Rescuing the Recorder: Columbus Devotees Champion the Much-Maligned Wind Instrument

Despite its reputation as a throwaway child’s toy, a handful of local musicians have developed an abiding love for this 600-year-old instrument.

Randy Edwards
Vickie Starbuck (right) plays with Daniel Barber during a meet-up of the Underground Recorders at the Indianola Church of Christ in Clintonville.

If you attended an Ohio elementary school over the past five decades, your first encounter with instrumental music may have involved a cheap, plastic wind instrument with simple fingering called a recorder.

It may have been white, or black, or translucent pink, and just the right size for small hands. You may have learned to play “Hot Cross Buns” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and maybe, in December, “Jingle Bells.” When your training was over, you pitched the recorder into the dark recesses of your closet, and your mom tossed it in the trash a decade later (or sooner, if her memories of your recorder riffs were especially painful).

But it turns out not everyone leaves the recorder to gather dust. Some serious musicians have developed an abiding love for this 600-year-old instrument and its clear, melodic sound. They learned to play far more complex music, especially compositions from the Renaissance, when the recorder’s popularity—as an instrument for public performance—reached its peak.

Recorders come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes.

Some, like Vickie Starbuck of Columbus, never experienced the childhood joy of playing the recorder, but discovered the instrument at the same time it gained renewed interest during the ’60s. “My very first love was folk music,” says Starbuck, 72, the founder of the Central Ohio Recorder Players and Friends. “When I was 10 or 12, I was listening to Hootenanny [a TV show in the early ’60s] and the rest of the folk music revival that came even before Bob Dylan or Peter, Paul and Mary.”

The renaissance of traditional folk music piqued new interest in recorders, about the same time the use of the instrument as an early introduction to music grew in popularity among elementary school music teachers. Starbuck, however, waited until the mid-1980s to buy her first recorder and immediately fell in love. It’s an easy instrument for an amateur musician to learn, and although most children play the soprano recorder, other sizes are available that mirror the human voice range—alto, tenor, bass, in addition to soprano—which makes the recorder great for playing in groups.

“The thing about recorder playing, it’s a very social thing,” Starbuck says. “It’s like a choir. Any music that is written for vocals is suitable for the recorder.” This includes folk music, Christmas carols and the earliest Medieval liturgical music.

Barbara Ford plays a bass recorder with the Underground Recorders.

In fact, churches are the most common venues for recorder concerts, says Barbara Ford, founder of Cecily Ensemble, an early music group in Columbus made up of four recorders and one viola da gamba, a stringed instrument popular during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. In other parts of the country, “early music” is growing in popularity beyond the church, but here in Columbus, it remains relatively niche. “I would say that [early music] is of great interest to people who know about it,” Ford says, seeming to choose her words carefully.

The American Recorder Society is working to broaden that appeal nationally. According to its website, there are 150 affiliated chapters scattered throughout North America, populated by musicians who understand, as the ARS website sniffs, that the recorder is not “a mere toy, an educational aid, or a simple musical instrument suitable only for amateurs.”

Starbuck, the local coordinator for the ARS, is likewise trying to get more Central Ohioans interested in these vertical flutes from their childhood. Starbuck directs a small group of recorder players, Underground Recorders, who meet in the basement coffee shop of the Indianola Church in the University District. The group began as physical therapy for cancer survivors but has grown to include other recorder enthusiasts.

Starbuck launched a campaign to get the group into local schools but was shut down by the pandemic after just one visit to an elementary school in Westerville. “We’d like to show kids that the recorder is an honest-to-God instrument you can do a lot with,” she says. “You don’t have to put it down for a flute.”

This story appears in the April 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.