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Zen and the Recorder

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

Now that I have entered my eighth decade, I am learning to play the recorder.  There is no time to lose, so I practice daily, much to Bisou\’s dismay.  The minute she sees me pick up the green plastic case that houses the instrument, she tucks her tail between her legs and leaves the room.  And I don\’t blame her–the squeaks and whistles I produce often make me want to leave the room.
But as if the noises weren’t bad enough, there is an additional humiliation:  spit.  When an inexperienced player such as I puts the instrument to her lips and begins to blow, saliva escapes into the mouth piece, adheres to the inside of the pipe, and does terrible things to the sound.  With the exception of occasional lapses during deep sleep, I haven’t salivated involuntarily since I got my first teeth.  And now here I am, practically a century later, drooling helplessly into my recorder.
Like one of Pavlov’s dogs at the sound of the bell, the minute I start to play my salivary glands go into overdrive.  This happens especially during a lesson, or while I play a duet with one of my recorder buddies.  We all know that stress triggers bad things, from headaches to heart attacks.  For recorder players, stress triggers salivation, and viceversa.  Sure enough, as soon as I hear that half-choked, reedy sound that indicates the presence of moisture in the pipe I go into alarm mode, which in turn raises my stress levels and causes rivers of spit to gush into my instrument.
“What can I do about this awful drooling?” I asked my teacher after a particularly cacophonous session.
“Just relax and accept it,” she said, sounding more like a Zen master than a recorder instructor. “Here, try reaming it out with this,” she added, handing me a cylindrical swab.
And she was right.  The swab helps, but the real key lies in my mind and in my heart.  The more I make peace with my salivary glands, the less they feel they have to assert themselves.  Sometimes I manage to play an entire piece without having to swab.  But if, in the middle of a passage that is going well, I think to myself “wow, this sounds pretty good!” the spit instantly pours forth.  It is not unlike what happens to me in meditation when, for a few fleeting moments, I manage to stay with the breath.  As soon as I begin to congratulate myself, my monkey mind leaps into action and all is lost.
My teacher assures me that with time the spit problem will get better, though it may not go away completely (that is why they make those special swabs).  Until then, it seems that the best technique is a spiritual rather than a musical one:  I have to stay open to the possibility of drools and squeaks, errors and embarrassment, and keep on making music as best I can.

6 Responses

  1. Wow! I can hardly believe it, I also drool onto my guitar. It often happens during lessons and even at home when I get completely lost in a piece, as I am now obsessed with the Bach 1st cello suite. I started the first minuet during my lesson on Friday and yesterday when I was practicing it the drool dripped onto the shoulder of the guitar. I have a Robert Desmond guitar; he places round holes on the shoulders of the instrument to let some of the overtones escape through the top of the sound box. It helps to produce a cleaner and mellower tone, but one has to beware because the drool can easily drip right into the inside of the instrument where it could wreak havoc. My friend Harry also has a Bob Desmond and he does not take good care of his instrument despite his playing like an angel. He does a fantastic Recuerdos de la Alhambra, but once when we were rehearsing together over a lunch break, a bit of tuna fish salad dropped from his sandwich right into the sound hole of his $10,000 Bob Desmond. He got it out without too much of a fuss.

  2. I had a cat who used to drool while he purred and kneaded…Speaking of dropping stuff into one's instrument, I read somewhere that Pau Casals, who smoked his pipe incessantly while practicing or teaching, used to absentmindedly drop matches into his cello, and you could actually hear them rattling around in there.

  3. Your last phrase says it all – \”keep on making music as best I can.\” (I play the flute – the spit has longer to travel.)

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