Fun Times with The Friendly Giant

Like many Canadians born in the second half of the twentieth century, I spent a small but significant part of my childhood watching CBC-TV’s The Friendly Giant. As a preschooler, every weekday morning I was transfixed for fifteen minutes as Friendly invited us all to join him in his castle, chatted to his puppet buddies Rusty and Jerome, and read a book to us all. These days it’s difficult to imagine that any kid’s show could ever be focused around the reading of books. Reading a story with your friends – what a concept! Created by Wisconsin-born Bob Homme, who played Friendly, the show played in Canada for over twenty-five years and was marketed in parts of the US during the latter part of its run.

The other regular occurrence on The Friendly Giant was Music Day, when Friendly would play recorder trios with Patty and Polly Piper, two other puppet friends of indeterminate species (raccoons, I thought, or maybe cats).  Once a week, with tiny toy recorders of various sizes, they tootled, bobbed and weaved to music from the courts of Henry VIII or Charles II, dance tunes published in the 1500s, and/or something penned by J.S. Bach. Go figure. You couldn’t get away with that on TV these days even if you paid for the privilege.

Pre-school days ended and I abandoned Friendly for Yogi the Bear, Top of the Pops, Batman and the Addams Family (Carolyn Jones, may you rest in peace, you are still my hero). Then came high school, university, study overseas, and the return home to try making a living as a musician. I’d been doing that for a year or two when one day I got a call asking if I could come down to the CBC studios on Jarvis Street to play a session for an episode of [gasp] The Friendly Giant. The other people on the gig were my former teacher Hugh Orr, who had played on the show for years, and Bob Homme of course. I was over the moon – pretty close to where the cow flew in the show’s closing credits.

At this time they were still recording all the show’s music in the TV studios, with the mics and music stands set up three feet away from where the show was shot. So when I walked into the studio and saw the set with the ‘real live’ Jerome the Giraffe puppet lying inert on the floor, the distant past collided with the present in a good way and I pretty much went into an altered state. There right in front of me were the castle walls, the window through which Jerome visited, the shoe bag where Rusty the Rooster lived, and the miniature living room into which viewers were invited, with its fireplace, rocker and the big armchair ‘for two of you to curl up in’…and there was Friendly himself.  I remember making some Obvious Gig Novice comments such as ‘oh wow, look, those little chairs are so CUTE!’ and, ‘OMG was Jerome always orange and blue?’ but everyone seemed understanding of this, having had many other star-struck visitors on the set before me.  Introductions were made, the session’s music was discussed, and then Bob, Hugh and I sat down and ran through a few Praetorius dances a couple of times while the tape rolled. (Jerome lay on the floor without moving.) And that was that. Luckily for me I was part of several more shows over the next few years. As time passed Patty and Polly expanded their musical skills, sometimes played different types of music on other instruments, and I think they underwent name and character changes at some point, but early music continued in the repertoire loop until the show ended. And that was pretty cool.

Bob Homme was such a lovely man, unpretentious, laid back and kind, and he was an enthusiastic recorder player – he could always hold his own in consort music, and it was he who played the show’s theme song, Early One Morning. He was a clarinet player who grew up playing jazz, and a consummate professional with a real devotion to his work and a genuine respect for the intelligence of children. No dumbing down or talking two octaves higher for him.

Playing for that show was one of the most pleasant and easy-going yet totally professional gigs I’ve ever had the good fortune to be involved in. Not surprisingly it’s also proven to be one the most meaningful career credits in my bio for people who happen to read it. Popular culture in general, and a direct connection to happy childhood memories in particular, trumps just about everything else from CDs on fancy labels to concerts in fancy places. Food for much thought there. The music wasn’t flashy, the technology wasn’t much, the audience was very young, but the impact of Bob Homme’s vision and inventiveness was far-reaching and powerful. He received the Order of Canada in 1998, two years before his death, and in 2005 the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada designated the show as a Masterwork.

After the show ended a number of its puppets, props and costumes were put on display at the small museum in the CBC building down on Toronto’s Front Street. It was always fun to catch a glimpse of them whenever I was in the building. In 2007 most of the Friendly memorabilia was removed from the museum and a farewell afternoon reception was organized so people could drop by for a final look. Someone at the CBC called to ask if some recorder duets could be played throughout the event, and it was very touching to provide those with Colin Savage as people wandered in and out. There were a lot of visitors that day.

Many of the shows are there for the viewing on YouTube. Here’s one:

If you’re interested, check out Grant D. Fairley’s biography of Bob Homme, available through most book vendors.


This morning’s lesson…

A student arrived for a lesson this morning with the last movement of Hans Ulrich Staeps’s Virtuose Suite (1961) on her agenda. Recorder players will know this composer’s name – at least, I hope they will – but very few other musicians will have heard of him. On the teaching faculty at the Vienna Conservatory for much of his life, Staeps wrote a lot of good music for the recorder, usually in a neo-baroque style with a liberal dash of neo-impressionism – sounding like a good Austrian who holidayed just enough in Paris. He wrote solos, duets, trios and works for larger ensembles of recorders, as well as a fair bit of chamber music incorporating keyboard, guitar and other instruments. I first encountered his music during my earliest experiences of consort playing at age ten or eleven, and more recently included a couple of his works on a recording of mid-twentieth-century repertoire, Fruit of a Different Vine. His Reihe kleiner Duette (A Series of Little Duets) is a particular delight, a bit like Kandinsky for the ears.

Many of Staeps’s pieces are dedicated to his students, and in the case of the Virtuose Suite each of its four solo movements are dedicated to a different person. This morning my student was valiantly tackling the final and most challenging movement, Presto Possible, a blistering two-page exercise in double tonguing. It does contain a few less frenetic moments but the main point is to dazzle and amaze without self-combusting, following in the ‘grand finale’ tradition. This particular movement was dedicated to Linde Höffer von Winterfeld (1919-1993), she of the elegant, nobility-tinged name who went on to write method books, studies and articles on recorder literature, and to edit a lot of music. She was another devoted pedagogue, though perhaps she went just a tad too far when she provided us all with 199 Thumb Exercises. Call me lazy or undisciplined, but wouldn’t forty have been enough?

When I was twelve I met Hans Ulrich Staeps at a music education conference in Toronto. Upon our introduction he said something nice to me and patted my head, a gesture I could have done without because it made me feel half my age, but I really loved his little Triludi trios so I more or less forgave him. He was also the first Fancy Recorder Person (FRP) I ever met. I was at the conference to play in some sort of student performance for my recorder teacher Isabel Smaller, a devoted educator who spent her working life driving around the city to teach at one or two different schools every day of the week. I have vivid memories of random plastic recorders, instrument cases and sheet music strewn across the back seat of her white Volkswagen beetle. More on Isabel later.

That last movement of the Virtuose Suite was on my program for a Canada Council audition at one of the critical moments of my nascent career, and I think it was that movement that convinced the jury on my behalf; but that’s another story too.

The Virtuose Suite is available from your favourite music publisher.

Here’s a movement from Staep’s Sonata in E-flat for alto recorder and piano, played by yours truly with Alayne Hall, piano.

Sonata in E-flat: mvmt. 4, Sehr schnell

Stained Glass Surprise

I was playing a gig last year in St. Alban’s, the building which I’m told would have become Toronto’s cathedral had the money in the neighbourhood not run out…During a rehearsal break I walked a circuit of the sanctuary to check out the new stained glass window images of angel musicians. Dazzling and funky, they included a recorder player. I found out later that the glass work was done by Jane and Kathy Irwin, two women I first knew in high school. A striking image, to which my photography doesn’t do justice, but here it is, plus a link to the artists’ site.

Stained Glass by Jane and Kathy Irwin

Stained Glass by Jane and Kathy Irwin

And so it begins

Hello world, and welcome.

I’m here to share my experiences as a musician, and more specifically as player of the recorder and early flutes, which I’ve been doing for my living for many years now.

I’d like to share anecdotes from my career; appreciations of mentors, colleagues and students without whom my life would be so much poorer; musings on the value and purpose of music; occasional bits of advice; and thoughts about repertoire, instruments, etc. I’ll also reflect on the experiences shared by players of recorder and historical flutes, and how we and our instruments are seen by the rest of the musical world (well, some of it). I’d like to share music, imagery, links to the websites of interesting and inspiring players, and many more things…And last but definitely not least, I’d like to connect with others interested in these subjects, so I hope you’ll be in touch.

This blog is named for Calliope, one of the nine Muses of ancient Greece, and for her sister Euterpe. Calliope was the Muse of epic poetry and was usually depicted with a writing tablet in her hand, while images of Euterpe, the Muse of lyric poetry, show her carrying a flute. Interestingly, none of the nine sisters are in charge of music – that was in the job description of their father Apollo – so if musicians in general (and flute players in particular) are looking for a Muse to whom we might relate, the likely choice would be Euterpe.

But I chose Calliope’s name here because it’s a bit more familiar, perhaps a bit easier to pronounce, and coincidentally it’s also the name of a musical instrument, so it ties quite well into this blog’s theme. In addition, the calliope isn’t universally regarded as a ‘real’ musical instrument – a characteristic shared by the recorder. And as you might imagine I’ve got a few things to say about that.

Stay tuned.


If you’re wondering about how to pronounce the names, it’s ‘Kall-EYE-o-pee’ and  ‘Yoo-TER-pee.’

For some basic information about the calliope: