Learning to play the Recorder – 20 Questions for Vera Petry


Vera Petry |

Homepage: https://flautodolce.info/

For as long as she can remember, recorders and keyboard instruments have had a magical attraction for Vera Petry. She studied recorder and harpsichord as her main subjects in Germany and the Netherlands: She received her pedagogical training on the recorder in Saarbrücken, her home town, at the Saar University of Music ...

What fascinates me about the recorder is the warm, soft sound and the natural playing style: the direct contact of the fingers to the wood and the wonderful feeling, similar to singing, of bringing the instrument to life with your own breath. I also love baroque music, where the recorder fits wonderfully.


What is the perfect age to start?

Children can start playing the descant recorder from around five or six. For the treble recorder, the fingers and body are big enough at the age of about ten. Actually, the treble recorder is the 'main' recorder instrument, since its pitch range is similar to that of the other melody instruments such as flute, violin and oboe. Of course, you can also start playing the recorder as an adult.

Do I have to learn to read music?

Reading music goes hand in hand with learning to play the recorder. You don't need to be able to do it beforehand, with each new fingering on the recorder you also get to know the corresponding note and can memorise it. Adults in particular sometimes fear needing previous knowledge of reading music, which is a matter for a good teacher or textbook. It would be much more difficult, and progress would be much slower, if you tried to avoid reading music!

Are there any other instruments played in the same way?

The recorder's body and finger positions are comparable to those of the oboe or clarinet, but there is no complicated embouchure as with the latter two woodwind instruments.

There are different sizes of recorders: the descant recorder is probably the best known, the next is the larger treble recorder which sounds a little deeper. The tenor recorder, bass recorder, great bass recorder and sub-great bass recorder are even bigger, the latter is a full two metres tall! On the other hand, the sopranino and the garklein recorders are smaller than the soprano recorder, the garklein being only as big as a cigar, producing a rather squeaky sound.

Which physical attributes are advantageous?

Both body and fingers must be long enough for the treble recorder, and later for playing the larger recorders. Therefore young children usually start with the descant recorder.

How do you know if you're ready to start the recorder?

By really wanting to be able to play the recorder...

A trial lesson under expert guidance is good to get a feeling for whether the recorder suits you and whether you are a wind player or not.

It's not a good idea to 'just try the recorder first', because you want to switch to a 'proper' instrument later. Very little is usually achieved this way, unless the recorder teacher is so enthusiastic that they inspire you to stick with the recorder.

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How much does a recorder cost?

You can get a good wooden beginner’s descant recorder for around €60. For treble recorders, I recommend starting with the wooden models at around €300,- for which you can get an instrument that you can play for many years. Plastic models are available for under €100,-.
The design and wood determine the price of the recorder. Instruments made of precious woods that sound particularly beautiful, with rich overtones, such as boxwood, olive wood or rosewood, cost several hundred euros in the shops, and over €1000,- direct from a recorder maker.

Are there any additional costs?

Since you should play standing up as often as possible, and also have a good, upright posture when sitting, you need a music stand. Recorders made of precious wood have to be oiled from time to time. A bottle of almond or linseed oil from the pharmacy is sufficient, and lasts a very long time. However, some recorder companies supply the oil with the instrument. You should have a metronome, or a suitable app, and of course you need good sheet music.

How involved is the up-keep?

Not very, I would say! Recorders made of precious wood have to be oiled regularly, about every 3 to 6 months depending on the use. Otherwise, it is important to warm up the mouthpiece of the recorder well before use, in your hands or clothes, and always allow the wood to dry well after playing, before packing it away. Of course you should never put the recorder in the sun or on the heater...

How is the recorder transported?

In a padded recorder case, or hard case included at purchase.

Sheet Music for beginners


Can you teach yourself the recorder?

In my opinion, it works better for the vast majority, and makes far more sense to learn with an expert, just like many other instruments.

It is much more difficult to ‘unlearn’ bad habits than to get the right instruction and tips from the start. One also remains much more motivated if one receives regular feedback on how to improve one's playing, and which pieces, textbooks or études would be best suited at each stage of development.

How do you choose the right learning materials?

It is best to choose the first learning materials not only to learn 'all the notes' quickly, but also to train finger technique, breathing technique, articulation and posture. You are on the right track if your first textbook or recorder method is easy to follow. This often includes further sheet music, for example from the high baroque period, which allows one to discover and explore the repertoire of the recorder.

Can you practice without disturbing others?

Of course you can. It depends on your living situation, and you have to respect ‘noise nuisance’ regulations, just like with other 'noise', but the recorder is not one of the loudest instruments, and if you learn it right from the start, it doesn't sound shrill or dissonant. If you get on well with your neighbours, they will certainly forgive you for an hour’s practice a day.

Which different playing techniques are there?

In principle, all recorders are played in the same way. Larger recorders sometimes have keys, crooks or a knick so that the holes can be closed easier.

There are many special playing techniques, especially in contemporary music for the recorder, such as flutter tonguing, rolling the "R" with the tongue whilst blowing, or the glissando, sliding the fingers off the holes or pushing them on. The recorder has a very wide range of sounds and possibilities.

When can you expect your first success?

If you practice regularly under expert guidance, you will soon be successful because the learning steps are adapted to what you can learn and implement at your own pace. 'Success' is subjective: for one person it can mean getting the first little song right with relaxed, engaged fingers, and for another it means performing the first prelude to a recorder sonata with harpsichord accompaniment.


What are the most popular pieces for a first recital?

Popular pieces from the first recorder tuition books or very easy dance movements from the Renaissance or Baroque periods are often played for the first concerts. But there are also some very good modern works that can be played quite early, such as 12 Variations on Children's Songs by Gerhard Braun.

Recognisable melodies with lyrics and upbeat rhythms are helpful for beginners. Adults returning to the descant recorder often like to play something from ther Partita in G-major for descant recorder by Georg Philipp Telemann.

What are the classics and what is your favourite piece?

Ensemble pieces from the Renaissance or solo, chamber and orchestral music with recorder by a number of early and high Baroque composers, such as B. Girolamo Frescobaldi or Georg Philipp Telemann. Der Fluyten Lust-hof, is beautiful, a collection of solo pieces with variations by the Dutchman Jakob van Eyck, who, as a blind recorder player, drew delighted visitors to the churchyard in Utrecht in the 17th century by playing the 'golden hits' of his time.

I particularly love Concerto in C minor for treble recorder and orchestra by Antonio Vivaldi and the Sonata BWV 1034 by Johann Sebastian Bach.

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Which piece makes you really want to play the recorder?

As a solo it could be "Engels Nachtegaeltje" from Jakob van Eyck's Fluyten-Lusthof, in which the recorder impressively imitates the chirping and trilling of the nightingale, or a very modern piece with exciting, unusual playing techniques such as flutter tonguing, labium vibrato or flageolet tones. As part of a recorder quartet, Scott Joplin's snappy The Entertainer always puts you in a good mood and motivates you to practice.

The list is endless…

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How can you make music together with others?

In a recorder ensemble of two, three, four or more recorders, you can regularly rehearse and work on pieces together. Playing in ensembles is a lot of fun and is an ideal supplement to individual lessons.

But you can make music just as well with almost all other instruments: with the piano, the violin, the accordion or the organ and even as a soloist with a whole orchestra.

What are the different functions of each recorder within the ensemble?

IIn the recorder ensemble, the higher-sounding recorders, such as the descant recorder, form the upper parts and the lower-sounding recorders, such as the treble, tenor or bass recorders, form the middle and lower parts.

In sonatas and suites for recorder with basso continuo for example, or for recorder with piano accompaniment, or in orchestral works, the recorder is usually used as a melodic instrument in the upper part.

Are there clichés about the recorder and recorder players?

One could write entire volumes about the recorder, for example that it is simply a beginner's instrument, that you start at the age of five by learning 'all the notes' in order to then switch to a 'real instrument'...

The oldest flutes are around 50,000 years old. The recorder had its heyday in the 18th century: Johann Sebastian Bach used it in his Brandenburg Concertos. However, in the Viennese Classic and Romantic periods, the recorder fell into oblivion.

The cliché that the recorder sounds crooked and out of tune, and that it is an instrument that should not be taken seriously, only arose at the beginning of the 20th century, when the recorder was rediscovered and badly made recorders were used for hiking and making music in nature - just stick it in your backpack and off you go!

Fortunately, today there are very good textbooks for learning how to play the recorder properly and, of course, well-trained, dedicated teachers.

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