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It’s no secret that when people think of the recorder, they think of their 3rd grade music class full of at least 20 other kiddos each screeching on neon-colored plastic recorder.  That sound is special - you can interpret that as you will. That sound is also extraordinarily deafening - It never ceases to amaze me the sheer volume of sound that can come out of such a small instrument made of such a brightly colored material.


But, as you probably guessed, the first recorder to appear in history was not made of neon plastic! The “grown-up” version can be traced as far back as the Middle Ages and was typically made of wood - as was the oboe, and the traverso, and the cornetto... do you see the "woodwind" name come into play now?


A member of the flute family, the recorder was often referred to the flauto douce or “sweet flute.” Like most other instruments, it has a family, or consort, of many sizes at different pitches. It's kind of like the instrumental version of a “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” family. What really separates it more from the flutes is it’s beak-like mouthpiece. 

 In the Renaissance era, it was expected that a recorder player had more than one instrument to choose from, and would have the knowledge to know which recorder fit best for each part.  This takes a special kind of knowledge because not all recorders actually sound the pitch that’s printed on the page. Soprano and alto recorders tend to sound high - up an octave.  Tenor recorders sound at a lower pitch and tend to also have a more mellow tone. In fact, one of the cool ways a performer can change timbre, or tone color, in a piece of music or next section would be to simply pick up a different recorder.


Our recorder player, Laura Osterlund, is of course armed with a whole artillery of recorders.  For Chicago Stories, however, there were several factors to consider in choosing the right recorder:

  1. The pitch of the music. A lot of Baroque music sounded about a half-step lower than modern music sounds like today; a written C pitch on the staff would have sounded like the B right below it. Because wind instruments at this time were generally fixed, we had to decide which pitch we would play in. We agreed to A=415, which is that lowered half step. You're probably more familiar with the A-440, which you learned to sing from the tuning fork in 3rd grade music class. This decision narrowed down her arsenal to about half her collection.
  2. The affect of the music. As part of Eric’s Assyrian-inspired pieces, Laura and Eric had to consider the right sound needed that would best fit that Middle Eastern timbre.
  3. The range of the music. Setting the right tone and mood for the piece was also very critical, so how high and low the instrument could go was a big factor.
  4. The power of the instrument. Like the traverso, there is a big difference between notes as a player moves up and down a scale. Some notes blast out, while other notes sound more covered or muted. This would be similar between recorders, but the pitches on what that happen in a scale would be different depending on the instrument.

So, what did Laura and Eric choose? *drum roll please!* Laura will perform on the alto recorder for Chicago Stories. Yay, altos!


Here's a sneak pick at Laura's mad skills: 


And just for fun, here are some other cool sounds the recorder can make:




Join BBE Artistic Director, Brandi Berry, as she explores the instruments, people, and stories being the project through our blog series!