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12 Educational Facts About the Recorder

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Many of us know the recorder as the plastic pipe that gets handed out in elementary school music class. More closely resembling a toy than something a rock star would carry, it doesn’t have a reputation for being the coolest instrument in the world. But that doesn’t mean it deserves to get a bad rap—a long list of artistic geniuses from William Shakespeare to Paul McCartney have turned to the recorder for inspiration. Here are 12 facts worth knowing about this historic instrument.

1. IT DATES BACK TO THE MIDDLE AGES.

Centuries before the clarinet, the harmonica, and the tuba were invented, early musicians were playing recorders. The oldest surviving example of the instrument dates back to 14th-century Europe. Back then—unlike the mass-produced, plastic items today’s grade-schoolers are familiar with—recorders were carved from wood or ivory.

2. ITS NAME USED TO MAKE MORE SENSE.

Before the age of voicemail and tape recorders, the verb “to record” meant “to memorize by heart.” To this end, the simple recorder flute came in handy. One possible explanation for its name is that it was a good instrument for practicing, or “recording.” In languages other than English, the name doesn’t translate neatly and is usually referred to as a different type of flute.

3. KING HENRY VIII COLLECTED THEM.

King Henry VIII is better known for his notorious marriages than his musical talents. But he was also an accomplished composer, publishing several songs and instrumental works during his lifetime. His music hobby led to an ambitious instrument collection: Before he died in 1547, Henry VIII had acquired 76 recorders (the instruments, which were played in choirs, had such a limited range that several were needed for each song). Rather than letting them gather dust in a case, he made sure they were used for their intended purpose. According to the Metropolitan Museum the flutes were likely played by the royal professional recorder consort and other recorder masters when the King himself wasn’t playing them.

4. IT WAS A CLASSICAL MUSIC STAPLE.

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Serious musicians may turn their noses up at the recorder today, but it was an important member of the wind family during the Baroque period. Georg Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, and Johann Sebastian Bach all incorporated the instrument into their compositions. In opera, the clear, sweet sound of the recorder was used to evoke erotic themes and pastoral images like shepherds and birds.

5. IT MAKES AN APPEARANCE IN HAMLET.

The recorder was so popular during the 16th century that it was used to illustrate a metaphor by the age’s most popular writer. In the third act of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the title character asks Guildenstern to play the recorder for him. After he explains that he doesn’t know how, Hamlet insists that “'tis as easy as lying.” Still he refuses, and Hamlet says that Guildenstern should have no trouble playing the simple recorder after “playing” him like an instrument:

“[Y]ou would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass. And there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak? 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?”

The comparison made its way into the common vernacular, but today you’re more likely to hear someone claim they were “played like a fiddle” than a recorder.

6. IT COMES IN A VARIETY OF SIZES.

One reason that soprano recorders are a popular choice for grade school music classes is their child-friendly package. But the instrument’s simple form lends itself to several shapes and sizes, the largest being the sub-contrabass recorder, which stands 8 feet tall. To play it, musicians blow into a tube-shaped mouthpiece that swoops down from the top of the recorder. Then there’s the adorably-named garklein, which measures 6 inches long and emits high-pitched tones like a whistle.

7. THE FLUTE LED TO ITS DEMISE.

While the recorder is technically a type of flute, it’s the transverse flute (a flute that’s held horizontally and blown into from the side) that we associate with the term. The transverse flute migrated to Europe from Asia in the 14th century, and by the 19th century, it was featured in most orchestras. The recorder, with its lack of range and volume, didn’t stand a chance against the bold sound of a flute piercing through a concert hall. As the 19th century progressed, the recorder was phased out of the modern orchestra altogether.

8. IT WAS SAVED BY EARLY MUSIC ENTHUSIASTS.

The recorder’s status as a relic from a bygone era is what helped make it cool again. At the turn of the 20th century, more museums were displaying historical instruments, and interest in pre-classical music began to rise. This helped pave the way for the recorder to make a comeback as a revivalist instrument. Soon it began appearing in arrangements of early music. In some cases, like the performance given at 1885’s International Inventions Exhibition, collections of old instruments were displayed at concerts.

9. IT WENT PLASTIC IN THE 1960s.

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Around the middle of the 20th century the recorder underwent its cheap, lightweight transformation. By that point, plastic was easy to come by, and using the material produced an instrument that was tougher than its wooden counterpart and a whole lot cheaper. Not only that, but the sound quality didn’t suffer as a result.

10. IT FOUND A PLACE IN ROCK 'N' ROLL.

Music teachers might have an easier time selling the recorder as a hip instrument if they played up its connection to classic rock. Paul McCartney was a notable fan, incorporating it into the Beatles song “Fool On The Hill” and some of his solo pieces. It can also be heard in the music of the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Lou Reed. Though plenty of rock stars used the instrument, not all of them were proud of it. According to one rumor, Jimi Hendrix was so ashamed to have played a recorder on “If 6 Was 9” that he asked for it to be listed as a flute on the album credits.

11. A FAMOUS COMPOSER BROUGHT IT INTO CLASSROOMS.

German composer Carl Orff is best known for his scenic cantata Carmina Burana (the first movement of which you've likely heard before), but he’s also credited with revolutionizing children's music education. One of the core principles of his "Orff Schulwerk" teaching style dictated that if children could sing the notes they were playing they’d have an easier time learning the music. The soprano recorder, similar in range to the voice of a child, was a natural fit. His ideas were becoming popular around the same time recorders made the switch to plastic, which meant more schools could afford to buy them in bulk.

12. IT TURNS KIDS OFF MUSIC.

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If you want your child to fall in love with music early in life, steer them away from the recorder. At least that’s what one paper published by the Economic and Social Research Council in 2002 suggests. For the study, researcher Susan O'Neill of Keele University surveyed 1209 students about the impact the recorder had on their musical ambitions. She said in a press release that the children “tended to view the recorder as 'not a real instrument' or 'a child's instrument' and limited in its ability to express the music they want to play.” As the students grew up feeling limited by instruments like the recorder, they stopped feeling motivated to play music.

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A Voice Recognition App Adds Sound Effects While You Read to Your Kids
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Technology is coming for kids’ story time, but maybe not in the way that you think. The future of bedtime stories, as MIT Technology Review describes it, won’t involve tablets or reading off screens, but it will have sound effects.

Novel Effect is an app that uses voice recognition to track the bedtime stories you’re reading to your kids and insert sound effects and music in response to certain cue words. It’s similar to a home assistant, such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home, except instead of playing music and setting kitchen timers for you, it’s on the ear-out for keywords contained in certain kids’ books.

Four mobile app screenshots side-by-side of the Novel Effect app.
Novel Effect

The app doesn’t work for all titles, but it offers effects for popular books you probably already own, like Where the Wild Things Are, The Hungry Caterpillar, and The Cat in the Hat. When you open the app on your phone, you select which book you plan to read. As you read the physical book out loud, the app listens for where you are in the text and adds sound effects, from dramatic music to monstrous roars.

It’s not going to trigger odd sound effects every time you say the word “caterpillar,” though. (Unlike the Amazon Echos that heard the words “Alexa, buy me a dollhouse” on a TV news report and rushed to fulfill the order.) The words have to correspond to the book you’ve selected in the app, though you don’t have to read the text from the beginning or keep any specific time. The app can recognize where you are in the book no matter where you start or whether you dive off into a tangent about how cool caterpillars are before resuming the story.

Novel Effect is part of Amazon’s Alexa Accelerator for voice recognition technology, and it seems feasible that one day this kind of functionality would be a skill you could enable on your Echo or other voice-controlled assistant. According to MIT Technology Review, the company hopes to allow users to create their own sound effects sometime in the near future.

[h/t MIT Technology Review]

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The Day Notre Dame Students Pummeled the Ku Klux Klan
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At first glance, there was nothing unusual about the men who stepped off the train in South Bend, Indiana on the morning of May 17, 1924. Dapper and mannered, they drifted from the station to the downtown area. Some headed for a nearby office that sported a red cross made out of light bulbs stationed in the window. Others roamed around looking for Island Park, the site of a planned social gathering.

A closer look at these visitors revealed one common trait: Many were carrying a folded white robe under their arm. Those who had arrived earlier were fully clothed in their uniform and hood, directing automobile traffic to the park.

The Ku Klux Klan had arrived in town.

Fresh off a controversial leadership election in Indianapolis, Indiana, there was no reason for Klansmen to have any apprehension about holding a morale booster in South Bend. Indiana was Klan territory, with an estimated one in three native born white men sworn members within state lines. Just a few months later, Klansman Ed Jackson would be elected governor.

It was only when Klansmen found themselves guided into alleys and surrounded by an irate gang of Catholic students from nearby Notre Dame University that they realized mobilizing in South Bend may have been a very bad idea.

The Klan wanted a rally. What they got was a full-scale riot.

Photo of KKK Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
By IndyStar, Decemeber 12, 1922 issue, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Politically-endorsed prejudice was the order of the day in the early part of the 20th century, when the Klan—first created in 1866 to oppose Republican Reconstruction with violent racial enmity and then revived in 1915—expanded its tentacles to reach law enforcement and civil service. No longer targeting people of color exclusively, the KKK took issue with Catholics, the Jewish faith, and immigrants. An estimated 4 million Americans belonged to the Klan in the 1920s, all echoing the group’s philosophy that only white, God-fearing citizens were worthy of respect.

Under the guidance of Indiana's Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, the group had attempted to shift public perception from the lynch mobs of the past to an orderly and articulate assembly. Rallies were held in KKK-friendly areas; propaganda material was becoming an effective weapon for their cause. Acceptance of the Klan’s ideology seeped into political office; Stephenson was a prominent Indiana politician.

To help continue that indoctrination, the Klan made plans for a parade in South Bend to be held on May 17, 1924. That it would be in close proximity to the Notre Dame campus was no mistake: At the time, 75 percent of the school's nearly 2000 students were Catholic, a religion the Klan found abhorrent. By pledging allegiance to the Vatican, their reasoning went, Catholics were acknowledging a foreign power. In the fall of 1923, they had persisted in setting crosses on fire near the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, a predominantly Catholic college, and were frequently chased off by angered football players. That December, the Klan set off firebombs in Dayton during Christmas break. While no one was seriously injured, the intent was to send a message—one they wanted to spread to Indiana.

In the weeks and months leading up to the parade, both students and faculty began to get a taste of that perspective. Copies of the Fiery Cross, the official Klan newspaper, circulated on campus; one Klansman showed up at an auditorium to broadcast that Catholics were not good Americans. He exited the stage when attendees began throwing potatoes at him.

If that public response was foreshadowing, the Klan either ignored or failed to heed the warning. Members began arriving the Friday evening prior to the rally and were met at the train station by irritated students, who scuffled with the early arrivals by ripping their robes. By Saturday morning, when more Klansmen arrived, hundreds of students were in town, a loosely organized anti-Klan task force.

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Klan members were used to breezing into towns without incident. Here, they were immediately confronted by young, ornery college kids proud of their Catholicism. Klansmen were led into alleys and tossed into walls; students who played for the school’s legendary football squad formed wedges, the offensive line-ups found on the field, and plowed into groups of Klan members like they were challenging for a state title.

The violence, swift and sudden, prompted the Klan to retreat to their headquarters in South Bend. The students followed, their blood pumping hot at the sight of the red cross lit in the office window. Below it stood a grocery store with barrels of fresh potatoes. The students lobbed them at the glass, smashing the bulbs inside.

The conflict had been uninterrupted by law enforcement, but not for lack of trying. Deputy Sheriff John Cully, himself a Klansman, tried to enlist the National Guard but was shot down by officials. Notre Dame president Matthew Walsh had already implored students not to go into town, but his words went unheeded.

Unencumbered by authority, the 100 or so students idling near the Klan’s office decided they wanted to seize the hideout. Dozens began running up the stairs but were greeted by a Klan member who produced a gun. Unarmed, the students backed off. Four seniors went back and came to an impromptu truce: The student body would disperse if the Klan agreed to hold their rally without weapons or their robes.

The agreement seemed to placate both sides until Stephenson finally arrived in town before the parade’s scheduled 6:30 p.m. start. Assessing the roughed-up Klansmen and their skittish behavior, he complained to the police, who posted officers on horseback around their assembly at Island Park.

But there would be no rally: A heavy downpour prompted Stephenson to call it off, although the potential for further violence likely weighed on his mind. Lingering students who still hadn’t returned to campus met departing Klansmen as they attempted to drive out of town, smashing windows and even tipping over one car.

By Sunday, things seemed to have settled down. Walsh cringed at newspaper reports of the incidents, fearing it would portray the students as thugs.

Unfortunately, neither side was done protesting. And when they met a second time, the robed men would be backed up by lawman Cully and a squad of 30 deputized Klansmen.

Denver News - The Library of Congress (American Memory Collection), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Students back on campus Monday had taken to hanging up seized Klan robes and hoods on their walls like trophies. It had been a rout, with the Klan barely putting up a fight.

Now, word was spreading through the halls that the Klan had captured or perhaps had even killed a Notre Dame student. Roughly 500 students jogged the two miles back into South Bend, eager for another confrontation.

When they arrived at the Klan’s headquarters, the light bulb cross had been rebuilt. It was an act of defiance, and the students moved forward. But the Klan was prepared: Many had been deputized, and uniformed officers joined the melee. Axe handles and bottles were brandished, and blood began to stain the street. It was a clash, with parties on both sides laid out.

When he got word of the conflict, Walsh rushed to the site and climbed on top of a cannon that was part of a monument. Shouting to be heard, he implored students to return to campus. His voice cut through the sounds of breaking glass, snapping the students out of their reverie. They returned to the school.

Absent any opposition, the Klan did the same. Stragglers from out of town returned home. With bombastic prose, writers for the Fiery Cross later recapped the event by accusing Notre Dame students of “beating women and children.” Later that summer, they declared they’d be returning to South Bend in greater number.

It never happened. Although the Klan maintained an aura of strength for several more years, the conviction of Stephenson for raping and murdering a woman in November 1925 extinguished one of their most enthusiastic leaders; the Depression dampened the ability of new recruits to pay dues. By 1930, the Klan was down to an estimated 45,000 members.

While Walsh never condoned the vigilante justice exacted that weekend, he never disciplined a single student for it.

Additional Sources:
Notre Dame vs. the Klan, by Todd Tucker (Loyola Press, 2004)
"Hearing the Silence: The University of Dayton, the Ku Klux Klan, and Catholic Universities and Colleges in the 1920s" [PDF], by William Vance Trollinger

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