The US used to have a vast-ish library of music that related a variety of cultural and spiritual (mostly Christian) popular music. Music that can be played on keyboard (like a piano) or dulcimer – or recorder. Harmonica, penny whistle, guitar, fiddle, ukulele, whistle, voice – these and other instruments preserved culture, values, and feelings down through the years and generations.
Mass media music used to be sheet music, then record companies began adding their reproduced music to society. This began a switch from people participating in the singing to selecting songs based on availability of records, which depended on who bought the records – and which records the record company chose to make. Which began selecting artists and genres that fit marketing goals. The commercialization of music focused on sales of music, not the message or theme of the song, or of how sharing songs and stories binds a family and a community together.
Churches balance this estrangement, a bit. The Protestant congregations I grew up in sang three or four hymns together, with added music for various parts of the ritual worship, often an instrumental solo, often a choir song or two. The music was selected to support the theme of the worship, the message of the day. And sharing the music, sharing the experience together bound the congregation together, helped each to remember and relive and relearn the messages and values that defined the congregation.
I have noticed in used book stores, flea markets, and even the Friends of The Library Ongoing Book Sale (FOLOBS) in Ponca City, OK, that there are old school or church or community song books from the War years, from the beginning of the 20th century, and older. Many are quite usable.
And usually these song books are fairly small. Today at the Ponca City FOLOBS bag sale – through October 17, 2008 – there was a stack of maybe 20 community song books that had been donated. A mix of spirituals and folk tunes, paperback, dating to the 1950’s, they probably aren’t 100 pages long, maybe 125 songs.
Song books, especially hymnals, are very good sources of music for the recorder player, the penny whistle, the guitar and other instruments. Pick out the melody line, you have an often easy-to-learn melody. One you can use to entertain yourself or others. Join together with others and split the parts for larger groups or to accompany singers or an audience.
But it starts with latching onto the treasures of the past – the inexpensive instruments, the printed music for inspiration and learning.
Musicians know about ‘fake’ books. Fake books condense the music of an artist or genre to a single melody line, an indication of guitar chords, and may include the lyrics (words). The Ultimate Country Fake Book covers, I think, about 700 songs in a few hundred pages. And decades of music history. I have the Beatles Fake Book – I find many of the songs obscure or difficult. But a lot of very nice recorder music. I also have the Beatles for Recorder, Hymns for Recorder, two separate collections of Paul Simon for Recorder — the amount of music available, when you look, is amazing.
When you have a player, and an audience of one or more, you have a chance to influence the musical presentation. To bring people together in a live performance audience. To form, for a few minutes or a lifetime, a community.
Parents wail and gnash their teeth and contend with the school board about whether the schools should teach sex education. What parents should be teaching – once they learn themselves – is music. Schools get into the recorder or flutophone about age eight (8) or so. The local schools are strapped for music budget – the program is often the cheapest recorders available, some simple (school board approved) culturally neutral music. The music teacher I talked to seemed to believe that the recorder is a teaching, elementary instrument. My mother discovered Michala Petri, a Belgian player that has made a modest name for herself in symphony circles – playing various recorders. I understand that early symphonies were written for recorder (blockflote) but later re-written for transverse flute when it became popular.
I have maybe six (6) or eight (8) cheap classroom recorders, of different makes and styles. There is a lot of difference in how easy they are to play, from difficulty to finger to difficulty to blow consistently – to air leaks and poorly fit together. The Aulos 803s is a bit peculiar looking and a delight to play, and only a bit more expensive than the cheap Chinese knockoffs. Yamaha makes an ivory colored plastic recorder, quite a lot have been made. Their intermediate concert brown with ivory trim line is more expensive and a lot easier to play. The Angel recorder in my car is pretty good, but the lowest finger hole isn’t in an adjustable foot (bottom flare piece) so the hole cannot be placed for my adult finger. The other recorder in the car does have the adjustable foot – I bought that one in the East Tennessee State University school book store for $4.95 in 1982 – is easy to play in the lower and upper registers, except the highest notes are a bit unstable. My Hohner wood recorder is a delight to play, but you don’t want to saturate a wood recorder with too much moisture (about 45 min-1 hour) playing time. Etc. There are different voices – the elementary instrument is usually the 12 inch soprano voice, in Concert C key. The 9 inch sopranino, and the 18 inch alto are Concert F key, the 24 inch Tenor is key of C, an octave below the soprano. The bass recorders vary, and also get expensive. Check out the Kung European brands for symphony grade instruments, maybe $100 to $500 for a fine instrument – soprano. Because the fine instruments are generally exquisite wood craftsmanship in impeccable hardwoods – pearwood, maple, ebony and other exotic varieties – the larger the instrument the more demanding the workmanship and time to create – and the higher the price.
For individual, family, and community needs, start with the better inexpensive instruments. A symphony instrument can be quite demanding to play, and may require an individual chart of note fingerings for each instrument. Other instruments may have a less precise sound, perhaps sweeter or softer-edged – better for ballads.
But keep music in the family, and for a personal solace and comfort and inspiration. And exercise. Managing the breathing, concentration, correct fingerings, these add to exercise, hand strength and agility, attention to sounds. And discipline and attention span and accomplishment. Producing music can be an endless gift of comfort, joy, and amusement.
Pick the music that develops and maintains skills. And lyrics and themes that define and grow a community.
As I heard one Mormon quip, with respect, “Bring ‘em fat, or bring ‘em thin, but Brigham Young.” Start the music early, recognize that playing or singing or whistling to learn and perform is a chore as demanding and valuable as any yard chore.
And bring the selection of music into the home and into the community. Don’t depend on what the radio station selects of what recording companies decide to distribute.