Stephanie Lewis - Music & Education Talks expert

Oh No, It's the Recorder!

Why is the recorder so widely used in schools?

In this new video, Stephanie talks about the use of the recorder in schools, and why its use is so widespread around the world. Do you have anything else to add to the conversation?

Released on November 2, 2016

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, I'm Stephanie, and together with Virtual Sheet Music, I firstly wanted to thank those of you who last month took time out of your busy days to get in touch. It's really appreciated. My musical musings today will look at the apparently idiotic use of recorder as a pedagogical tool. Now, given that in every school, region, state and indeed country has different approaches to music instruction and learning, some of us will obviously be more in alignment on this particular topic than others, as we have different backgrounds. Nonetheless, I think there might be some elements that at least give food for thought for all of us. And if nothing else, it will be interesting to hear the perspectives of those of you who work in or have experience as students or parents, another paradigm.

So, let's begin. Picture the scene. Parents smirk and feign horror when their children arrive home from school proudly holding up their recorder, or worse, blowing it. My daughter did this last week. Non-classroom teachers quietly giggle as their classroom music teachers enter into a roomful of 25 recorders, or is that 25 children? And of course, there is no end of professional musicians from conductors to recorders who have not at some point in their career made cheap snide or condemning remarks about this instrument. So, what's all the fuss about? Let's firstly start off with the idea of education generally, as it is in schools that a recorder seems to particularly flourish. Now, as a result of working in schools for the last 15 years, I've experienced firsthand that the underlying notion or principle behind education is simply this: Access. Access to ideas and knowledge, practices. And the application behind a variety of different subjects that have been identified and built upon over the centuries. Access means opportunities for everyone, no exceptions, everyone. So, when I think of access in music education, I interpret this as referring to the obligatory state class activities. I'm not referring to private lessons or aspects of music education, our electives, or indeed activities that rely on the goodwill of teachers and parents. As much as these are all incredibly important, both in our schools and indeed in our local communities, they don't unfortunately embody this idea of universality. So, I'm going to leave those to the side.

Now, any country vaguely boasting a democracy must have access, this idea of universality for all. At the heart of education, as it is here, the imbalances that exist between the haves and have-nots can at least be partially mitigated. So, what's all this political rant about, and how does it fit in with the recorder? Well, the recorder costs very little. For families short on cash, and this is increasingly the norm unfortunately, recorders may actually be the only mean to providing any kind of instrumental education for their children. Access. Who can begrudge the cost of a recorder? A violin, bass guitar, piano? These are all quite other matters. And by the way, freebee apps likewise have the advantage of access. But only if the family in question, or indeed the school can afford an iPad or smart pad per child. Getting back to the recorder, the recorder also has a natural advantage; I would say almost Darwinian advantage of being virtually unbreakable. For both schools and families on tight budgets, this is a real plus. Accidents happen frequently in large classes and more sophisticated instruments require pricey repair jobs, and by the way, who would pay for that? Repairs mean that both instrument and pupil are out of action, and the involved pupils are therefore at risk of falling behind. This also renders the ensemble increasingly unwieldy for the teacher or musical director. Now, of course, by all means, blame the teacher unable to maintain discipline and control. But if you ask me, concentrating simultaneously on the group performance, the musicality of the group, then looking at individual contributors, either in terms of assessment or giving individual help, or even just setting objectives, together with looking out for 25 precious instruments. Well, to me this seems like a totally unreasonable expectation placed upon the shoulders of teachers.

By comparison, the recorder can be dropped, taken apart, used as a sword, a substitute dummy conductor's baton, drumsticks, whatever you want, and with the exception of using it as firewood, it continues to hold its own. Students' instrumental access is maintained, together with the unity of the ensemble and teachers simply have a less onerous time juggling musical and educational matters. Now another advantage of the recorder is that it is highly portable. It's small and light. This offers the student in a generic music class the possibility to work at home. This is so important for reaching performance objectives, because often class consolidation is not enough. Students, through homework, have the possibility to get better quicker and consequently they have greater levels of interest and motivation. I call that a win.

Now, the final plus re: the recorder is that it's just great for the smaller person. Instrumental fatigue is not really an issue. Fingers reaching finger holes presents little challenge. Sound production doesn't require major changes to the mouth and face muscles. And actually, you can achieve quite a lot quite quickly. You know, we live in an age of instant gratification; so quick results must be born in mind when considering generic instrumental studies. So, cheap, unbreakable, portable, relatively easy to play. Add this to the already well-known advantages instrumental learning offers, and you've got a very strong musical tool indeed. Now, as I've already said, I'm talking about the advantages of a recorder from a standpoint of generic state classroom activities. In such a context, I personally feel that the recorder gives greater democracy, as well as additional musical perspectives and opportunities, and all without the very real nightmare of cost. As for it being a horrible instrument, well don't forget that old saying: "A bad workman blames his tools."

I've put some links below just to emphasize the point, though you may have other links you wish to share with me. Now, warning the last link is, to say the least, a little tongue-in-cheek. So now, over to you, what do you think? Does recorder still have a place in 21st century general music education, and, if not, what would be your solutions? Maybe I've missed out some essential points. Maybe the recorder isn't the problem, so much as the educational systems that require this instrument. Whatever your thoughts, please do get in touch with me here at Virtual Sheet Music, and let's start discussing. Bye for now.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Marie Ha on March 1, 2017 @4:11 pm PST
"Use it as a sword" !!! I have seen that one a few times!!
Great ideas. Just to add an additional check mark in the "pro" column: There is no denying that kids love it. Also, even the cheapest recorder can sound very beautiful when played properly by a child.
Stephanie Lewis - host, on March 2, 2017 @11:24 am PST
Well, they do say that teaching is like being on the 'front line' so the sword analogy seems quite appropriate. Thanks so much, Marie, for getting in touch and looking forward to hearing future comments from you! Steph
Jean-Pierre * VSM MEMBER * on November 4, 2016 @5:56 am PST
My violin teacher used to tell her students that it is impossible to play a correct tune on a recorder. Therefore it should not be used to teach music in schools. I learned to play the recorder by myself and my children also played it. They have now switched to violin and piano. I agree with everything you mention about the recorder: affordable price, easy to carry along, learning it gives you almost instant gratification, etc.
When I listen to Maurice Steger I am upset at what my violin teacher used to say. Fortunately enough, there are people like you to advocate the use of that beautiful instrument, so close to the human voice.
Stephanie Lewis - host, on November 5, 2016 @6:11 am PST
Hi Jean-Pierre, firstly thanks for your recommendation of Maurice Sterger who, I confess, I hadn't heard of! As for your violin teacher, I'm afraid I just don't understand the comment! From an educational perspective, and as you said in your post, it's the 'small wins' that make the recorder so attractive, especially for the beginner learner...and of course it's a good stepping stone onto other instruments too. Thanks so much for getting in touch and sharing your thoughts. Cheers. Steph
paul.plak * VSM MEMBER * on August 4, 2017 @4:13 pm PST
Well, I first had to look up what a recorder was. We call it a flute in French. I reckon it's a good instrument to learn music, although I can play nor more than a few notes on it. In defence of your violin teacher, I feel that recorders often have badly tuned pitch notes, just off the right frequency. This can be a handicap in learning to play correct pitch in every note, if you're accustomed to hearing the "false" all the time on the recorder. Any "error" you take as an input to your brain will harm future correct perceptions, and this is also true for correct pitch when playing the violin. If you no longer hear the difference between perfect pitch and nearly correct pitch, you'll be in some trouble.
Then of course, there is also some sneering coming from a "high level" solo and orchestral instrument onto an "entry level" recorder. Music world also has "aristocrats" and "lesser" people ... at least some tend to think of it that way. That part isn't too good, neither in life, nor in music.
Stephanie Lewis - host, on August 10, 2017 @1:34 am PST
Yeah, it's 'flauto' in Italian too (although properly speaking it's 'flauto dolce' though everybody leaves out the second word). It's always a funny one when talking about 'proper tuning'. Technically speaking, tuning is dependent on what was used throughout history so can one ever say that you are 'in tune'out of tune'? It needs to also be stated that taste comes in to it. Some people, for example, tune their pianos using other systems than the standard 'equal temperament' as they are unhappy with its, well, 'standard-ness'. Another example is the soprano Natalie Dessay talking about changing the tuning of a series of Mozart pieces she realized (can't remember which ones) - and she is by no means the only one. Likewise, incorrect tuning can be just the thing you need as a composer or performer for a particular musical effect. Undoubtably, it's essential to play 'in tune' (as we understand it) but it's important to realize that tuning is ultimately an imposed, artificial system and a compromise at that.
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