First Encounters with Music Instruments
2011-07-07 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2014-10-26 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2014-12-22 — Added one paragraph
2016-06-19 — Brushed up for better readability
Table of Contents
I grew up in a village in the countryside, in a family with 5 boys. My parents could not afford to buy much in terms of music instruments. My mother had been playing recorder when she was young. I remember that she had 2 – 3 recorders (alto and soprano). With 5 boys there was very little chance for quiet times to play — and for the instruments to survive! Once we laid our hands on these instruments, we ruined them quickly by biting into the mouthpiece, destroying the labium with screwdrivers or needles, etc. — eeek!
There also was a guitar somewhere — but nobody really played it, other than my mother trying to teach herself.
My first class teacher then tried giving me some recorder lessons. She gave up after a few weeks because I systematically forgot the instrument, or the notes, or both!
I still remember hearing someone play the violin at a private Xmas celebration. This must have been when I was around 5, and I remember it as a strange, almost bewildering experience! In secondary school I had the chance of taking violin lessons. This certainly was not my first choice. My preference would have been the piano, but we didn’t have one, nor could my parents afford to pay for a piano and lessons — so I stayed with the violin. I took lessons for about 8 years, but didn’t get very far: I should have started much earlier! By now, I haven’t played the violin in many, many years; I still have my instrument (also my very first one, 3/4 size). When my wife refers to it, she talks about the “monochord” … 🙁
My violin teacher at secondary school, Emil Häusler, was also giving class singing lessons and general musical education. For singing, the class would be standing around an ancient concert grand. It was an instrument so old and shaky beyond repair that only our teacher was able to play it. His accompaniment to our singing was always improvised, of course. That instrument fascinated me, as much as I felt sympathy for the teacher. It looks as if that sympathy was a mutual one: only a couple years ago he once claimed I was his all-time favorite student. To return to the concert grand: it must have been in one of the violin lessons when I helped my teacher fix / align the dampers on that instrument. It looks like my fix worked for a while.
A couple years later, one of my younger brothers was called out in the middle of a (non-music) lesson at the same school. He immediately got scared, thinking “what the heck have I done this time?!”. It turned out to be the music teacher who needed to have the dampers fixed again, and I had left that school already. As it had worked so well a few years back, the teacher felt that surely my brother must have the same abilities!
When I made it to high school, my parents did in the end buy a used piano — an ancient, heavy monster in very bad shape. It stood in my room — but I never took any lessons (I was 15 then — too late, really … ). So I just played what I could teach myself — which isn’t much.
Then there’s the human instrument, the voice — and of course there was singing at primary and secondary school (see above). At high school in Aarau there was a fairly big choir. I joined the choir in my second year at high school, and I enjoyed the performances of Bach’s Magnificat, Haydn’s Die Schöpfung, and finally (with a choir of almost 250 voices — over 20% of the school’s population!) Händel’s Messiah (in German).
I then went to Zurich to study Chemistry at the University. I stumbled into a little note that someone had placed on a pillar in the entrance of the main building of the ETH (where we also had to take a couple lectures). This leaflet (the Zurich Bach Choir was looking for singers) had a profound effect on my life: I joined the choir for almost 10 years — and I met my first girl friend. Through her I joined an additional, smaller choir. There, I finally met my wife Lea (through her own, small choir). She is a musician with whom I have now been married for almost 30 years.
For a couple years, I also took singing lessons. This certainly was not enough to become an active performer — but it gave me some insight into the human voice and into singing as a soloist.
Lea is teaching recorder and piano lessons a the MSUG, the local music school (and yes, we now do have a real piano). She plays in the recorder ensemble “SONUS” (covering the entire recorder family, as well as the Krummhorn, and the cor de chamois / Gemshorn).
She also has a harpsichord. I used to tune it for a couple years: having played the violin helps tuning other instruments, too! It’s a nice replica of an Italian instrument with a single keyboard and two 8′ stops, made by Bernhard Fleig in Basel. Lea even plays a small bagpipe: a “Hümmelchen”, a little instrument from which one doesn’t get an ear damage!
Since a couple years we also have a virginal. This is convenient, as it allows us to keep the harpsichord in baroque tuning (essentially what Bach prescribed for his Well-Tempered Clavier) while having the virginal in medieval (mean tone temperament) tuning. This saves us from re-tuning instruments.
Our latest addition is a small Steinway grand piano (Model O-180). We inherited that from my parents in-law. It used to be the instrument of Lea’s grand-mother. It’s an old instrument, built 1923 in New York. And it was in fairly bad shape: in 87 years, it had just been tuned. We are now having it re-painted, and its mechanics thoroughly revised / redone. And we have some 2 – 3 months to free up some space in our small house …