How Low Can You Go?
The four lowest notes of the recorder are no joke.
Sure, they seem like a a joke sometimes: a mean-spirited practical joke in which you expend Herculean effort only to be rewarded, even in the best-case scenario, with a wisp of sound.
And of course the worst-case scenario is worse, involving squeaks, squawks, gasps and awkward silences.
But low notes (I’m talking about F, F#, G, G# on an F instrument; C, C#, D, D# on a C instrument) absolutely can be accessed reliably and beautifully, sounding each and every time you attempt them.
It just takes a smart and deliberate learning process.
Accordingly, here are my four top tips for working toward reliable, lovely low notes:
1) Accept low notes for what they are. On most recorders, low notes are never going to be loud or ringing or present. And trying to make them loud is only going to make them crack. Part of the beauty of the recorder and other historical instruments is that each and every note has a slightly different timbre and volume- unlike modern instruments for which timbre has been flattened throughout the instrument’s range. So enjoy the soft sounds of a recorder’s low notes. Played properly, they are dark and soothing and beautiful.
2) Think like a doctor. If you miss a low note, don’t just jam your fingers down again and again trying to make it come out. Not only is this a recipe for frustration, but even if you eventually hit the note, you’ve lost the opportunity to diagnose what went wrong with your initial attempt. A missed note isn’t a tragedy; it’s an opportunity to gather information about what’s working and what’s not. Low notes usually fail for one of two reasons: too much air, or leaking fingers. So sit with your error for a moment while running through a checklist to determine what, exactly, has gone wrong.
a. First, lower your breath pressure. If the note comes out as you blow less, you’ll know that you have to work on your air and/or mouth shape.
b. If lowering your air does nothing, try picking up your lowest finger (if you’re on an F, say, move to the G). If your playing clarifies as you do this, you’ll know that your problem was with finger 7, your pinky.
c. If the G is still a no go, continue to pick up fingers, one at a time, to figure out which finger was leaking. Fix it, then head back down again, one finger at a time.
3) Play the note. This sounds almost too flippant to be helpful, but I’ve consistently found that it is. In order to play a note well, you need to spend time playing it. And not just playing it, but deliberately cultivating your awareness of what it feels like, sounds like, and looks like to play your low note in a relaxed way. So once you’ve found a good low F, hang out there for a while. Relax your fingers, jaw, and tongue, etching the feeling of successful playing into your body and mind so that you can access it more easily next time.
4) Go home. After you’ve spent sufficient time hanging out on your low note to ingrain how it feels, make it your home. My favorite exercise for low notes is one I call “home base.” Play your low note beautifully, long and low and slow. Then leap up one note and return to home base. Then two notes, then three notes, returning home to your low note every time. This helps ground your low note as something to be leapt from, not to, while improving your ability to move from high to low.
Enjoy your low notes! (Quietly.)