Recorder Buying 101

A Crash Course in Economics and Reality

If you are a first-time visitor to this WWW site, you might more likely than not fit this profile: you have already bought an inexpensive recorder and a method book, either from a local music store or a mail-order firm, you have made a tentative start at learning to play the instrument, but you seem to be getting nowhere fast. Being reasonably computer savvy, you have searched the Internet and, one way or another, maybe via Nicholas Lander's Recorder Home Page in Australia, found our modest little WWW site. You have browsed around and spent a bit of time downloading and absorbing our FAQS for Beginners and Adult Recorder Methods and Materials. How am I doing so far? Just keep on reading.

You are probably thinking to yourself , "I already have a recorder; if I just get the right method book, maybe I'll finally learn how to play the instrument. The recorder I have probably isn't the greatest, but it's good enough for me as a beginner. If I ever get halfway decent at this, I'll think about treating myself to a better quality custom-serviced instrument."

If this sounds like you, you have come to the right place. Welcome to Recorder Buying 101, the introductory course for recorder tyros in the ASW Conservatory of Hard Knocks, Adult Extension Division. You are about to learn why getting the right method book is only half of the solution, and why playing on any old instrument is definitely not the right thing for you to do. Let's just assume that you have obtained a Yamaha YRS-302B [or 312B or 314B] soprano recorder. You note that this is a model that we highly recommend for beginning players and congratulate yourself on having gotten a top-notch state-of-the-art plastic instrument, either by good advice or sheer dumb luck. It seems to play OK, as far as you can tell. Well, let's take it for a test drive and find out.

Put your instrument together and pull out the headjoint 2.5 mm that is the position that provides the best intonation on this particular make and model. Next, you need to find the optimum breath pressure that gives the best intonation. You do this by playing first the low c'', which is relatively fixed in pitch, and then the middle c''', which varies greatly with breath pressure. If they are in tune, great; you have found the right breath pressure. If, as is more likely with beginners, the middle c''' is flat to the lower c'', you are underblowing the instrument; blow harder and the middle c''' will come up to match the pitch of the low c''. If, however, the middle c''' is sharper than the low c'', you are blowing too hard and need to back off a bit until the middle and low c are in tune.

OK, now that you have the right headjoint extension and the right breath pressure, the instrument will produce the best intonation of which it is capable. In order to get your bearings, play a C major scale from the low c up to the high c (or as high up as you know the fingerings) and back down again using a uniform breath pressure and articulation from bottom to top and back. Now play a fully chromatic scale from low c'' to high c'''' and back, listening carefully to the pitch of each note.

Now it's time for the first pop quiz in Recorder Buying 101. Did you hear that the f#'' and the bb'' in the first octave were both extremely sharp, the f''' in the second octave was rather flat, and the d''', e''', f#''', g''', a'''. bb''', and b''' in the second octave were all sharp and by different amounts? These are the standard intonation problems that are found in every sample of this particular make and model recorder. Trust me, I have tuned hundreds if not thousands of these instruments in the past twenty or so years. I know what I'm talking about.

Did you score a passing grade on this quiz? If your answer was yes to at least some of these faults, I have some good news and some bad news for you: the good news is that you already have a halfway decent ear for intonation; the bad news is that you have a recorder which was bought off the shelf and, due to various minor design and manufacturing defects, does not play very well in tune, either with itself or with other instruments. Bear in mind that this particular make and model is by far the best plastic soprano on the current market all of the others have different tuning problems and most are in general even worse. Moral: you should have bought your instrument from a craftsman-dealer who would have ideally tuned your instrument before it was delivered. Your instrument is simply not up to your skill level, even at this early stage of your musical development. Bummer!

If your answer was no, I also have good news and bad news for you: the good news is that having an instrument that is not very well in tune is probably not going to bother you all that much, at least right now, because you are not able to hear the difference. The long-term bad news is that you are never going to develop an ear for intonation or be able to play in tune, because you are going to become used to hearing certain notes always out of tune and will come to accept that as a norm. Even bigger bummer!

The lesson to be learned here is that every player, whether beginning, intermediate, or advanced, needs to have an instrument that is correctly voiced and well in tune with itself. The notion that any old instrument is good enough for a beginner is simply, totally, absolutely, positively false. If anything, the exact opposite is true: a beginning recorder player needs the help of a properly tuned and voiced instrument even more than a more advanced player. Whereas an advanced, musically sophisticated player can alter the pitch of some notes by changing breath pressure or fingerings on the fly, a beginning player is largely at the mercy of his or her recorder and needs a cooperative instrument if he/she is ever to make any kind of meaningful musical progress. Advanced players will ideally have more control over their instruments, but then they don't want to be bothered with having to worry about whether a high c'''' will come out every time or having to change fingerings and breath pressure continually in order to compensate for the deficiencies of a defective instrument. They rightfully want to concern themselves with articulation, phrasing, nuance, and the myriad other aspects of playing musically. Beginning players, on the other hand, have all they can do to get the right fingers down and the right notes in the right place at the right time; they can't also be expected to concern themselves at the same time with developing cumbersome workarounds for the limitations of an inferior instrument.

Every prospective recorder player needs to have a decent instrument from the very beginning. The right question to ask yourself is not "how much will a new recorder cost?" but "how much is my musical education, progress, and enjoyment worth to me?" Presumably you have taken up the recorder because you want to experience the pleasure, relaxation, and sense of fulfillment that comes from making music, either by yourself or with others. The amount of money you invest in an instrument is in fact minuscule compared to the amount of time and effort that you will invest in your musical education in the weeks, months, and years to come. Just exactly how much is your time, effort, and enjoyment in music worth to you?

For your homework assignment, I will ask you to do a little math problem and crunch some numbers. Let's just suppose you want to learn to play alto recorder, as per our recommendation, and are trying to decide whether to buy a plastic instrument to start with or spring for a wooden instrument right away. You think you would prefer the sound of a wooden instrument, but the price seems so much more $444.00 for a Huber Model II alto as opposed to $57.99 for a Yamaha 300 series alto, for example. Let's also assume that, if you get halfway decent at this business, you will use the instrument for at least ten years that is an extremely conservative figure, since a good wooden instrument, properly serviced, played-in, and maintained, will last for many decades. If you figure that the additional money the wooden instrument will cost you is amortized over a ten year period, how much is the actual cost per day of buying and owning a good inexpensive wooden alto recorder over a plastic one? No peeking at the answer in the back of the book, now.

That's right, folks, the cost boils down to about 10 cents a day -- and in the case of equivalent soprano recorders, about 3 cents a day! Is it worth 10 cents (or 3 cents) per day to have in your hands an instrument that sounds better, feels better, looks better, and doesn't clog up with moisture every few minutes? For most people the answer is a no-brainer, but the choice is squarely up to you.

Recent music industry research indicates that about 15% of Americans buy musical instruments solely or primarily on the basis of price. This figure has been more or less the same for decades, by the way long before the Internet and E-commerce came into being. For the remaining 85%, price comes in 10th place after many other more important considerations, such as quality, selection, availability, service, and customer education. When you buy a good quality, custom-serviced instrument, you pay for it only once; when you buy a cheap, inferior, unserviced, off-the-shelf instrument from a commercial megastore or Internet discounter or somebody's used and abused cast-off on E-Bay, you will continue to pay and pay, and pay, in annoyance, frustration, and lack of progress. Recorders are like wines: the bitter taste of poor quality remains long after the cheap thrill of low price is forgotten. Don't hobble yourself and continue to suffer with an inadequate instrument. Like an appreciative customer of ours recently said to me, "Life is just too damned short to drink bad coffee, drive bad cars, and play on bad instruments!" To which I might add, a fine recorder costs a lot less than a BMW.

Copyright, Antique Sound Workshop, Ltd., 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, & 2014. All rights reserved.

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