Not at all what you might expect, and certainly not what I suspected when I began to think about my most constant playmate over 67 years! Something that’s been with me longer now than parents, husband, children and all other passions? That’s travelled with me through pretty well every phase of my life? Intermittently, but consistently returning, and certainly never dropping off the edge into the abyss called things I once did? People disapprove vociferously of my friend, but that hasn’t affected the longevity of our relationship at all.
Our companionship began at school when I was about 7. It was then that my small fingers began learning to control the air column of the recorder, fumbling for a sequence I can still remember: DDBCCA. The tune was called Little bird. I practised endlessly on the swing in the backyard. For some reason my music was banned in the house, but my mother was too nice to send us way down the weedy back, where the neighbours would suffer what she was trying to avoid.
As a teenager, we provided music for the Christian Endeavour group at Marsfield Mission, and became quite adept at nutting out tunes for which there was no music, a skill I have since lost.
Then there was a long gap in our connection: other things (university, marriage, children, market gardening) took over. In the 1970s, music days up the Tuross at Belimbla prompted me to pull my dolmetsch out again. This was our first experience of joining with other players and other instruments – violin, clarinet, bodhran, guitar – and of the excruciating discipline of keeping time. All delusions that I’d mastered that particular demon dissipated as I either dragged the chain (when the fingering was difficult, or high, or I simply lost my place) or galloped ahead when my going was easy. I’ve never claimed musical soul or even musical instinct. However, I began to understand the pleasure of making music with other people.
I tested my recorder’s faithfulness in the middle of the chaos of a collapsed marriage. It proved itself totally reliable. This was when I began the serious business of learning to read music, rather than just tootling. My companion was responsive, and it was totally preoccupying and satisfying. I found a series of teachers and collected a lot of music. Jen gave me folk and Irish, Christine classical and my teacher in Broken Hill a mix of folk and pop. Practice became a daily practice, almost a meditation. For that hour, I didn’t have to look at the fragments of an old life, or piece together a new one. I just scrutinised notes and turned them into fingering and sound. It was at this time too that I finally got a general sense of timing, thanks to Christine: “For goodness sake! It’s like Latin scansion. Each bar has its allowance of beats, and the way the allowance is made up can vary.” Don’t let anyone tell me Latin is useless!
Occasionally over the years we’ve been inveigled into playing in public, not something I relish. However, it was the only performance gift I had for a friend’s 50th birthday, when she insisted on performance. What got us up at the Pearly Shells pub for a women’s night had probably better remain one of those insanities best forgotten.
Recently we braved a meeting of the Sydney Recorder Society. My inveigling friend said: “There’ll be heaps of us there. You can just hide and merge.” However, that night there was competition, a rare recorder concert. There weren’t heaps of us there: the heaps were at the concert. When the group divided into two parts, we were the only descant in my half. Not a chance of hiding and merging. I’m not as good at sight reading as I thought, and the music was daunting, with notations I’d never seen before. I think that might have been our public swan song.
These days I have two recorder buddies, and we enjoy playing part-music with them. Elizabeth feeds me Renaissance and medieval: Sandy a mix of middle eastern and classical. We can play at home now that my son has moved out. While he was living with me, I snatched practice time while he was surfing, or took my recorder, my folding chair and my music out onto the headland (although he swears he could still hear me.) I found one bird at least who was appreciative, and answered me note for note: and one day in granite country near Stanthorpe I summoned a frilled neck lizard who basked happily while I played, but erected his orange frill if I went to get a closer look. Now, my evening playing sets the local dogs howling, although it’s Mozart I’m playing and I thought dogs had good taste.
I know recorder is not many people’s ideal instrument. In amateur hands it can be shrill, although my wooden one manages some mellowness. However, it has served me well over 60 years, given me a deeper understanding of music and done what companions should do: supported me in difficult times and given me immense pleasure at every encounter.
And in the hands of a virtuoso it rivals any other instrument.
Michala Petri on recorder playing Vivaldi