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.
*Canadian Amateur Musicians/Musiciens amateurs du Canada