Soloist blows fresh life into 'toy pipe'
The death knell has been sounding around the world for the recorder this year. However, some British stalwarts are fighting back the critics and working hard to raise its profile as a serious instrument.
In July a study by Keele University, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, reported that a large proportion of children regard the recorder as a toy instrument, that they think it sounds awful and that it is actually putting them off learning music.
In the same month, the Australian press reported that the instrument is being phased out of primary and secondary schools there and recorder tuition is being replaced by music appreciation lessons.
In the United States, the instrument's popularity is threatened by Tod Machover and his team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose Toy Symphony project - brought to Scotland this summer - has excited hoards of schoolchildren about a new family of electronic musical instruments.
In the midst of all this, the National Youth Recorder Orchestra was formed this year, giving its inaugural concert in Birmingham in June, and international soloist Piers Adams continued to perform and tour his recorder roadshow.
The masterclass, workshop and concert package has been on the road since 1995 and stopped at Stockbridge Parish Church in Edinburgh last month. The focal point of the event was the "Recorder Rave", a 10-minute work by David Pugsley that encompasses modern and baroque styles, big band and boogie-woogie.
The recorder has been criticised for its perceived lack of role models. Those critics have obviously not met or heard Mr Adams, who is doing for the recorder what Evelyn Glennie is doing for the glockenspiel and xylophone.
"I see the recorder as a progressive instrument, not a historic one," says Mr Adams. "I'm hoping that the sort of work I'm doing will bring out players who will be excited by the instrument again and will want to explore it in all sorts of different ways. It is a fantastic instrument on the concert platform and every bit as good as anything else.
"I would like to do for the recorder what Michael Flattley did for Irish dance. I've always felt it could be as exciting as that."
A mixed ability group of players of any instrument can produce an indiscriminate, astringent sound and it was no different at the beginning of Mr Adams's workshop with 60 Edinburgh children, half of them Edinburgh Young Musicians, and his accompanist, pianist Howard Beach.
Mr Adams gets children to feel the music by moving to it in all sorts of ways. After two hours, the technique had paid off and the group's sound had changed dramatically to something richer, fuller and packed with personality. It was the kind of sound Mr Adams fell in love with when he took up the recorder, what he describes as "the most fantastic, haunting, pure and expressive sound".
Although he concedes that this is not always what we hear, he argues: "A room full of any instrument in its beginning stages is going to sound pretty terrible. It's unfair to make the recorder a scapegoat."
Jean Murray, director of Edinburgh Young Musicians, agrees. "It depends very much on how it is taught," she explains.
"A lot of people think that any idiot can play the recorder and make a noise out of it, so you do often hear it played badly. But I don't think that you should say, therefore, it is impossible to play it well."
Mairi Macleod, a 15-year-old pupil at the City of Edinburgh Music School, echoes what Ms Murray says. As with many of her fellow players, the recorder was a stepping stone into music for her and she still has a soft spot for it. "It has an image problem because they don't teach it properly," she says. "It is not taught as a serious instrument. Piers Adams makes you see it in a different light."
By the end of the evening concert, any image of the recorder as a toy was dispelled by Mr Adam's virtuosic playing, the mellow and beautiful sound produced by the ensembles from the Edinburgh Young Musicians and the extraordinary possibilities of the instrument demonstrated by the roof-raising "Recorder Rave".