5 min read

Recorder Girl

Some reflections on how I ended up playing the world's least cool musical instrument.
A recorder (instrument) lying on top of a piano
Photo by Vincenzo Tabaglio

Hello, grownups!

I always hope that when I tell someone that I played the recorder until matric, they’ll gasp and think it’s a very surprising fact about me. “What a surprise!” they’ll exclaim, “I’d have guessed you were in a punk band, or that you created avant-garde electronic music made out of sounds recorded in public bathrooms.” Nope. To my eternal disappointment, they usually shrug and say, “well, yes, that sounds about right.” It is my great shame to be forever branded as a recorder girl.

The recorder was a popular instrument in Europe from around 1500-1700, and then faded into obscurity, presumably when everybody realised it sounds like a yodling seagull. It was resurrected in the 1930s, when a Nazi collaborator named Carl Orff (of Carmina Burana fame) developed a music education methodology called Schulwerk that popularised the recorder as an ideal first instrument for young children. It’s portable, cheap, easy to mass-manufacture, and the soprano is the ideal size for little hands. It’s a direct melody instrument, easy to learn how to count your hot cross buns on. So, yes, Nazis are the reason an almost-extinct Renaissance instrument remains one of the most popular first instruments for children in primary schools all around the world, a fact I’m sure would not surprise most long-suffering parents of children who are learning the recorder.

It’s my dad’s fault that I fell in love with the recorder, the world’s least lovable instrument. Trying to get my screeching as far out of the house as possible, he once suggested that I should play my recorder to the fairies who lived in the bottom of the garden, because fairies love the song ‘Greensleeves’. This backfired, because I became convinced that the recorder was actually some kind of magical instrument that allowed me to commune with the supernatural. I was never going to give it up after that.

Being one of those kids who is STILL playing the recorder in high school brands you, man. You end up spending all your lunch breaks hiding in the music room with the other classical music dorks. It was a sort of camaraderie, but not one any of us would have chosen.

Dwight Schrute from The Office, the ultimate recorder boy

The only way playing the recorder ever helped my social life was when I was in grade nine, and was invited to join the grade eleven play. They were putting on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and they asked me to dress up like a fairy and wander around in the background of the forest scenes improvising twinkly recorder music. I was like, YES, I have been training for this role since grade two, Dad look at me now. I had a painfully intense crush on the grade eleven who was playing Titania (wearing a sparkly crop-top that is forever burned into my wounded teenage heart) and she learned my name, my actual name, although it was mostly to ask me to please shut up with that damn recorder music for a moment while she was rehearsing her lines.

Classical music in Pretoria in the 2000s was a weird scene. It’s not difficult to see how classical music was weaponised by Apartheid, how the music of long-dead Europeans was lauded as part of the ongoing colonial project to construct a hierarchy of culture. Apparently, a prominent National Party’s school inspector of the 1950s once said that “any music containing elements of rock, jazz, African, Indian, or dance music” was decadent and unsuitable for schoolchildren*. In the 2000s, Pretoria Model C and private high schools still felt very much like finishing schools for the Apartheid elite, and there was a well-funded and thriving classical arts scene. There were endless “Eisteddfods” (inter-school music competitions), Kunswedstrye, Baroque ensembles, and recorder girls being churned out by the dozen. Occasionally, our schools would make some token gesture to the fact that we lived in the New South Africa, by letting us play kwelas or - ehgahd - adding a marimba to a Vivaldi composition, but they always felt half-hearted.

Even when you're amazing at playing the recorder, you look like an idiot while doing so, sorry.

The only defence I shall mount for the recorder is that it is a much more fun instrument to play than it is to listen to. I didn't like listening to recorder music even when I played the damn thing. The only instrument more awful to listen to than a recorder is a bagpipe, and a bagpipe is really just multiple recorders jammed into a sheep's bladder.

The recorder is an easy instrument to learn, and a difficult one to master. You cannot blow a recorder, blowing will only make it squawk. You have to breathe into a recorder, or speak into it. Most of the articulation happens in your mouth, so playing well involves tonging a babble of tukutukutuku sounds as your fingers move. Good recorder players would be great at oral sex, except that playing the recorder means that they’re unlikely to ever have the chance to try.

You can’t play a recorder loudly. That’s the main reason, really, that it fell out of favour when orchestras grew larger in the 1800s: its sound just can’t match the volume of most modern instruments. The cello, oblique flute (the recorder’s marginally cooler cousin), the oboe, even the bloody clarinet, all were rescued from the depths of uncoolness by jazz players in the early 20th century, but the recorder just can’t stand up to the sound of a brass band. So really, I think the reason that recorders are so uncool is that they are the whitest of all instruments. Black culture invented cool, and Black culture has never bestowed coolness on the recorder.***

Whatever instrument you learned to play as a kid, I hope it brought you joy (even if, like the recorder, you regularly had to blow your spit out of it).


P.S. please do listen to the greatest piece of recorder music ever created, at this link. It's only 20 seconds long.

* Quoted in Herbst, A., De Wet, J., & Rijsdijk, S. (2005). A Survey of Music Education in the Primary Schools of South Africa's Cape Peninsula. Journal of Research in Music Education, 53(3), 260-283.

** Weird tangent: Eisteddfods are Welsh spoken-word cultural festivals. The only other places in the world where the term is commonly in use are former British colonies: South Africa and Australia.

*** Literally. The word “cool” as “fashionable, effortless” started as African-American vernacular in the 1930s, and was popularised by jazz legend Lester Young.

Two tents glowing in the darkness
Our two little tents on a lonely beach in Scotland, photo by my buddy Wiebke Toussaint

Updates from Sam-land

  • I just got back from Scotland! It was delightful and extremely cold. We were mostly bumming around and camping in random fields, but we did manage to squeeze in a few days of the Edinburgh Festival. Highlights were a standup show by Alex Farrow called "Philosophy Pig", full of nerdy philosophy jokes (some of them were a little niet-zche, geddit geddit), and Angelina Chudi's excellent one-woman play Patricia Gets Ready (for a Date With the Man Who Used to Hit Her). I'm sure they will both be touring the rest of the UK soon. Do see them if you have the chance.
  • I haven't mentioned work stuff for a while, because I've been busy with some TV projects I can't really talk about yet. But rest assured, I've been busy, and hopefully will be able to bring you some cute new projects soon :)
  • Oh my fucking shit have you all read Susanna Clarke's Piranesi?! I think it's the best book I've read all year, and I have read some EXCELLENT books this year.