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I Got a Recorder for My Birthday

 

For my birthday, Mom bought me a recorder: the same instrument everyone learns to play in elementary school. Mom has a brown plastic one, like the one I had in fourth grade music class, and she uses it occasionally to soothe Cricket’s savage breast, but she wanted me to have a better one, with more resonance, so mine is a blond wood.

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Ellie likes the recorder.

I was kind of hoping for a new iPhone, or a new President, for my birthday. This present, instead, required me to work.

I hadn’t played recorder, or any other wind instrument, since fourth grade. I used to play the Melodica at my grandparents’ house (a tiny version of the wind keyboard Jon Batiste plays on the Late Show with Steven Colbert) but that was even longer ago.

So, along with my ukulele lessons on Yousician, and occasional choir practices, and daily breathing exercises, I took on the task of relearning how to play the recorder. My new recorder came with a book to teach me which holes to cover to play which notes, and exercises to practice for each new note. It was a pretty basic book and I assumed I’d get through it quickly; three months later I’ve finally made it through one octave. The breathless feeling I had at the beginning, even half-way through a four measure exercise, shocked me. I skimped on whole notes, pretending they were only half or quarter notes, just to get through a single page. I felt like my lungs were, at best, two tiny desiccated walnuts.

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“You should breathe like me, Mommy.”

I had started doing regular breathing exercises in the fall, after listening to the opera singer in the choir at my synagogue, who stood behind me when we sang for the high holidays. His voice sounded like it was supported by a huge reservoir of oxygen, and mine sounded like I was sucking oxygen through a tiny straw, so I looked up some breathing exercises for singers and started to do a set of them every day. But not much was changing, and I continued to feel like I was suffocating each time I tried to extend the counts on my breathing exercises. That’s when Mom decided to buy me a wind instrument for my birthday, thinking it could help me train myself to breathe better.

When I learned how to play the low C on the recorder, a few weeks ago, I realized that I was finally giving four counts to each whole note, but it didn’t feel like much of a success. It’s possible that I keep moving the goal posts, so that instead of recognizing the progress I’ve made, I’m much more aware of how far behind I still am. That sounds like me.

When the choir got together to rehearse for another performance this winter (Shabbat Shira at our synagogue, to celebrate the crossing of the Sea of Reeds when it comes up in the yearly cycle of Torah readings), I worked very hard to learn all of the songs and find the right places to breathe, but I still couldn’t hold the longer notes as long as I was supposed to (four counts, yes, six counts, no).

At the last rehearsal, our opera singer came in and learned the music by sight and held the notes for what felt like hours at a time. To be fair, he’s been working at this for his whole professional life, so comparing my five to ten minutes every other day with his lifetime of practice is pretty silly, but I do it anyway.

I want to feel the way he sounds – as if I could sing for hours without any friction or effort, as if the sound is just floating on a pillow of air. There’s something so reassuring about hearing that voice behind me, but it also makes me feel like a mouse, with barely a squeak to my name.

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“Sing like me, Mommy!”

The opera singer actually brought his whole company to perform at the synagogue the next day, as a fundraiser to support immigrants at the border. They did an hour of songs in English and Italian and German, from operas and musicals, in solos, duets, and group numbers. They, of course, didn’t need microphones. I had a sneaking suspicion that they all had lungs the size of hot air balloons hidden somewhere nearby, but I couldn’t prove it. (They’re called the New Camerata Opera Company, by the way, and you should look them up if you have a chance.)

I’m not sure if all of my sporadic efforts to improve my breathing are leading anywhere, and I still feel like a ne’er do well, but I’m realizing, more and more, how much I love music. Even when I’m exhausted, and driving to choir rehearsal feels like torture, I still love to sing; even when I struggle to understand how harmony works, or can’t hold the note long enough, I still want to try. And I’m enjoying learning how to play the ukulele, and the recorder; and I like the possibility that I might get up the nerve to write my own songs again someday, and sing them out loud, where people can hear me. But in the meantime, even though it makes me feel lazy and incompetent and silly, I keep practicing. And maybe someday I’ll be proud of myself for that.

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“Don’t bet on it.”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

93 responses »

  1. Rachel–I don’t play any instrument so you are way ahead of the curve with me! I so admire your stick-to-itness. Cricket–you make me laugh, but have a little faith! Rachel–your comments are so funny. I enjoy those as much as I do reading your posts. Keep on–you will be just fine.

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  2. I tried playing a wind instrument one time long long ago. Couldtn’t make barely a sound. God’s joke on me He gave me the ability to play the pianonbut not to sing. I can’t carry a note. When the people sing at church, I just keep my mouth shut.

    Good luck on the recorder.

    Joe

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  3. At college I was in a recorder group, a consort I think we were called, with all the sizes of recorder down to the huge base. I was just on the regular descant. The height of our fame was to play at our tutor’s wedding! Lots of Elizabethan music. Have’t touched a wind instrument since. I was also,in the choir, but not sung since either. I admire your musical activities and how wonderful having your own opera singer at the synagogue. I do love to hear the chaps sing!

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  4. Never give up! Those breathing exercises will pay off. And keep doing what you love ❤️

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  5. I’m not a health professional, however I think the recorder might be of a benefit possibly in a way like some copd sufferers sometimes benefits from playing the harmonica. I think as long as you keep trying to move forward in your quest for better health, your moving in the right direction. 🙂

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  6. Maybe talk to the opera singer? He might have words of wisdom on technique.

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  7. Sounds like a fun instrument.
    Is Ellie a Bichon? Such a cutie

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  8. I actually own an alto recorder and haven’t played in years. Probably couldn’t find a single note anymore.

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  9. I first learned how to play the recorder in grade seven and then when I had my own homeroom and had to teach music every week I taught my students how to play the recorder. I’ve also tried to learn how to play the ukulele and I play periodically with a group that gets together once a month. Presently I’m learning to play the piano that’s been sitting in my house unused since the kids moved out about 20 years ago. Practise and practise some more and you will start to notice the improvement.

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  10. I like the sound of a recorder; I used to enjoy playing it when I was young. Best of luck!

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  11. Your recorder brings back memories of when both my girls learned to play them in middle school as part of their music classes. I even picked one up, and still have it in a cabinet after all these years. I should follow your example and re-learn how to play mine.

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  12. Your recorder makes me laugh. When my children brought theirs home, I bought ear plugs and wine. Only one of them ever got any better. Good luck.

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  13. I applaud your musical adventures. I can play a mean radio, and that’s it.

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  14. Oh, I love every word of this post! It’s funny and wonderful and so relatable!I

    My favorite line: “I was kind of hoping for a new iPhone, or a new President, for my birthday.” 😀

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  15. I really admire your desire to continually better yourself. And your self-deprecating humor.

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  16. You are very patient re-learning the new recorder and help you with the other things like your singing and improve in breathing.

    Very nice for the singers to enliven other lives.

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  17. Enjoy your recorder! It’s an underestimated instrument.

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  18. The recorder seems easy, but to do it well is hard. I have a neighbour who has spent ages perfecting his work on the recorder. Hang in there and practice. It’s really worth doing.

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  19. You should totally feel proud of yourself for practicing your music! I have been thinking about taking up recorder again. I never learned in school, but I bought myself one in college and I used to fool around on it. I think I could play one song that I figured out by ear. By all means continue to pursue music. I have always known that it is magic and can help us in many ways. Also, great line, “I was hoping for a new iPhone or a new president.” From your keyboard to God’s ears!

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  20. My school descant recorder was blond wood and cost my folks 7/6d (about 37 and a half pence in today’s money, though I’d guess around that in pounds now). I was also given a treble recorder for Christmas, but covering the holes to produce the relevant notes was different, though on a bass recorder, they were the same as my descant, just that my fingers weren’t long enough.
    I remember wanting a typewriter for my birthday and was really excited when my gift was the right shape but………….. housed a piano accordion instead. I learned to play it though.

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  21. I never stuck with any instrument I tried at school, (Guitar, Double Bass) so I am impressed by your efforts to do that, however it turns out. I balked at having to try to learn to read music. I just wanted to get on with playing something. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  22. Music always touches my soul. I play piano but don’t practise much. I need to do more.

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  23. I saw a quilt all sandwiched for quilting! Sorry, I know this was about breathing and playing the recorder, but when I see a quilt… I’m just learning to quilt, which means I’m doing the quilter’s equivalent of your breathing exercises. Then I watch quilting tutorials on YouTube and realize how I have to go. I’ll keep plugging along, if you will!

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  24. I play guitar and most people say 8 am pretty good. But I always compare myself to my friend Rick who is a master at the guitar. So I think compared to him I really am not very good. But when I play with him it makes me better, and inspires me to play and practice more and it leads to me getting better (until of course I remember I’ll never be as good as Rick). You may never be an opera singer but keep the bar of comparison high and you will continue to improve. There is a business leader I admire. He is one of the most, if not the most, successful leaders in his industry. Even though he is on the cutting edge leading the way he says he always feels like he is falling behind. We are in good company. Now go practice that breathing, or use, or recorder…. 🙂

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  25. That is so wonderful! I’m sure it takes a lot of effort and time. Music is good for our soul. 💖

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  26. Your mom gave me a loom for my birthday. She encourages “making” 😊

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  27. What fun! I have a bright orange recorder that I torture family with. Learnt to play in primary and after 40 years I am relearning 😆

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  28. This is my favorite post of the whole month so far. You had me in stitches but also nodding my head in recognition of how we all feel sometimes when comparing ourselves to others. Brava!

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  29. I imagine you have already made the connection between the difficulty of taking in deep breaths because of trauma and the difficulty of pushing out long breaths to play the recorder. I think the desire to get better at music, both playing and singing, will gradually allow you to safely take deeper breaths and thus exhale for longer periods. I found a parallel in the gym where I gradually got used to my heart rate accelerating for a good reason, not a fear filled one.

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  30. Music gives the spirit wings.

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  31. That dog is adorable. It’s not even debatable, just a fact.

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  32. but really you should have gotten that new president for your birthday

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  33. If you can breathe at all right now, I am insanely jealous.

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  34. I was kind of hoping for a new iPhone, or a new President, for my birthday. This present, instead, required me to work.

    I love it! Keep working and you will do fine. Keep the dog smiling!!
    Dwight

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  35. I see a woman who is adventurous enough to try all sorts of things! 🙂

    I had to laugh in the middle of your post, though. I read “breathing exercises for singers” as “breathing exercises for sinners!” Don’t want to need those!!

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  36. I wish we got a new President for your birthday, too. Keep trying- baby steps with all things are still steps forward!

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  37. Dear Rachel
    You have such a lovely style of expression.
    I managed to play a mouth-organ once as a child- don’t know the now technical name of it though.
    But the sound was so deafening and alarming to my inner peace, that I hanged up straight before anybody else stopped me.🤣
    Your attitude to learn something and not giving up is too good. Keep it up!

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  38. Your description of breathing properly when you are singing reminds me of when I was in choir. Our director put us through breathing exercises, posture improvement (yoga) poses and other stuff. It was not only helpful , but fun.
    Your dog is adorable.

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  39. Well done on taking it up again I revisited a wind instrument when I bought a Native American flute on last years road trip 😃

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  40. Haha—I remember my recorder days.

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  41. I had to learn the recorder one semester in high school. The problem was I would get cocky during assessment and flub a bunch of notes. Ah well! I like strings better than wind instruments, but I took chorus in middle school and high school because it required no instrument to rent (and be a financial burden for my parents). I think chorus was one hour every week day, but I feel like I made real gains with all the breathing exercises — maybe you could try longer warm up sessions? Hope that doesn’t sound like a lot! Music is wonderful — I wish we offered classes for my high school students.

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  42. Congratulations on the progress you’ve made! You’re doing great. You are so talented in so many different areas. May God bless you in all of them – always.

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  43. Music, in all formd, can bring such joy a positive impact on the body. Enjoy your adventure

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