Only Human with Joan Axelrod-Contrada: My recorder and me: Squeaking on ‘Nowhere Man’

  • The Beatles pose for photographers during a press conference in New York on Monday, August 23, 1966. The group wound up thier current U.S. tour with a concert in New York. L-R: Ringo Starr; Paul McCartney; John Lennon; and George Harrison. AP


Published: 7/14/2022 3:34:42 PM
Modified: 7/14/2022 3:31:58 PM

I blew into my musical instrument and out came a squeak that sounded like a mouse being attacked by a cat.

Low C on the recorder has a rich resonance when blown just right. I’d nailed it at times while practicing the scales. But, in playing the song “Nowhere Man” by the Beatles, the low C came right after a much higher and easier-to-play A note. My recorder rebelled every time I transitioned from high to low, producing the squawk heard around the world.

I exhaled my frustration and tried again. This time, I got no sound at all. Dead silence.

Was the problem with my finger work? I blew again, looking down to make sure my fingers covered all the holes. They did. Again, I got nothing. Zilch. Zero. Nada.

Did I need to change the way I was blowing? Low notes required less air, so I tried smaller puffs. But that didn’t fix the problem either.

Playing an instrument was supposed to relieve stress, not add to it! Why was I torturing myself? Maybe I should just quit. Then again, I didn’t want to be a quitter. A war broke out between my two selves.

HIGHER SELF: You need to step out of your comfort zone in order to grow.

LOWER SELF: But you’re not growing at all! You’re as lost as John Lennon’s “Nowhere Man.” You’d be better off just listening to the radio.

HIGHER SELF: Hmmm. Maybe you’re right.

Just when it looked like Lower Self had won, I reminded myself of the void I’d felt for years from loving music but never having had lessons as a kid. Close friends had encouraged me to try the ukulele, but I hated its tinny sound. So I chose the recorder, an instrument so easy to learn, it’s taught to fourth graders.

Most people pick up the recorder to play early music, but I wanted to focus on pop and rock. I explained my dilemma to the American Recorder Society, which put me in touch with a teacher by the name of Greta with superhuman patience.

Greta agreed to meet with me once a month via Zoom and use a Beatles songbook with letter notes for people, like me, who can’t read music. By Lesson No. 3 I was ready for “Nowhere Man,” or so I thought.

I’d always had a soft spot for the song because it focused on something other than the usual topic of romantic love. But after wrecking it with my noise pollution, I couldn’t bear to play it anymore.

When Lesson No. 3 rolled around, I heaped all my frustration on Greta, the saint, telling her I felt like giving up. She assured me that she’d be able to help me with low C. First, she taught me how to clear the recorder of saliva trapped inside. So that’s why I wasn’t getting any sound!

Then she showed me how to blow low notes like I was cleaning my eyeglasses. The open-mouth breath sounded like “Ha!” She also recommended putting my fingers past the holes. By the end of my third lesson, I was sounding better.

During the next few weeks, I expected to make steady progress. Instead, I found myself backsliding. At the outset of Lesson No. 4, I complained to Greta about my lack of progress.

Like a magician, she pulled more tricks out of her hat. She had me adjust the bottom of my recorder so the holes would be easier to cover. She also showed me how to keep my right hand closer to the recorder.

At the end of our fourth lesson, I told her that I struggled every night after dinner to pick up my recorder. Sometimes I didn’t start practicing until 11 p.m. because I got caught up in surfing the internet for rock ‘n’ roll trivia.

“Maybe practicing earlier in the day will help,” Greta suggested.

My Lower Self urged me to give up instead. Brushing aside the voice in my head, I told Greta I’d give her suggestion a try.

What a difference it made!

I’ve been able to piggyback my recorder practice onto the morning exercise habit I’d already established. My worst time-wasting instincts usually didn’t kick in until after dark.

Recently, I discovered that John Lennon wrote “Nowhere Man” after hours of being unable to write anything. Just when he was ready to give up, the song came to him.

I wish I could say that my bout of frustration led to similar genius. Truth is, I still sound like a rank amateur. But I feel like a songbird.

Joan Axelrod-Contrada is a writer who lives in Florence. She writes a monthly column for the Gazette that runs on the second Friday of the month. Reach her at

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