Flute versus recorder: why do I play both?
A week ago, I started playing the flute again after decades.
Since I started playing recorder in February, and made it my main instrument, I am torn by the fact that I have been playing it every other day now rather than every day, and playing flute every other day. It feels weird dividing my attention in this way.
I suppose it’s time to talk more about why I started playing recorder in the first place, and why I am back to flute now (in addition).
The appeal of the recorder
I took up recorder in large part because of the knowledge that there was a local branch of the American Recorder Society here in Pittsburgh, which I joined just shortly after beginning to play the alto recorder.
It’s much easier to keep a hobby going seriously when one is not pursuing it alone. That is true even for someone as self-motivated and driven as I often am (I trained for and ran my first marathon all by myself and alone, not with any friend or running club). There are many reasons for this. One is that it is easy to get discouraged, and having emotional support can prevent giving up prematurely. Another is that in addition to emotional support, people can give technical support as well: improving my recorder playing technique in the first few months would have been impossible without personal feedback. Yet another reason is that goals can become much more concrete: to equal the ability of an admired peer, or to be able to play without too much embarrassment in an ensemble or in a particular concert (if one is actually performing in public at all).
Decent plastic recorders from Yamaha are quite inexpensive compared to a lot of more modern instruments.
I always knew that there was the opportunity to play many different recorders, because I actually started out with soprano briefly before going to alto, and then I eventually acquired also a tenor, bass, and sopranino. It’s a great feeling knowing that by learning one instrument, one can play several others with relatively minor changes in technique.
It is easy to get started on recorder. The breath pressure required is low, there is no embouchure to develop, no reeds, the basic fingerings are intuitive.
One important element of the appeal of the recorder is that it is an anachronism: to embrace it today entails at least some “rebellious” mindset that declares that technology is not everything, that there is value in the past, in more primitive instruments; and by association, that there is value in old music of the 17th century and earlier.
Some recorder (and other early instrument) enthusiasts actually adopt what I think of as an extreme version of this mindset, being very negative about all music after Bach, for example. Interestingly, many such enthusiasts are fans of the avant garde and simply reject the Western music from between Bach and the 20th century, or some similar time frame.
I myself don’t subscribe to any such ideology. I took up recorder while actually being a stranger to almost all music before Bach. I took up recorder in part because I was seeking novelty in the past, rather than because I already enjoyed early music and was seeking comfort there.
The recorder is a relatively quiet instrument. This can be a virtue when one does not have a soundproof home or soundproof room in the home.
The appeal of the modern flute
It is of course easier to list the reasons for enjoying the modern flute. I’ll juxtapose them with reasons for not enjoying the recorder.
The modern flute is popular. There is a huge repertoire of music written specifically for it, or arranged for it. A lot of people love the sound.
By contrast, a lot of people hate the sound of the recorder (I won’t name any names, but a large number of people I personally know do not like the recorder and eagerly tell me that). Recorder music is not as easy to come by or popular. It is easy to pick up a flute and play in an orchestra or a chamber music ensemble or marching band, or jam with friends playing jazz or salsa or tango.
My desire to play an instrument in the widest possible settings has forced me to look back to modern instruments. I’m not interested in only playing early music with early music devotees; I want to participate in a lot of other music also.
Let’s face it, the flute has a much larger range than the recorder, can be played with much more dynamics, control of tone, etc. The ability to really sing with an instrument is what I miss most when playing the recorder.
I said earlier that the recorder is an easy instrument to start playing. But it is surprisingly difficult to play well. There are subtleties in playing notes in tune, because there is no embouchure to adjust. Legato is harder. Interestingly, of course, these difficulties are not entirely negative. I have quite enjoyed the focus, in recorder playing, on rhythmic awareness, full range of articulation (versus legato). Nevertheless, the flute must be considered more flexible. There is no reason one cannot play with a recorder-induced sensitivity on the flute as well.
One idea that I entertained a couple of months ago was that of taking up the Baroque flute, the wooden flute from the 17th century that was the predecessor to the modern flute. I first encountered the Baroque flute when taking a music class at CMU from Stephen Schultz, a virtuoso performer on the Baroque flute.
I have shelved the idea of trying the Baroque, for several reasons.
Cost was one. Why buy a Baroque flute when I already have a modern one?
Another was, where would I actually play a Baroque flute, other than just with specific people who I know are into early musical instruments (such as Baroque violin, harpsichord)?
It’s still possible that at some point in my life, I’ll try out Baroque flute, but it can wait.
Daniel Waitzman, from recorder to flute
Daniel Waitzman was a prodigy on recorder and then on Baroque flute as well. I found a couple of recorder technique and practice music books by him at the local library. He wrote a fascinating article, “Up from authenticity, or how i learned to love the metal flute: a personal memoir”, which I found very inspiring, and highly recommend to anyone who is passionate about early instruments and music. He touches upon some of the points I only mentioned above in passing.
I’m not giving up recorder, but have returned to flute in a strange, roundabout way. We’ll see how far I continue with the flute.
(Update of 2011-11-30)
It turned out that just days after I wrote this blog post, I reconsidered and decided to buy a Baroque flute!!
(Update of 2012-10-30)
In fact, I would end up spending the summer months of 2012 practicing almost exclusively the Baroque flute, including going to a music camp in which I took a class devoted to Baroque flute technique.comments powered by Disqus