The Rich Bird-Like Timbre of the Fourth Grade

This has been a big week in the life of my fourth grade son. Something he’s been looking forward to for a long time finally happened. Because in our school district, about half way through the school year, our fourth graders embark on a brand new adventure in musical education. They receive recorders.

This man could have rocked Harry Champion’s “I’m Henery the Eight, I am” on the recorder. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498–1543) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve been blessed with children who love music. My oldest began piano lessons in Kindergarten and the last few years has shifted to playing the guitar in hopes of one day becoming his own one-man band. Meanwhile my youngest has a brilliant sense of pitch and rhythm, and when he’s in the mood, the voice of an angel. But a little more on the shy side than his brother, Son #2 hasn’t really taken a shine to musical performance. Other than a few months of piano lessons and a blessedly short-lived obsession with the bagpipe, he has more or less avoided playing an instrument.

So I was a little surprised he was super excited to receive his recorder. And even more surprised (and admittedly a little less delighted) that he was also super excited to practice playing it. In the living room. Pretty much all the time.

Still the most unpleasant instrument in the world. photo credit: PeterThoeny Care for a scotch whiskey? via photopin (license)

I suppose it’s not the most unpleasant instrument in the world. It does have a long and glorious history, dating to at least as early as fourteenth century. Characterized as a flute with a whistle mouthpiece and seven holes in the front with one thumb hole in the back, the recorder emerged as a major musical force throughout the Renaissance. 

Valued for its narrow range and rich, bird-like timbre, it made an ideal instrument for ensembles, according to a lot of Renaissance composers who have never been in my living room when Son #1 decides to relive the glories of his fourth grade year and join in.

Even England’s King Henry VIII was a big fan, having in his possession at the time of his death a total of 78 recorders. Many of these were likely played by rotating musicians charged with providing a soundtrack for the monarch as he Supremely Headed the Church of England, warred with France, and divorced or beheaded his various wives. Rumor has it, Henry played a mean recorder, too, and just as Handel, Vivaldi, Bach, and others would later do, the king also composed for the funny little instrument.

I think my biggest fear is that this new obsession with the recorder may rekindle his interest in the bagpipe.

Of course I have to assume that being so constantly surrounded by a chorus of recorders may have (along with the constant aches and pains of a long series of accidents and illnesses) contributed to Henry’s famous crankiness.

I know I haven’t particularly enjoyed the soundtrack at my house this past week. But at least on Saturday, when we had an almost 70 degree spring-like day (today it’s snowing, because it’s the Midwestern US), my brilliant husband suggested that my son take his practicing outside. I’m sure my neighbors enjoyed the rich, bird-like timbre.

10 thoughts on “The Rich Bird-Like Timbre of the Fourth Grade

    1. You know, I would actually love for either of my boys to play the drums. My brother plays and I always loved listening to him practice. Though I do suspect my neighbors might prefer the recorder.

    1. I had to YouTube that one. What I discovered is talented tin whistle player= 4th grader + recorder. So you know my pain, assuming your neighbor is any good. Either way I guess you’d better hope for bad weather!

  1. I didn’t press the like button, because I didn’t like the post. The recorder is a wonderful instrument, as you will discover if you encourage your son to practise. Like most instruments, it sounds dreadful in the hands of a beginner. When my niece took up the violin no one wanted to be in the same street as her when she was practising, let alone the same house.

    Your son is probably overblowing, so encourage him to blow with a little less enthusiasm. If you’ve got a piano, you could try encouraging him to change his breath pressure until he can play notes in tune with it.

    If you look on Youtube you will be able to hear how wonderful the recorder sounds in the hands (and mouths) of experts. Listen to groups like Seldom Sene or Fontanella and soloists like Michaela Petri, Dan Laurin, Piers Adam and Erik Bosgraf.

    I’m biased, because I play the recorder, but don’t write it off just because your son can’t play it yet.

    1. Aw. Thanks for the encouragement. And I’m sorry if my post offended you. I did check out the recorder on YouTube as I wrote this and I admit I was impressed. In the hands of someone more practiced, the recorder really is a great instrument. My experience with it has never extended beyond those sweet little grade school burgeoning musicians, and it’s always been presented as a gateway instrument. I realize that is surely selling it short. Thank you for sticking with the post and for gently telling me what’s what.

      1. I wasn’t offended in the least. I’m used to people looking at me as if I’m mad when I say that I play the recorder. I’m many decades past the age when those not in the know expect you to give it up. I always say that if it was good enough for Bach and Handel to write music for, it’s good enough for me to play.

        I’m one of the organisers of next year’s national recorder festival in the UK, so you can probably guess that I’m keen.

        One of my friends who teaches beginners also suggests that you tell your son to breathe into the recorder and not to blow. He’ll make a much nicer sound.

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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