Friday, March 3, 2017

Year 7: Week 24 - Recorder Wars

The recorder is one of the most ridiculed instruments. Probably the only instrument that gets as much grief as the recorder is the viola, but probably as not as much because most elementary school teachers don’t hand every single one of their students a viola in 3rd grade.

I taught recorder for the first time for one year before I got to this school. The recorder was part of the 3rd grade curriculum when I got here so I’ve kept it up.

Teaching the recorder is a true test of a teacher’s ability to carefully plan curriculum and effectively instruct students. My first year, I just gave the kids the recorders and then attempted to teach them. That was a disaster. It was a headache-educing, chaotic cacophony. I remember taking Tylenol before trying to teach the recorder and that still didn’t help. I had songs to teach and I knew how to teach the instrument but I didn’t know how to teach the recorder to 3rd graders.

Over the past seven years, there’s been a lot of trial and error. However, I’ve kept at it and I’m at a pretty good place. My 3rd graders after playing for about a month, wrote compositions this week using G, A, B, & C. Only two our of my sixty kids needed a reminder to put their left hand on the top of the instrument, and almost all of the them are tonguing. Also I got most of the kids to hold the recorder with their right hand lightly to the side of the holes as opposed to a death grip at the bottom of the instrument, which forms band habits.

Even though all of the kids were playing at the same time during class, no one was squeaking or playing obnoxiously loud and they were all motivated and working. Here’s a couple things that I’ve figured out that has helped me find success teaching the recorder.

1. The introduction.
Starting about a month before the students get the recorder, I start playing for them and showing them videos of people playing the recorder. I make sure that the performances I show them feature children, adults, soloists, ensembles, different styles of music, men and women and people of color playing the recorder. I make sure that all of these videos that I show feature good playing technique and a quality tone model.

2. The Quiz
I give one quiz in the entire 3rd grade year. It’s the recorder quiz. This quiz is one page long and asks the kids about basic recorder technique.
  1. Which hand is at the top of the instrument? Left or right.
  2. What type of air do you use to play the recorder? Fast or slow
  3. If the recorder doesn’t sound right, what should you check? Fingers completely covering the hole & make sure to use slow air
  4. How far do you put the recorder in your mouth? Right in front of the teeth.
I purposely create stress around this quiz. I want students to realize that the recorder is something that is important and that there is a right and a wrong way to play it. The creative part is not in how you play the instrument; it’s what you create with great technique. I explain that if a student does not get 100% on their quiz, they will not get their recorder and they will have to retake it. I usually have one or two students a class who don’t pass, but since most of the questions are pretty easy to figure out, the retake ends up not being a lot of drama.

3. Get them used to playing in small groups.
I usually have them sit in three rows and split them up into two groups. Once students realize how much easier it is to hear themselves play in smaller groups, they will wait their turn to play.

4. Have challenging material around for more advanced students.
I have various recorder method books in my room. If kids are moving ahead, they can grab one of these books and work out of it.

5. The iPad
I used to use Recorder Master on my iPad, but that program is no longer updated and doesn’t work very well on the updated OS. I’m currently using Flute Master.  This program features songs that are displayed as a game first in which kids control a dragon that burns bats. Then the same song is displayed in traditional notation with a moving red line that helps the kids know where they are in the music.


Flute Master has a three songs that have nothing but B, which is great because it provides important repetitions to get technique established and it gives the opportunity to teach tonguing. Nothing motivates students to behave well on their recorder more than the possibility of playing the recorder game on the iPad in front of the class.

Next week, I'll talk about some things that I've gotten figured out for my older students on the recorder. . .

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