Choosing an Instruction BookShort answer: If you have no prior musical experience, I'd recommend that raw beginners start with Hal Leonard's Recorder Fun! Teach Yourself the Easy Way. If/when you feel that you've outgrown this book, you can switch to the more comprehensive Zeitlin or Orr methods. For those with a musical background, you may want to jump right into the Orr. Round out either choice with additional songbooks and materials.
A clear and comprehensive instruction book is a must have if you are learning to play recorder on your own. There are a variety of teach yourself books and instruction methods on the market today. As someone who has played through most of them :-), here are my thoughts on the pros and cons of each.
I. Rebecca's top picks for BASIC INSTRUCTION METHODS:
(Note: these recommendations are all for SOPRANO (= descant) recorder. For ALTO (= treble) recorder, see here. Also, these books assume that we're talking about ADULT learners. For teaching CHILDREN recorder at home, see here.)
I have not been able to find one single instruction program which fully meets the needs of absolute beginner teach yourself students. The top three candidates are Zeitlin, Orr, and Recorder Fun!, and the choice between them will depend on your particular situation. All have certain shortcomings, and will need to be supplemented with additional material that includes recordings to serve as musical models.
a. Ralph Wm. Zeitlin. Basic Recorder Lessons: Omnibus Edition (books 1-4)
This huge volume contains four instruction books (over 200 pages total) in one binding. Books 1-3 are Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced-Intermediate lessons, and Book 4 is a collection of supplemental songs for extra practice, graded from easy to hard. The books assume no prior musical training, and everything - reading music, fingering, rhythm, musical styles, etc. - is explained thoroughly and clearly. There is a particular emphasis on rhythmic variety. Although the book is designed to be used with a teacher, I felt that it was comprehensive enough to be useful in a do-it-yourself situation such as my own.
The books contain a very wide range of music from many eras, including traditional folk songs, Christmas carols, Celtic tunes, medieval music, much authentic renaissance and baroque recorder music, and even some adaptations of modern jazz and pop tunes. I have not even attempted to count the hundreds of songs included. There are also many useful technical exercises. Because of the wide range of music, you don't necessarily need to play *everything* to advance - you can select your favorite music to practice a particular technique, which gives some flexibility in how you use this behemoth.
Range of notes covered in each volume:
Book 1: the first octave +1, and some very common sharps/flats: Bb, F#
Book 2: part of the second octave (up to high A) and more sharps: G#, middle C#, high D#, high F#
Book 3: high B and C, and some additional flats and sharps: C#, high Bb, high G#
In general, this should be the perfect book for self-study, but unfortunately it has one very serious flaw: it does not come with companion CDs! (Why doesn't someone produce a CD for this book? Why?) Having musical models to listen to is an absolute necessity for the teach yourself crowd, so if you're using this book without a teacher you will *definitely* want to invest in some additional materials that come with CDs, so that you can hear samples of good recorder playing to shape your recorder inner ear. For those just learning to read music, this is especially important, as you will have no way of catching your own mistakes otherwise. (See Supplemental Songbooks below for some ideas.)
Another unfortunate aspect of this book, particularly early on, is that many of the melodies to play are "constructed" (i.e. made up by the author) rather than "real" music. And most of these are... an "acquired taste" would be one way to put it. (Awkward, graceless, and unmusical are other words that come to mind...) They are just not musically compelling or enjoyable to play, imho. This could be very discouraging to an absolute beginner, who exerts himself to decipher a new piece of music only to realize that the song he has just so worked hard to learn is... bwah. Overall, the selection and quality of music is a bit uneven throughout the volumes. You will certainly find some things to love, but I doubt any one person will be thrilled with all of it.
For both of the above reasons, I recommend that absolute beginner recorder players start with something other than the Zeitlin (such as Recorder Fun!), and/or supplement it with one or more of the other recommended methods or songbooks below. It certainly represents a good value for the amount of music and instruction included, and is well worth using in parts, but unfortunately does not meet all of the needs of the self-taught beginner on its own.
b. Recorder Fun! Teach Yourself the Easy Way (Hal Leonard)
This slim booklet provides an accessible method for absolute beginners to start playing enjoyable music quickly. The music included (approximately 30 short songs) represents a wide range of styles, including folk songs, carols, celtic tunes, and classical melodies. Most of the tunes will be familiar to most people, which certainly makes things easier for the raw beginner. There are no "boring" exercises, and the musical selections are overall quite pleasant to play, especially considering the limited resources one has to put in to learn them. The very helpful companion CD features a rendition of each and every song, with accompaniment, generally played at a rather slow to moderate tempo. You can listen prior to tackling a song, and then play along once you've mastered it. The CD is not high art in and of itself, but the performances do provide a variety of attractive models for beginners. No prior experience with music or musical notation is assumed, and in fact throughout the book the note names (F, G, etc.) are written on top of the notes. (I personally found this useful at first, but came to rely on it too much and then had a difficult time transitioning to reading "real" music, so there are potential pros and cons to this crutch.)
Obviously, the "fast-track" method is done at the expense of cutting certain corners. (This book actually covers MORE ground than volume 1 of either Zeitlin or Orr, in less than half the time, which should tell you something right there.) Once you reach the second half of this book, the weaknesses and holes in your playing will probably become evident to you. The lessons are not very methodical - a new note is introduced with a song or two to practice it, and then we fly forward to the next note. There is really not enough practice material to solidify your new skills. Towards the end the pace really picks up, and as you try to keep up with the frantic leaps from here to there, you will wonder what the heck they were thinking. At this point you are ready to go back to the beginning and settle into the rigor of a more methodical book.
One odd thing about this book is that it's not entirely clear who it is marketed towards. The first few pages are filled with cartoonish drawings and nursery rhymes that make it seem like the intended audience is young children. Then it suddenly switches gears and introduces more sophisticated tunes and graphics. If you are an adult you can quickly skim through the first 10 pages or so. If you are a kid you will want to stop at page 10.
Notes introduced: the first octave +3 and some common sharps and flats: Bb, F#, G#
In short, this book is a reasonable choice (especially over similar "teach yourself" books) as a quick way to dive in, get your feet wet, and begin enjoying the recorder right away. It is less daunting and provides an easier transition for raw beginners with no musical background, as compared to the Zeitlin. The music to play is fun, and the CD is very helpful. And unlike Orr or Suzuki used for self-teaching, it requires no previous musical training. It can be acquired quite cheaply and really you've got nothing to lose. If you've never played a musical instrument before, go for it!
c. Hugh Orr. Basic Recorder Technique, vols 1 & 2
This classic two volume set by Hugh Orr is an excellent, comprehensive instruction book. This method is best for the serious aspiring student with prior musical training, as it assumes the ability to read music fluently. There is a fair amount of explicit instruction on details of holding the recorder, breathing, fingering, etc., including many useful pictures. But the target audience is clearly individuals who are accomplished musicians on another instrument.
The main strength of this method is how incredibly methodical it is in practicing fingering. Every single logical combination of note intervals is practiced, slowly and surely, one after the other. There are appropriate practice exercises, but for the most part this is achieved with a very large number of graded musical pieces.
The musical selection is also quite unique. Unlike other methods, there are almost no folk songs, and certainly no "Mary had a Little Lamb" type nursery rhymes. There are also no "constructed" practice tunes at all. From page one, all of the pieces are authentic and appropriate recorder music, drawn primarily from the Baroque and Renaissance periods, plus some Medieval stuff. This is by far the best choice for students with an interest in early music. The first half of volume 1 relies heavily on arrangements of the Bach chorales, which I personally was happy to get past, technically useful though they may be. (Lugubrious German liturgical music is just not my thing, what can I say.) But, starting about halfway through volume 1, there are numerous other pieces of a striking, simple beauty, which I found very enjoyable, despite knowing absolutely nothing about early music beforehand. Many of these I have not seen reproduced in other recorder method books, despite being quite accessible to the beginning player.
This method does have a companion CD, however, it has some serious shortcomings. First of all, the CD covers volume 1 only. Secondly, not all of the pieces are included on the CD (it's primarily just the Bach chorales, naturally - less than half of the total pieces). Most unfortunately, the "recorder" part is not a recorder performance at all, but a synthesized melody line. While handy for learning new pieces by ear, this is totally useless in providing a musical model for beginners. Lastly, the accompaniment is a fairly overbearing harpsichord which may or may not give you a stress headache. The CD does have two versions of every song included: one with the melody plus accompaniment, and one with accompaniment only. There are intro count beats for both so you know when to start. The primary use of the CD is play-along fun. Note that not all sources package the CD with the book, so make sure it's included if that's something you're interested in. All teach yourself-ers using the Orr should supplement with some additional methods that include CDs to serve as musical models (see below).
Notes introduced: Volume 1 - the first octave +1, Bb
Volume 2 - the second octave +1 (up to high D), C#, Eb, high Bb, high and low F#, high and low G#
In sum, this method is an excellent choice for teaching yourself recorder at home, IF you already know how to read music well. For music newbies, you will need to start with Zeitlin and/or Recorder Fun. You can always transition to the Orr later if desired. Also, depending on your musical goals and tastes, this may or may not be what you're looking for. It's an outstanding introduction to authentic recorder repertoire. If your tastes run more in the line of modern/folk/celtic music, the Zeitlin would be a better choice.
II. Recommendations for SUPPLEMENTAL SONGBOOKS
The following programs are not suitable as your sole or primary teach-yourself book, because they provide little to no instruction on actually playing the recorder. They all assume that you will be working with a teacher, and are essentially just collections of songs organized in a graded fashion. However, each of them comes with a fantastic CD of very high quality recorder playing, and includes wonderful music to expand your repertoire. I highly recommend that you supplement your choice of primary methods with one or more (or all) of the following. Listening to inspirational musical models is imperative in a teach yourself environment. You can start using these materials right away from day one. Once you've been playing for a few months, you will also want to check out the Supplementary Music page for more songs to play that come with CDs, starting at the Advanced Beginner level.
a. Suzuki Recorder School, vols 1 and 2, plus CD
The Suzuki materials are NOT designed to be used without an instructor. (More about the Suzuki Method.) However, I have used them to supplement my own self-learning, and have found them incredibly valuable in this context. The books consist of notes for pieces that get progressively harder and longer, and every single song is included on the CD. The quality of the CD is stellar - the recorder part is beautifully played by Marion Verbruggen. (That's *Marion stinkin' Verbruggen* people! I could listen to her play "One Bird" all day long...) A defining principle of the Suzuki method is that students learn to PLAY before they learn to read musical notation. Not having to stare at the page frees up a large chunk of your brain to actually LISTEN to and FEEL what you are playing. Self-learners, without a teacher to "show" them how to play the tunes, will naturally have to read the notes at first to learn the tunes. However, you can then memorize the pieces and practice them without notes, to approximate the intended effect. (This is great to do with all of your music, as a matter of fact.) Several of the Suzuki tunes actually seemed quite simple and natural to play this way, although they did not always "scan" easily when I tried to play them from the notes. The CD is intended for listening and molding the ear only - there are no "counts" before the song begins, so it's essentially impossible to play along with (unless you jump in after the first bar or something). Also, the tempo is quite chipper - most beginners will not be able to keep up with it at first.
The song selection is clearly aimed at children (even children as young as 4 can start on the Suzuki method), so there are lots of child-oriented folk songs. I personally found the music to be very sweet and pleasing for adults as well. Some of the songs are hauntingly lovely. This method moves ridiculously quickly, so by the time you reach volume 2 it's mostly Bach and Handel. (There are a total of EIGHT volumes in the Suzuki recorder series, so you can ultimately go quite far with these materials! The end of volume 2 is already quite difficult - I can't even imagine what's going in volume 8...)
A unique feature of this method (in addition to the aforementioned Marion Verbruggen) is the particular emphasis on articulation. (Articulation means roughly how we "shape" each note on the recorder with our tongue.) Most instruction books say very little about this crucial topic (or even if they do, the self-learner may have no clue what they're talking about). The Suzuki materials explicitly notate suggested articulations (tu, du, or ru) below the score, and you can hear exactly what this is supposed to sound like on the recordings. This is really invaluable in a teach yourself situation, so I'd highly recommend that everyone supplement their learning with at least volume 1 for this reason alone.
As I mentioned, this method progresses quite rapidly. There are not many songs included to practice each new note - I really have no idea how one could use this as a stand-alone method. It introduces many more notes early on than other methods as well. Volume 1 is similar to the equivalent level of Orr or Zeitlin, but Volume 2 goes beyond these methods in terms of note range.
Volume 1: first octave +1, F#, C#, Bb, and a few incidental semi-tones as well
Volume 2: second octave +1, and many, many sharps and flats!
b. Gerald and Sonya Burakoff. You Can Play the Recorder: A Method for the Adult Beginner (book + CD)
I really enjoyed this songbook (from the wonderful Music Minus One series), and highly recommend it as a supplement to your main method. The selection of beginner level music is very good, and covers a variety of styles: folk songs, Renaissance dances, and some later classical excerpts (Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert) as well. The recording includes all of the songs, and is enjoyable to listen to. The guitar and percussion accompaniments are quite attractive. (The one thing I do NOT like about the CD is that the name of each piece is announced by a woman with a very annoying voice! She sounds exactly like my cranky sixth grade teacher... really spoils it for me. :-) The recorder line is supposed to be on one channel and the accompaniment on the other, so you can theoretically listen to both or just one or the other, but since most modern music systems do not have channels anymore you may or may not be able to take advantage of this feature. Playing along with the melody is still a fun way to practice. The entire collection covers similar ground to volume 1 of Zeitlin or Orr.
Notes introduced: first octave +2, F#, Bb, C#, G#
c. Erich Katz. Recorder Playing: A New and Comprehensive Method (aka Folk Songs of Many Nations) (book + CD)
Another Music Minus One offering, this one also contains a nice selection of songs that progress from absolute beginner to Intermediate level. This one goes a bit farther than the Burakoff. The songs are all traditional European folk tunes. The CD does contain all of the songs, and the accompaniment this time is a very lovely alto recorder. (The songs are actually all Soprano-Alto duets, and both parts are included in the score for you in case you'd like to learn both.)
There are two big drawbacks to this CD, however: 1) the CD contains ONLY the accompaniment (alto) part, no soprano melody line (boo!), and 2) for some reason, each track on the CD has 5-10 songs grouped together on the one track. This makes it very annoying to use if you want to practice a specific song. There is basically no way to listen to the song you want (unless it happens to be the first one) without listening to a bunch of others as well. Really not sure why they did it this way! Nevertheless, a great collection of folk tunes, and listening to the alto recorder will help mold your musical mind for recorder playing in general.
This book covers similar ground to the Orr and Zeitlin methods.
If you're just starting out on the recorder and don't have much prior musical experience (especially if you can't read music well), try starting with Recorder Fun. Once you've gotten as far as you're going to get in this book, transition to the Zeitlin Omnibus. You'll be able to fly through the first part, which is where most of the awkward melodies are. This is the best choice for those interested in playing a wide range of musical styles. When you feel comfortable reading music, you can also use the Orr method if you're interested in learning to play authentic early recorder repertoire.
If you have prior experience playing another instrument, can read music well, and are primarily interested in playing early music on the recorder (medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque), you can start out using the Orr right away.
Either way, add one or more of the "Supplemental" recommendations that come with a CD to provide yourself with inspirational models to listen to. The choice basically depends on what type of music appeals to you most: Suzuki has beautifully executed folk tunes followed by high Baroque; Katz is all European folk songs, and Burakoff has a variety of styles.