Bruce Beck and Enid Best play their recorders during a rehearsal.

Bruce Beck and Enid Best play their recorders during a rehearsal.

Sweet consortium

Anyone whose idea of a recorder is the screechy instrument of torture played in Grade 5 music class hasn’t heard the Red Deer Recorder Consort.

Anyone whose idea of a recorder is the screechy instrument of torture played in Grade 5 music class hasn’t heard the Red Deer Recorder Consort.

The six-member chamber group can not only play the pants off Beatles tunes, it can also tackle mellow and melodious compositions by Bach, Mozart, and lesser known Renaissance and Baroque composers, using the plain, old plastic recorders remembered from elementary school.

Granted, some of the Consort’s recorders are a little higher end, carved out of fancy woods. And the instruments vary in size and tone — from a high-pitched 15-cm piccolo-like Garklein to a metre-long bass (or even longer double bass).

But a recorder is essentially a recorder, said Enid Best, 67, one of the group’s co-founders.

“There’s no end to what you can do with it.”

You can blow into a basic soprano recorder of school music class notoriety, “and make it sound magnificent, because it’s not the recorder but the player that counts,” added the retired public school division music specialist.

Unlike the flute, no special lip techniques are required — although Best cautions that blowing too hard will make the recorder shriek. “You have to have breath control — too little air and you will sound flat, too much and you’ll sound sharp. You have to support the sound with your breath.”

Otherwise, there’s no great mystery to the hollow instrument with air holes that are covered with fingertips to create different tones.

Similar-looking devices, some made from bone, were found in archeological digs going back 25,000 years.

Yet the recorder, named for an old English word meaning “to sing like a bird,” was actually a popular orchestral instrument in Western music from 1400 to 1750.

Consort member Bruce Beck, 62, a retired teacher from Sylvan Lake, added that composers throughout Europe wrote music specifically for recorders — including England’s King Henry VIII, who not only wrote such tunes as Pastime with Good Company, but was an accomplished recorder player, himself.

The instrument was only bumped from orchestral lineups in the mid 18th-century, said Beck, when orchestras got larger and other instruments got louder, overpowering and later relegating the recorder to folk-music status.

He points out that the alto and tenor recorders produce a sound that’s very close in tone to the human voice.

The instrument’s lovely, mellow two-octave range is why United Church minister Barbara Lieurance, 56, continues to play the recorder long after her childhood music lessons ended in her native West Germany.

“There’s a soft and haunting quality to it. It’s easy to play and melodious.”

The recorder is also perfect for reproducing the sound of early music, which is what reignited the instrument’s popularity in the early 20th century.

Consort member Helga Sinton, a 76-year-old former church worker and nurse, also learned the instrument as a child in East Germany. She later took the recorder with her across three continents, making connections with other music lovers the entire way.

Sinton points out that many African flutes are based on the same principle as recorders. “It really is a universal, global instrument.”

Several of the Consort’s members have nostalgic associations with recorders.

Red Deer College librarian Yvonne Phillips, 37, recalls a couple of good elementary school music teachers she had in Williams Lake, B.C. “I first learned (the recorder) in Grades 3 and 4,” she said. After growing up, and continuing to play the instrument with groups in Kamloops, Regina and Edmonton, one of the first things Phillips did after moving to Red Deer four years ago was to Google “recorders” and “Red Deer” to find a local consort.

In fact, one has existed in the city since the mid-1990s,when Best, Beck and Sinton got together to make a shared experience out of what had formerly been a personal passion.

“We play for the joy of it,” said Best, who feels weekly practices with the Red Deer Recorder Consort have helped her through some rough emotional times, including deaths in the family.

“When I play, I can’t think of anything else. I escape into the music.”

The Consort’s practices rotate between various group members’ homes. Lacombe resident Lieurance said she loves the welcoming feeling she gets. “Sometimes you are even fed chicken soup when you come (for a practice) without having had supper.”

The audience reaction can also be wildly welcoming — like the time the Consort played the Beatles’ ditty When I’m 64 for an Edmonton crowd.

“They loved it,” recalled Beck. “It was the only piece where people began clapping in the middle, before we even finished.”

While a lot of ancient music, such English baroque composer Henry Purcell’s Rondeau is performed, Best said the Consort likes to throw in a contemporary tune every now and again as a surprise.

Those who still have trouble thinking of the recorder as a cool instrument might want to consider that Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven “definitely has recorders in it,” said Best. “It’s even written right in the music.”

There are several upcoming opportunities to hear the Red Deer Recorder Consort play:

l The 10:30 a.m., April 6, Good Friday service at the Gaetz Memorial United Church (which is, of course, free).

l And a Saturday, May 5, Sound Celebration concert at the same church. The 7:30 p.m. event will also feature music from the church’s handbell group, choir, organists and the band Synergy. Tickets are $10 ($25 per family) at the door, or from the church office.

Any intermediate recorder players interested in the Red Deer Recorder Consort can call Best at 403-347-2647.