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Is the Recorder a Woodwind Instrument of Pleasure or Ear-Assaulting Pain?

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I have been freelance writing, ever since elementary school. My passions include music, age-appropriate dance, travel, and many others.

Some people think that the recorder is a woodwind instrument of torture.

Those in that demographic think that it annoys them with all that hooting and squealing. Most of them fondly remember the times in elementary school music classes when they had to rent school-owned fipple pipes or have parents buy them. One of their first songs they played was the English Eastertime folk tune, "Hot Cross Buns."

So, what has people who regretted playing it (as well as some parents) thinking that the instrument is evil? Could it be how the sound is produced? (Recorders are fipple flutes, which have whistle-like mouthpieces.) Could it be the pitch - since virtually all the recorders the students in elementary school play are descant (or soprano, depending on where you live)?

Why do some people think it's a horrible-sounding musical instrument, despite the fact that there are some musicians who are ACTUALLY good on it?

Why do some people think it's a horrible-sounding musical instrument, despite the fact that there are some musicians who are ACTUALLY good on it?

Poor Breath Control

Recorders are easy to play and seemingly take no practice to be good at them, although all musical instruments require practice. But the reason why some people hate it is because they or even their classmates overblow too much on their instruments.

What is overblowing? That's when one blows too hard on his or her instrument. Recorders need even, minimal air. But even though some teachers constantly remind them to blow softly, some kids are too eager enough to blow so hard their instruments squeal.

Also, most kids play it with the mouthpieces too far in their mouths or too little in their mouths. They should place them on their bottom lips of them in front of their lower jaws and place the instrument at a diagonal angle, approximately 45 degrees. They should keep the upper jaws relaxed with teeth away from the tops. Lips shouldn't tense that much but they should be closed enough to discourage squeaks. Recorders do require embouchures, after all.

Fingering Problems

Poor fingering is one reason why some people pour vitriol on the recorder. It's not just about how their fingers are placed to play different note sequences, but what pressure should the fingers have when covering them. Some kids make the mistake of using their fingertips to cover the holes instead of the pads. And when doing that, some grip them tightly. Proper fingering requires pads of the fingers that cover holes at an even, steady pressure - not too tight, not too loose.

Improper Tonguing

To play the notes on the recorder, one needs to use the tongue. Some children use little to no tonguing control - just tooting on their recorders. This produces a sloppy sound and is prone to excessive overblowing.

One Early Music Specialist's Beef with Improper Tonguing

Having received my teacher’s feedback (about a popular elementary school recorder music curriculum), 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... this “thoo” tonguing is an option that is not only so (let alone, historically unacceptable) but does not work at all.

Kristina Powers, Hemiola07's Blog

The Make of Them

Almost all the recorders for elementary schools are plastic. Add to the fact that they are cheap to scores of parents, they are sound music-making tools for young and old hands and mouths. And that leads to most manufacturers - even if they are in overseas plants - to make their own.

Recorders don't just come in ivory, black, or black with ivory rings. They come in blue, pink, red, yellow, green, and glitter. But some of them are of shoddy quality and can break or warp sound easily. Most of the recorders sold by discount or big box stores aren't tuned properly.

But even candy-colored recorders are made by reputed music instrument manufacturers with quality materials. And the best part is that they are almost always tuned before sale!

But even with quality recorders, some kids think they are generally uncool.

In a UK study, most students believed that the instrument restricted them from learning music they wanted to learn. Their interest in music dropped because they disregarded it as a real musical instrument. "Although the descant recorder is an inexpensive instrument, children do not associate it with their musical role models in the adult world," Dr Susan O'Neill said.

Someone Who Cut Down a Tree Made This Recorder!

As the man built his home, he cut down a tree from the lot and made this recorder for his daughter. How nice!

As the man built his home, he cut down a tree from the lot and made this recorder for his daughter. How nice!

There Are Actually Real Musicians Who Play the Recorder

Some people don't think that there are adult musicians who play the recorder in concerts anymore.

Well, there are. Some areas or regions have recorder consorts, which have instruments ranging from the high descant to the very low great bass. Their members are usually adults with other professions, like bookkeeping or retail. Usually the important missions are to entertain the community and play for fun.

And there are even professionals who take the recorder's repertoire beyond "Merrily We Roll Along" and its similar-sounding sister "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Most of them are early music specialists. They play music ranging from the medieval times to the baroque era, centuries before the recorder became an elementary school nightmare or tool of music-making fun, depending on how you view it.

There's WAY More to the Recorder than 'Hot Cross Buns!' Here's Michala Petri Playing Some Bach...

Helpful Tips

Playing the recorder does take practice, and here are some helpful tips to make it less of a pain to you and others. You may need them if you play recorder yourself even if you are doing it for fun or if you have a kid playing so likewise for his or her music class.

  • Don't put the mouthpiece too far in the mouth
    Remember - put the mouthpiece nearly halfway so that it rests on your lower lip. Keep the lower jaw relaxed with teeth away from the mouthpiece and don't close the lips too tightly around it. Make sure to hold the instrument slightly less than 45 degrees away from the body.
  • Use warm, gentle air
    Blow as if you are fogging up the window without anyone hearing you. A steady, warm, soft air stream reduces the likelihood of squeaks.
  • Use the word "too," or even better, "doo"
    Say the word "too" or "doo." You'll notice that the tip of the tongue taps the roof of the mouth. Some teachers tell their kids to touch the tip of their mouthpieces with it. For a less awkward sound, try playing using the word "doo," which enables you to have the tip touch the roof of the mouth, creating a cleaner sound. If sharing those tips as your child practices, check with his or her music teacher whether she wants her student to use "too" or the preferable "doo."
  • Use even finger pressure when fingering
    Use only the pads of the fingers to cover the holes and use even pressure - not too tight and not too loose. This will help stop squeaks.
  • Buy a recorder from a music store
    Recorders from those sources are usually made of higher-quality plastics or wood, tuned, and more reliable than the ones found in big-box or dollar stores.
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In conclusion, the recorder is either something that is just annoying noise or something that makes beautiful music. With the proper playing techniques, it's actually not a torturous musical instrument as some people view it.

Comments

talfonso (author) from Tampa Bay, FL on March 23, 2020:

I admire Piers Adams and Red Priest too! While most of the web groans when they'd see a recorder because "Merrily We Roll Along," "Lightly Row," and "Hot Cross Buns" are the only songs performed, I gotta refer Red Priest to them. LOL

Endoacustica Europe on October 09, 2017:

So cool

Frances Metcalfe from The Limousin, France on February 01, 2017:

This is a very good article. I love the recorder, if you don't know Red Priest and the amazing virtuosic, athletic and energised Piers Adams, look on YouTube and be inspired. Fabulous!

talfonso (author) from Tampa Bay, FL on May 23, 2013:

Me too, vespawoolf - I want to head out to a music store and buy me a quality recorder! I'm getting a technique book that doesn't have the overrated "Hot Cross Buns" (patooie) and maybe a good teacher. Maybe I'll join a recorder consort and make some friends!

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on May 22, 2013:

It's good to know that recorders really can be played! I didn't realize it all boils down to the quality of the instrument and technique. Now I want to get a real recorder and give it a second go. Thanks for sharing!

talfonso (author) from Tampa Bay, FL on March 16, 2013:

Thanks for the comment! It's too bad that bloggers and forum posters reminiscing about the music class recorder lessons only associate the instrument with horrid renditions of "Merrily We Roll Along," "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," and the "Hot Cross Buns." (And I'm OK with that.) The reasons they had bad experiences were poor breath control and improper fingering. And they aren't aware that there are musicians playing the instrument!

Fredena Moore from South United States on March 14, 2013:

This hub is perfect timing for me. I want to purchase a recorder, for songwriting purposes along with a pianist, but wasn't sure how it would turn out. I loved the videos, especially the one of the musician playing Bach! Thanks.

talfonso (author) from Tampa Bay, FL on March 12, 2013:

Thank you. I saw one picture on the Web of a recorder being captioned in all caps, "How the (expletive) did this help my education?" Well, one person in Tumblr reblogged, "It taught me how to summon Satan with 'Hot Cross Buns.'"

I was amused and offended by the post at the same time because I not only played the recorder in elementary school and enjoyed it, but I favored baroque music. That's one of the eras in which recorders played way more than that folksong, "Mary Had a Little Lamb," and "Lightly Row."

I agree that teachers should teach kids how the recorder benefits them. Just as it conditioned me into playing clarinet in band, it could make them proficient in playing other instruments. Also, teaching them proper technique and having them practice it can make the recorder more tolerable.

Jean Bakula from New Jersey on March 11, 2013:

I think if the teachers showed videos or told the children that playing the recorder could lead to being good at playing another instrument, that might interest the kids more. There are so many good woodwind instruments they may enjoy when they get older. It's all about how it's introduced to them.

talfonso (author) from Tampa Bay, FL on March 11, 2013:

Thanks for the kind comments. That instrument too conditioned me for clarinet in middle school band. I was surrounded by some kids who would play them so loudly that they squeak each music class, but I didn't think of it as too bad at all.

I watched a channel (which was a public access channel) with the programming block "Classic Arts Showcase." I watched this before school every morning! On that segment in fifth grade, I saw Michala Petri play a concerto by Vivaldi - on the recorder. I finally discovered an epiphany and started appreciating the recorder and why my music teachers made our 5th grade class play it!

Rachael Lefler from Illinois on March 11, 2013:

Playing recorder, for me, was something that led to taking up clarinet when I got older. The instruments are held and played similarly. The recorder is a great way to encourage children to play an instrument because most of them are made for a child's hands and air capacity.

Rachael Lefler from Illinois on March 11, 2013:

It depends on who's playing it. Kids play it so often that it's often heard badly played by parents, but I think a professional could make it sound cool. It also has high pitches that sound better when counter-balanced by percussion and a lower instrument. I think it would sound better as part of a band or wind section.