Introducing the Helder Tenor

Inspired by German recorder models from the 1930s[1] and especially by the intense research on these instruments by Nik Tarasov[2], Dutch recorder maker Maarten Helder developed a new Tenor recorder in the early 1990s. This instrument got into the focus of keen recorder players right away, was even praised as “first true revolution since Hotteterre”[3] by Dutch recorder virtuoso Walter van Hauwe and is now known as the “Helder Tenor”. Like a few other musicians and makers, Maarten felt too restricted with the recorders built in these days, especially when it came to dynamics, expression and range. Copies of mainly 18th century recorders had to be (and still have to be) tuned in 440 Hz and higher in order to be combinable with modern instruments. This implied compromises for the whole instrument and its disadvantages, like e.g. too soft low register and too unstable third octave, even increased. Maarten asked himself if there could be a possibility to make an instrument with a well-balanced, strong sound through three entire octaves, still being able to use baroque fingerings through the first two octaves.

During his research of the instruments from the 1930s, Maarten realized that next to their strong sound they include an interesting feature, which is anyway the principle of every modern woodwind making: the two bottom notes could be overblown into pure tuned harmonics. After a few years of physical calculations and empirically experiments, Maarten developed the first prototype of the Helder Tenor, which he presented for example at the “Hochschule für Musik und Tanz Köln” in December 1993[4]. In 1995 he sold his first Tenor recorder and first pieces were especially written for it and premiered by recorder players, like Johannes Fischer and Walter van Hauwe[5]. The production of the Helder Tenor was quite expensive, so it was clear that Maarten had to find a collaborator soon. In spring 1996 recorder firm Mollenhauer took over the production of the Helder Tenor and was able to develop the instrument further, especially regarding its voicing and key mechanism. Maarten was supervising the production until 1999 and helped to develop an alto recorder version.

Articles have been written about the Helder instruments and professional recorder players have been playing on them ever since. However, one is waiting for the big break through. Now, that I get to know the instrument much better through my studies with Johannes Fischer and also through my own research, I wonder why – and on the other hand also understand why. It is one thing to play on this instrument, but a totally different thing to handle its full potential. So, what exactly is different and what exactly do I need to change?

Technically speaking a lot of things have changed in comparison to a 18th century recorder: bore, length, weight, key work, embouchure and not to forget the additional piano key – pretty much anything you can think of. A challenge, indeed, but also a chance towards an extended performance practice for advanced players. Let’s have a closer look at its special features:

  • Strong sounding first octave like we already know from renaissance recorders. The key system enables additional forte fingerings (for: d#1, f1, f#1, g1, a1, a#1, b), which are very rich in overtones.
  • While overblowing the two bottom notes, the first five harmonics are tuned pure. These harmonics can be used as alternative fingerings and therefore be played quite softly.
  • Second and third register are extended and chromatically well balanced except the top notes, which have to be slurred: b1-b2 (2nd register) and f#2- c#3 (3rd register)
  • In the first two octaves standard baroque fingerings work as well as piano fingerings and any other alternations you can think of.
  • The third octave is played completely without closing the bottom hole – but of course you can still use fingerings with closed bottom hole (some of them work even better and are better in tune then. This is also the reason why Johannes Fischer did ask for a stopped foot joint with an extra bottom key at the side). Since many of the fingerings are based on harmonics and work with “shadowed” fingerings, many of these notes can be played softly.
  • Through the piano key (used with left index finger) one can play softly with standard fingerings (without changing the pitch, but still keeping the sound quality of the standard fingering) as well as make a smooth crescendo and decrescendo, depending on the note and register you play. I am already using an extended version of this key, which is able to gradually open and close.
  • Through the Sound Unit one can
  1. adjust the size of the wind channel in order to react on temperature and humidity, but also to change the general sound quality (from noisy to very airy)
  2. adjust the height of the wind channel exit (it appears to be not as useful as its inventors were hoping for)
  3. decide the material of the windway roof (expandable)
  4. close and open the entrance of the wind channel while playing (one needs to learn a different embouchure)

Quite some nice features, but as I mentioned before, also quite challenging. Most of the features demand very virtuoso and extended finger techniques as well as new positions for the tongue articulation and different embouchure using the lip control. Hard work, but when everything works, also lots of fun!

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[1] Thalheimer, Peter: Die Blockflöte in Deutschland 1920–1945. Instrumentenbau und Aspekte zur Spielpraxis; Tutzing 2010 (Tübinger Beiträge zur Musikwissenschaft, Band 32)

[2] Tarasov, Nikolaj: Harmonische Blockflöten. Die Geschichte einer neuen Blockflöten-Generation; in: Windkanal 2/2004, S. 14–21

[3] van Hauwe, Walter: recorder versus blockflute; in: Windkanal 2/1997, S. 6-7

[4] Schubert, Nadja: Helder-Blockflöten. Harmonische Blockflöten als neue Generation in der Blockflötenfamilie; in: Windkanal 2/2002, S. 22–24

[5] Helder, Maarten: Die rein überblasende Blockflöte; in: 4. Internationales Blockflöten-Symposium Kassel 6.–9. Juni 1996, ERTA-Kongress, Vorträge und Dokumentation; Karlsruhe 1996, S. 39–44

 

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31 Comments

  1. I purchased my first modern recorder in 1998 and it was Modern Alto by Mollenhauer. It was and stil is one of the best ones out there. The same with the Helder…. The main problem is standarization.. I believe todays’s manufacturers should be obliged to achieve certain range for instance, which would make writing new music possible. Otherwise everybody is writing for a different instrument an the pieces can’t be played by the other musicians having slightly different models. Now I’m very hungry for Helder, high price is just blocking it a bit ATM 🙂
    BTW, have you heard about Souffleur? And the cut mouthpiece concept?

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    1. Indeed, it is very important that, once a piece is written for the recorder, more recorder players are able to perform this piece as well. Only like this will our music spread around the world and people will know about it. Of course, there can be exceptions and sometimes it is very intriguing to write something for one special instrument – but in general there should be a standardisation, absolutely. Especially when it comes to fingerings and their plenty alternations! Why should everybody start again from scratch, while somebody from before already did the hard work?
      I know the Souffleur from Geri Bollinger. It is beautiful and fits very well to Jazz, Folk and popular music. The short mouthpiece makes the embouchure a lot easier to handle.

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  2. Disclosure: I’m a pretty unsuccessful beginner player so my opinion might not be that relevant. The biggest problem that I had with Helder tenor was its weight and hole spacing. My right thumb was in pain most of the time. The solution I found was this contraption http://www.freewing.fi/en/. It moves the weight of the instrument from the thumb to the palm and is very adjustable.

    Another thing is the accessibility of the lever section on the footjoint. C# lever is pretty hard to reach, let alone navigate between all three despite all the rollers. All in all the concert flute is miles ahead in terms of ergonomics.

    Reading about your intent of improving this recorder, I had some question/idea. There are double holes on a baroque recorder, why couldn’t they make double hole for every hole that is involved in a half closed fingering pattern? Possibly they could drill those double holes in different directions to help with intonation.

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    1. Thank you very much for the link to the freewing handrest! I know the problem with the right thumb and never play the Helder Tenor without neck holder. I am using this kind of holder: http://www.blaeserstudio24.de/shop/produkt/bg-france/bg-c23lp-tragegurt-fuer-klarinette/; although I have changed the material around the neck. It is also made out of leather.
      We will definitely work on the ergonomics of the keys in general. I know that it is quite hard to change from one key to the other and this should be absolutely improved! The option with double holes for every chromatic step is absolutley impossible. The holes have to be in a certain relation to each other, otherwise the sound will be very much compromised and you couldn’t play any strong notes anymore. The sound would be very week. this happens already on a not keyed alto recorder with f# and g# – absolutley the weekest notes on the instrument.
      I will keep you posted about further developments 🙂

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  3. Thank you for your writing about the Helder. I also play one, and absolutely love it.
    It’s true that it is heavy and large – I definitely have had to work up to being able to get through long playing sessions and technical pieces with it. At this point I feel that it isn’t a problem for me, but I do think that the ergonomics are probably something of an impediment to its wider acceptance as a solo instrument.

    Susanne, I am curious about your playing position with a neck strap. I have never been able to get comfortable with a neck strap on a tenor because it makes me hold the recorder at a more vertical angle than I prefer, I feel like I can’t move naturally as well, and it’s in the way of my left thumb. Occasionally if I have to play the Helder for a really long time at a stretch, I use a neck strap attached at the bottom of the head joint instead of at the thumb rest, and that sort of works, but I really don’t like it and I don’t use it unless I’ve been playing it for six or seven hours in the same day and I’m getting desperate. 🙂

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    1. Dear Emily,
      thank you very much for your thoughts. To be honest, I have no idea how you can play the Helder Tenor without a neck strap. I absolutely know the feeling of not being able to move naturally while wearing a neck strap, but there is a very simple solution to it! I would recommend you a flexible neck strap, e.g. BG c23. Johannes Fischer recommended it to me and since then I can play the Helder Tenor with a neck strap in any position I want to! I have actually combined two different straps, since I wanted to have more stability on the neck. So I combined the one of BG c23 with one from a shop, called “Die Holzbläser“. Very comfortable!

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      1. I’m intrigued by that Freewing thing – Oleg, which size do you use? The clarinet one or the oboe one? It’s hard to tell from the website what the differences are.
        I don’t know if I would like it or not, but I’d like to try it. If nothing else, I think it would be worth buying one even just to be able to advise other players.
        One thing that I have found helps students use neck straps more comfortably with tenors is to put the right arm through the strap as well as the head – that changes the angle of the strap so it isn’t as much in the way of the left thumb. But I still don’t like playing the Helder with a strap… I found it easier to just work up to being able to hold it with my thumb than to learn to use a strap comfortably.

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      2. Dear Emily,
        you should also absolutely try out the flexible strap. It makes a huge difference and I feel very comfortable with it. The thumb holder for oboe or clarinet I will try out myself in addition, since the position of the right thumb is anyway not the best, or better say, the angle of the right thumb to the rest of the fingers of the right hand is too small. Johannes Fischer is e.g. using an extra cork.

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      3. Mine is the “Pro” model for clarinet. Here is a couple of pictures I took back then.

        https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B9GTE43y93clQ3VfQm9XbzQwa0U

        https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B9GTE43y93clQ0hDLVdma3ZzVnc

        I suggest contacting them directly before ordering, that’s what I did and they told me that they made some small modifications. I must warn about just one thing, it took them weeks to respond to my initial inquiry but other than that they were diligent and helpful.

        If you want to avoid scratches on the instrument I suggest putting a rubber band underneath the metal one.

        When disassembled everything goes back into the case without a problem.

        https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B9GTE43y93clUEJJV2hLMXBlZVU

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  4. Hi Susanne,
    Do you know whether a conventional block/headjoint has ever been tried on Helder?
    The other day I replaced the headjoint with the one from my plastic tenor and although it went out of tune I liked the changes in the sound from lowest B to F’. Some notes turned to the worse but the fact that it wasn’t a complete flop is already encouraging.
    Not to mention that it’s more convenient to play with a narrow beak.

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  5. Dear Oleg,

    the first Helder Tenor recorders looked indeed different and instead of the Sound Unit there was only an adjustable block, like the ones for the Strathmann Soprano and Alto recorders.
    In this recording I am e.g. using the lip-control quite a lot:

    We have quite a view great modern recorders without Sound Unit. Changing the Helder Tenor to one of them would be a big pitty, because this would mean that we loose variety.

    Hope this helps.
    All the best
    …Susanne

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  6. i have been looking around for a modern recorder . So far i have found 3 that are widely available. They are the
    Modern alto recorder
    Helder recorder
    Eagle recorder.

    Can you please comment on the advantages/disadvantages of these designs compared to the std alto baroque recorder and compared to each other if you have experience with these other designs.

    I would love to buy them all but alas my funds are limited and 1 would like to know your opinions so i can make an informed choice among them.

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    1. Dear Ashrel,
      this is of course a very good question and I can try to make it clear to you and tell you more about the background of the instruments.

      – The Eagle Alto is one of the latest developments and its main goal is, to still have the sound of an early music recorder (Renaissance or Baroque), but with a much bigger volume. This really works beautifully and I just love this instrument! However, in terms of range it is not really an improvement, since it still has the range of “only” approx. 2 1/2 octaves and the 3rd octave is, like it is with baroque recorders, quite harsh. The higher you play, the harder you have to blow and the louder the sound gets. Although it is a harmonic recorder and this means that you can use fingerings like for the so-called Ganassi recorders in the 3rd octave, the 3rd octave is still quite harsh because of the wide bore. On the one hand this gives a lot of volume and quite some dynamic possibilities in the first two octaves – also because the big finger holes. On the other hand, you are not so flexible in the 3rd octave because of the air preassure you have to use. You also have to keep in mind that you have to use a register key (used by the left index finger) in order to get into the 3rd octave and of course you need more air in general. There is actually a “light” version on the market right now, produced by Adriana Breukink and Jo Kunath. You can check out more here: http://www.eagle-recorder.com/page.php?pag=alt-light&lang=en

      – The modern alto recorders by Mollenhauer were inspired by recorders from the 1930s built in Germany. They are kind of based on the principle of pure harmonics and have a great, wide and a kind of modern sound. Many recorder players do actually have problems with this rich and colourful sound, since it is quite far away from what we are used to hear from a baroque recorder. But as soon as you combine this modern recorder with other modern instruments, it is a fantastic mix. The big advantage here is the quality and flexibility of the 3rd octave. This makes it even possible to perform repertoire from the 19th century. You will need to learn new fingerings in the 3rd octave, but once you are used to it, it is quite some satisfaction to finally have a well balanced 3rd octave (and you don’t need to close the bottom hole anymore!). Through the long bore and the extension to e1, you have a well balanced 1st octave as well.

      – The Helder alto is quite comparable to the modern alto, but has a few extra features, like the piano key, which is fantastic to use for dynamic playing, and the Sound Unit. It also has an extra key for g#1, which is great for a chromatically well balanced 1st octave. The Sound Unit allows you to have direct access to the block and you can manipulate, control and vary a lot with the sound here. Although this instrument is called Helder alto – it is not really comparable to the Helder tenor, which has a much bigger varity in sound. The bore is different and gives more volume and power, which the alto is missing a little bit.

      I hope this will help you to make a decision. It is very important for you to know, what kind of repertoire you would like to perform, with which instruments and how flexible the whole instrument should be.
      Good luck and take care!
      …Susanne

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  7. I thought the modern instruments were to play modern music. i was mistaken. mmm eagle is for more volume for baroque music.. i didn’t know that. i wish they had a std design that was not so repertoire specific , i guess it will take some time for makers to standardize a model for modern music use. 😦

    From what i understand from your explanation .. the modern alto seems to be the best to play with modern instruments like the guitar , piano ……am i right about this?

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  8. Dear Ashrel,
    I think you misunderstood – the modern instruments are not only for a specific repertoire. Regarding their possibilities they will be useful for certain repertoire, but for sure also more – depending on the master who is playing of course.

    It is also interesting to know that the modern alto is built with two different voicings. Altough I have to admit, that a baroque voicing doesn’t make too much sense in this case, since the extra features work especially with the modern voicing! This means that the edge of the block is smaller and more steep than the baroque voicing.

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  9. Thanks for the clarification. Btw is the modern alto capable of dynamic changes across the 3 octaves? I see the latest model seems to be capable of 36 notes. The modern alto appears more appealing to me as it seems less complicated ergonomically to operate compared to the Helder.

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  10. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tp8qKPaUfSk you may find this video by an experienced player interesting. Check it out and let me know about your thoughts on it.

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  11. Dear Ashrel,
    I know this video and there have been already several discussions about it on Facebook. The recorder is indeed an instrument, which always adjusted to the sound ideals of its time, so it seems quite logic to perfom today on instruments from today. Reality looks different for many reasons, like e.g. political and economical situation, technical improvements, repertoire, interest of performers, etc.
    I am quite sure that we will perform more and more on modern recorder models; but first we need to explore their features and possibilities and then also the repertoire will grow and new recorders will be developed.

    The flexibility of the 3rd octave on the modern alto is quite good, but of course not comparable to the Helder Alto, since you are missing the piano key and the Sound Unit. In my opinion the tools every modern recorder should have. But for sure it will be still very satisfying for you to play. I recommend Grenadill wood!

    All the best
    …Susanne

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  12. I hope they can come up with a std modern recorder soon. As most recorder repertoire is for the alto , i find it quite surprising that the helder alto is not as developed as the helder tenor. Btw is the sound unit adjustable during play ?

    Just a thought (A bit crazy)
    Perhaps they should be looking at the saxophone for inspiration instead of the flute since it too has a fixed mouthpiece. 🙂

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    1. Dear Ashrel,
      the Sound Unit can be adjusted also while playing, but then only with a limited range, since the right hand has to turn the screw then. Using the Lip-control (meaning: pressing the block up with the lips) is a techqniue quite similar to Saxophone playing.
      Best wishes…

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  13. Thanks Susanne . Hope to see you play on youtube more.
    I have been playing on std baroque models , hopefully later transitioning to these
    modern makes wont feeling like starting all over ,

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  14. Sorry to bother , i would like to inquire how difficult it is to transition from a regular tenor/alto recorder to the helder.? Does practicing on a regular tenor/alto help much with playing the helder/alto tenor?

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    1. Dear Ashrel,
      switching from one model to the other instrument is of course a matter of practice and comparable e.g. with violin players who change to a baroque violin, oboists who change to baroque oboe, modern flutists who change to a baroque transvers flute or to one of the many flutes with different keys from the 19th century. You will always feel the change, but the more you practice, you will also get used to it. You just have to remember what exactly needs to be changed!

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  15. I have a Helder tenor which produces notes in the third octave very well when I slur up to them but It is almost impossible to get a clean top C from scratch with standard fingering. Any suggestions please?

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    1. Dear Pam,
      yes, indeed the c3 stays a kind of difficult note, but there are nice solutions 🙂
      Try to add finger 6 and the e flat key – very stable and good combination. So this means you finger: 0 (slightly open) 1 4567a
      You can also put the c3 into the fourth register, then you can play it softer: 0 piano key 1 2 3(slightly open) 8 (= b key) 4 5 (slightly open) 6 7b (= c key)

      Hope this helps 🙂

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  16. Hi Susanne again, considering that much of recorder music are written for the alto recorder , is it difficult to adapt the materials and music for a tenor/helder tenor ? also perhaps modernization requires the fingerings to change alot 😦 like the boem metal flute vs the baroque wood flute?
    What are your thoughts on these 2 issues?

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    1. Dear Ashrel,
      could you please be more specific about the repertoire? Style, Early, Contemporary?
      Regarding fingerings: third octave definitely changes and this even within the different contemporary recorder models – unfortunately. Of course, it could be worth looking into a standard modern recorder model and have different models next to this to vary. This is kind of the case with Helder and Modern recorder Alto by Mollenhauer. But e.g. the Eagle Alto is a lot different.
      Best wishes…

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  17. Baroque recorder repertoire to be more specific 🙂

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    1. Well, the Helder Tenor was developed to bring new dimensions into modern recorder performance. So, it depends how strict you are with historic performance practice. I am searching for a modern performance practice and extended techniques, so I am now focusing on contemporary music.
      But you could certainly look into early music, especially of the 19th century.

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  18. On second thought it could be good if they try to simplify the fingering system. Something akin to the tin whistle fingering (similar fingering for both octaves –second octave activated by overblowing) or saxophone (similar fingering for both octaves — second octave activated by an octave key)… this would allow faster and fluid playing.

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    1. The Helder Tenor works already like this, since you can play an extended 2nd register till B’. From the 3rd register on and then especially from the 3rd octave on, fingerings will be crucially different. But this is also the case with other wind instruments! But I agree that modern recorders should try to have similar fingerings in the 3rd octave. Otherwise life gets too complicated and performers don’t dare to combine several modern recorders in one programme.

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