Paul Schmidt's Music Page:
Historic Instruments



Background  I have always enjoyed the historical aspects of things I am passionate about, and music is no exception. My first 'old' instrument was a $2 Hohner soprano recorder, and it whet my appetite for the early woodwinds. After playing the various recorders, primarily the soprano and tenor, for a few years, I came across mention of the Serpent in a recorder publication. Of course, I had seen serpents in music museums, but the thought of owning one and perhaps playing it captivated me! How hard could it be?...I was already a brass player with a suitable embouchure, and I knew several woodwind fingering systems, so it would be a piece of cake. I contacted the publication and was directed to serpentists in the States, who in turn directed me to Christopher Monk in England. Christopher made authentic reproductions of early French Church serpents, and as such had rescued the instrument from oblivion.

After a few letters back and forth and a wait of about a year, my new Monk serpent arrived. I was devastated! It did not seem to work, did not have enough finger holes, and all I could get were bad sounding out-of-tune notes. After fooling around for about a year with no success, I gave it up as a wall hanging. Then, in the late 1980s I received a letter inviting me to the First International Serpent Festival in South Carolina. I attended and started to get some idea of how the instrument could, in fact, be played musically. I was no good at it, but the seed was sown, and in 1990 I went to England for the 400th Anniversary of the Serpent festivities and week-long Serpent Workshop (see photo by this webpage's title). Most of the world's best serpentists were there and progress was rapid under their tutelage, but I still required more practice.

Soon, I was invited to play in a recorder ensemble, and slowly introduced the serpent in place of the bass recorder. This was a good fit, since the serpent sounds best when played softly, and it complements the recorders well enough, the range of the parts is comfortable, and the music is rapid enough to encourage solid fingering reflexes. Other groups followed, and today I am a decent serpentist.

After a couple of good years with the serpent, I discovered that I could not live without expanding to related instruments such as the ophicleide. A search around the country turned up an example that was in good shape and played well enough to be used with modern instruments as well as old ones. Yet another fingering system to learn, as the ophicleide's system is like nothing else. A weekend's wood shedding with a euphonium method book and a fingering chart impressed the information into my brain, and practice made for better speed and facility.

Eventually, I was asked to take over the editing and publication of The Serpent Newsletter, a publication for enthusiasts of the serpent, ophicleide and related instruments. With this underway, and the Internet appearing as if by magic, the need for a website devoted to these instruments became apparent. Soon, I had The Serpent Website up and running. 

I have always enjoyed making things, and building musical instruments is challenging without being too difficult. I have made and restored several successful instruments of various types, ranging from the simple cornemuse to the mighty pipe organ.

My main historic instrument is the serpent. Due to both his craft and his encouragement, I owe my enjoyment of the instrument to the late Christopher Monk.

At left is part of a painting of Christopher by portrait artist June Mendoza.

At right is one of the world's leading serpentists, Doug Yeo of the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops orchestras. He is holding four serpents by Monk; the largest is "George" the anaconda (contrabass serpent), which was made by Christopher. The next smallest is a normal bass serpent by Keith Rogers of the Monk Workshops. The unhistorical, but whimsical, tenor and soprano "Worm" are by either Monk or his workshop; all four are in Doug Yeo's private collection.

At left I am carrying "George" the anaconda through the London zoo in 1990, as part of a performance there related to the 400th anniversary of the serpent. The instrument was then owned by the late Phil Palmer.

At right I am performing at Northwestern University's Regenstein Hall with my friends Dick George (ophicleide), Gary Gallt (tenor zink / lyzarden), and Keith Ryder (zink / cornett / cornetto). Keith, Gary and I also play early valved brass instruments in the Civil War style quartet "The Mockingbird Band".

At left I am carrying an OTS (Over-the-Shoulder) B-flat Bass Saxhorn, manufactured by the firm of DC Hall in Boston at the start of the Civil War. This instrument was obtained new by the town band of Brodhead, Wisconsin as part of a new matched set of horns when the band enlisted in the Union Army as the 1st Brigade Band. The horn was carried throughout the war, mostly in Georgia and the Carolinas as part of General Sherman's army, and still remains with the re-formed 1st Brigade Band today, where I am lucky to play it in some of the band's performances.

The Saxhorn is a type of conical bored brass instrument designed by Adolphe Sax, of Saxophone fame, with the Saxhorn family consisting of trumpet sized instruments down through tuba sized ones. Sax had the idea of developing a family of brasses with consistent bores profiles and sound characteristics, and as such he was the first to do so. Today, the modern cornet and baritone (NOT the euphonium, but the true baritone) are the only popular members of the Saxhorn family to remain in use. In the Civil War, almost all brass  instruments were of the Saxhorn type. The OTS was a unique American version of the Saxhorn, and was designed so that a band could march in front of the troops, with the bells all pointing backwards so the sound went where it was needed. I am horning the horn 'rifle-style', keeping the long bell out of harm's way, but it would be flipped backwards 90 degrees when ready to play. This  B-flat Bass is a euphonium-sized instrument, but has a lighter sound due to the narrower bore.

Here I am with those historic instruments I play most often and/or have built. There are other similar instruments that I use from time to time, but these are the main ones.

Back row, L-R:
Monk keyless bass church serpent in C, Moeck keyless renaissance tenor recorder, anonymous American 11 key ophicleide in B flat, Schmidt upright wooden (Oak) serpent / bass horn in C "The Squarpent", Schmidt / Barclay natural trumpet in D (after Haans Hainlein 1632), Schmidt wooden (Oak) 9 key ophicleide in B flat "The Box-O-Cleide", Aulos bass baroque recorder in F, Harding keyless bass church serpent in C.

Front row, L-R:
Schmidt / Wood / LEMS tenor crumhorn in C, Moeck renaissance soprano recorder, Schmidt / Wood / LEMS cornamuse in C, Monk keyless tenor church serpent in C.

In Hand:
Schmidt / Wood / LEMS bass rackett in C.

Links Christopher Monk Instruments

Doug Yeo (Boston Symphony Bass Trombonist)

Historic Brass Society

The First Brigade Band

June Mendoza, portrait artist

The Ophicleide Directory

The Serpent Website

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Copyright Paul Schmidt 2002
revised June 2005