Teaching Children to Play Recorder at Home

The recorder is often the default choice of a "first instrument" for a young child. In fact, recorder is sometimes a mandatory part of elementary school music programs, and is frequently used in homeschool environments as well. There are a variety of very good reasons for this:

  1. Economy - a high quality plastic recorder can be had for surprisingly little money.
  2. Durability - even the clumsiest child is unlikely to harm a plastic recorder, no matter how sloppy the technique. Of course, ideally you want to instill in your child a loving and respectful attitude towards the instrument, but a plastic recorder can withstand a fair amount of dropping, stomping, drooling, and biting. Basically, as long as he doesn't stick it in the oven or the garbage disposal, you're good.
  3. Portability - a soprano recorder (the typical choice for children) is quite small and light. It can easily be tucked into a backpack. No need to lug heavy cases back and forth.
  4. Size - even small, undersized hands can play a soprano recorder in unmodified form. Older children can play an alto as well.
  5. Relatively fixed pitch - it is in fact quite possible (and with young children, even probable) to play the recorder off key. It is not really a fixed pitch instrument (unlike, say, a piano, which will *always* play in tune if tuned properly). With a recorder the pitch is dependent on the number of holes covered, but also on more subtle factors of playing technique such as breath pressure. But achieving correct pitch is relatively easy compared to many instruments (like violin!), and it the need for self-tuning is minor (unlike, say, guitar). The recorder will squeak or the note will fail if the breath pressure is too far off. Young children actually have fairly good control over breath pressure (as compared to manual dexterity), and can easily learn to breathe more softly if needed.
  6. Relatively easy fingering - playing whole notes in the lower octave on the soprano recorder involves mostly very straightforward and simple fingering (with the slight exception of the cross-fingered F). Manual dexterity and fine motor control are not fully developed in young children, and this is the aspect of playing music that is typically most challenging at this age. Even easier would be a simplified wind instrument such as a flutophone or tin whistle, but these instruments have a much more limited range than a recorder. If the child wants to go beyond the very basic level, they will have to switch to a recorder later anyway and learn the more complex fingering then, which just makes things unnecessarily confusing. And besides, the F is not all THAT hard! Young children should learn F# first, which is actually easier than F natural, and should be well within the reach of most youngsters.
  7. Pleasant tone - yes, a recorder really does have a sweet, pleasant sound that delights the ear. AS LONG AS you don't buy one of those atrocious $5 dime-store RSOs ("Recorder Shaped Objects"), which should never be put in the hands of adults, much less children, who will summon forth from them sounds that can peel paint. High-quality plastic instruments are not expensive at all (about $25-35 for the Yamaha 300-series, similar for a good Aulos). Make this minimal investment - the ears of every living thing in your household will thank you.

All in all, the recorder may just be the ideal children's melodic instrument. A piano has some advantages (truly fixed pitch, for example), but the reach can be too wide for small hands, and of course a piano is neither economical nor portable.

My daughter (age 9) is currently learning recorder in school, and occasionally likes to practice it a bit at home. She uses a soprano resin Yamaha 302.

Instruction Books for Children:

1. Older children may be able to use the same learning materials as adults, depending on their interest (see the Methods page).  But younger children would probably do better with specially designed materials. The best that we have found so far is the Recorder from the Beginning series by British recorder teacher John Pitts. There are three levels packaged in attractive little booklets, as well as several supplemental songbooks available. The formatting is very readable - one song per page with large print. They are filled with cute, colorful pictures throughout. My daughter seems to find them very appealing (kids are so influenced by packaging!). A CD is available for each book that contains every single song. (Make sure you are purchasing the book + CD pack if this is what you want - the books are also available alone.) These are great to play along with. Arrangements and accompaniments are a bit childish perhaps, but many of the songs are quite cheery and fun. The music is varied and includes mostly nursery rhymes and folk tunes, but various ethnic and blues-inspired songs as well. The materials are very thorough and well-paced: they move slowly and there is lots of practice with each new note and technique. The only downside for my young pupil is the lack of letter-names on the notes - she can't read music yet without these, so I have to write them in for her :-)

Here is what is covered in each book:
  • Book 1: notes D-C' except F, reading basic rhythms, staccato notes and ties
  • Book 2: C, D'-E', F#, C'#, more complex rhythms
  • Book 3: F, Bb, F'-C'', Eb

2. We also have My First Recorder by Ben Parker, which I picked up somewhere or other, but frankly we do not like this one nearly as much. It is much more limited in scope, has fewer and less interesting song material, and is not nearly as cute in terms of design. There is no CD to go with it either. I would recommend the Pitts series over this one if you want to capture your child's interest.

3. Of the adult books (see the Methods page), the first third or so of Hal Leonard's Recorder Fun! actually seems more geared toward children, so you could certainly have them start with this book. As I mentioned in my review, I feel that this method moves too fast and is much too gappy to be used alone by an adult, and even more so for a child. But it might be a good addition to round out your collection.

4. Another great possibility for children is the Suzuki series (see the Methods page). The Suzuki methods were of course especially designed with young musicians in mind. However, be aware that they are not intended to be used without a knowledgeable instructor, and that they contain difficult music early on and progress quickly. For some children this may be fantastic and just what they need, but to others it might be overwhelming or intimidating. You have to be the judge of what is the best fit for your individual child.

Supplemental Music for Children

There are a wide variety of supplemental songbooks that you can use to inspire your child to explore recorder music. Hal Leonard has a series of mini-songbooks with large print formatting and simplified children's melodies. Titles include Disney, Harry Potter, and Star Wars themes. Be aware that most of these will contain only 5-10 songs, which will most likely be short excerpts from the originals rather than entire pieces. The melodies have usually been simplified to make them easier to play, although some of them are not suitable for beginners at all despite the colorful juvenile artwork on the cover. Also, some of these packs come with a cheap plastic recorder of horrifying quality. Hide it from your children or suffer the consequences. Here are a few samples - there are many more:

The excellent Recorder from the Beginning series also puts out a variety of supplemental songbooks for children. Some come with a CD and some do not, but they do still have the same attractive formatting as the main series. Each one contains several dozen fun and easy songs to play.

Have fun encouraging your child to love the recorder!

No comments:

Post a Comment