Flutists make their own Harry Potter magic with recorders

In last weekend’s concerts of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Principal Flute Clay Ellerbroek and Assistant Principal Flute Daphne Soellner performed partly on recorders. And they will again on the just announced second movie, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. They didn’t have to; the parts were optional. So why go to all the trouble? Ellerbroek explains.

By Clay Ellerbroek
TFO Principal Flute

Recorders_large_croppedI must start by saying John Williams is one of my favorite composers! That being said, his music is some of the most challenging to play. There are lots of tricky passages that the audience doesn’t always hear yet add to the magic onscreen and in the concert hall, making the music feel alive. In the Harry Potter movies, I felt some of that magic came from the unique sound of recorders.

To be clear, we didn’t have to play recorders. The parts are labeled “optional” and could have easily been performed on an electronic keyboard. But it was an artistic choice to be true to Williams’ score, and I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge.

Most children have had the pleasure (and their parents, the pain) of playing the soprano recorder in their grade school music programs. You may be surprised to learn that those recorders are remarkably similar to what we used for this film, although the ones we played are more precise, both in their design and what they are made of, but still within a reasonable budget.

My first task was to find acceptable recorders. Wooden recorders were my first choice, but they can get expensive, ranging anywhere from $300 to nearly $4,000 depending on the size. I eventually settled on a four recorder set (sopranino, soprano, alto and tenor) made from a synthetic resin by Yamaha. It was a more economical choice, yet still maintained the projection and warmth of the wooden instruments.

Next came the most daunting task: We had to learn how to play them. I quickly discovered that the only real similarity between the flute and the recorder is in the sound. The fingerings on the recorder are very different from the flute, and certain fingerings require covering only half a hole. How can you tell you’ve covered half the hole when your finger is too big to see it?! Needless to say, it can have disastrous results if not executed perfectly. So basically, we had to learn how to play completely new and unfamiliar instruments in tune and with aplomb in about four weeks.

Fortunately, the recorder cues in the parts for this film were very short and manageable, but they did require a bit of ingenuity. Some of my cues were written too high for me to play accurately on a soprano recorder, so I decided to play them a perfect fourth lower on the sopranino recorder, which is like a “piccolo recorder” pitched in the key of F. This placed the cues in a much more comfortable range to play and actually made the fingerings easier at the same time. I even memorized the passages for added confidence.

I must extend a triple forte thanks to my wonderful colleague Daphne Soellner — as well as soulful apology to all of our neighbors/pets for any suffering we may have caused during our individual practice. Playing the recorders wasn’t easy and certainly took us out of our comfort zones, but I think we managed very well.

Was it worth it? Definitely! The conductor even mentioned that in more than 80 performances with other orchestras, we were the first flute section to play recorders. So, there’s that. And we have more Harry Potter films coming up! So until then, I’ll keep practicing and improving my skills because I think the parts actually get even more involved and demanding. Whew!!

Just announced: The second movie, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, features The Florida Orchestra performing the entire score while the film plays in high definition on a huge screen. Two shows Dec. 28 & 29 at the Straz Center. Tickets are $49-$99 on sale to the general public at 10 a.m. Oct. 20 at strazcenter.org.

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