November 2019
Aim High: Sharpen your Soprano Skills
by Anne Timberlake
Ah, the soprano recorder -- scourge of ensembles... childhood torture device… a thing of beauty and a joy forever!

Confession time: I wholeheartedly adore the soprano recorder. I pretended for a long time that the tenor was my favorite size of recorder, but I was lying to myself. My favorite size is the soprano. It is clear, pure, and melodic. It’s exquisitely sensitive. And it is very, very easy to hear.

But as it is with so many of us, the soprano’s strengths are also its weaknesses. Because of its sensitivity, it is easy to play out of tune. And because of its power, every little slip-up is spectacularly audible. Couple that with the fact that many beginning players start on, or only play, soprano, and you can see why the instrument gets a bad rap. 

And that’s sad! Played well, the soprano can be stunning. It just requires extra care - and of course, practice. If you’re looking to increase your comfort on the soprano, here are my top tips:
Consider the alto
Don’t laugh! I know that’s an odd start to a soprano primer, but if you are a beginner looking to join an ensemble, consider learning the alto first, unless there is a particular reason not to. The alto is a slightly more forgiving instrument with greater flexibility of role, and you’ll be able to learn the nitty-gritty of producing a nice sound before you have to soar into the stratosphere. You’ll also be more popular in ensemble.  
Sips of air
Here’s the thing about soprano: the amount of air you should be dealing with is only slightly more than the volume of your resting breath (that’s the air you take in and exhale when you are sitting reading this article). It’s extraordinarily easy to overblow on soprano, and that will not produce a nice sound. So when you inhale, think of taking in (and spending) small sips of air. You never want to take in more air than you need on the recorder, and for the soprano, you often need less than you think.
No fear!  No apologies!
Overblowing is more common than underblowing, but I also hear soprano players who seem to be afraid of, or sorry for, their sound. The soprano recorder is like a three-year-old. You must show it, kindly, that you are in charge. Screaming and yelling at the three-year-old does not work. But neither does hesitation and fear. The three-year-old will listen if you are calm and confident. People WILL hear you if you’re playing soprano, and you shouldn’t apologize for that with your tone.
It almost, but not quite, goes without saying. If you want to get better at playing the soprano recorder, you must practice the soprano recorder. Every recorder is different, and while practice on one may generalize to some extent on another, the only thing that will really work is specifically practicing the thing at which you want to improve . If you only play soprano during ensembles, and never on your own time, you’re missing out on an opportunity to improve your ensemble playing. Time spent practicing soprano with a drone is particularly useful.
Listen hard
Here’s the thing -- soprano recorder players must listen harder, and more tenaciously, than anyone else in the ensemble. Why do I say this? First, the intervallic distance between you and the bass is larger than it is for any other part. In order to play in tune with the bass, you have to cast your ear down through a vast gulf of octaves. That can be tricky, so you definitely need to be paying attention. You’re also super audible on the soprano, so if you’re not listening, it’s immediately apparent. Then there’s issue of melodic temptation -- you often have nice melody parts when you’re playing soprano, so the temptation to listen too much to yourself can be great. Resist! If you’re playing soprano, your ears should be wide open.
Check your hearing
It is a deeply unfortunate truth that our high frequency hearing is usually the first thing to go. If you are aging, and/or you’ve accumulated noise exposure in your lifetime, there is a solid chance that your high frequency hearing is not what it used to be. This can be extremely problematic for playing in tune in the soprano’s range, as you may not be able to hear all the acoustic information you need to accurately adjust your pitch. If you are concerned that your high frequency hearing is compromised, see an audiologist . You can also ask a buddy to check your tuning if you can’t trust your own ears, or periodically check in with a tuner.
See you in the stratosphere!

Anne Timberlake is a professional recorder player and teacher who lives in Saint Louis, MO. She served on the ARS Board from 2014-2018.
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