Recent revisions to the national curriculum do not prohibit the use of recorders in school music. Yes, we’re going back to basics and the Judeo-Christian Canon in English, but in music, we never really left. I was taught the recorder in primary school, and the recorder is still taught. I know because I’ve been listening to one for the last five weeks. Perhaps because it’s the recorder, and Saturday, I feel an ode coming on.
Oh Recorder Recorder, that screams out its orders, through windows and doorways, across fences and borders. It screeches as it teaches as it spits as it drips. The whole street is listening to this pipe with its pips. The recorder’s a taunter that never never saunters but runs at full pelt until it is felt. It is felt in our brains, our brains that it drains, the music of gods? the music of dogs. I hate it, I hate it, oh Lorder, don’t sorta, please in short order, mute that recorder, or I’ll someone slaughter.
Yes, the recorder is much maligned, but I should point out, especially as we started with the Canon, that it’s something other than tight pants the greats who gave us Stairway to Heaven, Hamlet and Ruby Tuesday have in common. There are those who say it’s John Paul Jones’s haunting recorder rather than the pernickety guitar of Jimmy Page that takes Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, and it may be no coincidence that another Jones, Brian, came up with the perfect playful counterpoint to Jagger’s jagged voice on Ruby Tuesday. And while Hamlet wasn’t written by a Jones, Shakespeare’s Guildenstern does tell us that he can’t play the recorder. It’s supposed to be a metaphor, but I believe Guildenstern. Hamlet may say it’s as easy as lying, but I couldn’t play the recorder either.
The review of the curriculum in the arts was advised by Sydney Grammar School Principal Dr John Vallance, who recommended music and visual arts be the only compulsory arts units in primary school, with dance, drama and media arts ditched. Vallance is a classicist by training who’s described the existing curriculum, only implemented this year, as overworked, rambling and lacking rigour. I don’t know Vallance’s view of the recorder, but I asked friends and colleagues what it might teach us.
There were PTSD-inducing memories, including one involving maths exam prep ruined by the incessant playing of a recorder by siblings, another describing a school balcony from which a reconfigured recorder was used as a dart gun. There was a Nick Earlsesque story of fishing a recorder out of disinfectant in the remedial class. There were memories of the malevolent maestros who taught music, some of whom have been reincarnated for today’s students.
One music teacher friend in Brisbane has hidden his school’s recorders, he said. He prefers a better instrument, children’s own voices, but that’s rare here. In Canada, where my son did year 3, they mostly sang. They gathered in the gym for Christmas carols, had concerts at which everybody sang, and on Music Monday every school across Canada sang at the same time. As always, it was a wonderful teacher who made the difference. She told me that everyone can sing; of course they can – just listen, she said. I was sold.
This is the point of the recorder, along with the ukulele and the voice. They’re a relatively easy road to the joy of making music, and music makes us more brainy and happier. And, as my retired school principal friend said, the recorder we so hate to hear practised is “worthy of our patience because of the joy and sense of achievement it brings kids.”
The last word goes to a friend whose parents couldn’t afford piano lessons who credits the recorder for her lifelong love of music. Living in England, she used to stand on a tree stump and play for the squirrels. They’d stop and listen before moving on. At our house, we’re still practising. I imagine the whole street is singing along by now. I like the recorder, I’ve decided. It may charm the possums out of our ceiling and away from our backyard plants, and once all those creative arts disappear from the curriculum, the recorder may be the only thing left feeding the soul, which says something about where we’ve come to.