Recorders

One of the best instruments primary school children can learn is the recorder.  It fits nice and easy into your book bag, sheet music fits in nicely too and you can make it is as simple or complicated as you like.  The problem is that it still has a bad reputation as a basic and unsophisticated instrument.  I always enjoyed playing mine but in secondary school it was not considered a proper instrument until we had an exchange student from Germany.  In our school orchestra we were told we were going to play a recorder concerto and we all laughed at the idea but learned the music as we were told to, thinking that our teacher was joking as it clearly said “violin” concerto on the top of the page.  Then at the rehearsal, we saw our exchange student take out a small case and play an incredible Vivaldi violin concerto on a little wooden descant recorder.  I never considered the recorder a joke instrument after that.

The basic problem with recorders is that you really do have to completely cover the holes to make a nice sound and you can’t blow loudly.  This is why it can be useful to learn the four-holed ocarina prior to the recorder.  If you blow loud you get no sound so you learn quite quickly that you have to blow quietly.  The other difficulty is that notation gets in the way and you end up with either some getting bored at the pace of lessons because other struggle to read notation or the converse, using letters prevents any real knowledge and skill of rhythm.  I have found the way to start is to use coloured squares and rectangles.  Note B is blue, A is red and G is green.  The rhythm is notated by the size of the rectangles with a square being 1 count.  This way we can play a lot of music quickly yet reading the graphic notation carefully to understand rhythm.  After about six lessons we basically go back to the beginning and read everything using standard Western staff notation.  This way they can concentrate on the notation having already internalised the melodies.  

I normally start recorders at the end of Year 2 so they have the whole summer holiday to practice music that we have learned.  I have made my own recorder tutor but I also recommend the standard “Recorder from the Beginning” by John Pitts.  This fits nicely into book bags and goes at a pretty good pace.  I do introduce some other resources as well as the one thing that most recorder tutors do not do is give enough pieces to practice.

Basically, at the end of Year 2 I get students to learn B, A, G and E.  Some teachers like to put in C and D and miss out E but this is a technical mistake as learning E does give you a much better hold of the instrument and also is a good introduction to the clarinet that some pupils go on to play later on.  In Year 3 we master all the notes of the D major scale.  I expect all the students to be able to play everything and I do not differentiate for the majority of the class, I expect all of them to read and play to a relatively high standard.  The only exceptions I make are for those students that have joined later on in the year.  I normally give them a book to take home and a few one on one lessons in lunch time to get them to around the standard of the other children. 

I would recommend all primary students learn the recorder.  In fact, I would make it compulsory to do at least Grade 1 before they leave Year 6 if I was allowed to!  This would mean that our secondary colleagues would inherit all children capable of playing an instrument and knowing the basics of musical notation.

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