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Rochester Chapter ARS History - the First Forty Years - As I Remember Them

by Neil Seely

To my knowledge, recorder activity in Rochester, New York started in the mid 1950's with an evening class at the University of Rochester given by Elizabeth Zuehlke. When she moved to California, the classes were moved to the YWCA and were taught by Helen Benz. She started each class with the idea/goal that the participants at the end of the course would become a consort. The Benz's added a music room to their home in which she held classes and she coached groups almost every night. In June, there would be a concert called a 'Bach an' all'.

I received a Küng pearwood alto recorder for Christmas in 1962. My first effort was to try to learn the chromatic scale from the fingering chart. Buying a beginners' book for alto got me off on the right foot and I made rapid progress after that. Calling the music store where the recorder was purchased put me in touch with Helen Benz. I wasn't a hot shot by any means, but could do vibrato, and that was a big plus in those days! When I joined the group, Helen's new music room was finished and that was where we met. The technique class met first, and then after that the more advanced players had a playing session. I started in the advanced group because I had had 10 years of trumpet and then 10 years of flute. After finishing the advanced course, I was asked to join Helen's consort - The Seven Centuries Consort. This is how I got in on all the inside workings of our local recorder movement.

Membership in The American Recorder Society wasn't required but many people joined. I joined so I could attend the Goddard summer ARS workshop in Vermont. By 1964, some of the ARS members thought we should form an ARS chapter. Helen didn't buy into this idea as it undoubtedly would have an effect on her well-worked-out scheme of doing recorder classes. Indeed, she was a bit put out by the idea. Her attitude was "OK, if you want a chapter, I'll help you get it started, but after that, you are going to take over running it. Don't expect me to do everything for you." Unfortunately, I missed the meeting when it was agreed to become an ARS chapter. However, my attendance record for chapter meetings must be 95% or better since the beginning.

We got the approval from the national ARS headquarters to be a chapter late in the fall of 1964, so our first season was shortened. Helen Benz was the first president, and I was vice president. Since all of Helen's classes were still in place, we had meetings only once a month on Monday evenings and several were educational in content, that is, non-playing. One evening we attended a concert given by the collegium at the Eastman School of Music. Another time, one of our members, John Figueras, who had a radio program featuring baroque music, brought in his hi-fi system and played records for most of the evening, leaving little time for playing.

The size of the chapter was about 30, and all the members belonged to the national ARS. Helen didn't want us to get into the problems of having two classes of membership, local and national. I can remember several members moaning about the $3.50 for national dues, but for the most part it was not a problem.

Our first season was not a smashing success. In fact, it was totally unsatisfying. Our members were not much interested in hearing someone talk or perform but preferred to play. For the next season we took the hint and made changes in our program. Since the first year was reduced in length, I suggested that the officers be allowed to remain in office for the following year to come up with a suitable program. Out with the lectures and in with playing sessions! In June the officers got together for a playing meeting to select music for the chapter. At that time all the recorder music publications could be in one file drawer with space to spare. We tried to pick out good music for a large all-chapter consort for under $10 total. The $10 would buy quite a handful of music in the mid 60's! We asked Susan Seely to be our music director to lead us during the first half of the program. In the second half, we split up into two sections, according to ability, for more playing. There was no formal coaching for these groups, just someone to direct us.

The following year I became president and as the year wore on, I became unhappy with the level of the playing in the chapter. I had gone to the summer workshops at Goddard and Saratoga Springs and had been exposed to how well the recorder could be played. The skill of our members was not too high over all. Some had taken the beginning recorder classes. Others had learned from the Trapp Family book. A few, like me, had wind instrument or other musical training. About halfway through the year I realized that as president, I should to do something about it. Thinking of Harry S. Truman when he said, "The buck stops here," I felt empowered to take the responsibility to make whatever changes were necessary. For the next month or so I had many a noon-hour conversation with Helen Benz hashing over many ideas. The basic change would be to add a technique class to the meetings. The underlying thought was, if members were improving their playing skills, they would enjoy the recorder more and become more enthusiastic members. To do this, we invited Al Fulton to instruct the chapter. As the recorder player of the Ars Antiqua, our semi-professional Rochester equivalent of the New York Pro Musica of that time, Al was the local recorder expert. He was to teach one half of the group in the first hour of the meeting, and the second half in the other hour. Helen and I spent far too long worrying about who would be placed in the 'good section' and who would be put in the second group. I'll never forget how it all worked out. Al came into the room and said, "All you people on this side of the room are in the first group, and the rest of you will be in the second group." It must have worked out just fine as I never heard any complaints. I must have led the members in consorts when they weren't in Al's class, since I have no memory of his teaching. Helen had a class for beginners.

That next summer, Bernard Krainis was giving a course at the Eastman School of Music, and he gave six classes to some of our members. I was painting my house that year and didn't attend. For all the painting I got done, I should have taken the course!

After a year of teaching at chapter meetings, Al decided that was enough and wouldn't return. We were without a recorder teacher. The Eastman School didn't have anybody we could hire. Getting someone from NYC was out of the question. Going back to a big group-playing type of meeting was not appealing. The only thing to do was to do it ourselves.

We needed to become self-sufficient in the teacher department if we were going to have better players in Rochester. Leading the consorts the previous year must have made me think that I could do the advanced class. Helen took the beginners. Jane Meade came to Rochester at about this time and she might have taught another class, and/or possibly Libby Dobbs or Werner Baum taught. Technique was the focus in the first hour, and then we broke up into informal playing groups for the second hour. Also, we changed meeting frequency to twice a month. To have an educational component, we felt that once a month was too seldom and every week was just too much. The beginners would meet every week to help them learn better and faster. The second hour was unstructured. We were meeting in a large church at the time and several people would decide to play something and then go off in search of a place to play. It really was an awful way to run things, but we did it this way for about three years. It is interesting that we never went back to the large playing group. It never even came up as a possibility.

Because there were consorts that met outside of chapter meetings, a concert was held in December and in June so these groups and the classes could play for each other. It also gave us a chance to socialize and have refreshments. Over the years chocolate has become the refreshment of choice.

Our meetings were very playing-oriented and one couldn't very well eat and play afterwards. Smoking was also banned. Second-hand smoke was not thought to be good for deep breathing. Only one or two had to slip outside for a puff between classes. Another concern of mine was the possibility of a smoking-related fire. A church I formerly attended burned early one Saturday morning after a group had used the church on Friday night. The cause was never determined, but I didn't want the chapter to be responsible for a disastrous fire.

At about this time, at a spring concert, I was given an envelope in appreciation of my contribution to the chapter. I was flabbergasted when I opened the envelope and found a check for $100. At the time this was enough to buy the best soprano recorder available! (The members must have liked the changes in our program.)

Our membership had grown to about 50+ at this time (ca. 1970) and the second hour consort playing situation had become critical. After thinking about it, we decided there were enough people who could benefit from a rather large consort of low-level players. This we called 'Beginning Consort.' We also had several players in our group who could lead smaller consorts. The church where we met had a large Sunday school wing, and they let us move our meetings into that area. This was perfect in that we could have four consorts playing at the same time. The first hour had a beginners' class, two intermediate classes, and I had the advanced class of at least a dozen. We worked on Hans-Martin Linde's Neuzeitliche Übungssttücke für die Altblockflöte, 15 Solos of the Baroque edited by Giesbert, and Studies in Recorder Playing by Duschenes in the advanced class. You may wonder why I thought that I was qualified to teach an advanced group. Helen and I were the best players in the group, and she preferred to work with the beginners. I was attending the summer workshops at that time and had been exposed to many of the big names in recorderdom: Krainis, Bixler, Leber, Wollitz, Gruskin, as well as the European style of playing of Frans Brüggen, Hans-Martin Linde and Hans Ulrich Staeps when they came to Saratoga Springs for two summer workshops. I was young and open to new ideas and also brash enough to believe that I could convey this knowledge to others. I found that ideas picked up at a workshop might not have an immediate application for me, but would be useful later when my skill level improved enough to make use of them.

As I gained skill at the recorder, I found that it took five years for me to adapt to the recorder after playing the flute. Or after playing the recorder for five years, I was finding the voice of the recorder and stopped trying to make it sound like a flute. I have since seen (or heard maybe?) the same time span for professionals to adapt to a baroque model of their instruments. I think it takes that long to develop a new sound model in one's ear to work to and then to develop that to the fullest. I gained the most from my classes in that I would never assign any music that I couldn't play well myself. At the advanced level, each student would be expected to play each exercise alone, and I would try to make a hopefully positive and helpful comment about each rendition. After hearing the same exercise a dozen times, that in itself became a real challenge!

The membership continued to grow during the seventies until we reached a peak of 90. The program was established and running smoothly. We were generating enough good players who could be convinced that they could lead a class or consort so that we were able to field a program with classes for all levels of technique and a wide assortment of topics from medieval to contemporary music for the consorts. Rochester is lucky in that it has industries that require high skill and a 'we-can-do' mentality. We do not draw on the people of the Eastman School of Music for leaders. In fact, they invariably schedule their collegium concerts on our meeting nights, so we never get to attend them.

Every now and then a person with a good instrumental background will come into the chapter. They pick up the recorder and they do really well with it. Rarely do they see the recorder as a musical opportunity to follow up on. I have also seen members come up through the chapter and become good players. Then for some reason they decide to pursue another hobby and give up the recorder. Apparently they have reached their recorder goal and never come back. However, when one of these people takes a class to teach and enjoys the experience, he or she will stick with us, for each new class is a new challenge in and of itself.

During the seventies we had to move our meeting location twice. We found a church with five classrooms we could use, and space to keep our file cabinets with music. It was a very nice location with plenty of parking. The rooms had good lighting and suitable folding chairs. We were very happy with the accommodations and tried very hard to keep in the good graces of the church. Originally, the meeting night was Monday. In the early eighties, the church had a request by Common Ground to use the church facilities on Mondays. Since they would be paying a lot more than we were, we were asked to move our meeting to Tuesday evening. This change of night cut our membership from the nineties to the sixties. Then in the next fifteen years, the membership slowly dropped into the high thirties. The enthusiasm did not diminish, however.

In the early nineties, the church decided it had too many organizations using the facilities and turned us all out. We located suitable space nearer the center of Rochester. Our membership began to grow again and this new space became very tight. The climb to the second floor was becoming burdensome to some of our older members, as well. A new search revealed that the former church had a change of heart and we have gratefully returned. We are the largest group to turn out at the grounds clean-up day at the church in the spring.

There have been several slight changes in our meetings over the years. At some point a general meeting was added between the first- and second-peroid classes. This is an opportunity for the whole chapter to meet together for announcements, introduction of new members, and other items of business. A short five-minute mini-concert given by an outside consort, class, or individual(s) has added an interesting highlight to the proceedings. We have also used the music enclosed with the American Recorder for an all- chapter playing session if there is a dearth of volunteers to do a mini-concert. Several years ago, Mary Jones had charge of the mini-concerts and she was able to schedule two groups for each meeting.

Another change we instituted when our numbers started to diminish was a pre-registration form for the next season's classes. To keep from over- or under-ordering music for classes, we asked that members indicate in the spring what first-hour class and second-hour consort they wanted to take in the fall. This gave us a better idea of how the next season would shape up. For the record, our meetings take place on the second and fourth Tuesdays starting in September and ending in mid-May. We take a break in the latter part of December.

Over the years we have had a fifth Tuesday sight-reading meeting where we let any member lead music of his/her choice. Pat Hanley has a very large library of recorder music and became de-facto leader of the group. The group is so successful it meets on first and third Tuesdays when the chapter doesn't meet and has continued to maintain a stable attendance

One of the highlights of our year is the chapter-sponsored workshop featuring name teachers such as: Martha Bixler, Marleen Montgomery, Eric Leber, Ken Wollitz, Valerie Horst, Scott Reiss, Gene Murrow, Shelley Gruskin, Deborah Booth, Wendy Powers, Gwyn Roberts, Tom Zajac and many others whose names escape me at this moment.

In 2004 the chapter decided to have a half-day home-grown workshop featuring our own teachers, Pat Hanley, Liz Seely Jean Cronin, and David Tilley. This was an effort to entice the newer members to experience a workshop by making it free for all members. Music of the dance was featured with selections of pavans, galliards, and bransles. The response was very favorable and it has become a fall feature of our program.

Since 1991 Martha Bixler has been coming to Rochester via Amtrak six times a year to give lessons and consort coaching over a weekend. She also gives a half-day workshop on Saturday morning. In the beginning the costs of the trip were subsidized by an angel, but now it takes four days of non-stop lessons to handle all the students and consorts. People have come from Buffalo and Olean to study with Martha. The effort that Martha has put into this has paid off, resulting in a chapter that can play really well. Many of the guest workshop leaders are amazed by how good we sound.

One of the traditions we have is passing around the jobs of chapter officers. It doesn't prevent a ruling clique necessarily, but it makes it possible for many to show that they have what it takes for leadership. It also keeps the chapter from becoming a pet possession of one member.

Looking back over the years, I recognize that making music with recorders has involved many people in our area. Maeluise Barkin has been a stalwart member and loyal supporter since the very beginning. Through the efforts of many players taking an active part in leading the classes, the organization has grown and become what many say is the best ARS chapter in the country. Of the many who have been leaders, there have been standouts I should mention at this point: Jean Cronin retired from leading bands at a local high school, took up the recorder, became a top notch player, and teacher of our advanced classes. Pat Hanley has led the chapter and has taught classes for over twenty years. David Tilley brings his choral background and leadership skills and is another popular teacher of our classes. Marian Henry has taught many classes over the years. The list goes on and on.

My latest idea for the chapter is a beginning class for wind players of modern instruments. Having come to the recorder from these roots I realize what they need to know to make a rapid and successful transition to the recorder. There must be thousands of former band and orchestral musicians in our area who, after graduating, have lost the opportunity to play in a group.

Having been involved in the Rochester Chapter of the American Recorder Society from day one gives me a good feeling of having contributed to one area of the many musical facets of the Rochester scene. 

February 1998 Revised: September 2005, October 2008