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 take apart stuck plastic recorder joints

Do you own a plastic recorder with joints that sometimes stick together and become really hard to take apart? I think every player has experienced this at some point. Here are my tips on dealing with stuck plastic recorder joints, and some pointers on how to avoid it getting stuck in the first place!

Rocking the joint

The first thing to try if you have stuck plastic recorder joints is not turning, but rocking the joint. If you’ve tried turning the pieces and they feel completely jammed together, try rocking it backwards and forwards a little; for example, hold the middle joint still, and put pressure on the head joint as if you were making a doll nod its head. This is sometimes enough to get the tenon unstuck, and you can go back to twisting it off.

If not, try putting the instrument over your lap, and pressing GENTLY down on the piece hanging off your leg. This will help to break the seal within the joint, whether it is a vacuum or just gunk adhering the pieces. Take care that you don’t press too hard, though – we don’t want to damage the tenon.

Hot water

If that doesn’t work, try putting the joint under warm running water (not too hot). What you are trying to do here is expand the plastic on the outer part of the joint just a little. Then try turning/rocking again.

Get the gloves out

If that doesn’t work, reach for a pair of latex surgical gloves. Put them on, and try turning the pieces while wearing the gloves. These should give you a better grip on the plastic.

Using surgical gloves to take apart stuck recorder joints

And if it’s still stuck, find a friend and give them a set of gloves, too. You turn one part of the recorder while they hold the other part absolutely still. The combination of the increased grip and the extra muscle power really should do the job!

Avoiding it happening again

Once you’ve experienced having stuck plastic recorder joints, you’ll understandably want to avoid it happening again! There are three main culprits for sticky joints: not keeping the instrument clean; storing it somewhere with variable temperature and humidity; and using too much joint grease. I’ll cover each in turn. (There’s also just never taking the instrument apart, but the solution for that is fairly obvious, so I’m not covering it here!)

Cleaning

All instruments need attention and a bit of a clean at some point. My son’s trumpet teacher has a particularly gruesome story about a young pupil who had never cleaned his cornet – when the teacher took it to the staffroom and ran hot water through it, the result was enough to make the pupil gag!

I’m quite sure that your plastic recorders don’t have nearly the same problems as that young cornet player’s instrument, but a simple wash will prevent the build-up of anything unsavoury. Clean them regularly with warm soapy water (if you play them frequently, maybe once a month), gently dry them to remove excess water, and let them air dry. This gets rid of dust and any particulates that have accumulated in the joints, holes and mouthpiece.

Storage

When you buy your first wooden recorder, you’ll be warned in no uncertain terms about keeping your instrument in a place with fairly stable temperature and humidity. Wooden recorders need a stable environment so that the instrument doesn’t have to adjust itself to extremes by expanding and contracting.

But plastic recorders, though they are far more stable than wooden instruments, still need stability of temperature and humidity wherever possible. Just think what happens to a plastic pot that is left out on a sunny windowsill! This is why, even though my teaching room is at the back of my house, my recorders (including the plastic ones) are stored in a different room where the temperature is less variable.

Joint grease

It is really tempting to think that, if a little bit of joint grease is good, then using a whole lot must be better – especially if the joint is already a very snug fit. But think about it: if the joint is snug, there is very little space there. Joint grease takes up space – it has molecules, and when you put the grease on the joint you effectively add width to it.

Trust in the joint grease – just a very light smear will be enough to do the job.

A light smear of joint crease prevents stuck plastic recorder joints

I hope this helps you to keep your recorders in a good playing condition. If you get really stuck, then contact these people for help:

Anthony Barrett Repairs

Julie Dean

Early Music Shop

What is good recorder playing posture?

Two questions to begin:

  • Do you have good recorder playing posture? 
  • What do you think that might look like?

‘My posture is terrible!’

I ask my questions in that order because I strongly suspect that most players – if they ever think of their posture at all – would probably answer ‘no, my posture is terrible’. Our default opinion with regard to posture, whether holding a recorder or not, is that ours is almost certainly not very good. As an Alexander Technique teacher, I have lost count of the number of adults who still hear their parent’s voice in their head telling them to ‘stand up straight!’

‘My what?’

And that’s assuming we’ve thought about our posture as we play at all. Especially if you’ve started playing at a young age, your first thought on picking up the instrument is likely to have been more on what sounds you could make, rather than how you’re going to get the recorder most efficiently to your mouth! But thinking about what you are doing with your body as you prepare to play becomes very important as you become more proficient. Thinking about your recorder playing posture will help you to play more difficult music because your technique will be better, and you’ll be able to play for longer.

As a result, many players have developed playing postures that aren’t as effective or efficient as we would like. In Spring 2017 The Recorder Magazine had this image as its front cover. I adore it for the accuracy of the artist’s portrayal of some of the more common types of error one sees in recorder playing posture.

Collage image of recorder players, from Recorder Magazine, Spring 2017. Many recorder playing posture faults in evidence.

In the back row, 2nd and 3rd from the left, one can see players holding the instrument too close to their chests, with their elbows close to their sides. The one on the left is compensating by flexing their wrists too much; the one on the right is arching their wrists. The player on the far right of the back row is arching their back; this will make it very difficult to breathe in effectively as their ribs won’t move as freely. In the front row, the girl on the left is bending herself down over her recorder, instead of lifting the recorder to her mouth. This will cause her to lose breath pressure, and she’ll probably play flat. The boy on the right looks like he is raising his shoulders up to his ears as he breathes in. As I wrote recently, this isn’t actually necessary for good breathing.

So what is good recorder playing posture?

Principle 1: bring the instrument to you, not the other way around.

Don’t be like the girl in the front row! You don’t need to do anything with your spine to lift a recorder; use your arms. Hold the recorder with your arms down at your sides. Now lift your arms, but think of moving them from your shoulders so that the recorder almost creates an arc in the air as it moves to your mouth.

Moving in this way helps you to maintain a relaxed torso, and that will help you to breathe more effectively. Arms are appendicular structures, and we can move them without having to involve our spine or torso much at all.

Principle 2: allow your elbows to leave your sides far enough that your wrists are reasonably straight.

Don’t be like the two players in the back row! It really helps your fingers to move more easily if your wrists are not overly flexed or extended, but instead are left straight and relaxed. To achieve this, when you raise your arms from your shoulder joints, your elbows will naturally come out to the sides a little.

I think often we worry about taking up too much space. But we aren’t on a crowded bus! Nor are we often likely to be squeezed into tiny orchestra pits. This means that, particularly as a soloist, it really pays to allow yourself to take up the space to which you are entitled.

Tips for working on your playing posture

  • Spend a little bit of time every practice session working on how you raise the recorder to a playing position. 
  • Watch yourself in a mirror if you can. 
  • Try to move your arms while involving your head and torso as little as possible, using the two principles I’ve outlined.
  • Practise this as a separate discipline to working on scales or pieces. This will make it easier to integrate into your playing, as you won’t be trying to concentrate on posture, music, fingerings etc all at once.

Give it a go, and let me know how you get on.

Image from cover of The Recorder Magazine, Spring 2017.