Image Map

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Teaching Recorder: troubleshooting

One of the biggest struggles of teaching recorder is dealing with all the squeaks and squawks, especially in the beginning. After teaching recorder for over a decade I've learned to spot some of the most common issues beginners deal with, and the most effective ways to address them in the classroom setting. Obviously I won't be covering every problem I've ever encountered, nor will the solutions I suggest work for every student, but hopefully you'll find a few new tricks to add to your arsenal as you battle bad recorder sounds!

1. Overblowing

The best way to address students who blow too hard is to work on low notes before introducing higher notes- read this post on my first recorder lesson to hear more thoughts on this, but starting on G and low E right away forces players to blow more softly to have any hope of producing the correct note. This solves 90% of my overblowers, but if and when I do catch a student blowing too hard, a quick "softer" reminder usually fixes it pretty quickly. 

Other tricks you can try: 
  • Have them blow on your hand so you can feel how hard they're actually blowing, then have them blow on their own hand to feel it themselves. If you're both comfortable with it, you can also blow on their hand so they can feel it and compare.
  • Tell them to pretend they are blowing bubbles- if they blow too hard they will pop the bubble!
  • Tell them to pretend they are blowing on a candle to make the flame flicker but not go out.
  • Have them practice blowing softly while you hold the instrument and cover the holes so they can focus on that one skill.
2. Improper (or lack of) Tonguing

I always introduce blowing technique by having students say the number "two", and every time I introduce a new note we practice whispering "two" (off of the mouthpiece) while showing the correct fingering. I also have them practice playing short notes (like sixteenths) from the beginning to force them to have to tongue (I talk about this in my post on the first lesson as well). That frequent practice helps, but there are always still a few students who, I think in an effort to blow softer, start blowing without tonguing, saying "who" instead of "two". I call them my owls 😉 Most of them have tell-tale puffy cheeks so I can spot them right away and have them practice blowing "two" in the air. Every few years though, I've had a student who was sneaky enough to get by blowing "who" (or some other strange variation) without it being obvious from the outside, and those are hard to correct!

A few things that have worked for me in the past:
  • Some of them have gotten away with blowing "who" for a while so they don't see any reason to change their technique. In that situation I have them play something with lots of fast notes and then I play it for them afterwards and we compare- you can always tell that my sound is better (if they need more convincing, play something that switches between low and high notes- that will really get them!). Once they're convinced, sometimes all they need is a frequent reminder to say "two" and they're fine.
  • Surprisingly, one of the most common problems I've found with these students is posture. I think they compensate for shallow breathing and poor posture by avoiding tonguing because they don't have good breath support/ control. One of the first things I'll try is to be very strict about their posture and really focus on proper breathing- sometimes the problem correct itself once they are breathing deeply and properly supporting their air. 
  • Sometimes the reason they aren't tonguing is because of where their tongue is in relation to the mouthpiece. Try having them take more or less of the mouthpiece into their mouth while saying "two" to see if it's easier for them.
3. Slippery Fingers

This is especially difficult if you are introducing recorder to younger students who have smaller fingers (a big reason why I advocate starting in 4th grade- read more in this post)- you get everyone's fingers covering the holes correctly, and then 2 seconds later half of their fingers have slid up away from the holes they're supposed to be covering. To be honest I think this is mostly unavoidable in the beginning- I think the only real "cure" is for students to have the time to get used to the finger positioning. With that said, here are a few things I do to help speed up the process:

  • I constantly walk around while students are practicing, echoing me, etc and tap on any fingers that are coming off of the holes. Usually when this happens they've just forgotten about their fingers because they're focused on one of the other million things their brains have to think about!
  • Some students struggle with this not because of their reach or the size of their hands but because they are double jointed. I try to spot the double jointed students early on and point it out to them. Any time I see their fingers turning "inside out" or their wrists clenching up, I silently shake my hand in front of them as a cue for them to take their hands off of the recorder and "shake it out" and then reset their hands. 
  • One of the most common causes of fingers slipping up is the left thumb. I've never understood this because my hand isn't built this way, but many students naturally point their thumb up towards the mouthpiece when they try to cover the hole on the back, which turns their entire hand in such a position that they can't comfortably cover the holes on the front. I do constant thumb checks, reminding them to point their thumbs towards the side wall, and that helps a lot of students keep their hands in a nice, rounded "C" position.
  • Some students, especially ones who either have played or have seen others play piano or bowed string instruments, naturally try to place their fingers over the holes on the very tips of their fingers (this is also a problem for double jointed people who are over-compensating in an attempt to keep their wrists relaxed and rounded). I always do this with the entire class in the first lesson, but I will have students with this problem repeat this exercise to make sure they are using the pads of their fingers rather than the very tips: get their fingers positioned where they think they should be, then press down hard enough to make a mark of where the hole is under each finger. Take their fingers off and look to see where the circles are (and if it shows a complete circle or a partial one). 
There are so many other little things we could cover here, but those are the top 3 most common problems I've encountered with beginning recorder. I know there are lots of other great tricks music teachers have developed for troubleshooting- please share yours in the comments!

If you want to read more about recorder teaching, here are all of my posts on the topic. If you want to see my complete lesson plans for my recorder unit, along with all of the teaching materials, they are included in my 3rd grade curriculum set.

Want to get timely ideas and resources sent straight to your inbox? Click here to sign up for the Organized Chaos newsletter!


  1. This is great timing! I'm planning on starting recorders next week! I start in 3rd grade with basics and a short unit. In 4th grade, we dive into it a little deeper and do Karate.

    1. Glad this came at a good time for you! We've just gotten going with recorders a few weeks ago :) Have fun!

  2. One of MY struggles is with tinnitus...the volume level of a class set of recorders with beginners, puts me off the charts. Can last up to a week before better, but when using recorders continuously, my ears don't get a break until spring break and summer :( Thanks for sharing your tips, hints and ideas.

  3. One thing about "correcting" students with their left thumb pointing upward: that's the proper position for playing clarinet to reach the register (octave) key! I have spent YEARS trying to get clarinet students to stop pointing their thumbs sideways. Just sayin'...
    (Of course, the kind of breath control that we spend a year or two instilling in recorder students ALSO seems at odds with the air support that woodwind and brass wind instruments require. Guess you can't have everything.)

    1. Good point! I know many beginning band teachers struggle with getting students to differentiate between correct playing on recorder and correct playing on their new band instrument. As someone who has assisted with beginning band for many years, I know the frustration! That being said, I would still advocate for teaching students the correct playing technique for each instrument rather than encouraging incorrect or inappropriate playing on one instrument in the hopes of transferring that to a future instrument. The more success they have on each instrument, especially the first wind instrument they study, the greater success they will have long-term on other instruments in my experience. It may take some re-training initially but I think it's worth the effort to help students get the best tone possible on each instrument, even if that means teaching them different techniques for each one.

  4. After the previous post, I need to add that you have pointed out some really good ideas for troubleshooting, and since this is my second year of teaching recorders, I thank you.

    1. I'm so glad you found it helpful! And I appreciate you sharing your thoughts from an instrumentalist perspective! :)

  5. I'm a homeschooling Mom with a music education degree, and I find teaching music to my own children to be quite difficult! After much struggle, my third grader is almost done with her primer book on piano (although we are finally going much faster now), and this is a perfect help! They are currently standing in front of their music, happily playing!