Why it’s important to play the recorder badly.

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So yesterday my friend Bonnie shared that her son had reached that momentous moment in his academic career: the playing of the recorder in music class. Her tweet gave me flashbacks to my days of teaching Grade 5, when one fine spring morning my class would troupe back from music clutching brand new recorders, and when, by lunch time, I’d find the music teacher in the staffroom with a suffering expression and a bottle of Tylenol. After a few occasions subbing for those music classes I wondered how she even made it till lunch time.


Anyway, Bonnie wanted a blog post on the subject of recorders, so here it is. As I’ve blocked out much of my memory of being in a classroom full of recorder-happy children in order to preserve my (admittedly tenuous) grasp on sanity, I wasn’t sure what I’d write about. I walked home yesterday afternoon thinking about recorders, their painful high-pitched squawking reverberating around my head. What is the point of teaching recorder? And why do the kids enjoy it so much?

As much as parents might think it’s simply a chance for teachers to indulge their sadistic sides, I think it goes further than that. I’m sure playing the recorder addresses music-y learning objectives like reading simple notes, practicing tempo, and so forth. And of course it’s a way to introduce students to the joy of playing a musical instrument (and to prepare parents for when their child returns home from the first Grade 7 band practice gleefully toting a french horn). But what occured to me, as I thought about it, is that learning the recorder gives kids an obvious, acceptable, and gloriously loud opportunity to fail.

Failure is essential to learning. Yet think about how failure is perceived in schooling. We shy away from failures, we try to mitigate failures, we cover them up. We correct students rather than giving them the chance to learn from those mistakes, to fix them, to try again. Only the most perfect papers earn a place on the bulletin board. Failure in the classroom is the disappointment, the shame, the resignation that comes with that big red ‘F’ on the top of a paper. Failure is punished instead of being celebrated. Failure is a finality rather than an opportunity to try again.

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I watch my four year old son as he learns. There’s no fear of mistakes, there’s no shame when things don’t go right. On our fridge are drawings of pink dogs, people with three arms, and a Tardis much smaller than the Doctor (our kid’s a Whovian – did you expect any different?). He builds and rebuilds Lego until it becomes what he sees in his mind. He reads aloud with confidence, knowing that it’s ok that not every word is perfect, that we’re there to help him when he struggles, to celebrate with him when he does get it right. Next year he’s off to school and I cynically wonder just how long it will be before all his dogs are brown, before he learns to fear trying.

As every parent, every teacher, and likely every child knows, kids are terrible at playing the recorder. But we also know that terrible is how it’s supposed to be. In a class with 24 other kids all blowing the wrong notes at high pitched frequencies there’s no shame in making mistakes. And that’s just what kids need – that safe space where it’s ok to fail, where, no matter how badly you mess up, you know the music teacher, with her infinite patience (and hopefully a good set of earplugs), will soon let you start from the top all over again.

Don’t worry too much, Bon – he will get better. It will still be painful – we are, after all, talking here about a 6 inch tube of plastic that really has no business being called a musical instrument. But after a bit of time, after a lot of failing, ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” will finally start sounding more like Mozart and less like Metallica. The next day he’ll bring home the french horn.


2 thoughts on “Why it’s important to play the recorder badly.

  1. I’ve been told by an ex music teacher I know here that Glasgow schools are not teaching recorder any more, they are teaching uke. That pleases me a lot 🙂

    • We did recorder in grade 5 and uke in grade 7. The uke was way more fun. Plus the ukulele, even when played badly, just makes people happy. So of course I’ve completely forgotten how to play it, but can still play Ode to Joy on the recorder flawlessly.

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