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Recorders For All: Making The Instrument More Accessible

July 01, 2016
By Valerie Peters

This post was was written by Valerie Peters, an advisor on our Recorders For All project. In it, she tells the story of how she arrived at the idea for the project.

When I was in fifth grade, I decided that I wanted to join the school band. My music teacher, the band director, and my parents decided that I would play the trombone. This was a logical choice; I was born with an atypical cleft hand, which means that my right hand has only a thumb and a pinky. While it is hard for me to play woodwind instruments, it is easy enough to hold the slide with my right hand. Problem solved. I played the trombone.

Even though I enjoyed playing the trombone (somewhere there is a video of me playing “American Patrol” with puffed out cheeks and great gusto) the sound of the trombone was not my preferred timbre. Granted, I never took one of those musical timbre preference tests, but a friend of mine remembers me saying “If I had ten fingers, I would play the flute.” Woodwind instruments were not accessible to me, though, so I continued to play trombone and other brass instruments through high school.

After graduating from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in Music Education, I decided that I wanted to teach elementary school. In most elementary schools in the United States, students in third or fourth grade learn to play the recorder. Infamous as the recorder may be, especially when paired with the words “Hot Cross Buns”, the recorder is an instrument of great expressivity and beauty. The recorder was widely popular during the Renaissance and Baroque periods of classical music, and there exists a huge repertoire of solo and consort music for the instrument. As an elementary music educator, I ought to have solid skills on the recorder in order to teach and play for my students. But how was I to do this?

I started with the concept that I wanted to play in as typical a way as possible. That is, I wanted to use an instrument with the usual hole configuration. My father and I created a brace out of wooden dowels which allowed me to hold the instrument without the support of my right thumb. If I used my left hand for holes 1, 2, 3, and 4, the two digits on my right hand could hover over 5, 6, and 7. It was a start, but I couldn't play everything.

In 2012, I visited the Von Heune Recorder Workshop in Boston. Eric Haas looked at what I was doing already and recommended that I get customized keys on holes 4 and 5. If I operated two keys with my left pinky, I could play the entire range of the instrument. After writing to many organizations, I found Peter Worrell, an instrument maker in England. He agreed to create a customized instrument, and I got my adapted soprano recorder in the summer of 2013. One year later, Peter adapted an alto recorder for me. My instruments are beautiful and they satisfy my wish to play flutelike instruments.

Yet while I, myself, can delight in playing the recorder, my path to obtaining adapted instruments is too difficult and expensive for the average beginner. How can it be possible to make the recorder more accessible to people with physical disabilities? If only there was some way to create keys that could be attached to instruments, customized for each individual...