The Flute, Recorder, Whistle and Tabor Pipe
Recorders & Flutes

The recorder is an easy instrument used for teaching children music. When they are reasonably competent, they move onto proper professional instruments, like the flute, right?


Heaven preserve us from educational establishments. William Byrd wrote consort music for recorders, Handel wrote recorder sonatas, Bach used it extensively in his cantatas and chamber music, and it made regular appearances in operas. Until the late eighteenth century, it was regarded as a professional instrument alongside all the others. It's still played on the professional concert circuit today by some stunningly talented performers, and the idea that it's a kid's instrument is an insult. The smaller sizes in particular are difficult to play in tune, even for professionals. Attempt to play them in recorder bands of three or four to a part, and it's virtually impossible. The inevitable excruciating noise that results has given recorders a bad press and zero credibility. It's sometimes made worse by died-in-the-wool recorder enthusiasts, who seem to assume that the recorder was historically hugely important, and the pre-eminent instrument before Beethoven.

Before I go any further, what exactly is a recorder? And what's the difference between a recorder, a flute and a whistle? Here comes the science, as Jennifer Aniston used to say, but that was hairspray, which has very little to do with recorders. I digress.

It's easy to make a sort of flute. Saw off a length of copper or plastic water pipe. Clean up the sawn end a bit, because sawmarks aren't the most comfortable things to play on. Blow across the end. If you get your lips in the right position, and the air hits the edge at just the right angle, you get a nice, clear note. Spooky. If you want to make things easier, plug the end with a cork and drill a hole into the side of your pipe, just below the cork. You should find it's easier to play. Now drill some more holes further down the pipe. By covering them with your fingers, and then lifting one or two as you blow, you get different notes. Bingo! one flute.

Getting a really nice tone and getting the notes in tune involves a lot of practice and research. You'll need to make lots of flutes and use up a kilometre or two of pipe before you find exactly where to drill the holes, but it's not rocket science. Stone-age flutes several thousand years old have been found. Contrary to popular misconception, stone-age man was pretty clever. The only problem he had with flutes was a lack of plastic water pipe. So he had to use hollow bones, but they worked.

It requires a certain knack to play any flute. If you want to make it easy on yourself, you need a fipple. No, I'm not joking, that really is what it's called. What you do is take a plugged pipe, but cut a wide groove (called the windway) out of one side of the plug, so that by simply blowing down the end you can get a stream of air flowing down one side of the inner wall. Now you drill a hole in the pipe wall just where the air emerges from the groove in the plug, and you file the far side of the hole into a sharp edge, so that the air stream hits it and divides, some going into the pipe, some going out into the atmosphere. The fipple is automatically doing what you do with your lips on a flute. What you now have is a whistle. The first fipple you make won't work, though. It never does. You need to experiment with the size and shape of hole, angle of windway, and a host of other things, to make it really sing. It doesn't take very long to produce a workable dog whistle, but a professional instrument takes a lot more work. When you've done twenty years or so of constant experimentation, you can call yourself a recorder maker, and charge hundreds of pounds for a professional recorder. It really is that complicated. Not that getting a decent professional tone from a flute is any easier.

So, a true flute is direct-blown, and a recorder has a fipple. Strictly speaking, a true recorder is a fipple-blown instrument with eight holes - seven finger-holes and a thumb-hole at the back (which is why the French call it "flute a neuf trous". Strange people, the French). Anything else is a whistle. Both the recorder and the flute have been around for hundreds of years. The popularity of each of them has gone up and down, as individual virtuosi mde them momentarily famous, but neither has ever assumed the ubiquitous status of the stringed instruments like viols and violins. An approximate guide to their use in England is as follows :

Various flutes and whistles were extensively used before 1500, and the evidence as to which was more popular when is sparse. The true recorder only came into extensive use around 1500. With its versatility and wide, chromatic range, it quickly established itself as the "polite" whistle, for use by professionals and courtiers, whereas the old type of whistle was regarded as a country instrument fit only for shepherds. Henry VIII had a particular affection for recorders, and when he came to the throne in 1509, he imported a family of makers and players (The Bassanos) to beautify his court. Recorders were then in fashion, and the flute got a bit sidelined. By Elizabeth I's reign, fashion had changed, and the flute was more popular. The new operas, which arose around 1600, used both. The recorder was particularly associated with pastoral subjects - nymphs, shepherds and so on. The flute was the more "mainstream"orchestral instrument. This continued until the mid to late seventeenth century, when the recorder once more came into vogue as a concert instrument in England - so much so that the "English Flute", or just "Flute" in England, was the recorder, and the cross-blown version was known as the "German Flute". During the first half of the eighteenth century, the German flute grew in popularity, and gradually displaced the English Flute. By 1800 the recorder had virtually disappeared from the professional scene. From 1900 onwards, Arnold Dolmetch and other founder members of the growing early music movement revived the recorder as a teaching instrument in schools, where it has largely stayed, although it is now increasingly heard in early music performances and recordings.

Because of its demise from 1750 onwards, the recorder never succumbed to the bizarre plumbing job that Boehm and Co. did on the flute, oboe and bassoon. The flute, which until the eighteenth century was a superficially simple instrument, acquired its first key around 1700, and ended up as the modern monster, with levers, valves, cupholders, go-faster stripes and a turbocharger on the GT model. The modern recorder only has essential keys on the larger sizes, and is substantially the same instrument as it was in the early eighteenth century.

Finally, to the other fipple instruments. The whistles (such as the "penny whistle" of Victorian England) have been around for centuries as folk instruments. One ingenious version with a particularly long and noble ancestry was the three-hole pipe, or tabor pipe. Someone in the medieval period discovered that, if you only want to play in one fixed key, you can make do with three finger-holes, or rather two fingers and the thumb of your left hand, and still get a decent melodic range. Now you hang a tabor (small drum) from your left little finger, and hit it with a stick held in your right hand. This pipe-and-tabor combination was the original one-man band, and it is still common in parts of Spain in particular. It was the original band used for Morris dancing in the sixteenth century, and was heard at country fairs and dances throughout Europe.

shim shim