Making the Most of Recorders in Schools

This article was written in 1994, added to my site in February 2005 and republished here in 2021 (references have been checked but none have been added). It was intended for a generalist music-teaching readership, for whom it may still be useful.

The recorder is ubiquitous in music education, and the teacher often wishes to have recorders supporting the primary school choir, playing for folk dancing, joining with piano students to give them some ensemble experience, and so on. This article is intended to assist those who need to write, arrange or merely organise music for recorders but are not primarily recorder players themselves.

Treated with respect for its capabilities and understanding of its limitations, the recorder will be marvellous in the roles just mentioned and in many others; treated otherwise, results will be discouraging for all involved – and do further damage, unnecessarily, to the reputation of a frequently but unfairly maligned instrument.

As a recorder specialist working in primary and secondary schools the author has been asked to clarify points of technique and notation as often as to advise on the best ways of employing the school’s recorder players. This article therefore begins with an outline of the instrument’s technical fundamentals.

Four members of the recorder family are commonly encountered – soprano, alto, tenor and bass. The soprano is often called the descant, and the alto is just as often called the treble. An alto by any other name sounds as sweet, but the author prefers ‘soprano’ and ‘alto’ because these names relate to vocal ranges as directly as do ‘tenor’ and ‘bass’: each recorder’s range is an octave above that of the voice of the same name.

The sopranino recorder, sounding an octave higher than the alto, is also reasonably common but is best avoided. It is not difficult to play (fingering and notation are the same as the alto) but in the hands of a less-than-competent player it often shrieks unpleasantly. Played well, it is like the piccolo: brilliant but somewhat overpowering. Recorders lower than the bass also exist. They sound lovely but their price puts them out of reach of almost all schools, so they need not be considered here.

recorder range chartThe above chart shows the ranges and notation of the four common recorders. It will be seen that all recorders are notated at concert pitch (give or take an octave), which makes life easier for the arranger but harder for the player. Soprano, tenor and bass recorders are written in the same clefs and ranges as their vocal namesakes, while the alto recorder is notated at sounding pitch, an octave higher than the alto voice.[1]

As far as the player is concerned, soprano and tenor are interchangeable (the lowest note is written as middle C on each). However, the player must read the lowest note of the alto as F above middle C, and the lowest note of the bass as F at the bottom of the bass staff: a soprano player needs a few weeks to relearn fingerings when first introduced to the alto or bass.

The accepted range of the recorder is two octaves and one tone, [2] but amateurs should rarely be asked to exceed an octave and a sixth (C – A’ on Soprano, F – D’ on Alto) in ensemble work. The average primary school child has a comfortable range of only a little over an octave, from C to D’ on soprano. Like most of the other woodwinds, recorders are at their best in the middle two-thirds of their range. The lowest few notes are perfectly useable but tend to be tonally weaker and slower in speaking, while the highest tend to be louder and not so well in tune. Both tendencies are more pronounced when the instrument is in the hands of younger players.

Recorders are capable of playing the full chromatic scale but some notes, and therefore some scales, are more awkward to finger than others. The keys of C, G, F, D and their relative minors are easiest, and are about as far as one would like to go with the average primary school ensemble. [3]

Difficulty increases thereafter with every sharp or flat in the key signature, and a maximum of three sharps or flats is reasonable for amateur groups of any age. To put this into a broader perspective, a glance at the Australian Music Examinations Board manual reveals that a range of C – G’ and keys of C, D, F, G, D minor and E minor are required of the soprano recorder in Grade 1, but even Grade 3 extends the range only to B’ and adds only the keys of A, G minor and A minor. There is no particular value in remote keys for their own sakes[4] so, if one has no compelling reason for using them, one might as well make life easier for the players and therefore pleasanter for the listeners.

If it is to remain in tune, the recorder has a very limited dynamic range: a louder note is a sharper note and a softer note is a flatter note, except where a highly skilled player uses special fingerings (often involving partially-closed holes) to compensate for the normal pitch-change. In practice one can ask students or amateurs to produce two distinct volume levels – mp and mf, for instance – without intonation suffering too much. Intonation will be better if the whole ensemble gets louder and softer together, but worse if one player must get louder while others reduce their volume. One cannot deny that the limited dynamic range is a handicap, but it is not so severe as one might at first imagine.

In the absence of dynamic contrast, articulation becomes especially important to expressive playing. The normal articulation is tongued, but the ratio of sound to silence can vary from 10:1 (almost connected) to 1:10 (staccatissimo); and this variety is exploited to convey metre and suggest dynamic contrast. Slurring is easy but is employed sparingly; it is merely one end of a continuum which must be freely used.

Playing the soprano recorder uses about as much breath as speaking, and at a similar pressure. The bigger recorders use more air, but still at a rather low pressure. Give a soprano or alto player as many breathing spaces as a singer and he or she can play comfortably for hours. The tenor or (especially) bass player, however, would find such writing exhausting and would appreciate longer and more frequent breaks.

Now that we have clarified the basics we can examine some examples of the ways recorders are used in educational contexts. Below are some typical questions and responses to them. While every situation is unique, the kinds of approaches suggested should prove useful in related situations.

Could the Year 4 recorder group play something while the rest of the class sings ‘Away In a Manger’?

There should be no problem getting sopranos to play the melody so long as it is in a comfortable key for them. F or G is fine, and should also suit the singers; if your vocal setting is in any other key, transpose it. A few tenors playing in octaves with the sopranos (same written part) and in unison with the voices will help to sweeten the whole effect. If some (or all) of them can’t manage the melody at the proper speed, work out a simple ostinato pattern for them. Don’t get too carried away by the success of this one and assume that ‘Ding Dong Merrily On High’ will work as easily, however: ‘Ding Dong’ is a lot quicker, so your recorder players’ fingers will probably not move fast enough for the melody just yet and you will probably have to be content with ostinati or a tonic/dominant drone.

The school choir is doing a lovely little piece in three parts, SSA. How can I add recorders to it?

Remember that soprano and alto recorders sound exactly an octave higher than the voices. It’s quite likely that the whole piece will suit SSA recorders, so all you will need to do is write out the alto part an octave higher for the recorder players. Just check key and range first, though: it might be necessary to transpose the whole piece up a semitone or tone to avoid an awkward key or some low notes in the second soprano part. A simpler arrangement would be to have all the recorders playing one of the voice parts, usually the top line.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have the recorders play ‘Advance Australia Fair’ while the rest of the school sings it at assembly?

Well, it would be nice but unfortunately it is not straightforward. ‘Advance Australia Fair’ has quite a wide range, which places tight limits on keys in which it is comfortable for singers. The standard key is Bb, but in this key soprano and tenor recorders cannot play the melody because it goes too low (down to the tonic); in C, it is easy for the recorders but most singers will find it too high for comfort. One answer is to have alto recorders play it in Bb, but few schools can muster enough competent alto players.

My school has no recorder group, but a boy who is really good on recorder has just arrived from another school. Can he play in our orchestra or concert band?

Yes, of course. The easiest answer for all concerned is to give him a flute part and ask him to play it on alto, leaving out the occasional note that is too low (if he plays it on soprano or tenor, most of it will be written too high, and if he plays it on soprano it will also sound an octave too high). The only problem is that he may feel he is not contributing much – if you have several flutes his sound will be lost amongst them. Other options for him are the piccolo part, to be played on sopranino – a good use for sopranino – or the oboe part, to be played on alto or tenor.

I have a group of eight or nine keen recorder players, mainly in year 6 and 7, who meet at lunchtimes. Only one of them plays alto and the school only has one tenor, which I have loaned to the child with the biggest hands. They have played folksong arrangements and a few renaissance dances in two or three parts. Where do we go from here?

It sounds like you are making the best use of what you’ve got at the moment, but re-balancing the group must be a high priority if the children are going to sound better or tackle any more substantial recorder music. I would aim for 3-part playing with 2-3 sopranos, 3-4 altos and 2-3 tenors. If the school can afford a couple more tenors, give them to the keenest or next-biggest children and the tonal balance will immediately be better. Altos take a little longer, but not much: if you lend a bright soprano-player an alto and a tutor book she will teach herself in a week or two (the only point of the tutor is to confront her with ‘new’ notes one at a time and in simple music before she meets them all at once in the ensemble).

Where can I find out more about the recorder?

Several one-volume reference books are available, any one of which will answer most of your questions about technique and repertoire. Look for Ken Wollitz’s The Recorder Book, Anthony Rowland-Jones’ Recorder Technique, or Hans-Martin Linde’s The Recorder Player’s Handbook. More are listed and all are compared here.
The Recorder Home Page, set up and maintained by Nicholas Lander, is the biggest and best of many online resources (see Links page).
For advice and encouragement, names of specialist teachers and (usually) access to a library of sheet music, contact your closest recorder society (see Links page for some Australian societies, or the Recorder Home Page for a bigger list).

Added to this site Feb 2021


[1]Except in some German music for recorder consort, where it is written in alto voice range. Players can learn to cope with this (they refer to it as ‘reading up an octave’) but it is neither common nor recommended.

[2]Skilled players can, however, extend this range upwards by about a fourth.

[3]This difficulty is not just a consequence of unfamiliarity, but arises from the fact that more finger-movements are required in remote keys. One octave of the C major scale on Soprano requires 12 finger movements, but one octave of Ab requires 21.

[4]Except for the change in tone-colour. F minor will have a mellower, slightly huskier sound than A minor – but any reader concerned with such subtleties shouldn’t need this article.