Teaching Recorder To Elementary Students: Beginner’s Guide

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Are you starting to teach recorders to your elementary kids for the first time? 

Do you want to refine your recorder teaching for young kids? 

The recorder is a staple of the elementary music curriculum for the past 50 years, and there are many methods and books out there to follow. 

But I was dissatisfied with the help most of them offered for beginner recorder teachers. So I decided to write this beginner’s guide to teaching recorder to elementary students. 

When teaching recorders to elementary students, the teacher needs to provide a motivation for playing; develop a firm understanding of posture, playing, and good tone; and follow a sequence with engaging activities. This can be developed on your own or you may want to check out some quality resources. 

Read ahead for answers to many questions on teaching how to play recorder. 

Why Do Schools Teach The Recorder?

A lot of music teachers get upset when people suggest the recorder is a waste of time or a miserable instrument (and I do too sometimes), but really we need to fix this attitude with awareness of the benefits of recorders. 

These aren’t the only benefits, but here are some you may want to throw out there to help build your cause. 

Problem-Solving – Learning something new requires out-of-the-box thinking or problem-solving skill that can be applied to all other aspects of life. 

Prepares Wind Instruments – In the music world, the recorder is a perfect precursor to all wind instruments. It requires the control of air and coordination with fingers. 

Practice Skills – Learning songs on recorder requires reflection and thought that goes along with good practice (see guide below for more details). 

Grit – Recorder is unlike any other instrument the students have likely played. You have to have thought, skill, and practice to even make a single good sound, let alone play a whole song. 

This is tough, and it’s good to have students learn to do tough things. 

Aural Skills – Playing recorder develops the ear in a different way and transfers the musical literacy they have in a new way. 

Coordination – The fine motor control required by recorder playing is perfect for the development of older elementary students. 

Sense Of Group/Ensemble – Most groups students have been a part of at this point are competitive. It’s also important to learn how to be in a group and work together to create something awesome. 

Learn about the 5 types of recorders. 

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Beginner’s Guide To Teaching Recorder To Elementary Students

In this section, I’ll go over some elements you may need for teaching how to play recorder. This includes specific activities to help produce a good tone. 

Related Reading: Check out what a soprano recorder is. 

Building Anticipation

The first steps I take happen far before I begin recorders in January in 3rd grade (see below). I actually start this step as soon as I start seeing students in Kindergarten or even preschool. 

We all know the recorder is tough, so it’s in the students’ best interest to build a love and excitement for the recorder which will outlast the initial frustration of the sound. 

I do this by playing my recorder all the time in younger grades. 

After students are able to sing their songs on their own, I enjoy playing along with them. They think this is pretty cool. 

I also like playing “Guess The Tune” at the end with songs they’ve done from class and ones they know from the “real world”. 

Here are some of those real world songs I like to play: 

  • Hedwig’s Theme
  • SpongeBob Squarepants
  • Star Wars Theme
  • Jurassic Park
  • Little Einsteins
  • Baby Shark
  • The Duck Song
  • Mario Underworld Theme
  • Halo Theme
  • Fur Elise
  • Ode To Joy
  • Song of Time from the Legend of Zelda
  • *sigh* Old Town Road
  • Pokémon theme
  • In The Hall Of The Mountain King

On top of this, I’ll also show videos of other playing recorders to show them how cool it can be. Here’s one of my favorites to show: 

When To Begin? 

As they get older, it’s time to plan out when you want to start recorder. There’s quite a bit of variety to this answer, but I find there tends to be 3 answers: 

  • Halfway through 3rd grade
  • Start of 4th grade
  • Start of 5th grade

While some may debate and get all upset over when you start, I think any of these work just fine. It largely depends on your preference and goals with recorders. 

Check out this pros and cons chart for when to start recorders. 

GradeProsCons
Halfway through 3rd*Plenty of time to keep learning after you start
*Aligns with pitches learned at this grade level
*Still young enough to be OK with sounding silly at first
*Fingers have a harder time
*Attention span is smaller
4th grade*Still have two years to play (usually)
*Fingers are more adept
*Able to focus better
*Both the above and below cons to a smaller extent
5th grade*Learn the fastest
*Have more finger and air control
*Already have a strong grasp of music literacy concepts
*Less time to master recorder
*Students at this age are more self-conscious about sounding wrong or silly

None of these times are perfect or completely bad. I personally choose 3rd grade because I want more time to learn recorder. 

But I also only spend part of my time doing recorder rather than whole units where we do nothing else but recorders. 

If you’re new to the world of teaching recorder to elementary students, I recommend starting with fourth grade. It’s the best of both worlds. 

Proper Posture

When it comes time to actually play recorders, the first thing I approach is posture. If you’re someone who has them sit on the floor a lot, that’s OK. 

Just discuss with them the importance of sitting up straight and how poor posture affects their breathing and coordination. 

Two quick activities: 

Pull the string – For the pull the string posture activity, have students reach over their head while imagining their spine is a string threading throughout their whole body. 

Have students pull the string lightly which lengthens their body, straightens their back, and suspends the body’s weight. 

Have them “loop” the string around a hook in the ceiling to keep their bodies in this position. 

When they inevitably begin to slump down, I joke about how the strings must have snapped and have them grab more string to pull. 

Caveman/Fancyman – This is a comparison activity. It helps with visuals of caveman’s posture and someone with good posture, but, to be honest, I almost always forget to look it up and just describe it. 

It seems to work well this way too. 

I ask students to think about a caveman hunched over his/her berries. The back and shoulders are curved, and the head is down. 

Have them try singing a song they know well in this position. They should note that they don’t have as much air. 

Now, describe a fancy person with their head held high and shoulders proud. Have the students sing with this posture. 

They should note they have much more air and coordination. 

When I see posture sleeping, sometimes I just comment on how I have a lot of cavepeople in the class, and this will usually fix most posture. 

You know, except for the couple of boys who get goofy the first time you say cavemen. But this never happens…right?

Note: Both of these posture activities work well for singing as well. 

Chin Position!

With recorders in hand, it’s time to get into the meat of the recorder playing. Before we play, I set up the expectation of chin position. 

When I ask for chin position, students must put their recorder mouthpiece on their chins. This prevents them from accidentally playing but still allows finger practice. 

I encourage students to go to chin position every time we’re done playing. If they do play when they’re not supposed to, I give them a warning. 

After this, I take the top of their recorder away or take the whole thing away and give them a stick to hold and practice fingers on. 

Once the class sees I’m serious about this, they usually go right to chin position, and it cuts down on extra playing a lot! 

Soft Air

Now comes the first of what I call the “Big 3” of recorder playing. These Big 3 are a checklist for tone and squeak-prevention. 

The Big 3 are: 

  • Soft air
  • “T” tongue
  • Cover the holes

First is soft air. The recorders are softer instruments and require gentle air. 

I tell students to make a circle with their lips (while holding but not playing recorder) and to blow soft air like they’re whispering the word “too.” 

There are a few checks I rotate through with soft air. Check them out here: 

Tickle the palm – This the first and easiest check I do with kids. It works pretty well. 

Holding their recorders on their chin, I have them karate chop the recorder in half (well…pretend to, anyway) and hold their hand out palm out as they take the recorder away. 

Now, their hand is about half a recorder length away from their mouth. Then, we echo some whisper patterns on “too.” 

Their goal is to feel the air tickling their palm in a small circle. Too little air or not a circle mouth shape, and they won’t feel the air. 

Too much air on their hands will result in a squeak when they play. 

Send the bubble – This activity can be done metaphorically or in actuality (although be prepared for it to get a little crazy!). 

Ask students to imagine (or actually do this) a bubble floating in the air. You want the bubble to move across the room without popping. 

Blow too hard and the bubble will pop. Blow too easy and the bubble won’t move anywhere. 

Have students mime the motion with their hands while they practice echoing “too” patterns. 

Don’t blow out the candle! – Describe a candle’s flame to students and how it flickers while it’s lit. When playing recorder, the goal is to blow firm but gentle air to make the flame bend but not go out. 

I have students mime this with one finger on their hand pointed up (pointer preferably) and blow the finger while making it wiggle but not fall down. 

If the kids are playing too harshly, I’ll hold up my recorder like a flame and make it fall down if they play too late. 

This gives them direct feedback on how hard they’re playing. 

I’ve seen teachers practice this with an actual lighter or candle with great success. I’ve just never wanted to mess with an actual flame myself, but if you do, check with your admin first. 

Float the tissue – This is similar to the bubble check, but with tissues. The goal is to keep the tissue floating above your head without blowing away. 

“T” Tongue

The second of the Big 3 is what I call “T” tongue. Some people prefer a “d” tongue sound like “doo” when they play. 

I don’t think it makes much of a difference honestly. 

The argument against “t” is that it encourages too hard of tonguing. The argument against “d” is that the articulation isn’t as clear. 

Ultimately, I go with “t” because I use ta and titi rhythm syllables, so the “t” lines up better with the syllables. If you followed Gordon rhythm syllables, then you may want to use a “d” tongue on the recorder. 

This is mostly accomplished with students by having them echo “too” whispers before playing. I’ll also have them use their right hand to make a hand flicking motion when they tongue. I tell them this hand is like your tongue lightly touching the back of your top teeth when you play. 

The other things to watch for are cheek puffers and shoulder bouncers. 

Cheek puffers – They’re using a “hoo” instead of “too” and not holding a firm circle with their lips. 

Should bouncers – They’re using more than their tongues to articulate. Have them imagine a stream of water. 

When they tongue, the tongue cuts through the water quickly without letting the water spray everywhere. You don’t stop the water; you cut through it. 

You don’t stop the air; you tongue through it.  

Covering Holes

The final of the Big 3 is making sure the holes are covered. My favorite check for this is as follows: 

  1. Have students finger the note G, A, or B.
  2. Have students squeeze their fingers as tightly as possible for 10 seconds. 
  3. Ask them to remove their fingers and look at them. 
  4. They should see a complete circle in the middle of their finger pads. 
  5. I walk around and show them where the circles are on my fingers.
  6. Then, I draw a picture on the board. 
  7. I describe a relaxed shoulder, perpendicular fingers, and “flatter” fingers (not curled).  

Another thing I do is model what the tone of the recorder sounds like when missing the thumbhole and/or the top holes. 

This way, students can start to solve problems when they’re tone isn’t quite right. 

Left Hand On Top?

One of the biggest struggles any music teacher has is getting students to keep their left hand on top. 

We’ve all heard them exclaim, “But I’m right-handed!” And then they give you the most shocked look when you insist on the left hand. 

I will admit, I’m a little lazy when it comes to this aspect of recorder playing. I will insist on it, but I also let it slide more than I should. 

Then, I try to explain why we need left hand on top, but students just don’t want to do it often. These are the reasons I give: 

  • It was designed with left hand on top
  • The bottom two holes are moved over for the shorter fingers on your right hand
  • The harder fingers to use are on the bottom, so your right hand will be doing most of the work eventually

I’ve tried the left-hand wrist bands some people sell. These work pretty well, but the problem comes with getting them on and off. 

Most often, I just rely on consistent correcting the hands when I notice them. 

Sledding Hill

Another thing to watch for is the angle of their recorder to their face. I always tell kids they want a 45° gentle sled hill. 

With a 45° hill, it makes a fun sled hill. If you leave the hill going out straight, the sled won’t go anywhere. 

If you force the hill to go straight down into a cliff, then you just fall and splat!

It also helps to demonstrate how these angles affect your jaw. Kids think it’s goofy, but they remember and usually don’t have as much as a problem.  

Which Notes Do You Start On?

In recent years, the debate over which notes to start on has increased dramatically. There are a few different options, but as with most things, I believe any of them will work just fine as long as you approach a sequence intentionally. 

Here are the common options with pros and cons: 

Starting NotesProsCons
B-A-GTraditional way to start
Aligns with mi-re-do which 3rd/4th grade know well
Notes sound less squeaky 
Easy on the fingers
Requires 3 notes
G-EUses sol-mi earlier
In singable key
Gets both hands involved right away
Requires more fingers
Needs softer air
High C-AUses sol-mi earlier
Decreases risk of squeaking
Doesn’t encourage soft air
Makes C-B transition harder

For reference, I start with B-A-G, but many people I respect use G-E right away too. 

Echo (echo…)

When kids are first learning to play recorder, they need to develop a good idea of what the recorder is supposed to sound like. This is why echoing is so important. 

For the first few weeks, my students will copy me almost non-stop. In this way, we play under control and keep up the pattern recognition. 

I’ll have the copy patterns on each note individually and then move to putting the notes together in small melodic patterns. 

Then, we’ll break down the beginning songs with echoing as well. 

First Song

For me (and many other music teachers), the first song students will learn is Hot Cross Buns

This song is popular for the first song for almost every instrument because of its simple mi-re-do, accessible rhythms, and repetitive nature. 

Students feel successful at this right away. Just take it one step at a time, and they’ll do just fine. 

Check out how to play Hot Cross Buns For Beginners for step by step instructions. 

Finger Practice, Finger Practice, Finger Practice

Even when practicing songs they already know, I can’t understate the importance of finger practice. I encourage students who are motivated to even practice the fingers when they’re in class on pencils. 

I tell my students there are 2 basic parts of recorder playing: good air and good fingers. 

Good air stays the same for all notes and songs. It’s the fingers that change. 

To drive this home, I’ll often do this demonstration. 

I’ll ask for a volunteer to play one long tone. Then, I’ll turn their recorder around and finger through one of my songs from the list above while they provide the air. 

The students are always amazed by this. I tell them: 

“You have good air. I have good fingers.

What do you need to practice then?

Good fingers!

Then, let’s make sure we practice the fingerings every time we say the letters or you hear me play!”

Note Progression

After they’ve played a few songs with your starting notes, they need to move on to new ones. There are many variations on the order of notes learned. I prefer this one: 

  1. B-A-G
  2. A-high C
  3. High C-B
  4. High D
  5. Low E
  6. Low D
  7. Low C
  8. F#
  9. F

I like going to high C before low E because it keeps things from getting too squeaky and it extends the scalular motion. We can also use C-A as a sol-mi motion they’re familiar with. 

I recommend finding a resource following a sequence you agree with. Almost any sequence will work well as long as you’re intentional.

Note: Check out my favorite resources section below for more ideas. 

Practice Procedure

In life, students will need to know how to practice, reflect, and improve on whatever skills they want to in life. Recorder is a great place to begin this. 

I always teach these steps as we learn our second song, and we work through them together:

  1. Look at song and plan ahead (finger practice).
  2. Try the whole song. 
  3. Reflect on what could be better. 
  4. Practice that part. 
  5. Put back together for step 2. 
  6. Repeat until the song is mastered (usually 95% 3 times in a row). 
  7. Challenge yourself. 

Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong. 

After we work through this procedure, I facilitate a discussion about how these steps will help someone learn about any number of skills. 

This is awesome for connecting music to life outside the arts (but, of course, also including the arts). 

Challenges

The final step in my practice procedure are challenges. These are fun ways to encourage students to develop their skills beyond simple playing. 

Here are some challenges I use with my classes: 

  • Play it faster
  • Skip every other note
  • Split challenge (class splits up into groups and each group only plays one pitch)
  • Play it backwards
  • Play it in canon
  • Invert the melody
  • Boys vs Girls
  • Solo (small group) playing

There are many more challenges you could do, but these are just a few I like to use often. 

Recorder Tests

Starting with Recorder Karate, there have been a lot of reward systems for learning songs on recorder. And I’m totally fine with all of this. 

The belts or stars or whatever you use help students to stay motivated and push themselves. 

My concern is with individual playing tests in front of the whole group. Yes, there are going to be times when students will have to present on their own in front of large groups of people, but I think we need to be careful. 

Society already has a misguided belief that music is for those with talent, and those without talent won’t be able to make music well. 

With this pre-established belief, the slightest bad experience in individual singing or playing may turn the student off from music forever. 

So for “tests,” I never make a student play on their own unless they want to. I prefer to let them play in small groups (no more than 4). 

I’m still able to get a good read on the students’ ability in these small groups. 

If you insist on individual scoring, please allow your students to do it out of the whole class’ eye. This could be done briefly after class in the hall or even when the rest of the class is doing something else. 

Yes, push your students and assess individually, but be careful not to crush a child’s confidence. 

5 Recorder Games For Music Class

When it comes to playing recorder, your students will find it a lot more fun if you find ways to incorporate more games into your teaching. These are a few of my favorites: 

Memory

This challenges memory and aural skills as well as provides good pattern and finger practice. The game is basically the same as normal memory but with recorder notes. 

You start with one note which the class or small group has to play back. Then, they need to play the first note plus one more. 

You continue until they mess up and record their score. 

For example (student echoes in parentheses):

  1. B (B)
  2. B A (B A) 
  3. B A A (B A A)
  4. B A A G (B A A G) 
  5. B A A G B (B A A G B)
  6. B A A G B G (B A A G B A)
  7. Students’ scores would be 5. 

I love how this game fits with the students wherever they’re at. If they only know B-A-G, then that’s what you practice. 

If they know G-A-B-C-D, and they need to practice the B-C switch, you can bet which two notes are going pop up in the game. 

Ear Training Battle

For this game, I either split the class into groups or have them on one team against me. Each team gets one point if they figure out how to play back the four beat pattern I play. 

All the group is told is which note I’m starting on. They get to hear it twice and discuss what they think it is before they play. 

Each team takes turns figuring out the patterns until one team reaches the winning amount of points. 

When I play whole-class-versus-me, they get a point for figuring it out, and I get a point for tricking them. 

Recorder Train

The recorder train game is similar to the rhythm train game I mention in the Ultimate Guide To Counting Rhythm And Rhythm Syllables. This version uses a recorder instead of rhythms. 

Each student is asked to think about a 4 beat recorder pattern to play using the notes they know. Then, with me playing a beat, each student has to play their pattern all in one big train without (hopefully) the beat crashing. 

This builds improvisation skills and also finger fluency on the notes they’re working on. 

Wind Bag Award

I got this game/challenge from the Be A Recorder Star program (see in resources below). But it’s fun to play nonetheless, so you should check out this book for sure or just play the game. 

Basically, the students must all play a single pitch for as long as they can with a good tone. You time how long they last, and when they run out of air, they sit down. 

The last one standing is the “Wind Bag” and wins. Continue with all the pitches they know. 

For some reason, students find this to be a blast! On the pedagogical side, it forces the students to regulate their air and become more aware of the relationship between air and tone.

Pro-tip: Be very clear about people with poor tone being disqualified, especially if they play too squeaky or too weak. 

Recorder Relay

For this game, you need flashcards with simple recorder patterns covering what the students already know. 

The class is split into teams. They have to hop (or some other mode of movement) up to you and play the pattern on the flashcard. 

Then (with your approval) they must go back and tag the next person in line. Repeat until all have played and at down. 

Note: Be careful the moves don’t make them get out of breath or their recorder playing won’t sound good. 

Favorite Recorder Resources

In this section, I’ll share a few of my favorite recorder resources. Check these out after you read their descriptions and see if they’re a good fit. 

Some links are affiliate in nature which means we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. However, I never recommend a product I haven’t used and believe in. 

Recorders

Kingsley Kolor- These recorders are a good mix of sound, price, and durability (super super durable). These are the ones I use; my only smallest complaint would be the “C” pitch isn’t exactly in tune with other recorders. 

Yamaha YRS-23Y – This is the other brand I feel confident in recommending. These were the ones I would have students buy until the price went up over $5. Great tone, decent price, but the cases are a little wimpy.  

Books

Recorder Express – This interactive book by Artie Almeida is a well-thought-out sequence drawing on fun and authentic songs. 

Be A Recorder Star – I love this program; it’s the one I currently use. The songs are sequential with a lot of fun and aurally based activities. 

The accompaniments sound great, and the sequence goes to C-A after B-A-G which is what I prefer.  

Recorder Karate – This was the first system that made a reward-based recorder method developed, and it’s still popular today. This was also the first method I followed, and it works well. 

First 50 Songs You Should Play On Recorder – While this Hal Leonard collection isn’t a method, it does fit in perfectly with any method. The collection has a lot of variety in the songs chosen, so you’re sure to find something your students love. 

Posters

Mel Bay Recorder Wall Chart – Most fingering charts are a bit too focused on the tiny placement of the pitches on the staff (in my opinion). This one provides a good balance of fingering display with the notation. 

Recorder Dude – These charts are adorable, big, and easy for kids to read. I highly recommend checking these out.  

Conclusion

I hope you found this beginner’s guide for teaching recorder to elementary students helpful. The guide, games, and resources should give you more than a good place to start. 

What recorder resources do you like to use? Let us know in the comments below. 

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher with Bay City Public Schools in Michigan. He's a Past-President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and Executive Secretary of the Midwest Kodaly Music Educators Association.

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