University begins

When I decided to study music at university, I applied and entered as a modern flutist. The recorder wasn’t included in the syllabus listings of the schools to which I applied, a pretty normal situation at most universities and colleges in North America at the time. Some schools had an early music ensemble that played medieval and Renaissance music with the ‘once around the kitchen’ orchestration technique – ‘hold on, I just played the Kyrie on the shawm, now I think I’ll play the Christe on that sackbut, hand it over’ – but the idea of an actual early music department was barely a twinkle in any musicologist’s eye.

Edward Johnson Building, Toronto

I went to the University of Toronto and was placed in the studio of Robert Aitken, solo flutist with the Toronto Symphony and a fabulous player who went on to found New Music Concerts and champion contemporary music around the world. But before I’d had a single lesson I learned from a friend that the school had recently permitted the recorder as a major instrument for most courses of study, so I submitted a request to switch my major. My reasoning was fairly simple: I was mainly interested in earlier music and wanted to play it for a living, if I could. I loved playing the recorder, and all of its repertoire, and even though it wasn’t yet possible to earn a performance degree on it, the recorder made more sense in the musicology stream into which I was headed. Or so I thought.

It was the Performance Department Head who placed students with their professors, and he clearly didn’t think much of my decision. I asked him about it during my audition for concert band (everyone had to be in a major ensemble, more on that later), and he was completely bewildered. Loudly bewildered.

‘Are you SURE? But you’re giving up lessons with ROBERT AITKEN!!!’  He followed this up with some eye rolling, and muttered that it was my life to mess up, if that’s what I wanted…But in the end he signed off on the change of major – and he also placed me in the concert band, where I tootled away on flute and piccolo for most of my undergrad years. Now some people might not think that playing in a band is fun, but I loved it; and it beat the hell out of bleating my way through four years with the University Screamers (not their official title, as you will surmise), the choir made up of everyone who didn’t get to be in orchestra or band or concert choir. I did end up there in fourth year, after a school policy change that disallowed non-band-instrument majors from playing in the band. Oh woe. But, as they say, I digress.

The department head also figured he’d test my mettle right away by throwing me into the Collegium Musicum, a Baroque-repertoire performance class directed by the late great Greta Kraus, in which my sinking or swimming would be both immediate and highly public.

The late, great Greta Kraus.

The late, great Greta Kraus.

I was fairly terrified at the first session. There I was, a recorder-playing lowly first year student, in a roomful of senior performance majors and a fiery, expatriate Austrian lioness of a professor. It was a nerve-wracking beginning, but what a huge gift that department head had given me. Greta was an utterly inspiring musician and fantastic coach; and, fortunately, I swam. For four years, I got to play Bach and Telemann aria obbligatos and beautiful trio- and quartet-sonatas with many wonderful musicians, some of whom became colleagues for years afterwards. Valerie Weeks, a harpsichordist with whom I ended up playing for a very long time, showed up in Collegium the next year.

Kiwanis Festival Karma

Though I wasn’t a private student of hers any longer, I played until I was sixteen or so in a small consort for teenaged recorder players which Isabel Smaller continued to coach. For several years, Isabel would collect my friend Janet and I from our homes on Sunday afternoons and drive us out to what seemed like the middle of nowhere for a couple of hours of consort playing. It was usually a group of three or four, recorder playing not being a trendy activity in the minds of high schoolers – plus ça change, but anyway…Occasionally we were joined by people either a bit younger and/or very much older, but it was usually just three teenagers with recorders and one with a guitar. Isabel found opportunities for us to perform at the Unitarian church where we rehearsed, for CAMMAC* events and at other functions, and when we were all fourteen-ish she took us to play at a music education conference in Charlottetown, PEI. I found the conference boring, what with all the adults around, but the red soil of PEI was some of the coolest dirt I’d ever seen. I loved Charlottetown and I’m happy to have been back to play there several times since.


Isabel also entered us in the Kiwanis Music Festival a number of times, usually in the “Recorder Ensemble, Open” category, which meant that there was no age limit for the competitors. Though I appreciate the ‘performance-under-pressure’ opportunity they provided, those Kiwanis competitions were usually a bit strange. We often ended up competing against grade school groups, which was thoroughly awkward. In one particular year there were only two entries in the class – a grade 4 school group, and ours. The school children were eight and nine years old, we were fourteen and fifteen; they’d been playing in school for a year or two, we’d been playing since we were their age; they played with several people on each part, we played one-on-a-part. Our group played part of the Hindemith trio and something from the 17th century, I guess, maybe Jenkins or Gibbons; the school group played something like Amazing Grace and Git Along Lil’ Dogie.

This type of class still exists in music festivals today, and it’s great because it provides anyone and everyone an opportunity to enter the festival regardless of their age. If a string quartet made up of middle-aged doctors wants something to work towards, this kind of class awaits them, where they might be pitted against the Happy Acres Ensemble and chamber ensembles from arts high schools. It’s all fine as long as the playing field is more or less even. But every once in a while it isn’t, as was often the case with the recorder ensembles.

Anyway, the school group played very well, and we did pretty well too I guess, but for the adjudicator it must have absurd. On one hand, the choice for first and second prize between two groups so different in age and skill level might have seemed like a no-brainer, but actually making the choice was totally ludicrous and unnecessary. These events are supposed to be positive, encouraging experiences for the competitors, especially the younger, less seasoned ones. As long as I have memory, I’ll always recall how that adjudicator dealt with the situation, with his wise but uncommon decision in the competition-oriented, winning-supposedly-means-everything, music festival world. He strode to the front of the room, congratulated everyone on a job well done, made some good suggestions for both groups, and announced to the assembled mini-multitude that he was going to make it – a tie for first. Absolutely brilliant.

And I often remembered this guy whenever I ended up in his position, as an adjudicator at Kiwanis Festivals in Ottawa, Guelph, Halifax and Sarnia. In Halifax there was a woman much like Isabel, whose name was Priscilla Evans. She seemed to run her recorder teaching studio with a devotion and intensity reminiscent of Isabel’s, and just like Isabel she went far above and beyond the call of duty when she believed her students warranted that kind of support. She also seemed to be able to keep several of her students interested in ensemble playing through their high school years, which was no mean feat; and consequently the ‘open’ recorder ensemble classes at Halifax’s annual Kiwanis Festival were always interesting, inspiring, and fun to adjudicate.

Keith, Alison, Janet and Isabel at Don Heights.

Keith, Alison, Janet and Isabel at Don Heights.

*Canadian Amateur Musicians/Musiciens amateurs du Canada

Coming Back to Canada

My mother and I moved back from the UK to Canada a few months before I turned ten. I remember the precise date we travelled, October 8, because it was the day before John Lennon’s birthday (I was, and remain, a big Beatles fan). We moved in with my mother’s younger sister, her husband and two small children – how generous of them that was – and began the process of settling in. My mother searched for a job, a school for me, and among other things, a recorder teacher.

It didn’t take long to find Beate, the kind and self-effacing expatriate German woman who played the recorder and very conveniently lived right next door. It was with her that I first played duets, short dance and folk song tunes from little books featuring the same Old German script I was to re-encounter in 18th-century facsimile editions of Quantz and his ilk. It was a lot of fun playing duets with Beate, though at first I was a bit freaked out by the strange buzzing I heard as we played together. This production of difference tones is the normal result when two co-existing high frequencies team up to produce a third one, but I’d never heard this so clearly before, and I really thought there was a swarm of bees in the room.

My next teacher Isabel Smaller lived a few blocks further away, across the neighbourhood junior school’s football field. As I’ve described in an earlier post, Isabel made most of her living as an itinerant recorder teacher for the Toronto School Board, but also taught a few people privately at her home, and coached small ensembles at a Unitarian church further out in the suburbs. I have fond memories of many rides in her off-white coloured VW Beetle, the back seat of which was strewn with stray plastic recorder pieces, recorder cases, method books, photocopies of fingering charts, cleaning swabs, cork grease containers, pencils. Making a space for yourself in the rear of that car was an adventure, like excavating a Cabinet of Blockflute Curiosities.


I owe a big debt of gratitude to Isabel, both for what she taught me herself and for the opportunities she found and made available to me. When I was eleven she put my name in for a scholarship from the Canadian Amateur Musicians organization (CAMMAC) to enable me to take lessons with Hugh Orr. Hugh was one of the two leading names in the Canadian recorder world at that time, and lessons with him cost more than any single parent could afford. Very fortunately for me the executive of CAMMAC offered a scholarship for 50% of my tuition fees, and so for the next two years I headed to Hugh’s place every week for private and consort lessons. Thank you Isabel, thank you CAMMAC!

Every time I look back on this part of my life, I’m increasingly grateful. The private lessons were enlightening, rich and demanding; but on top of those, I got to play Bach fugues and Renaissance fantasias in a recorder quartet with my teacher and two other kids my own age who played really well, all before I reached my teens. Learning to play in an ensemble where the parts weren’t doubled, learning how to listen to the other voices while playing my own, how to tune, how to find my way back into the piece if I got lost, at that age – well, it was a wonderful and rare opportunity. I didn’t really realize that at the time, all I knew was that it was always loads of fun, and sometimes very challenging. Later on I would teach people coming into university and college who had never played any consort music at all, ever, but I’d had six years of it before I hit university. Such good fortune.

Hugh, having some fun.

Hugh, having some fun.

Hugh was an extraordinary teacher. Trained on piano and cello, he was self-taught on the recorder and had the most remarkable analytical skill at solving pretty much any technical problem one might have. I learned a lot about playing the recorder from him, but also how to practice and how to problem-solve. Though he was to be my professor at university a few years later, too, I learned some of these important things as a child in those first two years of lessons. He was anything but fond of public performance and so did very little of it, but he was a very busy player in the radio, TV and jingle world. I’ve played with a lot of people and I’ve never seen anyone come close to his composure, musicality and accuracy in front of a microphone.

He also wrote a two-volume recorder method,* still one of the best available for its careful descriptions of technical questions, helpful photographs, and for the music contained in its two volumes. It’s a particularly good method for older beginners. Years later, when I headed across the Atlantic to study at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, my teacher there asked that I bring her some copies of Hugh’s books. Turns out she used them with some of her Schola students, some of the young hotshots of their countries, to help them with basics like hand position, left thumb technique, and more: she said one of Hugh’s pictures was worth more than a whole lot of words.

Thank you, Hugh.

*Hugh Orr: Basic Recorder Technique, Vols. 1 and 2


Starting out

When I was eight I lived in the area of southwest London known as Barnes, and I went to Westfields County Primary School. Westfields was one of those old rectangular buildings with a central assembly hall/gym surrounded by classrooms along the walls, offices at the front end and the student cloakroom at the rear. The loo stalls were outside, so answering the call of nature between late October and April – most of the school year – usually necessitated a chilly trip. (That’s all been knocked down and replaced now, but the old back gate is still there.)


In the autumn of that year my classroom teacher Mr. Green announced that he would be teaching group recorder lessons to anyone who wanted to learn, every Tuesday after school. He gave us a letter outlining the registration routine, lesson schedule, and the cost. Anyone wanting their child to participate was asked to sign the form and send it back, along with four shillings and ten pence or whatever it was – 2s.6p. for the recorder and the remainder for the book.

When I went back to school the next day with the signed form and money in hand, I was happy about it but I thought I was doing it at my mum’s insistence rather than mine. Years later I heard her version of the story, which was that I’d announced the offer of lessons, asked ‘What’s a recorder?’ and that when I understood it was the flute thing my Uncle Bill played, I got very excited and wanted to be signed up right away.

I don’t recall the part about Uncle Bill at all, but it doesn’t surprise me that he might have been an inspiration to me. Married to my mother’s first sister, he was one of those men whom everyone liked – cheerful, good-natured, sociable, intelligent, funny. It was one of life’s cruelties that he died of a brain tumour in his late thirties, leaving my Aunt with two small children and her heart bashed in.

Uncle Bill played the recorder at the family singalongs around my Aunt’s piano. My Aunt played piano extremely well, inventing accompaniments to show tunes, folk songs and the occasional hymn. Everyone loved to sing and did so enthusiastically, but I didn’t because I’d been asked not to. Allegedly I took after my father’s ‘tin-eared’ side of the family because I couldn’t carry a tune. [My father came from a family full of atheletes, and just to be clear, I don’t take after them either.] It was no fun not joining in at the family piano-swarmings, so the possibility of playing what Uncle Bill did must have seemed like a great idea to me. Off I went to recorder class.

I liked playing a lot, and I didn’t have to be reminded to practise. My playlist of favourite tunes included Down in Demerara, March from Judas Maccabeus and All Things Bright and Beautiful, and like most kids I made up my own tunes as well. I still have a couple of those first attempts at ‘composing’ and they’re pretty hilarious, but I’ve often wondered why that particular creative desire went underground for so many years afterward. Years later, while teaching basic recorder for music education students at university, I regularly asked them to think back to their earliest musical experiences and asked, did they made up their own songs or tunes? Do they, still? (Most answered no.) When did they stop doing that, and why?

Very interesting, the looks on their faces as they wondered about all that.

Anyway, after a few weeks passed, my mother must have been surprised to get another letter from Mr. Green, asking that I be allowed to join the class which had been already playing for a year. He thought I’d catch up to them quickly and was worried I’d get bored if I stayed with the other beginners. So I switched group and, apart from having to deal with a few snotty comments from the second-years, it was just fine. That Christmas I joined in with my recorder at the family singalong, and it was just the best!


My friend Pauline remembers that Mr. Green drove around in a Mini, often with a cello in the back seat. Sadly I don’t recall that, but I’m very glad that Mr. Green was such a music enthusiast, and so generous of spirit. He taught those classes without charging anything for his time. What a gift, and I’ll always remember him for it.

Side note for anyone who’s been designated as ‘tin-eared’:

Being truly ‘tone deaf’ is pretty rare, and most people who think they can’t carry a tune can learn to sing. We’re usually quite unaware of our voices, and when singing it’s hard to hear your own sound as it rattles around in your head. For some there’s also an experience of fear or embarrassment connected to our early attempts to sing in the company of others, and the memory of it can stick like grime. For me, some voice lessons in Basel and the generous encouragement from colleagues were a big help in banishing some gremlins of old.

I’m not about to sing any solos in public, anywhere, but I’ve managed to sing in small groupings at a few concerts and once I even sang two solo lines in a program of music from medieval convents, which on top of everything else was recorded for the radio. I was so nervous I almost passed out, but hearing myself when the show was broadcast a few weeks later was an amazing little moment. I was no Hildegard of Bingen, but I didn’t suck. Who knew?

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: