March 2020: Colin Touchin

Colin Touchin

Recorder Orchestras in Taiwan

Colin Touchin HeadshotMy first visit to Taiwan was at the invitation of Yung-tai Liu – he asked me to conduct a combined Three Teachers’ Orchestra on a four-day course culminating in a concert in a programme including Steve Marshall’s First Symphony, my own Sinfonia Aquilonia and other works. At one separate rehearsal in a school classroom I saw several bass recorders in their cases behind a blackboard, where they had already gathered a fair bit of dust – I asked why they were so dusty and the response floored me : “Because we have too many!” Nowhere else had I ever experienced the situation of having too many bass recorders!

Yung-tai had established the Taipei Youth Recorder Orchestra – TYRO – and they have developed fluency individually and as an ensemble with an ability to phrase musically and sympathetically in Romantic music as well as equal versatility in other periods and styles. The other teachers, Eric and Ken, have more mature players in their ensembles with slightly less virtuosic skills but similar enthusiasm for repertoire and adventure.

My subsequent visits to Taiwan over the following decade enabled me to lead days of workshops for conductors, teachers and ensembles – certainly these included the first-ever, so far as we know, Masterclasses for Recorder Orchestra Conductors, in which each regular ensemble played for a 90-minute session, 4 groups with their conductors per day. Music included the Rossini Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers and one of Soeren Sieg’s earlier pieces for smaller ensemble but played en masse.

The playing level was, from the outset, a welcome surprise – some skillful dexterity and neat articulation coupled with a high awareness of intonation issues and some solutions. Most players use only plastic instruments, and blow with reasonable consistency and firm tone, although dynamic variation is less developed.

Another significant figure in the Taiwan scene is Meng-Heng Chen with her groups from  Hsinchu – she now invites many leading players and teachers from Europe to courses/workshops and concerts in a well-devised rolling programme of activities which help players achieve high ratings in international solo competitions as well as winning prizes for ensemble playing.

She also teaches student teachers who are now taking up teaching positions in schools throughout Taiwan, so that the development of the instrument, the recorder orchestra principle, and the repertoire is being actively promoted at a high level by people who really know what they are doing.

How did this all come about? I was told on my first trip that some, now, 30 years ago, the Taiwanese government decreed that all students at primary school must play the recorder, and they not only provided instruments, but also ensured the first teachers were trained to deliver the programme. Add to this the introduction, very near the beginning, of 4-part music including the necessity for students, even as young as 6, to play alto, tenor and bass as well as starting on the soprano. There is no limitation from hand-size or learning both F and C fingerings – although some young hands inevitably cannot yet stretch (they are not forced to do what nature hasn’t yet enabled them to do comfortably). At the same time, brains and hands are encouraged to develop perhaps more rapidly because they are exposed to the opportunities to play these bigger instruments.

On YouTube now one can see and hear these Taiwanese ensembles playing with skill, enjoyment, even magic – apart from the policies mentioned above, all of this has only been possible through the dedication, determination and skillful educational processes of the outstanding teachers. The rest of the world certainly admires what these Taiwanese musicians have achieved and aims to emulate them – sharing what we love in music and recorder-playing makes us all wiser, more sensitive and more adventurous in our musical endeavours.

Colin Touchin conducting his Manchester Welcome with the Three Teachers’ Orchestra:

Meng-heng Chen conducting Steve Marshall:

Other Impressive SE Asian Youth Recorder Orchestras:

(Colin Touchin is the founder of the National Youth Recorder Orchestras in the UK in 2002; with his teacher Dennis Bamforth and Paul Clark he conducted the first UK Recorder Orchestra at the Northern Recorder Course in 1973; he conducted the first weekly Recorder Orchestra at Stockport Recorder College from 1974 to 1980; he organised and conducted the first Recorder Orchestra Recordings from 1979 to 1985; he is also the founder of Spires Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra in Coventry and the Warwick Orchestral Winds; he served as Director of Music at the University of Warwick from 1989 to 2003, and was Chairman of the British Association of Symphonic Bands and Wind Ensembles, and Vice-Chairman of the British and International Federation of Festivals. Now based in Hong Kong and Europe he is the Chief Conductor of the Lufthansa Orchestra in Frankfurt, the Hong Kong Welsh Male Voice Choir, a regular presenter on chamber/choral/wind band music on RTHK, and an adjudicator of over 44 years’ experience.)