Dumbing Down the Recorder: The Antidote

Now I return to the subject matter of my first post on “Dumbing Down the Recorder”: Because I disprove of many of the methods and approaches commonly used to teach the recorder in modern school classrooms, does this mean that I totally oppose the usage of the recorder in modern schoolwide music education?

Absolutely not! As a recorder player myself, I believe that the instrument — as it was in the 16th-18th centuries — is highly accessible to all and is therefore the prime choice for youngsters gaining their first exposure to music. High-quality plastic instruments cost a whole lot less than a violin or piano, so playing the recorder is actually an affordable option for the financially-strapped. Furthermore, I have noticed that the charm of early music appeals to many youngsters, so playing the recorder would expose youngsters to a wealth of “good”, brain-building music that they probably would not experience outside of the classroom given the popular, rock/rap/hip-hop-inclined culture of today. What I DO oppose, however, is the treatment of the instrument as simply a toy and pre-band instrument, as well as the extreme simplification of its vital technique by those who have no idea how to play it themselves.

As I talked of with my own recorder teacher, who was also a music educator for over 40 years, music educators of today simply need to be more educated on how to properly play the instrument and choose a technically sound method. No, a routine music educator need not play like Dan Laurin or Marion Verbruggen, nor do I expect the students in the classroom to be as such, let alone gain knowledge of the more advanced techniques. What is necessary, however, is that the teacher himself has basic knowledge of recorder technique such that he can effectively introduce the instrument to the class. A lesson or two with an experienced recorder teacher would be ideal, but if such an option is not viable, then the music educator can resort to a wealth of excellent recorder pedagogy reference books out there. Hugh Orr’s Basic Recorder Technique — a phenomenal method that I used — can provide the teacher with instructions on how to play the notes, as well as give technically sound, graphical and verbal descriptions of how to hold the instrument. With regards to the more technical aspect, Frances Blaker’s The Recorder Player’s Companion is an excellent, user-friendly reference with extensive exercises and diagrams useful to the classroom recorder instructor.

Once the instructor has technically solid basic knowledge of the instrument, he can now convey it to the students. But what about the method books? If many common recorder methods are not an option because of technical deficiency, then what legit alternatives exist? Happy to say, plenty of technically sound, easy-to-use recorder methods applicable to classroom instruction exist on the modern market. Both the American Recorder Society and Courtly Music Unlimited — an ARS-endorsed business run by two professional recorder players — provide a wealth of such child-friendly methods (some of which I used on myself when teaching myself to play) applicable to the contemporary music education classroom:

http://www.americanrecorder.org/learn/faqs.htm

http://courtlymusicunlimited.com/Method-Books-sop-child.html

With regards to instrument choice, many sound options also exist. To being with, quality instruments — which do not cost a fortune as the more expensive instruments do — are essential to the proper towards not only the pleasure of music-making, but also provide the students with proper equipment upon which to learn. More inexpensive instruments below $5 are more toys than instruments and not suitable for productive learning. Attempting to learn on such instruments is much like learning to drive on a car with no brakes. However, for just $5.25-$7.50, students can have instruments that are not suited for serious recorder-playing yet perfectly suitable for introductory music work in the classroom. Both Courtly Music Unlimited and Von Huene Workshop have whole sections devoted to school recorders; Courtly Music Unlimited even offers bulk discounts for quantities of three or more:

http://www.vonhuene.com/Default.aspx?tabid=93

http://courtlymusicunlimited.com/SchoolRecorders.html

In the end, I am in no way against classroom recorder education in itself; it is perfectly in line with historical and basic technical fact. What I DO have a problem with, however, is HOW the issue is currently being handled in American schools today. It is simply not right to have no knowledge of an instrument, then teach it to others while re-inventing its basic technique and simply projecting the instrument to be merely a pre-band toy. As I have shown earlier in this post, basic technique is not too hard to learn, while quality resources for quality methods and instruments not too difficult to locate and acquire. In this way, the recorder not only be used for learning the joys of basic music-making, but also become respected as areal instrument by both students and teachers alike. Psychologically, having instruments that look and sound like toys only gives the students the message that they are toys, whereas neutral-colored instruments with a better tone gives the students the message that they are real instrument.

However, if the majority of today’s music educators insist on continuing the current approach to classroom recorder education, then I suggest that we invent a totally new instrument designed specifically for classroom instruction and not connected to any “real” instrument. After all, before recorders, such instruments as flutophones and tonettes were used, and since classroom music instruction barely ventures beyond an octave, these would be wonderful options. Again, I have no problem using a “real” instrument like the recorder for classroom music instruction, but when the instrument is abused as merely a pre-band” option and its technique re-written by musically uninformed individuals, its reputation suffers greatly, and in turn, its genuine players such as myself suffer.

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