A Review of the 41st Northern Recorder Course 2006

Held at University College, Chester from Tuesday 18th April to Tuesday 25th April 2006

About Fifty Years Should Do it! (a taster day at the Northern Recorder Course April 2006)

Sue Jones

The blackbird on the nearby telegraph pole had barely cleared his throat and begun his contribution to the one-to-a-part morning chorus, when I crept from my bed, whilst sensible people slept on, and set off for Chester.

This rash move had its beginnings some two weeks previously:
So what happens at the Northern Recorder Course? I asked Grace, my recorder tutor It sounds really interesting.

Having done my share as a child further to assassinate the reputation of the recorder in the eyes of the general public, near-marriage to a professional recorder player taught me that in the right hands the recorder is a beautiful instrument. Six months of serious playing means that those hands are not yet mine, but Grace is working on it.

You could always come for a day as a taster, she suggested, I think you’d enjoy it.

Thus emboldened, I rang The Secretary; could I attend at such short notice – just to listen, not to play and I should I send my cheque off at once?

The voice at the end of the phone was friendly and encouraging. Of course I could come. Of course I should play or at least have a go and finances could all be sorted out later.

So there I was, bowling along the highway at that time of the morning, which had I been bound for work, I would have considered quite unearthly. Journey accomplished, I presented myself at the Course Office door. Whereupon the lady at the desk leapt to her feet with a beaming smile and announced You’re Sue, I’ve got your badge ready for you. Likewise, it turned out, a timetable to help me decide what I wanted to do. I might only have one day, but none of it was going to be wasted.

When I expressed an interest in the techniques class, she even co-opted a gentleman who just happened to be there, to see that I found the right place. This set the tone for the whole day. I may have been a stranger in a strange land, but I was never made to feel like it.

As Steve (the co-optee) and I left the office together, he glanced at this watch and with a perspicacity verging on genius observed, We’ve got plenty of time yet, I expect you’d like to look at the music shops, and led the way into a room where people were drinking coffee and chatting and there was music: back to back, wall-to-wall, total tabletop coverage of A4 boxes filled with sheet music; more sheet music than I had ever imagined could exist, let alone all devoted to recorders.

And then there were the recorders themselves, since both Dolmetsch and the Early Music Shop were in attendance. Recorders of all shapes and sizes, more recorders than you could shake a garklein at; pale creamy maple wood, warm golden box, dark ebony, the muted gleam of brass keys, the rich deep brown antique patina of the Renaissance instruments with their pepper-pot fontanels like Moorish windows and faintly, above the stalls, the glorious rich aroma of turned seasoned wood, sweet oil and varnish.

Steve, wisely recognising the signs of musical overload, kindly took himself off for a cup of coffee and collected me much later.

I had no intention of attempting to play anything in the techniques class. I knew I was well outclassed and, since I was only going for the one day, I hadn’t bought any of the music. However, when I arrived there was a general kindly shuffling up so that I could look over someone’s shoulder and all my noble intentions went out of the window when, to my delight, I found that some of the warm-up exercises were not totally beyond me.

A little later, we moved on to some Irish folk pieces, revisiting the techniques used to give them that distinctive haunting poignancy. It was then that I started to appreciate the prodigious musicality of the event, because somebody casually produced a knee-harp and suddenly this wasn’t just a practice session but people sharing their talent and producing between them something that sounded fantastic.

Then someone else suggested fetching Sean, who demonstrated the variations in ornamentation used by traditional whistle players with dexterity enough to confirm that the Bionic Man is alive and well and set the feet of his listeners tapping.

Coffee break and with it, since I can resist everything except temptation, the opportunity to conclude my purchase of the boxwood treble that had been winking at me from amongst Peter Booth’s stock.

On then, to listen to Grace conducting the orchestra rehearsals. In common with most people, my experience of recorders was previously limited to the sopranino, soprano, treble and tenor, never having encountered the ‘big beasts’ of the recorder world; the great bass and the contra bass with that tremendous sound which is felt as well as heard. If an earth tremor developed musical aspirations, it would undoubtedly be a contra-bass!

These leviathans provided a breadth and depth of sound that I had not realised was possible. They are quite magnificent and it’s a shame that it is a sound not more frequently heard. Someone should have firm words with Classic FM. Since my return, I have weighed up the house from the storage perspective, but alas the neighbours…

Lunch was called just before the players started on their instruments with seasoning and with not attending the full course, I adjourned to the paying restaurant, expecting to partake of a quick, solitary sandwich. Not a bit of it. Instead I was waved at by a lady I had met earlier when I went looking for the Critchley Building, together with two friends who all scrunched up at their table in an encouraging manner. Masse-produced Spag. Bol. when eaten in good company is a dish fit for princes and the conversation ranged from recorders to archery via Life, the Universe and Everything until we realised that it was time to be making a move.

My lunch companions disappeared off to further rehearsals and I wandered back to the coffee lounge which, it turned out, was also the venue for the next one-to-a-part session.

This was the moment at which the man/mouth interface broke down. You know, that point when common sense gets ambushed and locked in a little back room where it runs round in circles banging on the walls shouting to be heard whilst the mouth goes blithely off on a course of its own, so that when I was invited to join in, much to my own surprise I heard myself go “Nononon – Yes!”

My capacity to cope unaided might have measurable with a stopwatch – just! Instead those lovely people took multiple steps back from the level they had attained, to enable me to join in. And suddenly I wasn’t just listening to beautiful music, I was in the middle of it; weaving my string of notes through and around the others – lace making in sound.

I have never ridden the Pepsi-Max roller coaster and I hope never to do so, but I suspect the two sensations might be very similar – the adrenalin rush of sheer terror coupled with the most incredible feeling of elation.

Tea break, and the opportunity to catch my breath browsing through sheet music. Much as I wanted something to play on my new toy, faced with such a bewildering choice I knew there was a very good chance I would pick something far too advanced for me. That was until another kind soul pointed out the heap of second hand music and then went through it like a winnowing machine with cries of This one’s good, you could play this one, until I had a little pile of assorted pieces at a very reasonable price.

After that, there was only one more session till the end of the day and I opted for the Vivaldi-Fest. “Winter” had never been my favourite movement of the Four Seasons, but I developed a much greater appreciation of it as the piece was developed: the flick, flick, flick, of flying snow rendered by the trebles, against the wind-blown darkness of the contra-bass and the brittle glitter of frost supplied in that dizzying swirl of sound supplied by the soprano. As early spring twilight gathered outside, it seemed to me that Vivaldi would have approved of this rendition of his work.

So was it enjoyable? – Oh yes. It was a stretching, challenging enriching experience, made all the more special by the kindness of the other attendees. I returned home with a renewed sense of purpose. – I want to make beautiful music like that. Well, I already have an excellent tutor, so all I need is the practice – lots and lots of it. Like I said, about fifty years should do it!