In the mid 1900s, Carl Orff (the German composer famous for his cantata “Carmina Burana”) began developing the recorder as a music education tool. Today, many, many elementary schools continue to use recorders because they are inexpensive and relatively easy to learn.
Unfortunately, over the years recorders have also developed a reputation for being noisy and awful. This reputation is largely undeserved.
As an elementary music teacher, trained musician and a recorder enthusiast, allow me to convince you why you should try teaching your elementary students with this noble yet humble instrument.
Benefits of learning to play the recorder
- The pitches are the same as a child’s vocal range (which encourages their pitch development)
- Recorders are inexpensive (even cheap plastic ones have decent sound if played properly) & portable
- Recorders are easy for children to play (they are easily held by small hands) and the embouchure is very simple
- Recorders are a musical “gateway drug” – the hand positions translate easily to flute and clarinet – Many band instruments require correct breathing, posture, tonguing, embouchure, and hand positioning.
The recorder dates back to Europe in the middle ages and was a popular instrument throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Monteverdi, Bach, Purcell, and other composers wrote beautiful concertos for the recorder. Vivaldi composed Recorder Concerto in C—a far cry from little Bobby’s squawking rendition of “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”
The recorder trap: Recorders don’t have to be noisy and awful!
Here are some tips to help you use recorders effectively:
Play in small groups. Recorders are chamber instruments and not designed to be used in large groups. When too many students play at the same time, they struggle to hear themselves and therefore end up overblowing. Overblowing distorts the pitch and causes squeaking. Instead, have only four or five students play at a time. Even though each student will spend less time playing, they will be able to hear themselves and their technique will improve faster.
The other benefit of this small group technique is that the other students will have the opportunity to work on their ear training while other groups are playing. They will learn to tell the difference between good playing technique and bad, and this will carry over into their own playing. (Use “practice mode” – explained below – to keep students engaged even when it is not their turn to play.)
Take some time to learn basic technique. It’s perfectly ok not to know everything. Watch a few Youtube videos to make sure you are placing your hands properly. Learning alongside your students helps them appreciate the learning process.
Select instruments that are inexpensive, not cheap. When purchasing recorders, make sure that they have three separate sections. Recorders from the dollar store only have two sections and don’t have a foot joint that can be adjusted. This makes it extremely difficult for children to reach all the holes with their little fingers.
Recorders that are made from the cheaper plastic are also more likely to crack, making it impossible to play in tune.
Proper Recorder Technique (Yes It Matters)
If you teach the recorder like a real instrument then students will treat it that way too.
left hand on top (otherwise they will be backwards when transitioning to flute or clarinet or even saxophone)
Newsflash: Recorders Roll!
If you put a recorder down on your desk, it WILL roll. Before your students ever get the instrument in their hand, teach them to make a “nest” for it. Their nest can take many forms – the center of an open book, the top of a soft pencil case, etc.
Teaching students to care for their recorders is an essential skill that translates to any other (more expensive) instrument they may own later in life.
When teaching music using a musical instrument it’s important to remember that students will learn at different rates. Some students do not have great fine motor skills which can interfere with their playing ability, even if they are able to read the notes accurately. That’s why it’s important to have a range of ways to assess student progress that do not rely soley on playing ability.
- lsitening skils
- care for their recorder
- playing skills
Recorders are cool and underrated. And if you still don’t believe me, take a look at this convincing article from the CBC.
Looking for a more guided program?
If you’re not super comfortable teaching music but really want to make sure your students are learning the proper technique, I highly recommend a subscription to Prodigies.com.