From the Director's Desk
Blowing An Ill Wind Good
Some Words of Advice on Breath Pressure
The following editorial by ASW director David H. Green appeared in the February, 1993, issue of our customer newsmagazine Chrestologia. It is presented here for those visitors to our web site who want to learn more about the interaction of breath pressure and playing technique with recorder tone, tuning, intonation, and response.
Everyone is undoubtedly familiar with the old proverb "it's an ill wind that blows nobody good." 1 It took an anonymous twentieth century cynic, undoubtedly a professional musician, to transform this bit of folk wisdom into a cudgel to abuse early music performers by referring to the recorder as "the original ill wind that nobody blows good!" Leaving aside for the moment the excruciating grammatical inaccuracy, even the most ardent partisans of the recorder, this writer included, would have to admit that their chosen instrument is probably played badly by more persons and made poorly by more instrument makers than any other single woodwind instrument. While general standards of recorder design, production, pedagogy, and performance have risen greatly in the past two decades or so, there is still a great deal of room for improvement on all fronts.
While it is easy to find fault with recorder players and makers, it must also be conceded that a good part of the problem lies in the very nature of the instrument itself. The recorder is an instrument which is very easy to play at the beginning stages and, paradoxically, very difficult to play well at much more advanced stages. This is because the recorder, much more so than any other type of woodwind instrument, has more of its performance built into the instrument itself; it is therefore less player-dependent, which is for a beginner a Good Thing -- but also less player-controllable, which for an advanced player is a Bad Thing.
The basic method of tone production on the recorder, the channeled direction of an air stream against an edge, is essentially fixed by the design of the instrument and is therefore largely independent of the player's control and level of skill. This technology, which allows the aspiring tyro to produce a decent sound almost immediately, is the very one which limits the advanced player from making subtle inflections in tone quality, intonation, and dynamics. 2 The recorder's greatest strength is at once its greatest weakness.
In the interests of enabling recorder players at all levels of accomplishment to achieve greater control of their chosen instrument, this editorial will focus specifically on several aspects of the function of breath pressure in recorder playing. Perhaps the first awareness of the function of breath pressure comes to every beginning wind instrument player with the discovery that, the harder one blows, the louder the instrument sounds. This elementary, largely intuitive principle of musical acoustics affords perhaps the first and most primitive type of musical expression to aspiring players. The grade school band director invariably asks his/her charges to "play this phrase forte the first time and piano on the repeat." Unfortunately, this early-ingrained predilection to use dynamic change as the principle (and often the only) type of variation leads to ignoring other, more subtle means of musical expression. 3
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), dynamic variation is a means of musical expression that is largely inappropriate and unsatisfactory on the recorder, the modern recorder in particular. As every beginning player quickly learns, changes in breath pressure produce not only changes in volume but also gross distortions in pitch. While some professional players, most notably Frans Brüggen and some of his students, have sought to use these variations in intonation as a source of musical expression, most players have eschewed this technique in favor of more subtle types of agogic expression and articulative variation.
Be that as it may, it is generally conceded that, at the beginning stages of recorder playing, the student is well advised to learn to play at one consistent level of breath pressure in order to play the instrument in tune - this of course assumes that the student has an instrument which is in tune to begin with. This is unfortunately usually not the case. However, for the sake of argument, let us assume that the student has an instrument, plastic or wooden, purchased from Antique Sound Workshop which has been carefully voiced and tuned and therefore at least capable of being played in tune.
As was pointed out in a previous editorial in this journal, the design of the recorder is such that any one instrument can be exactly in tune with itself at only one breath pressure and at only one position of the tuning joint. 4 If there were a uniform world-wide standard of breath pressure in recorder playing, the recorder maker's job would be infinitely less problematic. Unfortunately, there are wide variations of breath pressure among recorder players. Our experience is that many amateur European players and a small minority of American players have learned to play at relatively low breath pressures, whereas a smaller number of European players, mostly advanced amateurs and professionals, and a large majority of American players, amateur and professional, prefer to employ appreciably higher breath pressures.
The reasons for this demographic discrepancy are due to basic differences in the educational systems and cultural backgrounds and the age at which recorder study is begun. In Europe, most amateur recorder players are taught the instrument in school programs beginning at a very young age without having previously studied a modem wind instrument. 5 They therefore never develop the technique of playing at a higher pressure which would have been inculcated by the prior experience of having played a modern woodwind or brass instrument. Such players, in childhood and in adulthood as well, usually play on just the residual air in the lungs, without breathing deeply or supporting the sound from the diaphragm, and with a closed throat and jaw, which constricts the flow of air and negatively influences tone and intonation.
In the United States, however, most school systems do not offer recorder to all students as a basic element of their educational programs, if indeed they offer any recorder instruction at all. The great majority of amateur recorder players come to the instrument in adulthood, quite frequently after having played a modern wind or brass instrument in childhood, and therefore already have learned how to breathe diaphragmatically and support tone production correctly at higher breath pressures, with an open throat and jaw producing a free, unrestricted air supply.
Recorder makers, most of whom want to sell their instruments into a world-wide market, are therefore faced with a dilemma: should they make their instruments to suit the European style of playing at lower breath pressures or the American style of playing at a higher breath pressure? In the recent past, most European makers (Moeck being the most notable exception) designed their modern student and middle-priced instruments for the European market, based on the assumption that players using higher breath pressures could adjust the tuning by pulling out the headjoint. 6
The limitation of this approach is that pulling out the headjoint varies the tuning of most notes by differing amounts, causing the instrument to become progressively more out of tune with itself as it becomes generally lower in overall pitch. Although the middle register notes are lowered more than the extreme upper and lower register, there are also some counterintuitive pitch changes of which the player needs to be aware. Some notes become actually higher rather than lower in pitch when the headjoint is pulled out.
Moeck and most North American makers, on the other hand, design their instruments to be played at higher breath pressures, but players who use lower breath pressure find these instruments to be quite flat in pitch overall and out of tune with themselves and have no other recourse than to learn to blow harder or select a more compatible instrument from another maker. Interestingly enough, a number of prominent European recorder makers have also more recently elected to design their instruments, even their entry-level student models, to be played at higher breath pressures, perhaps in response to a improvement in the general level of European school recorder teaching and playing. Perhaps most confusing are the instruments produced by Japanese makers; since these firms frequently farm out their design work to a variety of outside sources, they produce some models which work best at low breath pressures and others which can only be played in tune at higher breath pressures. 7 In general, when shopping around for recorders which are suited to one's individual style of playing, it is well to solicit the advice of a experienced dealer with a comprehensive overview of the individual idiosyncrasies of the many different makes and models available on today's international market.
There is, of course, another solution to this dilemma: to purchase one's instruments from a dealer who is capable of altering the resistance and tuning of an instrument to suit the tastes and playing styles of the individual customer. This is, of course, precisely the stock in trade of Antique Sound Workshop. Most of our domestic customers play at moderately high breath pressures and we therefore revoice and retune many of the European instruments which we import so that they give their best tone, intonation, and response at higher breath pressures than those assumed by the maker for his domestic European customers.
On the other hand, we have a small minority of customers, mostly self-taught armchair musicians or educators with performance backgrounds in non-wind instruments, who have learned to play at low breath pressures; for these customers we frequently have to raise the pitch and/or lower the resistance of the recorders being prepared for them, so that they may play in tune with other instruments. We keep careful records of each customer's preferences and playing style in our computerized records, so that all subsequent instruments will be adjusted to each player's needs and taste.
It is well to bear in mind, however, that some makes and models of recorders lend themselves to retuning either higher or lower more readily than others. It is not always possible to modify an instrument to the extent dictated by the individual customer's wishes and ability level; again, an experienced craftsman-dealer is the best source of information as to what is possible in a given situation with a particular make and model of instrument.
There is, however, no real substitute for learning to play the recorder (or any other wind instrument) with the proper technique. We greatly urge all of our customers to learn to use correct tone support and breath pressure. The advantages of doing so are several and substantial: the instrument plays with a fuller, richer tone and projects better; the accuracy of response, particularly in the extreme high register, is more secure and reliable, the tone quality is more colorful and individualistic, and the windway is far less likely to clog up with accumulated moisture. Let us examine each of these benefits in somewhat greater detail.
The volume level of the recorder, which is directly related to how hard the instrument is blown, is largely fixed because of the necessity of playing in tune. The recorder, in comparison to many other historical instruments and virtually all modern instruments, is a rather quiet instrument and is frequently overshadowed in mixed ensembles. In a highly resonant acoustical space such as a stone church, recorders, with their relative paucity of overtones, usually project quite well and hold their own with other types of instruments. In most other contemporary locations, however, the acoustics are much deader and recorder tone tends to be absorbed to a much greater degree than that of other instruments. Perfect balances, even for professional ensembles playing on historical instruments, are occasionally achieved in digital recordings but hardly if ever in live performances.
A recorder which is well-designed and correctly voiced will respond easily in the extreme high register with the gentlest of articulation and breath pressure. However, the great majority of instruments in circulation are either not well designed to begin with or else not well in voice. The only way one can get such instruments to speak at all in the high register is to tongue and/or blow them harder than is generally desirable. Many players develop the habit of overplaying such recorders in an effort to achieve reliable response and find it difficult at first to play on a correctly voiced instrument. Since most players play on several different instruments in the course of a rehearsal or performance, a greater sense of reliability and security of response can be achieved if the player uses a consistently higher breath pressure.
A frequently overlooked aspect of recorder design dictates that the tone color of a given make and model of instrument will also vary according to the breath pressure at which the instrument is played. Blowing an instrument harder produces a fuller and more complex overtone structure and a more colorful and individualistic tone quality which most advanced players find desirable. Players who use higher breath pressures thereby bring out the individual characteristics of a particular make, model, and wood choice to a much greater degree than those who play more gently.
It is always informative to listen to customers both here in our display room and at public exhibitions and conventions across the country trying their way through the hundreds of different models of recorders available from our workshop. Some players produce dramatic differences in tone quality from one instrument to another, whereas others manage to make most instruments sound more or less the same. Interestingly enough, it is the latter group that also seems to experience the greatest difference in "feel" and difficulty in transferring from one instrument to another, probably because they are controlling the instrument to a lesser degree and are less flexible in their approach. While we are in general willing to modify each instrument insofar as possible to the individual customer, we remain firmly of the opinion that there is really no substitute for learning to breathe, blow, and play the instrument correctly. Only then will the recorder lose its dubious distinction as "the ill wind that nobody blows good!"
1 This bit of colloquial English wisdom appears in several sixteenth century sources in a number of variations, although it may well be considerably earlier in origin; its two most famous citations, however, are in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part II (Act IV, Scene 3, line 87) and again in Henry VI, Part III (Act II, Scene 5, line 55).
2 This statement, of course is less true of reproduction historical (i.e., renaissance and baroque) recorders. The historical instruments are more flexible musically than modern recorders but are thereby also more player-dependent. They are capable of providing more subtle and musical results in the hands of experienced players but are for the same reasons less suitable for beginning players.
3 Well-known among professional orchestral musicians is the story of the principal clarinetist of a major American symphony orchestra (who shall remain nameless) of rather limited musical and intellectual abilities. A guest conductor, unhappy with the clarinetist's prosaic playing of a solo passage, gave him a long lecture on how he wanted the solo played and then asked him if he understood what was wanted. The clarinetist shrugged and replied, "Maestro, you wanna loud or soft?" This story, of course, can be viewed as either an indictment of long-winded conductors or dim-witted clarinetists, depending upon one's particular point of view.
4 See Recorder Tuning and Intonation – The Bare Acoustical Facts of Life.
5 In many European school systems, recorder instruction is universal and mandatory; one is taught the four R's: reading, writing, 'rithmetic, and recorder.
6 It should be noted, however, that most of these makers also design their historical renaissance and baroque reproduction recorders to be played at higher breath pressures, creating a divergence in playing requirements between their student and adult amateur models on one hand and their professional models on the other.
7 A good case in point are several of the recorder models made by Aulos. The model #309 alto recorder, the first plastic recorder to have been designed with a curved windway some 25 years ago, is a fairly decent instrument even by today's higher standards, save for the fact that it is designed to be played at very low breath pressures and becomes extremely sharp in pitch when blown with anything like a normal range of breath pressures. Conversely, the Aulos #509 alto recorder was, when originally introduced, extremely flat in pitch and almost impossible to play at a'=440 Hz. without causing the sound to disintegrate. Fortunately, this instrument has been redesigned in the interim and now plays very readily at moderate breath pressures.
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