New takes on teaching recorder
All of these ideas about reconnecting with oral traditions of music pedagogy are playing out at the moment at Pelican Primary School, where for the last term and a half I have been teaching the two Year 3/4 classes to play the recorder. It’s been interesting to see how, despite my preference for informal learning environments, self-discovery, creativity and experiences of success through connecting with innate musical understanding, I still leaned quite heavily in those first weeks towards the more formal approach for learning recorder – introducing students to the notes, introducing first rhythmic notation then pitch-notation, and working with a tutor book. The tutor book was fun and irreverent, and they play along with an accompanying CD which they love, but it was still quite a big step away from the way I’d approach a music project with this class using percussion instruments.
There are a couple of reasons why I started by going down this path.The main one was the sense I had that they wanted to learn the associated skills like reading music. They are intrigued by this. I think that a lot of the students at this school automatically assume they probably won’t be as successful in tasks like learning to read music as students in other (more ‘mainstream’) schools might be. I wanted to be able to say to them, “You can do this. And I can teach you.”
Conversations with musician friends revealed that a large proportion of them learned to read music for the first time when they learned to play recorder. That’s quite significant – these are professional musicians, playing a whole range of instruments, but recorder was one of the first things they learned and that was where they also got to grips with the rubrics of music notation.
However, music reading slows things down. We are all able to play much more fluently than we are able to read. (This is demonstrated every single time the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble creates a piece together. If we were to score out the music that we compose together and ask them to play, it could take a year to get together, such is the level of complexity of the ideas. But because we create it collaboratively and learn it aurally/orally, it is ready for performance in less than 2 days). Therefore, this week and last I’ve started teaching them new ideas aurally.
It’s been good, actually, to remind them about listening. I posted a few weeks ago about Trying to Teach – on the difficulties of getting them to focus their attention on what I am saying long enough for me to finish saying it. I’ve become more explicit about this – “Are you ready to listen? I have three important things I need to tell you. Listen to each one, because that is how you will learn.” Or in recorder class, “We are going to learn this music using ears and eyes – the same way you know how to learn a new song. Listen while I play it and watch my fingers. Start to memorise the fingerings while you watch me. Listen and then repeat it after me. At first it might feel confusing, but we’ll keep going until everyone has learned the pattern.”
We have five notes learned on the recorder now (G, A, B, C, D), and it is enough for us to start playing some interesting things. This week, at the suggestion of my colleague Nicole from last week’s Sound Safari course that we co-led, I brought in a CD of Hot Hot Hot (in F major), and we invented a riff to play along with it. They enjoyed that a lot. So did I. I’ve also added some different recorders to the class – 2 bass recorders and 2 tenor recorders. We create chord progressions to play together, with the bass recorders playing a different line to the descants and tenors.