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.

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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.

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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.

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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.