Choosing a new recorder – more tips and hints

Looking for a new recorder? Lots to choose from at Open Recorder Days Amsterdam.

You’re choosing a new recorder. After last week’s post, you’ve decided whether you want to go for plastic, wood, or even plastic-and-wood. But what do you do now? You could go to a shop. You could buy online. Or you could have some fun! Seeing as the London International Festival of Early Music is coming up, and also Open Recorder Days Amsterdam, you could well decide to go to an exhibition and see lots of sellers and makers all in one place.

Whichever option you choose, you need to think about the following things. These are my tips for making sure that you end up buying the instrument that suits you, your physique, and your playing style, so that you can have many happy hours of playing ahead.

Set your budget

Exhibitions are full of pretty things, and many of them are very expensive. Decide beforehand how much you are prepared to spend, and try to stick to it. Choosing a new recorder can be a little like attending an auction – if you don’t decide your limit, you can easily spend more than you intended!

Shop around.

The great thing about exhibitions is that there are a large number of shops and makers in one place. Talk to everyone; try as many instruments as possible. Even try instruments that are well outside your price range. I know this is a dangerous suggestion, but it means that you’ll have a sense of what a top-quality instrument is like. You can then use this as a kind of benchmark when you start to try out other instruments.

Try out instruments.

Be prepared to play. Scales and arpeggios will tell you if the instrument is in tune, and will give you an idea of the tone of each note up and down the registers. But also take along (or memorise) a fragment of a couple of things that you are playing at the moment. This will give you a sense of what each instrument is like to play in the repertoire that you are working on. Your new recorder will need to feel and sound comfortable in the repertoire you most often play.

It also needs to feel comfortable in your hands. Are you having to stretch a little more than is comfortable? Is this an instrument you’re going to play often? Unless there are really good reasons to do otherwise, I would tell you not to buy it, no matter how good the sound. You will always be struggling to play and won’t enjoy it as you should.

Try to find somewhere quiet

This is a tall order, particularly in the London International Early Music Festival home at Blackheath Halls, but if you can find a spot that is slightly quieter, you will have more of a chance of hearing the tone of the instrument you are trying out.

Take a friend

When you play, you are effectively behind the instrument, so you don’t really hear what it actually sounds like to an audience. Take a friend along (preferably someone who also plays recorder) so that you can ask their opinion on the tone.

(If you’re not at an exhibition) Order more than one instrument to try.

Shops like the Early Music Shop will send you more than one instrument, so that you can try different models at home. This is great because it gives you a little more time to decide, and you can ask friends you play with – or your teacher – what their opinion is of each instrument.

Take your time

If you find one or two instruments you like at an exhibition, ask the seller to put them to one side for you. Walk away. Have a cup of tea. Let yourself have a moment or three to reflect. It can be very easy to get caught up in the moment, and sometimes it’s a great idea to give yourself some space to decide if you want to go ahead with the purchase.

Then go back to the seller, and try the instrument one more time. If you still love it, buy it.

The most important thing is that you choose a new recorder that you enjoy playing. It should be comfortable in your hands, and make a nice sound for you. And you should take pleasure in the way it looks and feels. If it does all these things, you’ll be happy playing. And that is the most important thing of all.

Photo of Open Recorder Days Amsterdam 2017 by Jennifer Mackerras

Choosing a new recorder – wood or plastic?

The London International Festival of Early Music is coming up in early November, and before that Open Recorder Days Amsterdam. And then Christmas is nearly upon us! This means it’s the time of the year that lots of us start feeling the urge to buy a new recorder. But if you’re quite new to playing, you might not know what to look for, or how to go about it. This week and next I want to give you my tips for getting the instrument that best suits your needs.

The week I want to discuss the issue that often torments people when they are thinking of upgrading to a new recorder – wood or plastic?

New recorder – Wood or plastic?

Wooden instruments look very pretty, and it is tempting to assume that a wooden instrument will always be better than a plastic one. This is not necessarily the case. There has always been a bit of a bias towards wood; people tend to think of plastic instruments as only good for learners. I disagree – there are some really top notch plastic instruments out there. Yamaha, Aulos and Zen-on all make very high quality plastic instruments. Zen-on have even partnered with the Takeyama Workshop to produce a very good alto – a Bressan copy with proper Baroque bore and finger holes.

Similarly, one needs to be careful in one’s attitude to the wooden recorders. It used to be true that cheap wooden instruments were often poorly finished and of very variable quality. I’m not so sure that this is true now – I think production techniques have improved in the last decade or two – but I would still carefully consider my options before buying a bottom-of-the-range wooden instrument.

So here is my suggestion. Rather than getting into the whole ‘wood or plastic’ debate, how about choosing your new recorder by deciding how you are going to use it. 

Questions to ask before starting to look for a new recorder

Are you a new-ish player? A good plastic instrument may be more stable and a more cost-effective option.

Do you play every week? It might be worth spending the extra for a really nice wooden instrument.

Is this going to be your main instrument, or a spare? A good plastic instrument makes a great spare for those times when you are doing a weekend course and you risk your wooden instrument getting sodden with condensation.

Do you actually pinch high notes? You can ruin the thumbhole on a wooden recorder by pinching. You will either need to spend extra on getting the thumbhole bushed (an extra bit of plastic inserted around the hole), or choose plastic for safety.

Do you have time to look after a wooden recorder? They do need oiling on a regular basis – some quite frequently. If you are short on spare time, this might be a good reason to stick to plastic.

Wood AND plastic

Just as a side point, Mollenhauer make a very decent Prima range that have a plastic head joint and a pear wood body. They are relatively inexpensive, have the stability of a plastic head joint, but the lovely extra resonance in the tone that comes with a wooden recorder. I have a couple of these; my Prima soprano is actually my soprano of choice. Here’s a picture of me holding it just before a concert (yes, I am wearing a scarf and coat – the church was cold!).

Recorder - wood or plastic? How about both! Me with my recorder and soprano Hayley Guest pre-concert.

Next time I’ll give you come more top tips about how to choose the instrument that suits you and your playing style to perfection.

Why a pre-performance performance is a good idea

Having all the gear - like the guitarist's footstool - is part of the pre-performance performance

You’re ready for the performance. You’ve done your pre-performance checks. You have your recorders, music, stand; the really organised people have stands or blankets for resting instruments waiting to be played… But have you made sure you know which recorder to pick up at which time?

I have a clear memory of the last time my son played in the classical guitar classes at our local Festival. (By the way, entering Festivals is a great idea for learners, no matter what level you’ve reached – you get performance practice, you can trial new pieces, and you even get feedback from a professional. Bonus!) He was fine walking out to the stage area and setting up his music, footstool and guitar. He played beautifully. But then…

It took him ages to get offstage again. He had an expensive guitar, a footstool (awkward to hold), and a music book. Three things, but only two hands. It took him a while to work out how to hold them all in order to walk off!

It’s a classic illustration of the importance of doing run-throughs in performance conditions: you learn what little things you haven’t accounted for. A few years ago, I learned the hard way that one needs to practice drinking water from a bottle while running, if one is to avoid drenching oneself during the race! My son now understands the importance of doing a pre-performance performance, so that he can rehearse those little things like picking up a footstool.

Why a pre-performance performance is good

There are huge benefits to organising for yourself a pre-performance performance. You can:

  • pick up the little things that might trip you up (like a footstool)
  • test out playing under performance conditions. Having an audience, however small, forces you to play through any mistakes you make.
  • help yourself smooth over nerves for the actual day. You’ll prove to yourself that you can do the task of performing, and as FM knew, success builds confidence.
  • learn where you need to do more work. You’ll find the places where you need to think again, both musically and logistically.

Organising a pre-performance performance gives you a chance to use one of the key tools FM Alexander used to solve his vocal problems: you have the chance to analyse the conditions present. This was the first step in FM’s short protocol for working out how to best organise himself in any given activity. He would analyse the conditions present, then use that information to reason out the best means to achieve his goal, and then work on doing just those things.[1]

I was reminded of this recently because at a recent gig there was no time for a pre-performance run-through (through illness and injury we had to organise a fresh set less than 24 hours before the performance). My mind was so busy with doing the chat to the audience between pieces that I forgot what was coming next, and picked up the wrong recorder. It caused great hilarity, but I would have been happier not having it happen at all!

Giving a pre-performance performance helps you to analyse the specific set of conditions present in the actual performance, so that you have a better idea of how to approach it. You’ll be able to reason out a plan so as to give yourself the best chance of success. And that can only be good.

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion Books, p.39.

Finger technique: why you should keep fingers close to the holes on your recorder

A few posts ago I talked about holding the recorder. Today I want to tackle the subject of finger technique, and why it makes sense to keep your fingers close to the holes on your recorder. I’m sure everyone knows that it makes sense, but I’m guessing that many of you will have found it easier said than done! I’m going to try to explain it from an anatomical point of view, and I’m hoping that it will be helpful.

The problem: the ‘attacking spider’ look

Does your hand look a bit like this on your instrument?

Tendons of finger extensor muscles visible with poor finger technique

If it does, I’m guessing that you probably do the same when you use a keyboard or mouse. When you play, I am guessing that your fingers rise a long way above the instrument. If you’ve done an exam, the examiner may have queried your finger technique. You may well have difficulty playing fast passages accurately; sometimes people sitting close to you might even hear your fingers hitting the instrument as you’re playing. You may also feel your fingers to be quite tense; maybe you miss holes when you are playing, or sometimes have trouble covering them properly.

I’m also guessing that your arms and wrists get tired if you’ve played for a while. You can see in the picture why this is: note the angulation between the hand and wrist. Also take a look at the tension in the back of the hand – you can see all the tendons sticking out. Not a good look!

Most of the major muscles that operate your fingers aren’t really situated in your hand; if they were, your hand would be too meaty to move effectively! Instead, the belly of the muscle is in your forearm, and a tendon snakes down your arm to connect to your finger.

A diagram showing the belly of the muscles that extend the fingers are in the forearm.

When we lift our fingers away from the instrument, we’re engaging a whole series of finger extensor muscles in the forearm. That’s why your forearm might get tired or sore.

Taking advantage of the anatomy of your hand.

The big problem with using finger extensors so much in the ‘attacking spider’ posture is that it works against the natural shape of our hands. A resting hand looks like this:

A resting hand

Note the shape of the hand here – it has a lovely soft curve to the dorsal surface, and the fingers curl naturally in towards the palmar surface. It’s a beautiful shape, It’s also the perfect shape to fit a treble recorder. You only need to move your thumb slightly, and the body of the recorder slots right in:

Showing good hand position for good finger technique

So if we take advantage of the natural curve of the hand, your fingers should already be sitting beautifully just above the instrument. You only need to use the muscles between your fingers (engagingly called lumbricles) to extend the gaps between the fingers slightly, and you should have your fingers neatly over the holes of the instrument. Then, it’s just a tiny movement downwards to make contact and play notes.

Sometimes we have the idea that we need to lift our fingers away from the holes on the recorder so that we don’t unintentionally change the tuning, or because we were taught when younger to keep fingers well away from holes. Actually, the opposite is true: our hand is naturally curved to keep the fingers just above the holes, and we just need to move them down a tiny way to cover them. Good finger technique just takes advantage of the natural anatomy of the hand.

What to do next

I would advise spending a bit of time in the next few practice sessions just looking at your hands. See if you can relax the back (dorsal) surface of your hand and allow for that lovely natural curling curvature. Then try slotting the instrument into your softened hand. Try moving your fingers down to the holes, and let them almost spring back up. If you’re curious about the details of the finger movement, check out my previous blog post.

Good luck!

Photos of arm and hand by Jennifer Mackerras

Diagram of Extensor Digitorum Communis from Stone, R.J & Stone, J.A., Atlas of Skeletal Muscles, 4th ed., NY, McGraw Hill, p.135.

How to cure unintentional vibrato 2: running out of breath

In March I posted an article about how to cure unintentional vibrato when playing recorder. I talked about the misconceptions people have about how to breathe. In this post, I want to take that a step further, and discuss length of breath. Fear of running out of breath is a major concern for a lot of players, but you may be surprised to learn that the solution to it is a little counterintuitive. Almost as counterintuitive as putting water all over the wind way on your recorder!

We shouldn't think of ourselves like this fuel gauge - running out of breath is normal.

Fear of running out of breath

If you have a long phrase ahead of you, do you worry that you’ll run out of breath? What does that do to you physically? I’m willing to bet that it causes you to feel anxious. You may feel your heart rate spike. Your chest and shoulder muscles may well tense up, and your shoulders might raise. And I’m fairly certain that you’ll try to take a truly MASSIVE breath.

As you play the phrase, it’s likely that you’ll not really be thinking about the notes you’re playing; you’re thinking about your breath. It’s almost as if you have a little ‘breath gauge’ – like the fuel gauge in a car – and you can see it slipping down towards zero. And the one thing I bet you really don’t want to do is run down to zero on the end of the phrase.

This form of thinking is going to have some negative effects on your sound. It is going to be less resonant, because of the physical tension. An audience will hear that you’re not really thinking about the phrasing. And by the final notes of the phrase (especially if they are long), you’re likely to be suffering from an unintentional vibrato.

Obviously we don’t want to negatively impact our sound and musicality as we play. So what’s the solution?

Run out of breath!

It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s the desperate desire to store breath away that is causing much of the trouble. Our lungs are not designed to store breath – we are not squirrels storing nuts for the winter! The respiratory system is both complexly designed and stunningly simple, in that when we reach empty, the pressure difference between inside our body and the outside environment will cause our system to switch from exhalation to inhalation. The musculature is designed to go from empty to full, and back to empty. 

Running out of breath isn’t scary. It’s normal.

Think in phrase lengths

The other issue that contributes to a player running out of breath is a mismatch in air taken in, compared to the phrase length. What do I mean? Well, if you come across a longish phrase and you’re worried about running out of breath, it’s very likely that you start thinking about taking a BIG breath. You’re not thinking about the phrase you’re about to play.

One thing I’ve learned from my time as an Alexander Technique teacher is that the human body is a truly remarkable thing. FM Alexander talked about having an idea or a goal, and then leaving the details up to the “subordinate controls of the body.” In other words, if you want to walk, you don’t need to think about every specific muscle that’s going to be involved. You have a concept of what you want to do (and where you want to go), and you let the motor centres in your brain get on with the job of organising the specific muscles.

What if recorder playing was similar? What if you could look at the phrase you’re about to play, think about the end of the phrase, and then trust that your body will breathe in just enough to cover what you intend?

Doing it in practice

It can take a little while to break out of the grip of the fear of running out of breath. It can also take a little while to get to know your lung capacity and know just what your maximum phrase length is likely to be. So I suggest the following:

  • Pick a piece of music that has challenging phrase lengths.
  • Look at a phrase. Notice the end of the phrase.
  • As you’re thinking about the end, breathe in.
  • Play the phrase. As you get to the end, notice if you start to feel anxious.
  • Once you’ve played it, breathe in again, but don’t keep playing. Stop and analyse how things went.

You’ll either make it to the end of the phrase, or you won’t. It may take a little while to get an accurate assessment of your true lung capacity, and to marry that up with playing. It may also take a little while to get used to the feeling of empty lungs. But if you work on this a little every day, your ability to judge breathing and phrase length will improve, and you’ll be able to trust your system to do the job for you.

Final point: play to the end of the phrase

Sometimes it is also tempting to stop thinking and breathing once you reach the final note. But as with football, it’s not over till it’s over! You haven’t finished the phrase until you’ve played right to the end of the final note. So work on maintaining your focus.

Good luck!

Image: Petar Milošević [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]