The word recorder can have a number of meanings, but I do not here refer to a legal official. Nor do I refer to a tape recorder, but to the musical instrument. A descant recorder is cheap to buy, and a simple instrument to start to play, which is why so many of us began to learn music as a member of a class playing descant recorders. To reach the higher levels of proficiency however the recorder is about as difficult as any other instrument, except perhaps a theatre organ with its four or more manuals, umpteen dozen stops and a full pedal board. Leaving aside such examples of extreme bodily involvement, the real knack of playing music is to interpret it in a meaningful way, and in this respect I can point to no finer executant than the twentieth century Canadian pianist Glen Gould.
In my case the experience of playing the recorder did not begin when I was very young; by the time my class was introduced to the instrument I was a teenager, with attempts at learning the violin and the piano already under my belt. I could read music by then, and music theory was not a problem for me. I sailed through the theory exam with 100% score. Actually playing anything was a different matter – that required hours and hours of boring practice.
It would have been the same with playing the recorder, had the class not folded in less than a term. Our music lessons reverted to singing and listening to records. I didn’t give up learning the piano, but I began to play the double bass. I found the bass greatly to my taste. I even found practice on the giant instrument quite fun, but I never had more than half a hour’s instruction on it. The only member of the music staff who played the bass was a remarkable Czech who also played every other instrument known to man. Me and my fiend Bill answered an urgent plea from the head of music for a couple of boys to learn the bass, as the previous players had both left the school. We were taught the first position, which was virtually all we needed to know for the simple music we played in the school orchestra. Only upper ‘C’ and ‘D’ were beyond our normal scope, and required a leap of faith with the first finger. Because we had no instruction on the instrument we never had to pay to use the double bass. It was great fun, but that finished when we left the school.
I had already started to strum the ukulele aged about 13, and soon moved on to the guitar. I got quite good at reading chords, (C, G7, F, etc) which is a simple task, but at university I moved onto reading the dots and playing classical guitar. I have never had a lesson on the guitar, but at last I had found something I really loved. I practiced and practiced, when I should have been studying my official course. (I did do enough reading of history to get my degree though.) I continued to play the guitar when I left uni, and eventually played some chamber music with my father on cello.
On finding myself living alone once again I returned to playing the double bass, which introduced me to many fellow musicians (including the woman whom I was eventually to marry). I have already done several blogs of my bass playing career in which I came nearest to a semi-professional status. This reminiscing on my musical life is all very well, but I started by telling you about playing the recorder.
I should have been quite busy enough playing the bass, but for some reason I joined an evening class of recorder players. I had not picked up a recorder for about 20 years, and even then it was only to play very simple tunes. I did remember the fingering however, and I dug out my old plastic descant recorder. I also had a wooden tenor which is the same pitch, although an octave lower. Although I tried the treble it is a fourth lower, and I never quite mastered the transposition. My tenor was a useful instrument as all of my fellow players had trebles or descants. Because no-one had a bass recorder I took the bass line on my tenor, which suited me just fine as a bass player.
There were about eight of us and we formed a consort. This was the term used for a group of instrumentalists in the early modern period. Although we should have played lots of concerts, we did not play the kind of music that went down well in old folks’ homes, for example; it was too highbrow. On the double bass I was for ever playing light music in all sorts of venues, to receptive audiences. Our consort did have one success however, being asked to broadcast on Radio Norfolk, which had recently started to use the local airwaves.
Another instrument I had a brief infatuation with was the accordion. I was even paid to play it at Thurton fête one year. On mature consideration (many years later) I think I tried to play too many instruments. I stopped playing any of them when I was busy helping my wife to bring up two young children. We made attempts to start them on playing cornets with the Taverham band, and Peter began playing the bassoon at Norwich School, but they never practised either.