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?

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