Playing With Heart and By Heart, with Sarah Jeffery

Today on the show we’re joined by Sarah Jeffery, host of “Team Recorder”, the top YouTube channel for recorder players, with over 40,000 subscribers.

Sarah creates wonderful tutorial videos there and although her target viewer is the adult recorder player, so much of what she teaches is rich in musicality and relevant across instruments that we were really eager to invite her onto the show.

Sarah studied recorder at a university level for 9 years, in the United Kingdom and in Amsterdam, among the world’s top players and teachers, and she started Team Recorder with the mission of making that wealth of knowledge she’d had the privilege to learn be accessible to anyone in the world who wants to know more about recorder.

If you have had this idea that the recorder is quite a simple instrument used mostly in children’s music education, then Sarah’s channel will blow your mind, and this conversation is going to show you just how fascinating and versatile an instrument it can be.

In this conversation we talk about:

  • The big difference it makes to play music by heart rather than from sheet music – and how to make that memorisation process easier.
  • How it’s possible to sing and play recorder at the same time – and why you might want to do that…
  • And as well as her YouTube work, Sarah is a professional performer and recording artist, and we discuss her recent recorder-centered album, Constellations, and how contemporary recorder music can be more accessible as a listener than you might expect.

We hope that after today’s episode you’re going to be going out and telling all your musician friends about these cool ideas you picked up from a professional recorder player… or that you might even be tempted to pick up a recorder yourself!

This is Musicality Now, from Musical U.

Photo credit: Claudia Hansen

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Sarah: Hello, everybody. I’m Sarah Jeffery and I’m a recorder player, and this is Musicality Now.

Christopher: Welcome to the show, Sarah. Thank you for joining us today.

Sarah: Thank you for having me.

Christopher: So I was saying to you just before we started recording that I’ve become a really big fan of the Team Recorder YouTube channel, and that was a bit surprising to me because I’m not a recorder player, or at least not since I was a very small child. And it’s because you have such an interesting perspective on learning music, becoming a musician, developing your musicality. And even though all of that is framed in terms of being a recorder player, almost everything you say in a lot of your videos is applicable to any instrument and any musician.

So I was really keen to invite you onto the show and share some of your perspective on topics like playing by ear, learning music by heart, and also to unpack a little bit what it means to be a recorder player in the 21st century, because I think a lot of people pigeonhole recorder into a little box. And, certainly for me, coming from the UK, it’s very closely associated with early music education and children playing recorder. But, of course, it is a fully-fledged family of instruments in its own right, and you have a very interestingly broad experience as a performer yourself in terms of what the recorder can do.

Sarah: Yes.

Christopher: And clearly, my head is packed with things I want to talk to you about. I wonder if we might start at the beginning with your own backstory and how you got started in music, and where the recorder entered the picture for you?

Sarah: Yeah, sure. So I feel like I accidentally became a recorder player. It was never my plan from when I was small or something. So to go back to the beginning, my mom plays a lot of different instruments as a hobby. She plays piano and guitar and a bit of everything, and some recorder. So when I was six, she started a recorder club at my primary school, which I joined. And, of course, I hated having my mom teaching me the recorder, so I told her to go away and I would just play by myself for fun.

And in the meantime, I started piano lessons and flute lessons, and that was my music education throughout my childhood. So I went for my weekly piano and flute lessons, and the recorder was something I played on my own in my spare time. I did go to a recorder club on Saturday mornings, which was really nice, but we were just a group of kids playing together with a conductor. There were no formal lessons or anything.

And skip forward some years, when I was about 17, I suddenly had this idea that I wanted to go and be a musician and go to university and study music, and I wanted to do the recorder. And this was because it just felt so natural. I mean, I love the piano and I love the flute, but it didn’t feel like it was my instrument, and all I wanted to do was play my recorder. And this was a bit of a weird choice because I didn’t have any lessons. I didn’t have a teacher. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I just had this very strong feeling that that was what I wanted to do.

So yeah.

Christopher: That’s super interesting. We’ve talked a few times on this show before about how sometimes you need to be open to the instrument choosing you. A lot of people, when they first try learning an instrument, it doesn’t quite click and they decide they’re not musical as a result. And actually, there are so many people like yourself who become professional musicians, but not with their original first instrument. They had to try a few before something fit.

And I realize we’re going back a little bit, but can you remember why you felt that affinity for it? Was it that it came easily to you? Was it that the repertoire was appealing? Was it that something physically or like musically connected with you?

Sarah: Yeah. If I’m really honest, I would say because it came very easily and it felt very natural. When I pick up a recorder and play it, it just works and it felt so good to play. It wasn’t the repertoire because I didn’t know anything about the repertoire. In my first audition for conservatoire, I played a piece by Van Eyck, who’s a composer from the 16th century, and I chose that piece because I thought it was modern music.

It was just the feeling I got when I played the instrument.

Christopher: I see. And when you decided, “Okay, maybe a career in music is for me,” it sounds like the recorder was the obvious choice. Did you feel confident about that? Were you coming from a background and a worldview that said, “This is a reasonable thing to do. I’m well-positioned for this,” or no?

Sarah: Not at all. I mean, I want to mention something here that’s very different now. I started university, conservatoire, in 2003. Very different time. Tuition fees were very low and, for my family, completely subsidized by the government. So it was very low-risk. I’m not sure if now I was doing the same thing, with tuition fees of nine thousand a year, I think I would’ve made different choices.

So I just want to say that at the beginning. But no, aside from that, musically I felt extremely under-qualified. I didn’t really have any confidence. And I was taking A Level music, and I remember saying to my music teacher like, “Well, I’m not a real musician. All the others are real musicians but I’m not.” And I really felt that, and it took a long time to gain that confidence.

Christopher: And I know from studying up a little bit that not only were you doing A Level music, but you were also passing your grade eight, the highest instrument technique exam, on piano, flute and recorder at the same time. So how is it possible you didn’t feel like a real musician?

Sarah: I mean, as a teenager, I was also a teenager and you just have … How can I say that? Well, yeah. I was a teenager. You don’t really have much confidence then anyway. But …

Christopher: Was there anything in particular you felt was missing that the real musicians would be able to do that you couldn’t?

Sarah: I didn’t really have much concept of what a real musician was, to be honest. I didn’t know of any recorder players. No one. I vaguely heard of one person called Piers Adams, who’s now a colleague and he’s great. But that was with a music teacher telling me very disparagingly, “Well, you can’t be a recorder player because there’s only one and he’s called Piers Adams, and there’s no room for anyone else.”

I knew of things like … I thought, “Well, I’ve not really got any qualifications. I’ve not won any big competitions.” I just didn’t really have any idea of what it could be, and that made it this big, scary, unknown thing. And if I’m really honest, one of the reasons I first went and auditioned for conservatoire was because some of my friends and my boyfriend at the time were doing it. So I was like, “I’ll go too.” Yeah.

Christopher: That’s really interesting, and it’s funny. I think that kind of inferiority complex or imposter syndrome can come from the inside, where you’re like, “I don’t have what it takes.” Or it sounds like, in your case, it was coming almost more from the outside where you didn’t really know what that would look like, and so it was very hard to imagine yourself in that world of being a professional.

Sarah: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I definitely felt that when I first got to conservatoire, because I auditioned, I got in, I was ecstatic and was like, “Oh my God, I’m doing this.” And I got there and everyone was lovely, but I was suddenly studying with people that had gone to specialized boarding schools for music, or they’d spent their whole life going to junior conservatoire, or they’d been in big competitions. They were already performing. And I was just like … I felt like I was starting right at the bottom.

But, I think that was also a good thing, because it made me work.

Christopher: Mm-hmm. And so, what did that work look like?

Sarah: Well, let me see. First I had to learn how to practice, because I hadn’t really done that in a disciplined way before. I had a lot of knowledge to learn. I had to learn about the repertoire and technique and history, the kind of context of the recorder. But I had to learn how to practice the discipline of that and actually practicing effectively. I also spent quite a lot of my first couple of years in the pub, like all English students. I was also learning how to be a person. How to live on my own when I was 18 and cook and be responsible.

But yeah. And it was balancing gaining that knowledge, which was giving me a lot of confidence, with, yeah, working out what I wanted to do with music and what kind of music I wanted to play. Yeah. That was also very important.

Christopher: Got you. Well, I wonder whether we might use that as the moment then to talk a little bit about the recorder as an instrument and the repertoire that’s out there. Because, from the sounds of it, you kind of arrived at university with a limited view to date of how the recorder existed in the world, even though you had this affinity for it and enthusiasm and a higher level of technique by this point.

If you had to distill down some of what you learned, and give people like a crash course in, “Here’s how to open your mind to the recorder as a family of instruments, and here’s what to go off and listen to to realize all the interesting things it can do,” what might that look like?

Sarah: Well, the first thing I want to say is the recorder is incredibly versatile. It exists in pretty much every time period and recorder-like instruments exist in pretty much every culture. The first flute-like instrument that works in the same way as the recorder is made of bone and it’s 40 thousand years old. So recorders everywhere.

So this means that any kind of music you want to play can fit on the instrument. Very early music, Medieval, Renaissance. Of course, you have all the Baroque. That’s where it really comes. It did exist in the Classical and Romantic period. Now there’s so much new, contemporary music. It’s also in pop music, in jazz, in folk, in free improvised music. So there really is something for everyone.

Christopher: Got you. And you mentioned contemporary music there, which I know, to a lot of people, is this big, intimidating blob of strange sounding experimental stuff. Is there any easy route into appreciating the recorder in contemporary music? Or particular artists you could point to where it’s maybe one notch more accessible if people are curious but feeling a bit overwhelmed?

Sarah: Yeah. Well, the thing with contemporary music, it’s as diverse as the entirety of classical music. It’s a really diverse genre. And when we say “contemporary music”, people often immediately think of the kind of 1960s avant-garde … In Dutch, they call it (Dutch Word) music, because it’s like peek-nor beep.

But that is just one tiny subset. Basically, contemporary music means music that is made now, so it can be anything.

Christopher: Maybe we can approach this a different way and I could ask you to talk about your own recent album, which is recorder-based music in a variety of contemporary styles. Could you give people a taste of what they might hear on that album, for example?

Sarah: Yeah. So basically, my motivation with the music on the album was very simple. I wanted to record music that I enjoy listening to. That sounds a bit obvious, but I’ll be honest, I’ve played a lot of contemporary music and many pieces are more fun to play than they are to listen to. That sounds a bit sacrilegious. But I really wanted to record pieces where I loved listening to them.

Personally, I really like minimal music, and that is … For me, the definition of minimal music is a piece created with the smallest amount of material possible. So on the album, I explore this in a lot of ways in terms of harmony, rhythm. I explore it through contemporary music, but also Medieval, Renaissance music, folk music, improvised music. So the center-piece of the album is an arrangement of Vermont Counterpoint by Steve Reich, which is a fantastic piece, originally written for flute but I think it sounds much better on recorder. And I got permission from the composer to make this arrangement, which I did with the sound artists called Müsfik Can Müftüoglu, and he made the recording of it and the electronic sounds that you hear. So that’s something I’m really proud of. It took a lot of work.

So basically, the sound of the album is quite hypnotizing. You really … Yeah, I don’t really know how to describe it. It’s a very diverse album, but what binds all of the pieces is that I think they’re very accessible to listen to, but if you really pay attention, there’s a huge amount of complexity. So you can enjoy listening to them on face value, or you can really dive in and find detail after detail after detail.

Christopher: Terrific. Well, that album is called Constellations and we’ll have a direct link to in the show notes for this episode for sure. And if people are starting to get a sense of, “Okay, the recorder is more than just the first instrument we give a classroom full of seven year olds to tootle about on,” how did your own awareness and your own identity as a musician develop during those undergrad years? Were you starting to feel like, “Oh, maybe I am a real musician”? Or how did things shape up?

Sarah: Yeah. I would say from the start I felt like, “This is what I want to be doing.” I feel really happy that I never had doubts in my choice. I think that came partly because I really made the choice myself at a late stage. I never had to worry that I was only doing it because my parents pushed me into it or something. So I think the insecurity came from comparing myself to others, and I think a turning point came for me after a couple of years.

I used to attend this really great recorder summer school called Wood House. That’s in … No, that’s in Surrey, I think. And it’s still going today. It’s a summer school for young players. And basically there I … was just really great and they really helped you to not compare yourself to others but to gain confidence in your own abilities. So basically it was just having patience, and quite a long process of gaining knowledge, gaining experience with having lessons and performing and playing for other people. There wasn’t like waving a magic wand or one simple trick. It was just a process of time.

Christopher: Got you. And you mentioned that you started off those years feeling like you were at the back of the pack in terms of your abilities, but you worked hard so it was okay. What did working hard look like? You mentioned there were some hours in the pub as well?

Sarah: Oh yeah.

Christopher: Were you practicing all hours? Was it a matter of eight hours a day until you perfected this repertoire?

Sarah: No. Well, I was also 18, 19, so I had all the energy in the world. That’s different now, unfortunately. My day would look like, I would probably get into college for about 9:00 in the morning. I had all my classes, had all the theory classes, different lessons. In between, I would fit in … hours of practice, and in the evening I would either go out dancing or work in a club. I worked behind the bar. So I didn’t really sleep much at that time. But that’s what my day looked like.

In terms of hours of practice, I was always very realistic. I had to work to support myself, so I had a part-time job. Some days I had rehearsals and lessons all day. Other days I was free and I could spend more time practicing. So I’ve never been someone that is only stuck eight hours a day in a practice room, because I don’t think that really fits within the context of a life. At the end of that, all you’ll be good at is just practicing. But I kind of used all the hours I could.

Christopher: Got you. And after that undergrad you were inspired to move abroad, in fact, to study for a master’s. Is that right?

Sarah: Yes. Yes. So, I knew, in my third year of undergrad at Birmingham Conservatoire, I knew that I wasn’t ready to finish. I wanted to do a post-grad. And everyone kept saying, “Well, if you want to study the recorder, if you’re getting into contemporary music, you’ve got to go to Amsterdam.” So I thought, “Okay. That’s where I want to go.” And I went. I didn’t have a back-up plan. Luckily it worked, so I went there.

In Amsterdam, at the Conservatorium, it’s really great for recorder. They actually make everyone do the bachelor’s again, so that’s what I did. I started in the second year of the bachelor’s, and then I did another master’s. So I ended up studying the recorder for nine years.

Christopher: Wow.

Sarah: Yeah. Yeah. It was great. I loved it. At the end, I was ready. I was like, “Okay, now it’s good. Now I can get out into the real world.” But yeah.

Christopher: And was it all smooth sailing? I seem to remember your arrival in Amsterdam was not so fortuitous when you first traveled over expecting to audition?

Sarah: Yeah. I don’t know what I was thinking. You know when you’re 21 and you think you can just do whatever you want? I basically flew to Amsterdam and walked in and was like, “Hi, can I have an audition, please?” And yeah. Luckily they said, “Yes, okay. Why are you here?” This was because … So, in England, when you audition for conservatoire, you do that around autumn time for the following academic year. In the Netherlands, the auditions are in June. So I thought, “I don’t want to audition and then have only two months. I want to audition a bit earlier so I have time.” Yeah.

Christopher: But they humored this 21 year old English girl who showed up with a great enthusiasm for the recorder?

Sarah: Exactly. I had emailed the teacher at the time and said, “Hi, I’d like to come and audition,” and they thought that I wanted to audition and start immediately so they said, “Okay. You want to come in halfway through the academic year.” And then at the end of my audition ..The good thing is, in the Netherlands, you audition and then they tell you immediately. You don’t have to go away and wait for a letter. So I auditioned, they said, “Congratulations, you’ve got in. We’d like to start you in the second year of the bachelor’s. So, will you be here next week?” And I was like, “No. I’ll be here in September.”

Yeah. It all worked out in the end.

Christopher: Absolutely. And you said that, during your undergrad, you had to learn how to practice because you hadn’t really learned that in the past and you have a really terrific video on how to practice. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that later stage, what your life looked like, how you were studying? And I got the impression it was a step change in terms of being immersed in other recorder players and the contemporary repertoire and other interesting, innovative projects that were going on?

Sarah: So when I got to Amsterdam, I really wanted to knuckle down and take it as seriously as I could. Also, moving to a new country, it was also quite a big sacrifice. I’d left my homeland where I’d had a job and a great house and friends and a relationship. I’d left all of that to start in Amsterdam. So I really wanted to take this chance seriously. And aside from that, I was really inspired by the lessons there and the courses. I also arrived and was immediately again at the bottom of the pile, which I actually loved because I meant the only way was up and I just felt like I could really learn a lot from my classmates.

So again, I was taking all of the courses, all of the electives that I could, practicing all of the hours of the day I could. I was working in a café to support myself. So yeah. Those were crazy work days. Just long days.

One thing I want to mention is that a really important thing for me also, when I went to study … I mentioned when I met all these other people, that I felt inferior to them and like I was starting at the bottom. But I also want to say, it was amazing to meet other recorder players. To find out I wasn’t the only one. And to see from all these people I was meeting that anything was possible. All of a sudden I had role models in my teachers and my colleagues. I was getting to know more players. And I very quickly felt like the recorder is a fantastic, flexible instrument, and it has just as much possibility as any other instrument. Any other, classical, orchestral, whatever. Recorder is up there with them, too.

Christopher: Got you. And I was really keen to understand how you developed as a player over that period? Because I think, again, I’m kind of sharing all of these terrible prejudices about the recorder that apparently I have bouncing around in my head. But I think a lot of people would think of the recorder, as a serious instrument, having its place mostly in classical music where you’re given the sheet music, you play what’s on the page and that’s kind of that, and that’s your role and your duty to reproduce accurately the work of these amazing geniuses of the past.

And it’s so apparent for anyone browsing your YouTube channel that that’s not really the kind of player you are. You reminded me a lot of Dame Evelyn Glennie, who we had on the show a little while ago, who just brings this such a spark of personal enthusiasm and joy for her instrument to everything she does, and it leads to this really incredible expressive and innovative playing. I found that really came across in your videos, too, where you were talking about the technique or you were talking about the different articulations possible on the recorder, or you were demonstrating different things. It was so far from being that rigid, mechanical view of a recorder player that I guess I had inherited culturally. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about where those kinds of things like expressiveness and playing by ear, or improvising even, came into the picture for you?

Sarah: Yeah, right. So let’s think. Speaking on a professional level, interpreting the score, so playing the music accurately, playing with good technique, good tuning, hitting all of the notes and the rhythm, like playing the score correctly, that is only the very first basic level. And if you’re a professional player, of course, it’s really important that you can do that. You have to be able to do your craft well. But it’s only the first step. After that, you have this whole universe open to you of expression, of interpretation, of being creative, and that’s the part that I really find interesting.

So I spent my many hours and years in the practice room getting my technique up so I can just use the instrument and use my technique as a toolbox to say what I want to say creatively. So I just wanted to say that. I’m not saying that you should just ignore the score. Of course it’s important, if you’re using one. But there’s a lot more.

I think using all of these aspects like playing by ear, playing by heart, improvising, using strange sounds, a lot of it comes from playing different kinds of music. I grew up playing folk music and doing folk dancing as well. So folk was a big part of my life. I was playing contemporary music. Early music. I also listened to lots of different kind of music. So it’s really using different elements from different areas of music, I think, not only being stuck in one.

Christopher: Got you. And you mentioned listening there. I loved that you have a video about how to practice, and you share this kind of eight topic practice sheet that one of your teachers gave you once upon a time, to which you’ve added a ninth box for listening. Could you talk a little bit about that? Why is listening part of the practice routine, and what do you mean in that context by listening?

Sarah: It’s so important. Listening to music, and this can be listening to recordings, or live concerts, is important for so many ways. I can list them … First it can give you … Say you want to really get into a style of music like French Baroque, or Medieval, or bebop jazz. It’s so important to understand and be familiar with the language. If you know how it sounds, it’s a lot easier to achieve that yourself.

It can give you different ideas. If you’re playing a certain piece, listening to lots of different interpretations of it to give yourself different ideas. And I really like listening to music that is not classical or not recorder, just to get familiar with different things. And also pure escapism. There were many, many times where I came home after a long day of rehearsing hardcore contemporary music, and I could only listen to pop music. It’s something completely different.

And I think you should just embrace whatever music you enjoy listening to. Be unashamed in your musical choices. There is no right or wrong music to listen to. I think that’s important, too.

Christopher: Mm-hmm. And you mentioned one other thing there as part of that bundle of musicality, which was playing by heart, and listening also came up in that context, I think, in your tutorial on how to learn to play by heart, how to memorize music so that you can play it without the sheet music. You said you kind of need to start with the listening so that you have that internal representation. Is that right?

Sarah: Yeah, definitely. I mean, in order to play something by heart, you have to know how it goes. It sounds very obvious. But the first step to playing something by heart is learning how it sounds. The people who think they can’t play by heart, I would say, “Go and put on any pop song from the year you were a teenager that you listened to a lot, and I guarantee you will be able to sing along, you’ll know all the words, you’ll be humming along with the guitar solo.” That is learning by ear. And it’s just the step with doing this with an instrument is connecting your fingers and your instrument technique to this.

But learning the song in your ears is the first thing, and then translating it to the instrument comes afterwards.

Christopher: Mm-hmm. That’s a really interesting perspective on it. And why was this a topic worth mentioning and worth creating a video on for you? Because it wasn’t … I think for me, when I was growing up in music education, learning something by heart was so that you could perform it without the sheet music and impress people. I had no real appreciation that there would be a difference in my playing between the two options, and I think with your video, it came across you were very much more coming from the, “Do this because you’ll sound better,” or, “Do this because you’ll play better,” rather than, “Let’s do a neat trick where you don’t need the sheet music in front of you.”

Sarah: Yeah. I mean, if you can play a piece by heart, then you’ve really internalized it. And I definitely feel a big difference if I’m reading a piece, kind of sight-reading a piece from the sheet feels completely different to if I’ve played it by heart and … When I’m performing a piece by heart, it almost feels like I’m recomposing it every time because I’m really … You have to listen to yourself so much when you play, and you’re reacting on yourself and you’re making musical decisions, and you’re not doing anything by rote. And yeah. You just know the piece so much better.

The other thing is, it’s quite scary and it takes a huge amount of trust, and I think that trust in yourself as a performer or a musician or in your technique, that gets developed a lot when you’re learning to play by heart. So even though that performing by heart, or playing for people by heart, feels huge, when you’ve made it, it will have really benefited your playing.

Christopher: Very cool. And when you described a moment ago, you said something like, “You’ve got to get that internal representation in your head, and then the connecting it to your instrument and what notes to play is just that other bit,” and I know some people listening to that will have been like, “I can’t do that. That sounds really hard.”

Sarah: I don’t mean, “Oh, and that’s just the next thing.”

Christopher: Maybe we can talk a little bit about that. Like, how did you, or how do you, or how would you recommend someone makes that connection between, “Okay, now I can hear it vividly in my head. I can remember it. I know what I want to play. What do I do with my fingers on the recorder?”

Sarah: Yeah. I personally like to make use of all these different kinds of learning and kinds of memory. So the one I’ve spoken about is your ears already, knowing how it sounds. And also, you don’t have to completely have it memorized in your head before you start. No. It’s … these different things working together. So you’ve got your ears. You also have your muscle memory of your fingers. And muscle memory is something we use every day, like when we’re driving, or when we’re walking up the stairs or whatever. There’s your visual memory. Some people have a photographic memory where they can read the score in the head. I cannot do that. But I can kind of see the score. So I kind of know where the busy bits are and the rests and the empty bits.

Then there’s also your kind of intellectual, structural memory, just knowing it starts on a G, this is the key, this is the key signature. Or I had this pattern and it repeats four times. So I use all of those different things. And the thing is, each person will feel a stronger affinity with one of those bits than the others. You might be great at reading from memory, or you might be great at having your muscle memory, but feel less confident in the others. But because you’re combining them, they’re supporting each other.

So I think it’s about looking at those steps, working out which one is the easiest for you to start with, and using that as your point to hold onto and then bringing the others in as well.

Christopher: That makes sense. And yeah. And you provided a kind of safety net option in your tutorial on this topic which was, if you get lost, don’t panic. You can improvise your way back in. Which sounds beautiful and elegant, but again, I’m sure some people are like, “How?” So I would love if you could share your perspective on like, how can someone put those skills in place? The ability to make up the notes themselves or to figure out on the fly how to play what they’re hearing in their head?

Sarah: Yeah. The first step is practicing from memory as well. And do this quite near the beginning of learning a piece. I think that’s really important. Because if you completely perfect a piece and then try to memorize it, I find that really difficult. So I like to practice from memory. So what I do is I’ll just play a bar or half a bar, and then leave the music and practice that. In that way, you might make a wrong note, but you’ll hear it and then you’ll have to figure it out. And when you’re doing that, you’re improvising already.

The process of making a mistake, recognizing it and figuring out how to solve it is improvising. It’s nothing big or mysterious. That’s just it. And if I have these pointers along the way for myself, like, “This section is two bars. If I get lost, I know that I just …” You can also just wait those two bars and start again, or you can hold a note for two bars. Yeah.

Christopher: I love how you framed it there, that improvising doesn’t need to mean playing a killer electric guitar solo on stage or having crazy bebop jazz lines to call on. It can be that simple process of playing something, deciding whether you liked it or not, and then adapting accordingly.

Sarah: Yeah. I mean, the thing with improvising that I just want to say is that everyone does it all the time. That’s what we’re doing now in this conversation. It’s what you do when you choose your clothes in the morning, or when you decide what to have for breakfast. All it is is making a decision. That’s it. And with improvising, the scary thing is thinking like, “Okay, if I improvise, I immediately have to have this beautiful solo or beautiful piece,” and trying to figure it out beforehand. What I like to do is just start and see what happens. The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t like what you played. That’s it. So start simple and just go for it.

And when I improvise, I like to play … I call it the “open and close mentality”. So when I’m playing, everything’s open, everything is yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Then when you finish, you can go to close and you can think back about what you played and analyze it. “I liked that, I didn’t like that.” But when you’re playing, everything is a yes.

Christopher: Mm-hmm. I love that. That’s a really healthy way of approaching it, I think, rather than having that internal critic running all the time, judging every note you play.

Sarah: Yeah.

Christopher: Got you. And speaking of making it simple and step-by-step, you had a lovely tutorial also on playing by ear, and if there’s a particular melody you’re trying to reproduce. And obviously these two go hand-in-hand to some extent. But I wonder if you could talk us through how you approach that idea of learning to play a song by ear, when you don’t have that sheet music to begin with?

Sarah: Yeah, that’s right. So the first step if I’m a learning a song by ear is, again, just listening to it again and again until you know how it sounds in your head. I would say until you can sing along, but if you don’t like to sing, that’s also no problem. Just until you know how it is, not only in terms of the melody, but the structure. Like a song, you know it’s the verse then the chorus then the verse then this. So that’s step one.

And then, aside from this, it’s really important to be able to recognize if you’re playing the same note or not. So reproducing a melody is a few steps down the line. The first step is just knowing, is this the right note? For example, recognizing yes or no. And I take this in very small steps. First, recognizing if it’s the same note, then putting two notes together, recognizing if it stays the same, or if it goes up or down. Putting three notes together, four notes.

So those are the first steps.

Christopher: I loved that you started with those building blocks, because I think people all too often jump to the whole melody and then they can’t do it and they feel like, “Okay, I can’t play by ear.” And the sequence you’ve run people through is actually quite similar to what we do on our website where we’re trying to help people who feel like, “I don’t have the ear to be able to play by ear. Like, I’m tone deaf. I’m not going to be able to do it.” And what we show them is, “Well, first of all, can we tell are two notes the same or different? And then, if we can, can we tell if the second is higher or lower than the first one?” And 99% of people, musicians or not, can do that. And that then becomes the basis for saying, “Okay, well if we have a two note melody, then we’re almost there figuring it out. And if we have a three note melody, it’s just a step beyond that.”

And so, I loved that your approach mirrored that and it kind of makes it … I don’t want to overstate it, but it’s almost too easy to fail at. It’s so easy you can’t help but have some progress and see, “Okay, maybe this playing by ear thing is possible for me.”

Sarah: Definitely. I mean, I really liken it to learning to read. The first step is learning the letters, recognizing the letters, then remembering how they sound, linking them into words. Now, I can read by picking up a book and just … it goes very fast. I recognize whole words. But we forget that we went through months or even years of having to figure out what those words are, is it a B or a D? How does that sound? Sounding it out. I think, maybe, if we taught playing by ear at the same time as learning to read, it might be different.

Christopher: We’d have a lot more happy musicians around the world.

Sarah: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, and there are a lot of music cultures that do this, where it is a lot more intuitive and it’s really built in. Yeah. I mean, one really nice example is in Brazil, there is a really great Suzuki recorder school. It’s not really a … Suzuki isn’t something I’m really familiar with, but I’ve seen great results, and these are kids who can play so beautifully and expressively because they’ve built up these building blocks by ear, which is different than with notated music …

Christopher: Very good. So you mentioned singing in passing there. And it reminds me, on the Team Recorder YouTube channel, you have some videos which are kind of “learn to play recorder”. And so, for example, talking through the best adult method books, or what would you cover in your first lesson with a recorder? And that kind of thing. Very recorder-specific.

And then you have some like, how to practice or how to play by ear, as we’ve been talking about, where clearly a lot of the lessons are entirely transferrable to any instrument and for any musician. And then you have a few that are kind of, I don’t know, they’re semi-recorder-specific and really curious, and, for me, a couple that jumped out were how to do circular breathing, which, when I was in school, was this real black magic people talked about and no one really knew if it was even possible. And I love that now we live in the age of the internet, where you can just tune in and Sarah will show you in 10 minutes how to do it, no problem.

Sarah: Yeah.

Christopher: But the other one, and the reason I mention this, is you had one where it was like how to sing and play at the same time. And this is something we cover inside Musical U in the context of, typically a guitarist or pianist, who wants to be able to strum or play chords while they sing and perform the piece. But obviously, recorder, you’ve got a recorder in your mouth. And so, I was deeply curious to know how that works.

And I wanted to mention it here because it was a beautiful example of how your videos often have these really impactful nuggets in them, even if you’re talking about recorder-specifics and the person watching isn’t a recorder player. Because, in a moment I might ask you to talk a little bit about how you go about learning how to play and sing on the recorder, and people will see like, there’s some really fundamental, internal musicality development that’s going to come of it, whether or not you have any intention to play the recorder yourself or step up on stage and do this.

So, maybe if you wouldn’t mind, you could just explain to people how this is possible and why you might want to do it and what it sounds like?

Sarah: Yeah. Yeah, sure. Why you would want to do it is simply, I think, because it sounds good. It’s used as a technique in quite a lot of contemporary pieces that you can also accompany yourself with a drone, or you can sing a harmony part for yourself. You can play a separate harmony. For example … Or you can use your voice just as a sound color. For example, if you play and sing and same note, it just makes the sound different.

So that could be why you want to use it. With the recorder, there is no embouchure, there’s no reed, there’s nothing in the way. So you literally just sing, and make sure you’re blowing air at the same time, and the sound will come out.

Christopher: Tremendous. Yeah, and I think in your tutorial, you started off with singing the same note you were playing, and it’s that kind of sound color thing where you’re changing the timbre of the instrument in a really interesting way. And I was really surprised, I have to confess, to learn in the video that there is repertoire written with this technique in mind, it’s not like a little gimmick that you can try out for fun. Like, this is a serious part of how you would be a contemporary recorder player.

Sarah: Yeah.

Christopher: But from there, you started talking about, “Okay, well if I hold this note and then I sing a major third above it, I’m creating my own harmony.” And that idea of creating a harmony above a drone and experimenting with the sound and just creating for yourself interesting things to tune your ear into. I think for anyone who plays a melody instrument, that’s a really interesting possibility. So if you’re a saxophonist, for example, you can’t sing with the reed in your mouth, but you can record a drone of yourself playing and start experimenting with, “Can I create my own harmony above this drove, or can I create my own countermelody?”

And I really loved this as a case in point of how, what can seem like a arcane bit of technique actually opens up all kinds of musical possibilities and exploration for you.

Sarah: Yeah. Definitely. I mean, that’s one of the exercises that I think is a really nice way to get into improvising. So we’re kind of killing two birds with one stone. Is improvising over a drone. So I’m going to sing the drone. I’m going to sing that drone. And the improvisation is going to start on the same note, go somewhere else, and come back. And that, I think, is a really accessible exercise to do. So I’m going to try that.

Because you’re playing over a drone, basically everything sounds nice. And what’s important there is listening to which notes fit and which don’t. The consonance and dissonance. And yeah. That’s a really nice starting point for improvisation.

Christopher: Fantastic. Well, it’s probably more than clear at this point, but I do wholeheartedly recommend checking out the Team Recorder YouTube channel, whether you’re a recorder player or not. And of course, Sarah’s album, Constellations, which we’ll have a link to in the show notes.

Sarah, it’s been such a pleasure getting to talk to you. I knew from watching all of your videos that it would be a fascinating conversation and it certainly has been. So just a big thank you for taking the time to share with us on the show today.

Sarah: You’re very welcome. Thank you for having me.

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