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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Teaching Recorder: establishing fundamentals

Let's talk some more about teaching recorders! Over the last few weeks, I've written about logistical considerations for getting a recorder unit started, and about what I teach on the first day of recorders. Today I want to talk about how I teach the next few lessons after the first day to make sure students are starting with good habits that will help them be more successful for the rest of the unit.

1. Start with rote

Reading from treble clef notation is definitely an important aspect of learning recorder, but in the beginning it is very hard for young students to focus on the process of note reading when they already have so many new skills they are trying to master on their new instrument! I stay away from notation completely in the first few lessons. As I mentioned in my previous post, I start my students on G first, and then E. Every time I introduce a new note throughout the recorder unit, I always have students go through the same process to practice the new note:
  1. Discuss and practice the correct fingering (no playing)
  2. With their fingers in the correct position, have students echo me singing 4-beat rhythms on the pitch letter name 
  3. With their fingers still in the correct position, have students echo me blowing "two" softly on 4-beat rhythms
  4. Echo me playing 4-beat rhythms on the new note
  5. Echo me playing 4-beat rhythms using the new note and 1 other note they already know
The last step is an important one- I did not used to consistently take the time to have students echo me with 2-pitch patterns, but I have found it makes a huge difference in students' ability to integrate the new note into melodies. They need the time to practice going to and from the new note. 

2. Improvise

Improvisation is something I include regularly in music class starting in kindergarten (read more about that in this post), so the concept itself is not new. One great way to quickly see how students are doing (and provide some additional challenge for students who are moving ahead of the others) is to have students take turns improvising a 4-beat pattern using 1 or more pitches that they are learning. I establish the beat, then go around the room counting 4 beats for each student in a row with no gaps in between. It's a quick and lower-pressure way for me to do individual assessments so I know who I need to spend more time with.

3. Practice time

One of the concepts I establish early is the idea that there is always room for improvement, so everyone always has something they can practice. Every so often, I will announce a 30-60 second practice session, where I give students a specific skill to work on (practice a new note, practice switching between 2 pitches, practice a specific measure, etc). This gives me a chance to go work with individuals that need some attention, gives students that are feeling a little panicked trying to keep up with the class a chance to stop and find their way, and gives the faster learners a chance to practice that skill at a higher level. 

One thing I tell everyone from the beginning is that they need to use the entire practice time to improve, not just mess around on the instrument or relax and do nothing. If I see anyone who isn't using their practice time to practice, I take that as a challenge to a duel and I make them come up front and do whatever I asked them to practice in front of the class, then I do the same to see if they can do it better than me. I tell them they aren't allowed to stop practicing until they're better than I am. Once I do one or two duels they usually get the idea!

4. The first song

After doing all of that echoing and improvising, it's pretty exciting when they first get to play a *real song*! After working on G and low E for a lesson or two, I make my last 4-beat pattern that they echo using the two pitches be the first line of "Rain, Rain Go Away" (G-E-GG-E). After they echo me, I stop, surprised, and exclaim proudly that they just played a song! I have them stop and listen to the pattern and usually they will recognize the tune. How exciting!! :)

Once they are getting a decent sound on G and E and getting used to switching back and forth between the two, I introduce A (with the same process I described), and then eventually have them learn the 2nd line of "Rain, Rain Go Away" (GG-EA-GG-E). I teach it to them by rote first, taking plenty of time to practice the fingering (it's quite a jump to get them to switch between E and A then back to G!). 

Once they have already learned to play the first 2 lines of the song, I go back and show them the notation for the first time, and we go through the process of learning a song from notation (more on that in a future post 😉), so they can focus on coordinating the thought process of interpreting the musical notation with the physical process of playing their instrument.

Once they have gotten to this point successfully, most students have a solid foundation for the rest of the recorder unit! If you want to see my full lesson plans for beginning recorder, check out my 3rd grade curriculum set here.

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  1. THIS series is wonderful! I'm using so many of your ideas from this post in my teaching and I really appreciate your detailed and descriptive blog. It's my favorite reading material for encouragement and highly engaging lessons and just in general I feel we share a very similar personality and teaching style. I should photo all the things I do that I got from you sometime and share it with you. :)

    1. Oh my goodness thank you for the note- I am so glad you've found so many ideas you can use in your teaching and that you've found encouragement in my writing as well! I would love to see how you've used things in your own teaching (and chat over a cup of coffee)! I love teaching recorders. We just started this week with this year's 3rd graders- so exciting! I hope you and your students have an awesome week as well!

  2. At my school we do recorders in 4th grade and I have noticed that starting them with the low E early on is helping with breath control- less squeaking. In the past I hadn't introduced the low notes until later, and by then they were used to a faster airstream for G, A, B, C, and high D. Makes a lot of sense to help them with the green belt song in a large group setting. Thanks for the tip!

    1. I agree, it makes a huge difference! So glad you found it helpful for you too.