I play recorder with a small ensemble. At an early 2019 antique fair here in Kingston, Ontario, I found two beautiful blond maple wooden recorders that had come from an estate sale, both from the great German recorder maker, Moeck: a bass and a tenor. It was a deal for them together: C$250. The tenor quickly became my preferred instrument in that voice. The bass was a straight, direct blow model (with its blow hole in the top), in four parts with three keys at the bottom for the right (lower) hand — for F, F# and G#. The cork joints were cracked and falling apart, but easily mended with thread. It came with a case that had an extra (but empty) coffer for a second top part with a bocal or crook (a bent tube with a mouthpiece to shorten the distance from blowing to finger holes — like a bassoon). But that extra top and its bocal were missing. Lost?
The bass has a lovely tone. But the problem was that without a bocal, the instrument was way too big for me — or I am too small and too old for it. It is 37 inches (94 cm) top to bottom. To simultaneously reach the mouth piece and the lower finger holes I had to tip my head back to blow into the top, so that my bifocals made the music blur, my arthritic hands and wrists had to stretch painfully far, and my right little finger waved in the breeze unable to connect with any of the three lower keys. I ended up continuing to play my Woodi plastic knick (bent) bass, which is actually very good and physically much easier to handle, though it is temperamental on the high notes.
Having determined from internet sleuthing that my new bass was a Maesterstuck (masterpiece) model, I contacted the Moeck company to ask if by any chance they might have an appropriate bocal lying around, or if they knew where I could find one. They kindly replied within two days that they had stopped making that model by 1975, almost half a century ago, and could not help because all spare parts were gone. Moeck also explained that the instrument had been sold either with or without the extra top piece and bocal, always with the same case; so the alternative cap and bocal might not have been lost; it might never have existed. I have heard of other people in the same situation. On the web, I found one for sale in Italy with both parts. It looked like this and was rapidly sold.
My brilliant friend Tom Stevinson is a retired engineer, an inventor, a music lover, and a generous soul. He’s helped me with my melodeon too. He took stock of the problem and surprised me one day with the first of three bocals that he made as an experiment. I decided to post this information on the web in case someone else has the same problem.
The basic premise of Tom’s three bocals is to cover and seal the top piece and create an air chamber above the blow hole. He resorted to plumbing materials beginning with a 2-inch flexible PVC pipe cap with a clamp that can easily be tightened or loosened with a screw driver. He made a threaded hole in the top of the PVC cap and inserted one end of a brass male-female right angle elbow adaptor (alas those have become scarce during the pandemic). He then borrowed a tube bender, threaded one end of a 3/8″ tube and bent it three times: first at a right angle near the cap, then further down with a U, then another right angle. Over the distal end, he slipped a wooden oval mouthpiece that he had carved and sanded by hand. To stabilize the tube, he bent a small plate at right angles, its vertical arm held within the clamp and its horizontal arm supporting a short chunk of rubber tubing nestled under the bocal tube, all held together -bocal tube, rubber and metal brace–with Gorilla glue.
It was amazing! Now I could play and read the music, although I still had trouble reaching those lower keys. Tom wanted to know about problems as they emerged with use. Being cool metal, the bocal filled up with condensation fairly quickly and started bubbling, and the whole device had to be taken off to empty it, an elaborate interruption. Condensation also gathered between the cap and the top of the recorder making it very important that it be removed for mopping and storage after use to protect the wood. Also the bocal rocked with inevitable downward and upward force on the mouthpiece and eventually the rubber brace became unstuck under the tube and the brass elbow worked its way out of the cap. I had to screw it back in and worried about stripping the thread. To solve the rocking I looped a tight cloth-covered elastic around the brace and the tube. It helped hold things together. To reach the lower keys I affixed split popsicle sticks to extend them upward.
Tom devised bocal number two. To better stabilize the copper tube he drilled a hole for the copper bocal tube right through the chunk of rubber tubing so that it could not rock and would stay stuck on its metal plate. He also created a valve in the bottom with a stopcock and thin vinyl IV tubing affixed to a syringe for quicker evacuation of condensed fluid. He calls this the “COVID model,” as it avoids spray and mess. He also made it slightly longer by about an inch to try to address my problem with the keys. Tom had been estimating an appropriate length by examining internet images of various bass recorders with bocals. He reasoned that the longer the length, the easier it would be to reach the lowest keys. The stopcock-syringe set up is great, but the problem with it is that the syringe and IV tubing do get in the way and frequent removal means that they are getting loose. Tom says that there are quick release connectors that could solve that problem. However and alas even with the extra inch, I still had trouble reaching the lower keys.
Tom began thinking about my lower key problem. From his familiarity with guitar, he reasoned that the vertical spread of my fingers along the recorder shaft is less when my arm is hanging down — because with my wrist straight, my hand would naturally be spreading my fingers outward away from and even a bit upwards along the recorder shaft; I could reach them only if my wrist were to be held bent at a very painful angle. Even with the bocals, I had to hold my arms down to reach any finger holes as well as the keys. What if Tom were to make a super long bocal that allowed my hands to be closer to my mouth? Then I could hold my right arm bent at the elbow with no need to twist my wrist. The vertical spread of my fingers might reach the lower keys.
Genius! Bocal number 3 is the luxury model. At 14.5 inches, it might be the longest bass recorder bocal ever made, and it brings my mouth at least a foot lower. It used the same PVC cap, elbow joint, and copper tubing, with the same improved brace. It has a tiny screw as a simple spit valve. It too had a carved wooden mouthpiece, circular rather than oval. The bocal was so long that it needed to be stablized against the shaft of the recorder. To solve that Tom used a plastic quick release buckle such as you find on the straps of bicycle helmets and backpacks: male part on the copper tube; female affixed to the recorder with velcro strips. The bocal is held slightly off parallel with the recorder to simplify holding it on an angle to easily bypass my knees.
It works! My fingers easily and comfortably reach the lower keys and I can remove the popsicle sticks. And it has finally allowed me to get to know and play this lovely recorder. Thank you Tom!!!