The recorder. It’s an instrument kids learn at school. They’ll toot a few scales, and perhaps attempt a line from Ode to Joy. The recorder can’t really shine on its own – can it?
It’s a common misperception. If you still believe it to be true, you probably haven’t discovered Recorder Lift Off. The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra commissioned the creation of 25 Australian compositions for the instrument. They’re all free and accessible to any child, teacher, or parent who would like to give them a go.
Though Recorder Lift Off is designed as an educational resource, it has also received media attention for the way it challenges our perceptions of the instrument. Putting the recorder front and centre – surrounded by new Australian music and world-class performers – gives us a fresh look at what this instrument is capable of.
In March, ABC described the new initiative as “helping to rehabilitate the humble recorder”. TSO Learning and Engagement Executive Producer Jenny Compton told journalists: “We want to portray the recorder in a more artistic light.”
Such public celebration of this misunderstood instrument can certainly help us see it differently. But to those already in the know – such as classroom teachers and musicians of the TSO – the recorder is a vital tool for introducing music to children. And when that happens, a whole heap of benefits are unlocked: improved brain structure, speech development, special intelligence and problem solving skills, memory, social skills, coordination, and confidence.
Recorder Lift Off features play-along videos designed for beginners. Created in consultation with University of Tasmania Associate Professor of Music Dr Maria Grenfell, and Tasmanian music educator Cynthia Howard, the online resource features original compositions that young recorder players can learn and watch.
In fact, through the series of videos, children can even take the role of recorder soloist – and play with professional musicians of the TSO as their backing band.
The TSO commissioned composers from UTAS to write the music. Their pieces are both exciting and accessible to the beginner.
Helen Wanders is one such composer. She too played recorder in her school years, and tells us: “I recall the joy I had learning it as a child.”
“I am thrilled that other children will have the opportunity to learn and play the recorder, using music that has been written by local composers.”
Helen has three compositions in Recorder Lift Off. Chasing Fireflies evokes an image of a beautiful firefly fluttering about. Hobart Hustle and Star Gazing are Helen’s other scene-setting works for recorder.
In Chasing Fireflies, the budding soloist need only learn the notes B and G to bring the music to life. Yet the piece doesn’t sound simplistic or bland: there’s no sacrifice to musicality.
“My work is often emotionally based, and if it doesn’t move me in some way I will think it largely incomplete or unsuccessful,” Helen says.
“I usually begin by imagining a scene. For example, for the piece Chasing Fireflies, I imagined a cave full of fireflies – how the insects flutter and glow – then tried to interpret their movements musically.”
While Helen composed three standalone works for Recorder Lift Off, emerging composer Dominic Flynn crafted a collection. His Going West suite contains three versions of the same musical ideas, giving the young players the choice to pick the one that resonates with them.
“There are stylistic differences amongst the three pieces, but I feel they’re connected through their attitude,” Dominic Flynn says.
Going West II includes two different pitches for the recorder player to learn – B and A. Going West I includes five pitches, as does Going West III.
“Composing music with the restraints of such limited pitches was a daunting task, at first,” Dominic admits.
“This actually permitted me to explore ideas that might not have occurred without these limitations.
“One thing I definitely wanted to achieve was a feeling that the recorder was truly a part of the ensemble, and that the writing wouldn’t feel any simpler than the other instruments.”
Joining Helen and Dominic in Recorder Lift Off were fellow composers Ben Cannings, Finn Clarke, Liam McGuinness, Nathan Stinton, and Claire Farrell. Each of their pieces were workshopped through a full-day session with TSO musicians. Composers came together in a rehearsal room – some joining via Zoom – to listen to each work.
As Helen explains, they gained rare first-hand experience with the professional performers’ “approach to the whole process of interpreting and performing musical scores”.
“It highlighted how every note in every passage is important, and needs to be handled sensitively to bring out the true nature of the composition,” Helen says.
Adds Dominic: “We were each given a document of the scores to all the workshopped pieces. This was helpful for not only my pieces, but when watching the other student’s pieces be worked through.”
“With regard to my pieces specifically, I thought the workshopping went very smoothly, and with good humour.”
Recorder Lift Off reveals how much can be achieved through collaboration between the state’s major institutions. The TSO united with UTAS to provide these local composers with the opportunity to have their music workshopped and recorded by the very best.
Maria Grenfell was a catalyst between orchestra and university. As a composer, she has a long history with the TSO – most recently having composed the score to documentary Quoll Farm, which the orchestra recorded. As an educator, she worked closely with Recorder Lift Off composers to mentor them along the way.
“Her professionalism, wealth of experience, and dedication as a teacher provided a solid basis for us to work from,” Helen says.
Recorder Lift Off also highlights the demand for professional experience within academic studies. When a composer’s career is forged from projects, collaborations, and relationships, it’s never too soon to start building a portfolio.
“As composers at the beginning of our careers, this is invaluable,” Helen explains.
“It gives us a glimpse of what will be required of us, if given the opportunity to work with other musicians or orchestras.”
The UTAS component culminated in a final reading session with members of the TSO, taking place 10 days after the masterclass, and providing the student composers with archive recordings to include in their assessment portfolios.
“What made this challenge a joyful experience was the involvement of the TSO,” Helen says.
“Their knowledge and skill helped our pieces come to life and contributed to making this a valuable learning experience in writing for small ensembles.”
As for Recorder Lift Off, the TSO’s collection of recorder videos and sheet music forms a valuable new resource – one that will serve countless students into the future.