Is it Me Or the Instrument?
I joke sometimes that if you make a sound on the recorder you don’t like, you should immediately withdraw the instrument from your lips and hold it front of your face with furrowed brow and narrowed eyes, lips pulled back in a rictus of incredulity, as if to say: Et tu, Recorder?
This is sure to absolve you of any error.
Of course, in 95% of cases, the root of a problem lies not with the instrument, but with the player. It’s not always a comfortable truth to stomach, but, alas, if something goes wrong, ten to one odds the fault lies with us and not with our equipment.
But there are exceptions. And it is the specter of these exceptions that can haunt students (and teachers!). Are low notes really supposed to be so hard? Is my teacher right, or would I have an easier time with high notes on a different instrument? Is that rough airstream really my student’s fault?
At this point in my teaching career, I’ve taught hundreds of students playing hundreds of instruments. And in maybe a dozen cases, I came to the conclusion that the student’s technical problem could be laid at the feet of a substandard instrument.
In other words, it’s probably you. But every so often, it’s not.
So how can you tell?
One method is clearly both easiest and best: Consult an expert. A professional recorder player can try your instrument and, within a very short period of time, tell you if it’s any good. Case closed. I've performed this service for many private students and I am always happy to assess someone's instrument at a workshop. It takes almost no time to render an opinion and provides instant clarity.
But what if you don’t have a teacher? Or what if, as in the case of so many of my students these days, you’re learning online?
Here are four things you can try:
1) Change recorders. A good plastic instrument is durable and highly standardized. It’s most likely going to respond in a stable and predictable way. So try whatever you were struggling with on a good plastic instrument. If you still struggle- it’s you. If you can suddenly play with ease and accuracy- it may have been your instrument.
2) Change players. Say you have trouble with the high f, and you’re wondering if it’s you or the instrument. Many people with no access to teachers still have access to other recorder players. So hand your instrument to a colleague or three. If every single one of them gets the same results you do, you may have a case for indicting your instrument.
3) Assess the condition of your instrument. Is your instrument over 40 years old? Is it a school model (some hints include a rounded shape, no foot joint, straight windway, maple or pearwood). Was it stored in a basement or attic or car for any length of time? Did you buy it at a garage sale or very cheaply on ebay? Can you feel sticky deposits on the inside, or do you see mold or visible cracks? Has your dog ever chewed on your instrument? If one or more of your answers to these questions is yes, there’s a greater chance your instrument isn’t up to par, and a trained recorder maker will be able to tell you if the instrument is reparable and/or worth repairing.
4) Keep practicing. Say you’re struggling with low notes. Keep practicing low notes. If, over time and with deliberate practice, your low notes improve- well, you guessed it, it was you. But not anymore!