Singing: The Foundation of Wind-Playing — My Story

“If you wish to understand the foundation of playing skilfully on flutes and crumhorms, and of playing with artistry on the cornett, pommer, and shawm, then remember the following at all times. If you desire a true foundation, you will do well to bear singing in mind: if you understand singing, you will certainly learn more about instruments in six weeks (if you are diligent) than someone ignorant of singing will discover in six months.”

This quote from the 1528 edition of Martin Agricola’s Musica instrumentalis deudsch clearly summarizes my own personal philosophy for playing the recorder: Use singing — that is, trained singing — as the foundation upon which you base your playing. As both a trained soprano and recorder player, I can personally testify to the validity of Agricola’s statement. Immediately after I began taking voice lessons, I experienced a massive improvement in my recorder-playing. I soon found singing highly similar to playing the recorder, and, in the process of constantly being corrected for my vocal technique issues, I was able to pinpoint my recorder technique issues and hence address them in the same fashion that I would address my vocal issues. The result: Disappearance of both sketchy recorder technique and confusion resulting from no previous wind experience.

Prior to me taking voice lessons or even picking up the recorder, I had had absolutely no experience with a wind instrument. In the past, I had badly wanted to take voice lessons, yet at that time, I was deemed too young to do so. By the time I had reached the age when I could, classical guitar had entered my life and — in addition to violin — was taking up both my time and parents’ funds. Still, I off-and-on maintained my desire to take voice lessons.

When I entered college, I was inspired to pick up the recorder — which I had dabbled at in the past — as a means of both delving into historically informed performance practice and keeping myself busy. Forced to teach myself due to time, distance, money, and unkept promises for the first nine months of playing and having no previous experience with a wind instrument, I experienced problems with breathing, tone, and overall sound production — open throat and dropping the jaw especially. Yes, I had heard of such concepts in depth from both wind players and singers I had encountered in passing, and I had constantly read about it in the recorder pedagogy books I had invested in, but just words did not help.

I became increasingly flustered with my recorder-playing as the months progressed by: Scratchy tone, hyperventilation, and a whole lot of other issues. At the advice of recorder players across the nation that I was corresponding with via telephone, I decided to take occasional lessons with a recorder teacher, and if I could not find a recorder teacher, I was advised to go take voice lessons instead. The reason: Historical documents urge recorder players to emulate singing, and singing bears close resemblance to recorder. I received the same sort of advice in reading prominent recorder player and teacher Frances Blaker’s excellent recorder technique book, The Recorder Player’s Companion. In the “Blowing” section under the breath control exercises, Blaker urges her recorder-playing readers not only to read about breath control in singing manuals and discuss breath control with singers, but also to sing oneself. Hmmmmm …..

I received further confirmation that singing is the absolute foundation of wind-playing when I finally managed to locate my recorder teacher and arrange my first lesson with him. I soon learned that he is also a voice teacher, whereupon I enthusiastically communicated my desire to take voice lessons someday. He enthusiastically agreed not only because of his love of singing, but also because he strongly believed that singing was the absolute foundation for wind-players to base their technique upon — again confirming the advice of Agricola, Blaker, and my contacts mentioned above. It was then I recalled my gentle voice teacher-to-be — whom I knew in passing due to a friend who studied with him and also due to our shared love of historically informed Baroque practice. In the past, I had told him my desire to take voice lessons, and we had agreed to someday play recorder sonatas together since he was a harpsichordist. Now the time to take lessons with him was ripe …..

To be continued!

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