Sound backing makes for recorder revival

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
Among the experiences that are precious beyond price, that of accompanying your seven-year-old granddaughter on the piano as she plays the recorder must rank pretty high. What has made this extra pleasurable, though, is the clear evidence of how well she's being taught. She knows about articulation and clarity of phrasing, and she speaks of her teacher, a member of the Coventry performing arts service (PAS) , known to us simply as Amy, with respect, defending her fiercely against any tentative attempts by me to give other advice.

It's heartening to come across excellence in school recorder teaching. The instrument has had a bad press over the years, largely because it has always been seen as an easy option, capable of being taught by anyone who could keep one page ahead of the children in the book. As a consequence, many adults now associate the recorder with scrappy, badly tuned playing, and can't think of it as an instrument in its own right.

But that is what it is. Before the modern transverse flute came into fashion in the early 18th century, "flute" meant "recorder", and a great deal of repertoire was written for it at that time. The modern flute is louder, with a bigger range, and so more suitable for larger orchestras that were emerging. The recorder virtually disappeared during the 19th century, to be brought back to life by the Dolmetsch family in the early 20th century.

Now, the recorder is more popular than ever. A great deal of music is being written for it, and there's increasing appreciation of the wonderful sound it makes in capable hands. I talked about the recorder - generally, and in primary schools - to Naomi Winterburn, team leader for recorder with Coventry PAS and a graduate of Birmingham Conservatoire specialising in recorder.

"We're always fighting to keep the recorder on the same level as any other instrument," she says. "Nobody would pick up a violin and assume they could teach it, but there's that perception with the recorder. It's a difficult one to overcome."

One effect of the instrument's image is to make it difficult sometimes to convince parents that they should spend decent money on an instrument.

"They don't always see why they should spend pound;5 when they can get a recorder for a pound from somewhere," she says. "But they're not expensive anyway. We buy them in bulk and they're getting a pound;10 recorder that makes a lovely sound for pound;5. We take a hard line in Coventry."

One way is to present children, and the public, with examples of excellent playing, and at the same time give good young players a chance to play together. That's where the National Youth Recorder Orchestra (NYRO), founded in 2002 by the Society of Recorder Players, comes in.

Ms Winterburn combines her work with the Coventry service with the post of administrator for NYRO. The society and orchestra are ever willing to help and advise teachers about instruments and tuition. They publish a free handbook for teachers, and the website advertises many courses around the country.

The European Recorder Teachers' Association is also keen to support players and teachers at all levels.

"We're all very keen on promoting really good recorder playing," says Ms Winterburn. "I've always loved the recorder, and I hope through the work we do we can give children the same opportunities and more. I would love to have played in NYRO when I was younger."

Society of Recorder Players: Youth Recorder Recorder Teachers' Association:

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