A few years ago I began to learn to play the recorder. Then last year, bedeviled by a damaged neck, a hard-to-milk goat, and Bisou\’s infancy, I returned the music scores I\’d borrowed from T, my recorder mentor, and put the sweet pipes away.
These days, however, the nights are long, the goats and the neck pain are gone, and Bisou has settled down, and I have pulled my plastic Yamaha alto recorder out of the closet. In the evening, before dinner, I set up the stand by the wood stove, open my Sweet Pipes Recorder Book, A Method for Adults and Older Beginners, and practice.
Wolfie and Lexi keep their distance, and Bisou scuttles off to the TV room to watch the news with my spouse. I try to remember my fingerings, try to breathe at the right places, try, above all, to keep my beginner\’s spit from clogging up the pipes (I\’m told that this problem decreases with time).
Spit is one thing I never had to worry about during my violin-playing days. But then, the thing I love about the recorder is how un-violin-like it is. Compared to that sadistic four-stringed sergeant, the recorder is a kindly Montessori teacher. It rewards your slightest attention with a reasonable sound. After just a few hours of practice you can play little tunes. There is no vibrato, no position changes, no bow to confound the player.
At one point during my first attempt to learn the recorder, I became frustrated with its limitations–a less-than-two-octave range, no dynamic range, no bow. I took my father\’s violin to a luthier to be reconditioned, bought a couple of method books whose names I remembered from forty years ago, and started practicing
It was dreadful. Not only were my tone and technique utterly gone, but holding my arms aloft was hard on my CFS-ridden body. I was aware of so much about my playing that needed fixing right away that I would practice for ninety minutes straight–my jaws, arms and upper back rigid with anxiety–and then collapse. After a few weeks of that I put the violin away and fled back to the recorder.
Now once again, after more than a year\’s hiatus, it has welcomed me back with open arms. But perhaps what makes playing the recorder so different from playing the violin has more to do with what\’s going on inside my head than with the instrument itself.
To the recorder I bring what buddhists call \”beginner\’s mind.\” I am free from expectations, goals and priorities. I barely know what to aim for in tone, and have only the sketchiest notions of breath control and hand position. Instead, I\’m simply focused on getting through the \”Bransle\” by Michael Praetorius as best I can.
And that\’s another thing I like about the recorder. The method books are full of little gems from the (to me) musically hazy times before Bach, by composers I\’d never heard of: Tielman Susato, Claude Gervaise, even Henry VIII. One of Henry\’s pieces is entitled \”Alas, Madame,\” to which I mentally add \”I\’m going to cut your head off.\”
Right now I\’m a couple of lessons into Book II of my \”adults and older beginners\” method. Maybe if I practice faithfully, and get enough fingerings into my brain, and do something about all that embarrassing spit, I\’ll get to play duets with my mentor, T, before spring comes.