21 October 2008
Phil's marvellous post about school percussion instruments brought it all back. I was once given the big bass drum by Miss Donaldson to play during Hedon County Primary School's 1982 Christmas Carol service rendition of Kings Came Riding From The East. I assume that was the title - lots of hymns and carols tend to take the first line of the song as a title, lazily.
Anyway, it meant that I left my place on the back row of the choir with the other boys in the group and stood at the side, bass drum attached to my stomach. It was a normal singular bash to the beat except on the double-paced second half of each verse when I bashed to the syllables ("WI-CKED MAN!" "E-VIL PLAN!" "KNEEL ME DOWN!" "GOL-DEN CROWN!" "THROUGH THE SAND!" DES-ERT LAND!") and drowned out the choir entirely.
Miss Donaldson was the most musical teacher we had, even though every woman who worked at the school in a non-canteen capacity seemingly was a highly-proficient piano player. Mrs Cochrane, a career supply teacher and local author, provided mild titters to seven year olds of dubious concentration levels through her shouting of "my bit!" whenever we were singing some flighty modern hymn, like Think Of A World Without Any Flowers (another one which just boneidly took the first line as a title), and it involved some unaccompanied tinkling between chorus and verse.
While, as Phil says, most of the kids were restricted to singing tunelessly and bashing the tat in the percussion cupboard, there were still calculable numbers who chose (through their parents, natch) to take up the recorder. I was among them. As much fun as it was to learn basic tunes (Eddie Izzard's routine involving Mrs Badcrumble called the beginner's tune Snug As A Bug In A Rug; we knew the same tune as Merrily We Roll Along), it was trying to re-enact pop hits of the day which made the recorder more fun. And, when you've only (officially) learned six notes, Enola Gay and Wishing (If I Had A Photograph Of You were easy pickings. That's why so many kids wanted to be pop stars in 1982 - because they thought all these blokes were writing songs on descant recorders.
I did get as far as learning every available note on a recorder, though that only takes you a slight distance. Getting your little finger (and, as a nine year old, that's a very little finger) to cover just one of the minute holes at the base of the recorder while leaving the other one open to perfect a D# or C# was hard going. A child's fingers are quite broad enough to cover one large recorder hole, but those two pairs of mini-holes were a bugger. I recall Mrs Gonnelly having a right go at me for squeaking the recorder when I was trying to play a delicate C#.
The recorder was easy to take apart and put back together again, as if it was the nearest you'd get to an intelligence test on the Krypton Factor. The only reason to take it apart was, frankly, to put that weird pipe-cleaner brush thing inside and scrub its innards clean, having first given it a good physical shaking to get all the excess saliva out. I reckon kids caught germs at school predominantly because they were secretly sharing recorders behind the bike sheds. I suppose it was one way to exchange bodily fluids with Samantha Stephenson, as she wasn't exactly keen on doing so via the traditional method.
Also, quite quickly the recorder ceases to be sexy in any way, if it ever was thus. The well-scrubbed girls in the juniors moved on to those treble or bass recorders which were enormous, but relied far less on musical talent than they did on having a set of stretchable fingers to the length of the claws of an allosaurus. And, just to annoy us all, the notes on those larger versions were structured entirely differently to those on a descant. Suddenly, playing a high D wasn't just down to having the second hole covered and all the others, including the underside thumb one, exposed to the air. Whoever developed these bigger recorders were bad sports.
The recorder was almost the limit of the musical skill you could attain at my primary school. Miss Donaldson did, for a while, do post-school guitar lessons, but a large number of kids would drop out after realising that her weekly bellowing of "pluck-strum! pluck-strum!" wasn't going to get them the opening riff to More Than A Feeling for some time yet, and they'd rather be out collecting conkers.
Any kid who learned the piano (and frankly, I still want to) did so privately and therefore was automatically ridiculed by the more neanderthal element of our primary school. The music department upon shifting to South Holderness was, of course, more weighty but even though I did GCSE Music and therefore was obliged to try to learn an instrument (I tried the oboe for a bit but, frankly, I was crap at it - I kept snapping the reed), I never scaled any further heights than spending the practice period playing the theme tune to Blackadder on, yes, a recorder.
And what thanks does the recorder get? How much exposure has it had from professional musicians? Little that I can think of, either by sight or on record. Whenever someone in the Whose Line Is It Anyway? audience shouted "Irish jig!" for the appalling Josie Lawrence to perform on Song Styles, Richard Vranch would take out a recorder. And, as you would expect of a man with his musicality, he could really play it. But it was soon drowned out by the woman's caterwauling nonsense, so even then the recorder didn't get its proper moment in the spotlight. It appears to be an instrument designed solely for seven year olds who want to learn I Kissed A Girl rather than Did You Ever See A Lassie and find themselves rather underwhelmed very quickly.