Milly Copping James
September 29, 2015 2:07 pm

I play a musical instrument. You might be thinking, “that’s cool,” but your response might be different once you find out what that instrument is. I play the recorder. I’m not joking, and I totally love it and don’t play it ironically.

Now, to answer a few questions you might have: Yes, I can play more than “Hot Cross Buns.” No, I am not planning on transitioning to the flute anytime soon. And yes, I know you played recorder in the third grade. The urban dictionary pretty much sums up how people respond to my instrument of choice with this example:

But really, the recorder (or the sweet flute, as it is known in Spanish) is a lot cooler thanit gets credit for. Often cited as the instrument closest in sound to the human voice, when played properly, it has a magical and pure birdlike sound that cuts sweetly and hauntingly into the air. When I brought home my first neon purple plastic recorder when I was 5, I was enthralled. My parents were not so enthralled however — what with the “slight” screeching noise I made when I was starting out. But, over the next nine years, as I improved and their tolerance grew, I think they started to appreciate its beautiful melody just much as I did.

Rich in history, the recorder has been around for a really long time. The oldest surviving recorder dates back to the 1300s, and was often used in the medieval times, but it became widely popular during the Renaissance and throughout the Baroque Period, during the 16th and 17th centuries. As a result of this, there is an excellent selection of music available for the recorder, from Concertos composed by Bach right through to modern jazz pieces. The sad thing is though, although there are many professional recorder players around the world, today, the recorder is often seen as primarily a stepping-stone for “real” instruments and not taken seriously.

The awesome thing about the recorder is its transportability, low maintenance and low cost. It’s small and light, with no reeds, bows, or strings, and after playing it, all you need to do is simply clean it out with a cloth, which takes no more than a minute. You can pretty much play them anywhere (except in the car — trust me, that’s painful when the person driving has to make a sudden stop.) Although wooden recorders can cost in the $1,000s, plastic ones are rarely over $30 — compare that to a $400 beginner’s drum kit or a $500 cello!

Ranging from the tiny sopranissimo, which is barely 77⁄8 inches, right down to the sub-contrabass and contrabass recorders which are about 6’6 feet long and whose holes are too far apart for some (me) people’s hands to reach, the recorder has a massive variety. From bright purple plastics to majestic Japanese wooden masterpieces, there’s something for everyone. You can play solo, in a duet, trio, or quartet — I even played in an impromptu recorder orchestra with 25+ people recently!

You may not realize it, but over the years, many musicians actually use recorders in their songs — Bruce Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney, even the Rolling Stones featured the recorder in their song Ruby Tuesday. 1950s heartthrob and celebrated bad boy James Dean learned to play as well (looking absolutely smoldering while doing so, might I add.)

When I was younger, I was a bit embarrassed when people would ask what instrument I played, but I’ve come to enjoy the privilege of playing such a unique and beautiful instrument. I’m pretty proud of it and instead of getting mad when people ask me why I don’t play a real instrument with more than three notes, I just smile, play my recorder and relish their looks of amazement.

Now nearing my Grade Seven AMEB recorder exam, all those endless lessons, long practices and nerve-wracking exams have definitively paid off. The moments when I’ve played the same piece 16 times already and I finally get it perfect make up for the hours of hard work leading up to it. There’s nothing more peaceful than getting lost in the music and simply playing for the joy of playing, and the sense of accomplishment and empowerment that comes from making something beautiful all by yourself is incredible. It is these instances that cement my love for the recorder and remind me why I play in the first place.

(Image via iStock.)

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