Two years ago, Janet Sullivan walked past a room at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge and heard a new sound from an old instrument.
Because of the once-a-week lessons she took as a 7-year-old, Sullivan was familiar with the recorder — the simple, plastic flute-like instrument many elementary school-age children play.
But in that room, there were recorder enthusiasts playing like she had never heard.
“I walked by in awe,” she said. “I didn’t think recorders could sound good.”
For 35 years the adults of the Baton Rouge Recorder Society have gathered at the Unitarian Church to play an instrument many see as a child’s teaching tool. While many Americans only know the cheap, plastic soprano recorder used in schools, the society members play all sizes of the recorder, from the small soprano to the 4-foot-long and larger bass.
It was a year ago that Sullivan joined the group. She hadn’t read music in almost 30 years after quitting the piano, but she dug out her old plastic soprano recorder her parents had bought her and attended the meetings.
“I didn’t know you could be a grown-up and play the recorder,” Sullivan said, laughing.
On Wednesday nights the group meets in a children’s classroom with red, yellow, blue and green paint adorning the exposed bricks in the wall. Seven to eight members sit in a circle in plastic chairs, playing to sheet music that society President Marvin Bishop sends out by email before the meetings.
Recorders emit a soft, reedy sound. One by itself can barely be heard over a crowd. The louder one is played, the shriller its noise.
At their meetings, the society plays a few Renaissance-age songs with lilting melodies, then switches to American folk songs, “Wildwood Flower” and “Possum Up the Gum Stump,” pausing between to discuss technique and joke.
“It’s fun to play with the group,” Bishop said. “Make us laugh. It’s like we’re friends but we play music, too.”
A diverse group, some of the members are in their 80s, while others, such as Sullivan, are in their 40s. Some are retired, others have young children.
While experts play the recorder at a high level, forming orchestras to focus on the medieval and Baroque tunes for which the instrument was created, Baton Rouge’s recorder society members place an emphasis on camaraderie, not showing off.
“Obviously we are kind of like amateurs,” said Carlos Curiel, who started playing a year and a half ago. “Actually some of these people are very, very good, almost to the professional level. They kind of hold back because they don’t want to make us feel we are not up to their level.”
The instrument evolved from the ancient Greeks, and its popularity peaked in the Renaissance, according to the Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World.
Hamlet, in Shakespeare’s play, said playing a recorder was “as easy as lying.”
Its use all but died out in the 1800s until it was resurrected in 1950s as a cheap, easy way to introduce students to music. Plastic soprano recorders cost $3 to $10.
Bill Behrmann, who started playing more than 40 years ago, would agree with Hamlet. He loved music and played trumpet in high school and at the University of Kansas. But with a family and a busy job in research and development for a petroleum company, he had little time to keep up the trumpet, which he said takes almost daily practice to keep the facial muscles in shape.
“When you’re working and have a family, you can’t do that,” Behrmann said. “The recorder is the most simple instrument. You don’t have to play it every day to have facility in it.”
In the 1970s, Behrmann began playing the instrument on his own, then formed a small group with a few others. He heard on radio station WRKF that the Baton Rouge Recorder Society was forming, and he joined.
“It’s a very enjoyable group,” he said. “You see we have a ball. We even play some music.”
Another longtime member, Hypolite T. Landry, plays a variety of instruments and maintains an array of hobbies since retiring as the East Baton Rouge Parish coroner. He will even play his harmonica during the society meetings when he isn’t playing his 5-foot-tall great bass recorder.
“I’m retired, so it gives me something to do,” he said, smiling. “It keeps me out of the barroom, for one thing.”
Until recently, the society was composed of older members, many of whom had more experience and played, some group members say, Renaissance and Baroque tunes at an intimidating level. The group started recruiting new members such as Sullivan and Curiel in the past two years, getting together for “Recorder 101” meetings each Wednesday, Bishop said.
“We lucked out when these people joined us,” he said. “The group was dying down. We got some really fun people.”
People on the outside don’t always get their new hobby.
“It’s kind of like an unusual thing to do. Play the recorder? But, I don’t know, it’s an easy way to learn music if you want to do it,” said Curiel, who said he loves music, but wasn’t that talented at other instruments.
A laboratory worker by day, Curiel has even created his own recorders from walnut and padauk wood, using a lathe and a specialized drill to shape the instrument’s conical inside.
Involved in the parent-teacher group at her daughter’s school, Sullivan brought the recorder society to the cafeteria one day during lunchtime for a performance. They needed culture and exposure to music, she said, and the society members were more than willing to volunteer.
While she loves to play with the society, at home she likes to practice some of her own songs, reading sheet music to Beatles songs.
“I love it. It’s my favorite thing to do,” Sullivan said. “When I finish my computer stuff at the end of the night, I practice.”