Dumbing Down the Recorder: The Issue

“Soprano Recorders — An easy-to-learn first instrument.”

These lines jumped right out at me as I was browsing through the music resources section of an educational catalog not long ago. Disgusted, I closed the catalog and migrated to my room, where my Mollenhauer Morgan Special Edition Denner alto recorder was airing out in its case on my dresser after an hour’s worth of heavy practice. As I fondly stared at my instrument while simultaneously stroking its rich red-brown varnish, I pondered upon my practice session earlier: Critically refining my tone and tonguing, diligently wrestling with the fifth movement of Telemann’s haunting Suite in A Minor …… day after day like this. Indeed, although I had since believed that violin was as tough as it was going to get, I realized that my recorder was getting to the point that its difficulty equaled that I had experienced on violin.

This was only one of the many instances in which I am vexed by the popular notion that the recorder is merely an easy-to-play pre-band instrument, somewhat of a toy not at all intended for serious music-making. I have been confronted both directly and indirectly with this notion, even enduring ridicule from others (including musical colleagues) who have no idea about the instrument’s glorious history and vital place in Renaissance/Baroque performance. No doubt this notion stems from the sometimes musically-undereducated music education community and the routine, tortuous, third-grade “Hot Cross Buns” tooting. I myself did not have to endure this musical experience being homeschooled since second grade; my Suzuki violin lessons (and later classical guitar lessons) were counted for my music credit. However, I was fully aware of the fact that both regularly-schooled children and homeschooled children who did not have private lesson privilege learned to “play” the recorder, and I consequently looked upon it as not a “real” instrument until I heard Michala Petri play The Four Seasons in sixth grade.

Now a serious recorder player due to that initial sixth-grade spark as well as my overall love for Baroque music, I cannot help but realize the sad state of the recorder world is outside of dedicated early music circles and classical music circles in general. $1 multicolored “recorders” — more toys than instruments — gracing the toy aisle shelves of Walmart and Dollar Tree are only the “Tip of the Iceberg” regarding the issue. The “meat” of the issue lies in the fact that many of the popular (and often music educator-endorsed) “recorder methods” on today’s music market are written by people (often music educators) who have no idea on how to properly play the recorder and “dumb down” and/or re-invent its technique. Proper technique (e.g. diaphragmic breathing) is neglected; in general, “recorder technique” does not go beyond the first two pages of the book, and if it is mentioned, it is mentioned to the bare minimum.

The whole dumbing down process can lead to quite tragic and even humorous circumstances. On the more serious side, I have observed that schoolchildren in the pre-band recorder program do not know how to hold their instruments or position their hands. I have seen some incorrectly place their right hands on top rather than the left as in correct recorder technique, while others turn their wrists such that the fingers do not hover over the holes. Not fully closing the lips around the beak is another issue I have observed, as is the annoying overblowing that often irritates me when the neighborhood children race around their backyards using their cheap plastic recorders as glorified whistles.

Reading excerpts from popular classroom recorder methods and their companion websites, I clearly see why it is small wonder that these children have absolutely no idea on how to properly play their instruments. As I stated previously, proper playing technique is only briefly surveyed for a page or two at the start of the books, and — in many cases — with much of the technical advice greatly simplified to the point that it actually conflicts with proper recorder technique. For example, music educator Penny Gardiner, author of the popular Nine-Note Recorder Method, advises on her method’s companion website to tuck the chin down when playing the low D on soprano recorder such that the airstream hits the underside of the instrument. See link below:


While this is a clever solution to the non-recorder-playing outsider, it is completely against standard recorder and woodwind pedagogy; pulling the head down hampers breathing. To accurately get low notes, the recorder player (or any wind player, for that matter) must instead lower the breath pressure and open the throat more fully such that more air flows into the instrument. Also, notice how Gardiner claims that recorders “require very little air.” According to concert recorder player Hans Martin Linde in his phenomenal book The Recorder Player’s Companion,

“The common notion that he amount of air used in playing the recorder is very small is based on a confusion between air quantity and air pressure. The air channel of the recorder is of constant size and does not offer any significant resistance to air flow. The quantity of air passing through is thus relatively large, ‘With the recorder, the expenditure is much greater than it is with the bassoon, hautbois (oboe), or travisiere (flute)’ (Quote from Mattheson’s Das Neu-Eroffnete Orchestre) …… Even the traverse flute can be played with a smaller amount of breath, using normal embouchure in a comfortable register.” (P. 22)

Still, I highly laud Gardiner’s method and gradual, step-by-step approach to learning how to play. In previewing the method, I see nothing wrong with her approach to learning the notes and would highly recommend her method to those desiring a classroom recorder method that does not go beyond the beginning ninth of the recorder. What I do have an issue with, however, is Gardiner’s brief approach to pedagogy on her website, which is clearly not in line with standard recorder technique. I do not see this as malicious in any way, but simply a result of misinformation. If this aspect could be corrected, then Gardiner’s method a phenomenal option for the audience mentioned above.

Another more humorous example of misinformed recorder pedagogy can be found on the teacher’s discussion board of the companion website to the popular Recorder Karate method. I first gained exposure to this method while doing my observation hours at a local elementary school when I was an education major last year. I was initially disturbed when I noticed the school general music teacher directing second-grade students to literally spar with their multi-colored instruments at the beginning of class (If that was my Mollenhauer, shudder!), and I decided to investigate once I was home. In the teacher’s advice page on the method’s companion website, I was amused on how one music instructor advocated substituting “thoo” for the tonguing syllable “doo” on the basis that the fecal connotation with the latter was unacceptable for students:


I proceeded to call my own recorder teacher, who was also a music educator for 40 years, and not only did he express his dislike of Recorder Karate because of it “leaves the struggling students behind”, but he also laughed heartily when I told him about the “doo” issue, dubbing it “silly.” When I asked what method he had used as a genuine recorder player in the general music classroom setting, he replied that he had used none. Rather, he had relied on what he had been taught by his recorder teachers and at recorder workshops, adapting all this technical knowledge to suit the classroom needs while technically compromising nothing. His words confirmed my strong belief that standard recorder technique/pedagogy can be taught in the classroom setting.

Having received my teacher’s feedback, I graciously thanked him and returned to my own practice, attempting to play a whole scale while tonguing each note with “thoo.” The result: An unwelcome swishing sound at the beginning of each note. I proceeded to whisper “thoo” repetitively without my recorder to my lips, and I immediately discovered the source of the problem: A whispy puff of air that disturbs the air stream in such a way that a clean attack is not possible. In other words, the “th” in “thoo” produces a sloppy tonguing attack as opposed to using the standard tonguing consonants “t” and “d”, which, if uttered softly with no puff of air (i.e. no “spitting” on the onset), produce a clean attack. While Gardiner’s chin-tucking described above is out-of-line with standard recorder/woodwind technique, this “thoo” tonguing is an option that is not only so (let alone, historically unacceptable) but does not work at all. Dumbing down strikes again!

To be continued ……..

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