and Josquin motets. And that's fine. Just work on style and technique, and buy some big instruments. Joy awaits you.

The Joy of Consorts

Just as one rotten apple can spoil the barrel, one rotten recorder player can spoil a consort. Tom rushes. Dick drags. Harry's sharp. April's flat. May knocks her stand over whenever she tries to turn a page. June mixes up her music. They all get lost, and they all ask those questions that chill the blood: "Where are we starting?" "Did you mean the very beginning?" "Were we supposed to repeat?" "What piece are we on?" Most groups have one of these treasures. Groups with exceptionally bad karma have two or three. If it takes that little to wreck a group — and it does, believe me it does — why do we bother? Why come to meetings? Why go to workshops? Why play in a group at all? Because when things go right, they're extraordinary.

Some day Tom will have a cold, Dick will be out of town on business, Harry will be minding the children for a change, April will be meeting with her lawyer, May will be trying to talk her daughter out of divorcing her husband, and June will be having root canal. Those who are left won't be world-class musicians, but with luck they'll at least be competent. With that as a starting point, good things can happen.

The first time through a new piece you're not likely to do much listening because you're too busy figuring out your own part. But the next few times, if you have any aptitude at all for consort playing, you'll start to hear things. Now and then the soprano line copies your tenor part. Let's agree on phrasing and articulation. The alto's got the tune here, so everybody else, let's pipe down and let it stand out. Here, in the middle of this fantasia, is a little galliard. Let's play a little shorter and make it sound like a dance. Here's a grand pause. Let's look up and make sure we start together.

In fact, let's make sure we're doing everything together. That's the whole point of consort playing. You're not a soloist, you're part of a whole, and the whole is a lot more than the sum of its parts. One veteran teacher used to arrange a class in a circle and then point to the center: "That's where you should hear the sound."

Recently, I heard the Boreas Quartet Bremen, four gifted young women playing recorder music from four centuries. The pieces had hot licks for everybody, and the players made the most of them, but in the middle of even the most intricate passages they kept looking up at each other, making sure that this was a group project instead of four solos. The best accompanist I ever saw was a young guitarist named Robin Polseno. Onstage with four singers, two on each side of him, he kept looking up at them like a border collie keeping track of his flock.

At its best, a recorder consort sounds like an organ, with one mind in control. Of course the sound isn't a lot of undifferentiated mush, you can certainly hear individual lines, but there's a sense of common conception and purpose. The tuning's locked in, everybody's phrasing the same way, the dynamics rise and fall together. It's like watching the four cygnets in Swan Lake or a beautifully executed football play. It's a miraculous thing to be part of.

The Power of Negative Thinking

Lousy recorder players don’t ask how they can improve.  That’s because they don’t realize how lousy they are.  But for the average player, the one who not only thinks he can improve but knows he should, there is hope. 

The best advice I can give this person is, Don’t be wrong.  This isn’t the same as being right.  Playing the piece right is the goal.  Not doing it wrong is a start.  Pay heed to the words of Oliver Cromwell.  No, he didn’t play the recorder, he just ran a country, but he had some sound notions of how to do it.  In the middle of a brawl with the impossibly rigid and dogmatic Scottish Presbyterian church, Cromwell erupted: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

So if you’re at bar 37 and everybody else in your consort is at bar 38, at least consider that you might be the one who’s off.  If you’re a foot-tapper (and if you are, shame on you), have a look at the other feet in the room.  If they’re going down when your foot is going up, chances are you’re the one who’s wrong.  If everyone else is playing in duple meter and you’re in triple time, stop and check the time signature.

Articulation matters.  A teacher with whom I play regularly will explain, sometimes at the top of her voice, that if everyone else is playing the notes short and you’re not, it will sound as though no one is playing the notes short.  If somebody wants you to play the notes short, just do it.  This is no time to think for yourself.

Tempo matters.  I know an amateur who keeps the beat by rocking back and forth.  This slows her down.  When I point this out, her eyebrows shoot up.  “Professionals move their bodies when they perform,” she insists.  Yes, but they don’t slow down.  In a consort, think of Goldilocks when you think of the tempo: not too fast, not too slow, just right.

If you’re in a group and you can hear yourself, you’re playing too loud.  How often have you heard this?  So why are you still overblowing?  Years ago I met a woman from a remote part of Long Island who had only a married couple to play with.  The husband blared like a trumpeter.  Julie pointed out that he was overblowing, and he said, with pleasure and pride, “That’s how I like to play the recorder!” There’s not much you can do with someone like this, other than encourage him to take up the trumpet, but luckily the rest of us are more open to suggestions.  We are, aren’t we?


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