Thursday, May 09, 2013

Recorder tune

Image: Jakegothicsnake
 on deviantART
I’ve been fond of music since my second (Chamber of Secrets) year at secondary school. I joined the school choir and discovered to my delight that I could be a part of polyphonic singing. Chords. Harmonies. Fugues. Clever stuff. I’ve been a member of various choirs, choral societies and barber-shop quartets on and off ever since. It’s helped me to learn to read music. I have never been much good at this, but I can – blob by blob if it isn't too complicated – figure out which note to sing, and for how long.

But as for playing a musical instrument, that skill eluded me. Perhaps I should have gone to recorder classes when I was ten, but I honestly thought the school meant tape recorders, and nobody told me otherwise. By the time I found out that a recorder was a musical instrument, it was too late as I’d been signed up by my parents to play foopball and rounders. We all know how much I love athletic sports.

My kid sister was given an electric chord organ a couple of years later, which I was Not Allowed To Play. She also started on the recorder, but never played it and I eventually ended up with the instrument and The School Recorder Book One.

Almost all of my schoolfriends played the piano; one or two also played guitar and other instruments. I managed to talk the school’s music professor into lending me an ancient clarinet for private practice. I tried and tried, but as the house where I lived was a Wimpey hutch with paper-thin walls, I never got past the tooting and parping stage. 

“Either play a proper tune, or not at all” was my father’s ultimatum, so the clarinet went back to school. There was, basically, no music at home unless you count Terry Wogan’s breakfast radio show and my mother Nanny Goat’s early morning singing (which is just fine unless you’re not a morning person). Hence my almost total ignorance of sixties and seventies music.

I tried and failed to learn to play the guitar. I’ve always been hopelessly flummoxed by any form of stringed instrument, I seem to lack the co-ordination required to play keyboards, I can’t get any sensible sound out of a brass instrument, and although I’ve dabbled with percussion, a drumkit isn’t something you can carry around in your pocket. 

So for about thirty years, on and off, I’ve been messing with recorders, ocarinas, and penny whistles. A former girlfriend gave me a magnificent wooden tenor recorder in 1989 (the fingering is identical to that of the traditional school descant recorder, but it plays an octave lower), and someone in the English Civil War Society (ECWS) gave me a Bakelite treble recorder that was broken, but if I could repair it I could have it. I replaced the missing piece of Bakelite with Milliput and it’s been fine ever since. I still have the original wooden descant, and that instrument’s got to be over forty years old and still going strong  despite much abuse.

I’m sure that I saw someone playing in a live band in an ECWS beer tent on an electric, amplified recorder, but it took about twenty years to do something about it. More of this anon…

For the past couple of years, Beloved Wife and I have attended a pre-Christmas party with some musical friends. The basic idea is to bring a dish, and to sing and/or play Christmas carols in the small music room. The usual suspects play guitars, saxophone, flute, and piano. I showed up with my voice and my recorders.

I was, and continue to be, horribly outclassed musically. I can sing OK, or at least hold a tune in a bucket, but my playing leaves much to be desired in the Department of Correct Notes. Most of this is a requirement to practise, but there’s another issue: competing against a host of concert instruments, the unamplified recorder is virtually inaudible. This is why the recorder dropped out of fashion centuries ago. Orchestras got bigger and louder, and the poor recorder simply couldn’t compete with the volume. You can’t blow harder without making ghastly squeaking noises. Obviously, I need some form of electric pickup. If Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson has one, which I know he has because I’ve seen it attached to his flute, I should be able to buy one somewhere.

At this point, the shop assistant in Thomsun Music, Wafi City, Dubai, showed me Akai’s EWI, or Electric Wind Instrument. It was stupidly expensive, so I bought mine from in London. Actually, it was a Christmas present from Beloved Wife. The EWI (“Eewee”) is a MIDI breath controller. It translates breath force and keys pressed into a musical note. Output is through a thick coaxial cable to an amplifier, or directly into headphones. This is win/win. I can now make plenty of volume when playing live, but can practise using headphones so that the rest of the universe is kept in blissful ignorance of my many, many mistakes.

I configured my EWI to play with more-or-less flute fingerings because those are very similar to those of a recorder. Other musicians might prefer to select ‘Oboe’ or ‘Saxophone’. With dozens of different voices to choose from, I can have the instrument sound like a clarinet, bassoon, saxophone, flute, or any of a host of other instruments and occasionally very wacky sounds. I was piping the sound through the stereo until I bought a guitar amplifier than comes with dozens of presets so I can now, if I wish, sound like Hendrix. Yeah, in my dreams.

I’ve been practising. I like to pick up either a recorder or EWI every day, and I’ve been downloading sheet music (most of which is too difficult to play) off the interwebs, and trying to build a repertoire. Most of my stuff is dimly remembered seventeenth and eighteenth century stuff and simple folk tunes, but I’ve also been working on other pieces including Christmas carols, some Bach, Sousa, and Abe Holzmann’s Blaze Away:

I love to go swimmin’ with bow-legged women
And swim between their legs…etc.

Seems a lot of popular music and big-band stuff comes pitched in keys that are awkward for flute fingering. It’s not exactly ‘too many black notes,’ but fingering that’s difficult for a novice. There’s a remark here possibly involving Old Goat and New Trick.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever be a particularly good musician, but I amuse myself. If I can actually amuse anyone else without too much embarrassment, that’ll be a bonus.


1 comment:

Gnomad said...

I have always found your singing and muscial skills to be very entertaining. You are rather better at these things than you think you are.


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