Starting a successful recorder unit
My third graders have been gearing up to begin recorders, and they are so excited! We will officially begin in about two weeks, but in the meantime we are working on some preparatory activities to get them ready. Today, I’m going to talk a little about what has worked for me when beginning recorder with students for the first time.
1. Preparation and planning!
Being a kodály inspired teacher, I have really worked hard to scaffold learning in preparation for my third graders to begin recorder since the beginning of the year, but this year has been really tricky. This is my first year with my kids and our third grade specials classes are combined from four homerooms to three groups due to scheduling conflicts so my third grade group I see is actually 34 students! Anyway, despite the class size, my third graders have done good work progressing through the concepts I have presented to them.
Usually, by the time it comes time for my third graders to begin recorders, they are just getting to re and the do pentatonic scale. This has worked really well the last couples of years because I have always started the kids off on B, A, G (mi, re, do) and I just use the songs we will be using to study melody for use with singing and recorder. While my kids have done great work catching up with concepts since this is my first year with them, we have only just finished la and I’m not completely certain that everyone completely has “gotten” it, but we’ve got to move on (34 kids makes it tricky for regular individual assessments).
So, in the next two weeks I have before we begin, I’m beginning a fairly intensive unit on mi, re, and do to prep them for the first few recorder songs we will work on. In planning this unit, I had to first decide what song material I wanted to use when we began recorder and how I can use that song material to prepare and present mi, re, and do. I settled on beginning with Great Big House in New Orleans, Tideo, and Blow Wind Blow. Over the next couple weeks, we’ll learn the songs, practice the rhythm, and learn the solfa. When it comes time to begin recorder, my students will be all ready to learn the recorder harmonies (which only use B and A or G and A) I’ve written for these songs because it will further utilize the learning they began on mi, re, and do. By thinking with the end in mind, my lessons will be more focused on the tools my students will need later on which means they will be much more successful.
2. Pick repertoire that is familiar
Very much related to preparing students ahead of time for beginning recorder, is picking repertoire that they are already familiar with when you first begin. I have found that by choosing repertoire that I know my students know and love, it helps to get them through the first few tough weeks because they are excited to learn how to play familiar songs and won’t give up as easily.
The first couple weeks with recorders is always super tedious. There are so many new things that the kids need to make sure they’re doing and it’s important that I am able to make sure that each student is starting off on the right foot. As a result, there are times where the kids have to practice their patience while I scan the room to ensure everyone’s doing the right thing. By establishing clear and fair guidelines upfront, I can avoid students being upset when the inevitable happens (there’s always a few that are going to be too excited to not play!). My rules are 1. No playing while the teacher or another students is speaking, and 2. Absolutely no “noise” (purposefully “tooting” away without trying to create actual music). After one warning, they must put their recorder away if they continue to play or make “noise”. Students that have to put their recorders away must play “air” recorders so at least they are still learning. Being firm about these expectations from the start is so crucial to classroom management and student success!
4. Emphasizing proper technique
Air flow: Since beginning recorder is so tedious with all the things that need to be kept in mind, sometimes good technique can fall to the wayside. Don’t let that happen! Beginning with a strong technique ensures that the students will be more musical players in the long run. Here’s where my background as a flute player comes to play: ensure that students use steady, warm air. I compare it to blowing out candles on your birthday cake versus blowing on a bowl of hot soup. Two very different ways to use your air that give students a clear mental image of what kind of air to use. Later, when I hear students overblowing all I have to say is “don’t blow out your candles!” and that usually helps the problem.
Tonguing: To get students using their tongue properly, we talk a lot about the syllable “too” and keeping the air moving “through” the tongue. This legato playing takes time to learn, but I promise they will be playing more musically!
Hand position: Because I start students off with notes that only involve the left hand, I always notice students that let their right hand be “lazy.” Even though it takes some time to get to notes that involve both hands, it is so important to ensure that students hold their right hand in the correct to get them in the right habit.
5. Work on small chunks each lessons, then move on!
It can be so tempting in the beginning to keep working on recorder until everyone gets it just right, but it’s so much better to limit recorder playing to a certain amount of time in each lesson then move on. Slow and steady wins the race definitely applies here. There will be students who catch on to recorder very quickly, and there will be students that will need longer. A lot of times, those students who need longer benefit from practice on their own and working in small chunks. Lessons will be much more engaging and productive if recorder learning doesn’t take over the entire lesson.
6. Make sure students are engaged and enjoying themselves!
Learning recorder is a great first instrument for young students, in addition to being a great way to give students experience working in an ensemble and the value of discipline. There will be frustrations, but that’s all a part of the joy of learning! Make sure your students work through the road blocks they will face, but make sure it’s always enjoyable!
I hope these are helpful to you and your students! Do you have any tried and true tips that you use when you first teach recorder to your students? I would love to hear all about them!