Working together to help children learn and grow in a complex world
Oct. 29, 2019
Why do children learn to play the recorder?
By Mara Barker, Lower School Music Teacher
You’ve probably heard the joke: a picture of a recorder with the caption, “Just when you think parenting can’t get any harder, your child brings home one of these!” As a music teacher, I’m often asked, “Why do children learn to play the recorder?!” I'm happy to tell you why this instrument has become a staple of music education since the mid-20th century.
It all started with a man named Carl Orff. You might not know his name, but you’ve heard his music in movies and commercials. He founded the Orff-Schulwerk approach (literally Orff Schoolwork) and believed that children should learn music by experimentation, imitation, and construction of their own creative universe — generally, what they’re already doing. He considered recorder to be the perfect beginning instrument for children because it’s easy to play and it doesn’t require any special technique for getting a sound, unlike other wind instruments such as saxophone and trumpet.
At Canterbury, children begin studying the recorder midway through 3rd grade and continue throughout 4th grade, in addition to singing, moving, playing other percussion instruments, and learning about music of different styles and cultures. Third graders start out by learning a few recorder notes by rote, and they do lots of improvising before formal notation is introduced.
I use a method called the Kodály-Aspiring Recorder Method, which helps children develop their musical ear through the use of hand signs for each note or solfége syllable. You may remember the song “Do, Re, Mi” from The Sound of Music. Those are solfége syllables! Every song we learn on recorder is also sung using hand signs for each note. This technique helps the students remember each pitch and sing better in tune. There are singing games that correspond with most of the songs that they learn, so it’s not uncommon to see the students moving around in a circle, playing hand-clapping patterns, and doing other fun activities while learning new songs.
Even after notation is introduced, there’s still a lot of improvising that goes on, with each student making up new songs on the spot with the notes and rhythms they know. Sometimes improvising is done to a backdrop of a cool mix of drum sounds that can be created on an app like Drumbit. Improvising is a great activity, because the whole brain is engaged and they are using creative and analytical skills at the same time. The children also do lots of “sight reading” on the spot or playing songs that they’ve never played before. When playing these songs, the children have to rely solely on their note reading skills and they can’t rely on their ear since it’s not a familiar melody.
The goal in learning recorder is not necessarily to create professional recorder players (…although there actually is one! Check out Michala Petri in this video). Learning recorder is a good starting instrument to set children up for success in band. The recorder is similar in some ways to other band instruments like clarinet and saxophone. Children learn proper breath control and hand placement and improve fine motor skills.
Even if a child does not plan to play in band, they gain so many other skills. Through the process of practicing and learning new songs on the recorder, students learn patience, persistence, and discipline that helps in so many other areas of life. Students are working as a community to play together, meaning they are listening to others while playing themselves and analyzing if they are matching pitch, rhythm, and dynamics of those around them. They are reflecting on their tone quality and making in-the-moment adjustments to finger positions and breath control, developing hand and eye coordination, AND they are doing all of this at the same time, which means they are accessing many cognitive skills. It's brain-building, and that makes them better students in every subject.
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