How To...Play The Recorder
The recorder is a musical instrument of great antiquity. Like its cousin, the flute, it produces a high-pitched, breathy sound. It has a range of about two octaves, somewhat less than the flute. Recorders are not very loud and as a result are not used in orchestras or bands, but they are well suited to small groups and, especially, a any children's first musical instrument.
The recorder is an instrument that is quite easy to learn to play, although, like any other instrument, it takes practice to play it well. Fortunately, good recorder tutorial books are available and they are a great and practical way to learn the instrument, perfectly suited for the young pupils.
But hopefully this guide will give you some useful tips to get started...
Choosing a Recorder
Recorders can be made out of plastic or wood. Plastic recorders are much cheaper than wooden ones. It is best to start with a plastic recorder. When you improve, you should buy a wooden recorder. It usually sounds better and is easier to play, but requires a little bit more looking after.
Description of Your Recorder
The recorder comes in a number of parts known as joints. There are normally three.
- The top part is the head joint. It's the one you blow into.
- The main body of the recorder with most of the finger holes is called the body joint.
- The bottom bit is called the foot joint. It has the last finger hole in it. It must be turned so that the hole is slightly to one side, not lined up with the other holes. Sometimes the body and foot are joined together as one piece.
The narrow part of the head joint, which you put between your lips, is called the beak. There is a narrow tube called the windway into which you blow. The air coming out of the windway strikes a sharp edge called the labium. This process produces the sound. The opening from the end of the windway to the other end of the labium is known as the window.
The first and foremost rule in looking after your recorder is never to touch the labium. This is the sharp edge that produces the sound. It is very delicate. If it is damaged, the whole instrument is useless.
If the windway gets blocked with moisture, don't poke anything into it. Cover the window without touching the labium and blow hard. This should clear it. If the windway is seriously blocked, take off the head joint, put your hand over the end where it joins onto the body of the recorder, put your mouth over the window and blow. If even this doesn't work, poke a feather into the windway. This will not damage the labium if it touches it accidentally.
When putting your recorder together or taking it apart, use a gentle twisting action. This prevents the joints from being damaged.
When you are playing, moisture usually condenses inside the recorder. You should dry the recorder after use. Doing this is good practice for plastic recorders and essential for wooden ones.
You should occasionally oil the inside of wooden recorders (but not the labium or the windway) with linseed oil. If the joints are cork, then you should apply a little cork grease to keep them supple. Suitable oil and grease is available in music shops.
It's now time to make your first noise with the recorder. Hold the recorder any old way and don't worry about the finger holes for the moment. Put the mouthpiece between your lips. Don't bite it! It shouldn't touch your teeth.
Now whisper the word 'too'. It's very important that you always start each note by whispering 'too'. This is called 'tonguing'. It provides a clean sharp start to the note.
Practise a rapid 'too too too' and long notes 'toooooooooooooooo'. You should be able to produce a steady note lasting about half a minute. If not, you're blowing too hard.
Now it's time for some notes. The first note you're going to try is called B.
Cover the hole on the back with your left thumb. Cover the top hole (the one closest to the mouthpiece) with the index finger of your left hand. You should use the flat part of your finger, which means that the finger will be fairly straight. Your right thumb is not used for covering holes; it is used to support the recorder. This is very important when playing larger recorders.
Now blow gently with the 'too' sound you made earlier. You should hear a 'B'. This note is shown on a fingering chart as follows:
B = 0 1-- ----
The 0 here represents your left thumb. The 1st hole on the top is numbered 1 and it is covered. All the other holes are open, so they are indicated by dashes.
Here are some more notes:
A = 0 12- ---- (thumb, first and second finger of left hand)
G = 0 123 ---- (thumb, first, second, third finger of left hand)
C' = 0 -2- ---- (thumb, second finger of left hand)
D' = - -2- ---- (just the second finger of left hand)
The tick after the names of some of the notes indicate that these are high notes. Low notes don't have a tick. Very high notes have two ticks.
All these notes use only the fingers of the left hand. (Your left hand little finger is never used). Each finger has a finger hole assigned to it and each one only ever covers that one hole. Because of this, you should keep your fingers close to their holes even when the holes are not covered. Ideally each finger should be poised about 1cm over its hole, ready to cover the hole when it is needed. Click here for a visual representation of how the fingers and holes are numbered.
Practise the notes in the order they're given here: B, A, G, C', D'. This ensures that your fingers are all in the right places.
With these five notes, you can play simple tunes in the key of G. The notes G A B C' D' form a sequence do re mi fa so.
'Mary had a little lamb'/'Merrily we roll along':
B A G A B B B, A A A, B D D, B A G A B B B, A A B A G
'Oh when the Saints'
G B C' D', G B C' D', G B C' D' B G B A, B B A G G B D' D' C', B C' D' B G A G
When you are happy with the notes using only the left hand, you can learn some notes using the right hand, too. The bottom holes of the recorder have two small holes instead of one big one. You cover both of these small holes with one finger. For the moment you can treat them as if they were single holes. You will use all fingers of your right hand but not your thumb. Your thumb should press against the back of the recorder. To match the holes, the fingers of your right hand are numbered 4, 5, 6 and 7. Your right index finger is 4. Here are some notes:
E = 0 123 45-- (all left-hand holes, right first and second fingers)
D = 0 123 456-
F# = 0 123 -56-
The D without a tick is a low D. It sounds the same as the D' but lower down. The # sign is known as a sharp. F# is F sharp. Practise each of these with the G you already know in the order they're shown: G E D F# G E D F#. It is difficult at first to get all the holes covered exactly.
When you can play all of these, you have all the notes you need to play a large number of tunes.
'Twinkle Twinkle little star'
D D A A B B A, G G F# F# E E D
D E F# A A B A F# D E F# F# E D E
D D E D G F#, D D E D A G, D D D' B G F# E, C' C' B G A G
To learn more notes and tips, we recommend this page from the BBC website.
Or, choose one of our selected Recorder Tutorial Books for beginners. The new, full-colour revised editions of John Pitts' best-selling recorder course books are a great and practical way to learn the instrument, and ideal for the young pupils.