How to Play the Recorder
Created | Updated Jan 3, 2008
The recorder is an instrument that is quite easy to play although, like any other instrument, it takes practice to play it well.
Choosing a Recorder
Recorders come in a number of different sizes. The recorder normally used to learn on is called the soprano recorder1. It is about 30cm long. There are larger and smaller recorders, but this entry mainly deals with the playing of the soprano recorder.
Recorders can be made out of plastic or wood. Plastic recorders are much cheaper than wooden ones. It is best to start with a plastic recorder. When you improve, you should buy a wooden recorder. It usually sounds better and is easier to play, but requires a little bit more looking after.
A Description of Your Recorder
The recorder comes in a number of parts known as joints. There are normally three.
- The top part is the head joint. It's the one you blow into.
- The main body of the recorder with most of the finger holes is called the body joint.
- The bottom bit is called the foot joint. It has the last finger hole in it. It must be turned so that the hole is slightly to one side, not lined up with the other holes.
Sometimes the body and foot are joined together as one piece.
The narrow part of the head joint, which you put between your lips, is called the beak. There is a narrow tube called the windway into which you blow. The air coming out of the windway strikes a sharp edge called the labium. This process produces the sound. The opening from the end of the windway to the other end of the labium is known as the window.
The first and foremost rule in looking after your recorder is never to touch the labium. This is the sharp edge that produces the sound. It is very delicate. If it is damaged, the whole instrument is useless.
If the windway gets blocked with moisture, don't poke anything into it. Cover the window without touching the labium and blow hard. This should clear it. If the windway is seriously blocked, take off the head joint, put your hand over the end where it joins onto the body of the recorder, put your mouth over the window and blow. If even this doesn't work, poke a feather into the windway. This will not damage the labium if it touches it accidentally.
When putting your recorder together or taking it apart, use a gentle twisting action. This prevents the joints from being damaged.
When you are playing, moisture usually condenses inside the recorder. You should dry the recorder after use. Doing this is good practice for plastic recorders and essential for wooden ones.
You should occasionally oil the inside of wooden recorders (but not the labium or the windway) with linseed oil. If the joints are cork, then you should apply a little cork grease to keep them supple. Suitable oil and grease is available in music shops.
It's now time to make your first noise with the recorder. Hold the recorder any old way and don't worry about the finger holes for the moment. Put the mouthpiece between your lips. Don't bite it! It shouldn't touch your teeth.
Now whisper the word 'too'. It's very important that you always start each note by whispering 'too'. This is called 'tonguing'. It provides a clean sharp start to the note.
Practise a rapid 'too too too' and long notes 'toooooooooooooooo'. You should be able to produce a steady note lasting about half a minute. If not, you're blowing too hard.
Now it's time for some notes. The first note you're going to try is called B.
Cover the hole on the back with your left thumb. Cover the top hole (the one closest to the mouthpiece) with the index finger of your left hand. You should use the flat part of your finger, which means that the finger will be fairly straight. Your right thumb is not used for covering holes; it is used to support the recorder. This is very important when playing larger recorders.
Now blow gently with the 'too' sound you made earlier. You should hear a 'B'. This note is shown on a fingering chart as follows:B = 0 1-- ----
The 0 here represents your left thumb. The 1st hole on the top is numbered 1 and it is covered. All the other holes are open, so they are indicated by dashes2.
Here are some more notes:
A = 0 12- ---- (thumb, first and second finger of left hand)
G = 0 123 ---- (thumb, first, second, third finger of left hand)
C' = 0 -2- ---- (thumb, second finger of left hand)
D' = - -2- ---- (just the second finger of left hand)
The tick after the names of some of the notes indicate that these are high notes. Low notes don't have a tick. Very high notes have two ticks.
All these notes use only the fingers of the left hand. (Your left hand little finger is never used). Each finger has a finger hole assigned to it and each one only ever covers that one hole. Because of this, you should keep your fingers close to their holes even when the holes are not covered. Ideally each finger should be poised about 1cm over its hole, ready to cover the hole when it is needed.
Practise the notes in the order they're given here: B, A, G, C', D'. This ensures that your fingers are all in the right places.
With these five notes, you can play simple tunes in the key of G. The notes G A B C' D' form a sequence do re mi fa so.
'Mary had a little lamb'/'Merrily we roll along':
B A G A B B B, A A A, B D' D', B A G A B B B, A A B A G
'Oh when the Saints'
G B C' D', G B C' D', G B C' D' B G B A, B B A G G B D' D' C', B C' D' B G A G
When you are happy with the notes using only the left hand, you can learn some notes using the right hand, too. The bottom holes of the recorder have two small holes instead of one big one. You cover both of these small holes with one finger. For the moment you can treat them as if they were single holes. You will use all fingers of your right hand but not your thumb. Your thumb should press against the back of the recorder. To match the holes, the fingers of your right hand are numbered 4, 5, 6 and 7. Your right index finger is 4. Here are some notes:
E = 0 123 45-- (all left-hand holes, right first and second finger)
D = 0 123 456-
F# = 0 123 -56-
The D without a tick is a low D. It sounds the same as the D' but lower down. The # sign is known as a sharp. F# is F sharp. Practise each of these with the G you already know in the order they're shown: G E D F# G E D F#. It is difficult at first to get all the holes covered exactly.
When you can play all of these, you have all the notes you need to play a large number of tunes.
'Twinkle Twinkle little star'
D D A A B B A, G G F# F# E E D
D E F# A A B A F# D E F# F# E D E
D D E D G F#, D D E D A G, D D D' B G F# E, C' C' B G A G
Notes F and C
These two notes are difficult because you have to cover a lot of holes.
F = 0 123 4-67
C = 0 123 4567
Notice that F is lower than the F# you have already learned.
'Believe Me if All Those Endearing Young Charms'
E D C D C C E G F A C' C'
'Scotland the Brave'
C C D E C E G C' C' C' C' G E C F A F...
'Auld Lang Syne'
C F F F A G F G A F F A C' D'
To play in other keys, you will need some semitones. The most common ones are the F# you already learned plus:
Bb = 0 1-3 4---
C#' = - 12- ----
The b sign is called the flat. In standard musical notation, a special b which is pointed at the bottom is used. Here in the Guide, a normal small b is used.
Use F# in tunes where do = G, for example in the tune 'Happy Birthday to You'.
Use F# and C#' in tunes where do = D.
Use Bb in tunes where do = F.
'Happy Birthday to You' in F
C C D C F E, C C D C G F, C C C' A F E D, Bb Bb A F G F
'Baa Baa Black Sheep' in D
D D A A B C#' D' B A, G G F# F# E E D...
The notes higher up need a new technique to produce them. You must cover most of the thumb hole, leaving a small gap. This is known as 'pinching' the thumb hole and the notes are 'pinched notes'. The recommended way is using the tip of your thumb, with your thumb nail pressed against the hole. It is important that your thumb nail is not too long for this! You should cover about two-thirds of the hole, and for the highest notes, nearly all the hole needs to be covered.
In the fingering scheme, the pinched thumb hole is shown by a slash (/).
E' = / 123 45--
F' = / 123 4-5-
G' = / 123 ----
A' = / 12- ----
Note that these fingerings are almost exactly the same as the fingerings for the lower notes with the same names.
The fingerings are now given for all the notes not already encountered up to A'. Some of these require that you cover one of the two double holes. When the 6 or 7 double hole has only one hole covered, it is 'half holed'. This is shown in the fingering scheme by a slash (/).
C# = 0 123 456/
Eb = 0 123 45/-
G# = 0 12- 45/-
Eb'= - -23 456-
F#' = / 123 -5--
G#' = / 12- 4---
The notes we have encountered so far follow a sequence from all holes covered (low C) to only two holes covered (B). There is a similar sequence for the notes E' to A'. Above A', however, there does not appear to be any pattern to the fingerings. Each one must be learnt as it is.
Bb' = /12- 456-
B' = /12- 45--
C'' = / 1-- 45--
D'' = / 1-3 4-6/
The exact fingering for the note D'' depends on your recorder. In some recorders, the bottom hole should be completely covered and in others it should be completely open. The half-covered fingering shown here should however work for most recorders. Try them out and see which sounds best on your recorder.
There is unfortunately no easy way of producing the high C#'' note. This note should come between C'' and D''. It is discussed later on in this entry, but is best avoided.
You can now produce every note in the two octaves from C to C'' and also the note D in the third octave. This is effectively the limit of the recorder for normal playing. The missing C#'' and higher notes are discussed later, but they are difficult. Many of them involve sitting down and pressing the end of the recorder against your thigh!
Trills and Alternative Fingering
A trill consists of repeating two notes which are close together in rapid succession. For example the notes A and B: ABABABAB. This is often used in recorder music. Most trills are simple enough, as you only have to move one finger to change from one note to the other, as in this example. By wiggling this finger, you get the trill.
Some note changes require a number of fingers to be moved. This is not practical for trills as it can't be done fast enough. There is nearly always an alternative fingering for one or both of the notes which requires only one finger to be moved. It may be that this alternative fingering is not quite in pitch, but the whole thing happens so quickly no-one notices.
For example, a trill on the notes B and C' using standard fingering requires you to rapidly swap your 1st and 2nd fingers. This is more or less impossible. If you use an alternative fingering for the B, you can trill by just moving one finger:
B (alternative) = 0 -23 ----
This sounds just as good as the standard fingering on most recorders.
Another very common trill is from D' to E'. This is impossible using standard fingering. Unfortunately, there is no simple alternative that will work on all recorders. The best is probably the following:
D' (alternative) = - 123 4567
E' (alternative) = - 123 4-67
Neither of these notes is entirely in tune, but they are good enough for a trill.
Many recorder fingering charts list fingerings for all the possible trills as well as for the notes themselves.
Playing Other Recorders
Recorders have been made in about nine different sizes ranging from the tiny garklein flautlein to the enormous sub-contra-bass. The normal recorders are the soprano, which is the one discussed here, and the alto3, which is bigger and deeper in tone.
The soprano produces the note C when all the holes are covered. The alto produces the note F below this when all the holes are covered, and all other notes are shifted down correspondingly. The fingering is exactly the same but all notes are a perfect fifth lower. The note you have been calling G will be called C on an alto. If you are going to learn the alto recorder, you will have to learn new names for all the notes. If you are going to become a serious recorder player, this is essential.
Fortunately, all other recorders are identical to either the soprano or the alto as far as the names of the notes are concerned. The bass recorder, for example, has the same note names as the alto, but they are an octave lower in pitch. The tenor is the same as the soprano but an octave lower.
The note C#'' in the third octave is a difficult note. There is only one guaranteed fingering which reliably and easily produces the note. Sit down and close the end of the recorder against your thigh while fingering the note as follows:
C#'' = / 1-3 4-6/ X
The X at the end represents the stopped end hole. This works, but is not really practical on a soprano recorder. It is a valid way of producing the corresponding F#'' on an alto recorder.
The best other way of producing the C#'' is to use the following:
C#'' (alternative) = / 123 45-7
This fingering is not very reliable but is the only really practical one on a soprano recorder. If you have to hold this note for a long time, start with this fingering, then lower your right ring finger onto the hole so that all the holes are covered except the pinched thumb hole. This should improve the tone.
The Highest Notes
Notes higher than D'' are possible, but some require you to close the end hole of the recorder against your thigh. This is not really practical for the soprano or smaller recorders. These notes are probably only really practical on the alto and tenor recorders. Here are the fingerings up as far as G''.
Eb'' = / -23 -5/-
E'' = / -23 -5/- X
F'' = / 12- 45/- X
F#'' = / 12-45 --
G'' = / 1-- 4---
The last of these, G'' produces a very poor quality note. On the alto, this note is C''. It is possible in certain circumstances to produce a better alto C'' note by playing the fingering for a C':
/ 123 ----
and shading the 'window' of the recorder with your right hand. This produces a note in tune, but can't be done quickly.
If you have struggled as far as here, you have everything you need to make a good start as a recorder player.