Historical Pitch: The Low Down

DSC_0837Back in Fall of last year before my graduation, I began learning the daunting Bach sonatas on recorder.  When I had initially petitioned my recorder teacher earlier in the year due to my Bach-loving voice teacher/harpsichordist’s request, he had turned it down due to their daunting requirements.  Not only was I ready to meet such technical virtuosity, but I had also recovered from a massive oral surgery which had derived me of my ability to play recorder for three months.  So the idea of playing Bach was shelved until Fall, when I began to crave more virtuosity.  Now that my playing was “back in shape”, I felt that I could indeed give Bach a try — at least a try — and work slowly on it, using my prudence and shelving it again if necessary.  Needless to say, with much diligence and support, I succeeded in learning to play the difficult BWV 1034 sonata.

In the midst of this rigorous work, my faithful Mollenhauer Morgan Special Edition alto recorder (A=440) — my one and only “good” instrument — needed to go to Von Huene Workshop in Brookline, Massachusetts for annual cleaning.  Because of the surgery and three months of no playing, I had postponed it until after summer, but now with cold weather approaching and definite signs of mold/dirty windway, I had to send it in.  Previously, during the week-plus time period when I would not have my Mollenhauer due to annual check-up, I had used my plastic Aulos to get by. This time, however, doing so proved most frustrating literally to the point of tears. Not only could I not articulate properly and achieve good tone as I had experienced in the past, but I more prominently could barely play the Bach on my plastic. Doing so was literally next to impossible, and after four days of extreme frustration and subsequent skipping practice, I realized that I could no longer go on like this with just one good instrument and truly needed a second not only to take the weight off the first during practice, but also to serve as a backup when the other went in for repairs. In talking to two wonderful and excellent European recorder professionals that I correspond with on a regular basis, I learned that, as a serious player with professional aspirations, I would not only need just another instrument; rather, I would need a handmade A=415 instrument immediately.

 The thought of A=415 did not daunt me. Having noticed that 99% of the professional HIPP world uses it, I had all along been anticipating playing and singing in it one day, casually preparing myself for it.  During the very last stretch of my classical guitar days in which I was still a modest beginner on recorder, I was actually tuning my guitar down half a step for Baroque pieces, solely relying on “following the fingering patterns” as I had been accustomed to, playing by feel. Still, the thought of playing at 415 pitch on violin still frightened me, since my fingers always slide up regardless if the violin is tuned lower than standard pitch.  Furthermore, in reading violinists’ forums regarding 415 pitch and Baroque pitch, I became psyched out reading other perfect pitch possessors’ posts claiming its impossibility to them. However, my fears were soon placed at ease after speaking to actual early music professionals who have perfect pitch but have learned to adapt to 415 pitch. In any case, for the longest time since I had latched up with Patrick von Huene and his staff at Von Huene Workshop, I had admired his handmade 415s and, based on my deep admiration of his meticulous craftsmanship, thorough knowledge of recorder making, and stellar work on my Mollenhauer, I had decided that a 415 Von Huene would be my next instrument. Hence, when two used Von Huene altos within my budget range — a boxwood Denner and a grenadilla Stanesby with a “gorgeous tone” — popped up on the used list, I instantly ordered them to try on consignment.

Upon arrival of the two instruments, I found myself extremely disoriented with regards to 415 pitch.  Merely “following the finger patterns” as I had with classical guitar proved somewhat futile.  Like with guitar, I play recorder largely by feel in the fingering; for example, when I see a certain note in my music or am instructed to play a certain note, my fingers will immediately snap into position.  However, fingering one note and hearing another half a step lower — as my ear was constantly telling me — proved most confusing to the point I was experiencing serious disorientation.  Not only did I feel that I was playing an alto recorder in E Major instead of F Major, but I also could not play my most familiar pieces — which I could play fluently on my A=440 F alto recorder — fluently without mistakes.  I was always stumbling due to the massive confusion and subsequent frustration I was experiencing.  At the end of my first day with 415 pitch, I walked away extremely discouraged, feeling that indeed people with perfect pitch could not adapt to 415 pitch as I had heard. However, when I called my recorder teacher and told him about this, he up front told me: Stop playing games in your mind, and get to work. You can do it.

Although I still was doubtful, I mustered up courage and began to ponder on how I could overcome this mental block. I began to analyze how exactly I play, recalling the “playing by feel” mindset that I described earlier;I decided that if I was going to master 415 pitch, “playing by feel” was going to be the way to go. Hence, when I was practicing with the two instruments I was trying out, I perpetually played with the music in front of me, even for scales and pieces that I had known by heart for years. In doing so, when I would see a note on the page and instantly finger it, I would simultaneously hear it in 415 pitch and thus ingrain in my mind what that note sounded like in 415 pitch. The more I did this, the more I learned to “hear” in 415 pitch without confusion or transposing. More clearly, I no longer had to tell myself that “What sounds like an A-flat is an A”; an A was an A in 415 pitch, different sound or not. Furthermore, in about three days of the instruments’ arrival, an unexpected “blessing in disguise” sealed my mastery of 415 pitch on alto recorder: My Mollenhauer’s lower cork joint split, necessitating the instrument’s return to Von Huene Workshop just three months after it had been there for repairs as I described earlier. Initially, I was flustered that I would have to send it back within such a short epoch, yet I then realized that this would prove beneficial to me in the aspect that this would force me to use 415 pitch for my whole practice time without the temptation to revert to 440 pitch. Hence, when my teacher and I had finally decided that the grenadilla Stanesby Jr. would be my new instrument, I packed my Mollenhauer up with the other Denner that I did not want and dropped the box off at FedEx for shipment to Brookline.

While I was waiting for my Mollenhauer to come home and doing all my practice on my new Stanesby, I discovered yet another tactic to gain control of playing in 415 pitch: Singing at that pitch. Although I had done it in the past on a casual basis, I had always done it with the mindset to sing everything half a step down (i.e. transpose), and although this indeed was a good first step in acclimating myself to 415 pitch, I needed to get beyond it to master playing in that pitch. Hence, not only did I begin singing my arias half a step down on a regular basis, but I also began doing what I had done with recorder: Sing with the music in front of me so that my mind would be trained to hear in 415 pitch when I see a note on the page. I also began sight singing new arias that my teacher and I had carefully selected for my voice at 415 pitch, constantly reminding myself to stay at 415 pitch when I saw the note on the page. The more I practiced this, the more it became second nature to me, and soon I began to find myself needing music in front of me less and less. A G was a G in 415 pitch; I was finally learning to think and hear in low pitch.

By the time my Mollenhauer arrived home all clean and repaired, I had gained total control of 415 pitch and my new Stanesby, no longer experiencing drastic confusion when going between a 440 and 415 recorder. All I had to do was simply “flip the switch” in my mind when I had to immediately go between the two pitches. Though I still continued to need the music in front of me for brief periods of reinforcement, I was totally weaned off it by the time I went for a recorder lesson just two weeks after purchasing my new Stanesby. Most importantly, I had grown to prefer playing at 415 pitch due to its lovely, mellow sound and had become so bonded with my Stanesby due to its superiority that I found myself using my Mollenhauer less and the Stanesby becoming my primary instrument for practice. I found myself wanting to perform in 415 over 440, and when given the opportunity to choose which pitch to play at during a service at my recorder teacher’s church, I decided 415, hands down. Also, when given the opportunity to have a private lesson with noted American recorder player and teacher Rotem Gilbert, I immediately decided that I wanted to play at 415 — which paid off well beyond my foremost expectations. In both, I handled 415 pitch with ease as if it was the 440 I had known for the almost eighteen years of my musical experience. I was no longer transposing, but living within the 415 system. Learning to hear and identify at that pitch as if it was 440, learning to play in it without transposing, loving it more than 440 pitch. My initial fears about perfect pitch not allowing me to play at 415 was indeed a psychological block and an urban myth; all I had do was just settle down and trust myself. Yes, my dear recorder teacher was indeed right: Stop playing games; you can do it!

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