dolmetsch onlinethe bass recorder

On Playing the Bass Recorder
Brian Blood

Actually, the bass recorder is quite a lot more than a 'big alto'. Its place in a recorder consort, as the bottom line, gives it a role seldom played by a treble and its quirky performance in the upper register makes it quite different when one wants to play musically throughout the full two octaves plus range.

Recorder players get used to the fact that there is a significant delay between tonguing the bass and getting the instrument to speak. This delay is absent on smaller instruments. A good bass player anticipates when bar lines are to be reached or when lines start and we all develop this 'blowing just in front of everybody else' technique to avoid being heard behind the beat, barline or whatever. This is best done by ear but intimate knowledge of the instrument helps one to judge this 'just right'. Experienced bass players know about the problem and compensate as though it were second nature. Infrequent players may not even know what I am talking about!!!

The second problem with the bass is getting a sweet tone throughout the range. Most basses have a weak bottom or thin top - only the very best have both a rich bass and a full top. Here, a good player favours the tone using a slight vibrato at the bottom to fill out the tone (although this vibrato should be hidden from the listener by being very discrete) and carefully matches their tonguing stroke to the instrument's response characteristic to get the best and most pleasant sound throughout the range. While players of smaller instruments have, to some extent, to do the same, for the bass recorder player the problem is greater and the skill required more important.

I have been a bass recorder player for over thirty years and it always surprises me when people talk of the bass as though it were just a large alto or tenor.

The greatest difference comes from how a bass line is played in a consort. The bass player lies at the bottom of chords, so a very secure sense of pitch and interval is vital. Chords are tuned from the bottom up (i.e. from the bass line upwards) and if the bass recorder player does not play in tune the rest of the consort will be 'at sea'. The bass recorder player should keep the bass line rhythmically secure, light and when necessary, bouncy and precise. Here, being late or early is death to the whole consort's rhythm. Similarly, heavy over-legato bass line playing kills all the spring in the rhythm of the piece as a whole. There are many other important rhythmic matters that stem from the bass line but maybe I have gone on enough already.

I hope at least I have given the lie to the statement that a bass recorder is just a large alto - that it is certainly not!!!

A reader sent us the following question:

I have a bass recorder - I basically know how to play, having taken classes and played in ensembles - but that was on the soprano and treble. The trouble I'm having with the bass is that after a short time, it fills up with moisture-spit-condensation-whatever it is, and I can't get a clear sound. I don't think I'm blowing too hard - but I don't know how to avoid this problem.

Yes this is a well known problem and leads some to suggest only playing direct blown basses. However, I love the warmer sound of crook blown instruments and the less aggressive starts to all the notes.

The problem you have is condensation. The colder crook acts as a condenser and much of the moisture in your breath is 'falling out of the air' before it reaches the windway and collects in the lower part of the crook.

There are a number of strategies for avoiding the problem - none of which is practical - and some ways of handling it once the problem has happened.

1. to avoid the problem in the first place you can try to blow 'dry' - try to avoid a build up of saliva in the mouth when playing which can be 'injected' into the crook as water.

You could use scopolamine, a drug used to overcome motion or travel sickness.

Read below from an online site selling scopolomine patches:

Side effects from scopolamine patches are not common but they can occur. After taking your initial scopolamine 'dose' or patch, side effects may occur but in most instances, they will decrease or go away completely after continuing to use the Transderm Scop patch. When feeling the side effects of any medication, you should always contact your doctor.

The most common side effect of Transderm Scop (scopolamine) is dryness of the mouth, which commonly occurs in 2/3 of the people who take this motion sickness medication.

Common Scopolamine Side Effects:

  • Drowsiness - occurs in less than 1/6th of the people that use the TransDerm Scop patch
  • Temporary blurring of vision
  • Dilation, or widening, of the pupils - especially if the patch comes in contact with the hands, which then touch the eyes

    Other Scopolamine Side Effects (rare side effects of Transderm Scop patch):

  • Disorientation
  • Memory Disturbances
  • Dizziness
  • Temporary changes in heart rate, palpitations
  • Dry, itchy or reddened eyes
  • Eye pain

    You see that dryness of the mouth is a common side effect.

    However the rest are not minor concerns and so this is probably not a good idea.

  • 2. Swallow before blowing - this works if you tend to salivate heavily because of nervousness. Unfortunately, swallowing and breathing at the same time increases to the danger of breathing water into the lungs which will cause you to choke and cough - so yet again, this could be a bad idea.

    3. Warming the crook or fitting it with insulation. This will reduce the temperature difference between crook and body temperature and should reduce condensation, the more so the closer you can hold the crook to near body temperature. Unfortunately this is quite warm and I suspect it could be difficult to sustain such an elevated temperature except with some form of portable (tape) heating.

    The alternative is to accept that condensation will occur and that you will have to clear the crook frequently during performance - indeed, every time you stop playing (between movements or works). Take the crook out of the head section and blow sharply down it (in a direction likely to cause minimal annoyance to your neighbours) or give it a good shake. The former is more effective than the latter.

    By removing the water as it builds up, you will avoid blowing water into the windway which leads to blocking up and stifling of the sound.