Dumbing Down the Recorder: The Facts

In my post “Dumbing Down the Recorder, Part 1”, I discussed in detail the issue of simplifying the recorder into a classroom pre-band instrument and totally re-inventing its technique to make it as such. Now that I have covered that aspect, I shall turn to the other side of the issue that I alluded to at the beginning of that post: Is the recorder truly an easy-to-learn instrument?

At the basic level, yes. Historically, the instrument has been highly popular with amateurs (See Baroque Solo Book quotation in the previous post), and it is very easy to see why. Although diaphragmic breathing, a wide open throat and some manipulation of the internal mouth shape are necessary to the production of a full, rounded tone, the recorder requires no specific, complicated embouchure as is the case with other woodwind and brass instruments. In fact, my own recorder teacher recently commented on the issue, deeming the term “embouchure” in the case of the recorder “anachronistic”. He further continued that one can position the instrument to one’s lips in any way, even giving note to a teacher who demonstrated the principle of no embouchure by putting the recorder to his nose (Gross!). Furthermore, basic technique such as single tonguing and playing the notes within the bottom ninth of the instrument are not difficult to learn once the player has established proper hand and tongue position — which are not difficult to learn.

Hence, considering these historical facts and basic technical factors, the recorder is the perfect first musical instrument for both youngsters and adults alike. In the words of Maria von Trapp of Sound of Music fame:

” (regarding beginners at the Trapp family music camp squeaking out ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb) …. the recorder is the ideal instrument for any adult whose musical education has been neglected. If someone discovers on his fiftieth birthday that he should have take piano or violin lessons while in school, he will hardly want to start then, for fear of not getting very far, but he will always miss it — to be able to “make music” himself. That’s where the recorder comes in handy. After six weeks of faithful practicing, even the oldest pupil can play folk tunes very nicely.” (The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, page 171).

Baroness von Trapp’s words also apply with regards to children. Due to its cost (according to Baroness von Trapp “less than twenty dollars) and ease of playing in the basic stages, the children can joyfully begin making music on their own. However, a beautiful sound and proper hand position must not be neglected; otherwise, the children can proceed on their own.

Past basic technique and playing simple folk tunes within the bottom ninth of the instrument, playing the instrument becomes very tough. Advanced techniques such as thumbhole pinching, the overblown high notes of the instrument’s second octave, and double-tonguing begin to present a challenge. Even further up includes such difficult techniques as historical tonguing, multiphonics, and hole shading — often nail-biting for me (or any player, for that matter!). The repertoire becomes more demanding, making extensive usage of these advanced techniques and equaling difficulty to that of any instrument’s standard repertoire. Some pieces such as the Vivaldi concerti in fact exploit the instrument’s capabilities, presenting a tough yet thrilling challenge for the advanced player. In the end, whether the instrument is difficult or not depends on what one desires to use it for. As I said, playing the recorder — like playing the guitar — is indeed easy on the basic level, but extremely demanding on the advanced side of the spectrum.

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