The addition of keys on wind instruments is a practice that has a long historical tradition and its variables are almost countless.
My post will deal with just one key: the one that covers the bell hole (BH) of a recorder.
In recorder original repertoire the call for the use of BH closing is scarce but not absent. We have to bear in mind that most of our original (declared) repertoire was meant for amateur players. As it will a painful job to try to historically justify the need for covering the BH let us assume that we want to use our instruments at its fullest capacities and that implies the topping of any hole in order to produce a sound that is otherwise impossible to obtain, i.e the topping of the BH.
Is such key necessary? It is to play those notes that need the BH covered. This might sound a bit obvious but it is not. Many people, including myself, use the leg to top the BH in order to play one of this notes, for example a high F# on an alto recorder. This is an extremely awkward movement and its drawbacks are obvious. Let it suffice to remember how ridiculous the whole thing looks when the adventure fails and we get a wrong and loud shrieking tone (and that Kung fu look if we are playing in a standing position). And obviously there is no way to use the leg when playing a large instrument.
Now I would like to draw the attention to the existence of several new non historical models of recorders designed to make a better performance in 2 main aspects:
Dynamics & Range
Some of these models are: Eagle, Helder, Strathmann, Ehlert by Moeck, Modern by Mollenhauer, etc.
I have tried some of these myself and both dynamics and range can be controlled up to a certain extent. Dynamics are still in the realm of suggestion since the physics of a recorder embouchure is what it is and is not meant for a great flexibility on that area. Dynamics, if you want to have something similar to a saxophone or a violin and not the mere illusion of it, are only possible using amplification (I will discuss this sinful proposal in another post).
The range is the most interesting and tricky area. Most of these modern recorders claim to perform well on the third octave but the high register is full of complicated fingerings – as it is on any given recorder -. Susanne Fröhlich, an enthusiast of the Helder model, writes in her blog (bold italics within quotes are mine):
The third octave is played completely without closing the bottom hole – but of course you can still use fingerings with closed bottom hole (some of them work even better and are better in tune then. This is also the reason why Johannes Fischer did ask for a stopped foot joint with an extra bottom key at the side). Since many of the fingerings are based on harmonics and work with “shadowed” fingerings, many of these notes can be played softly.
This appear to be a further reason to use the HB key (or stopped foot joint). If, as Fröhlich comments, some tones in the third octave work better and are more in tune that is a no-brainer!
What I do not quite understand is Fröhlich’s observation about Helder’s sound unit properties – at the bottom of her post – when she states:
2.Adjust the height of the wind channel exit (not so useful).
I am sure both Helder and Mollenhauer gave a lot of thought when providing the instrument with a feature so distinctive and that will exert a dramatic change in the voicing. Stating that this is not so useful makes the whole post stumble.
On her latest post – Recorder bores and what they tell us – she writes: …we do have a third octave, even though this fact is still ignored by some recorder players today. As an example of this ignored third octave she points at the recorder map, a site that looks interesting at first sight but when you click on the menu General / Registers, it reads:
The minimum range is an octave and a sixth (medieval and early baroque models) and the maximum range is 2 octaves and a fifth (baroque models and modern instruments).
So it seems the team formed up by Ulrike Mayer-Spohn and Keitaro Takahashi have forgotten the existence of the bell hole but at the bottom you spot a little chart branded: covered register / foot-hole covered – with three obtainable tones and an explanatory note in bold type: It is not possible to make a fluent transition between the high registers as these registers do not overlap. Finally the page provides further info at this link: http://www.recordermap.com/contents/general/register_Newin.html
This is a chart of the whole range (?) of possible notes and a series of categorical statements that are completely biased and inaccurate apart from leaving out of range the last note of the Allemande of the Partita by J.S. Bach, that note is simply not possible according to the info provided.
We have some more serious works on recorder range and fingerings. Il flauto dolce ed acerbo by Michael Vetter with hundreds of different fingerings or the charts in Walter van Hauwe’s The Modern recorder player are just two examples (both in the Bibliography by Mayer-Spohn and Takahashi). But if a recorder player wants to discover this intricate fingering world the only way is to defy the Minotaur and enter the labyrinth of each recorder in particular.
But let’s go back to the real world with a practical example on a given instrument. My plastic Yamaha tenor YRT-304B fitted with a custom-made bell key designed by Daniel Bernaza can produce every note from C to c”’, that makes 3 complete chromatic octaves, to this add a very soft B when fingering low C# and the bell key depressed. Eagle fingerings have a range of two octaves and a sixth and Helder 3 octaves and one extra whole tone (this info I am quoting from their official sites). Here our baroque or renaissance recorder fitted with a proper BH key is on almost equal terms with the modern designs but there is something that me must not forget. Eagle, Helder, Ehlert, etc., are all new instruments and we have to learn to play them and they are not the Morgan Alto or the Musch Tenor or the Meyer Soprano you have. The BH key is something you attach to your baroque or renaissance instrument and you just have to learn to forget using your knee and start using your little left finger to depress the key.
These different photographs speak for themselves:
Bolton’s double bell key
All the above bell key systems are attached to the instrument by means of screws or pins. Both Dolmetsch’s and Bolton’s single bell keys are actioned using the lower little finger, an important disadvantage if you have to use it for another note. The key designed by Daniel Bernaza can be fixed and removed without leaving any trace on the instrument. You don’t want your Morgan Voice flute to be screwed in 🙂
Here we can see three different sizes of recorders each one fitted with a HB key using Scotch tape to adhere the two anchoring areas. This is something anyone could do (I actually did it). And, even more important, anyone can undo it.
To customize the key there are some basic measurements to be made and the rest is solved by the maker. This is a nice and well known diagram Daniel Bernaza sent me over to get the right measurements:
A is the distance from your little finger to the bell end.
B is the diameter of the bell external body.
C is the diameter of the bell hole.
This is the latest and more advanced model and it can be dismantled without touching the fixation areas. That is specially handy with larger instruments such as a tenor or a bass in order to disassemble it for transport.
The following are some photos of Bernanza’s latest model bell key fixed on my Yamaha…
The anchoring area is now circular to improve stability.
The removable pin allows to disassemble the key extension mechanism for better transportation. Leaving just the anchoring point and the bell topping mechanism attached.
The key has a “fine tuning” extension that allows for small changes both in the overall length and, most importantly, key angle for a customized finger contact.
I would like to have a more complete sound example to show the key capabilities but just have a little prelude by Bach played with the Yamaha tenor fitted with the key. Hope you enjoy it…