Avoiding a recorder disaster in the ocarina community

The recorder, a simple tubular wind instrument. In the hands of a skilled player they are capable of some pretty impressive music, just look up players like Michala Petri, Lucie Horsch and Hidehiro Nakamura. Yet when many people think of the recorder they don't think of these great musicians. What comes to mind is classrooms of children producing high pitched sequels and playing out of tune. They are oblivious to the true capability of this simple instrument. A reputation disaster.

I believe this has come to be because of poor teaching and a lack of mainstream roll models. Recorders rarely feature in mainstream music. They are taught by people who are not expert musicians. In the UK recorder is taught in primary school. At this kind of school most subjects are taught by the same teacher. No single person can be equally skilled in all subjects. This is especially true considering that arts take a back seat to maths and literacy.

The recorder suffers from a flawed illusion of simplicity. It looks simple to someone who is inexperienced, lacking the visually complex key systems of other wind instruments. In fact many 'complex' instruments actually make it easier to produce a reasonable sound. Piano and keyboard for instance both have stable pitch, the same key reliably plays the same note.

This cannot be said of the recorder. Pitch depends on blowing pressure and blowing too hard will cause the note to squeak. The player has to control both there breath pressure and fingering simultaneously to avoid this. If a teacher is unable to correct these mistakes it will be frustrating as the student is left with a problem and no solution.

I fear that if the ocarina sees widespread adoption in education it will end up in the same position as the recorder. Considered a child's instrument with few aware of it's real ability. Nobody bothering to try and play it well.

On the ocarina breath control errors create serious intonation issues. You can easily play an E while fingering a low D just by blowing too hard. I suspect that in a classroom this would be solved by ignorance. Detecting these errors requires ear training, they are invisible without it.

This is bad. If someone is not shown how to play in tune they will never learn how to. Rather than ignoring intonation it would be better to teach an instrument with stable pitch. If one specifically set out to do so it would be straightforward to design an instrument for teaching children. In my mind this would be an electronic instrument as they offer greater design freedom.

Playing a wind instrument is a task with numerous technical pitfalls. One has to hold the instrument correctly. control there breath pressure, start / finish notes crisply using the tongue and constantly pay attention to pitch. In each of these cases there are many ways that things can go wrong. Just holding the instrument offers mistakes like covering holes using the fingertips or forcing the thumb to bend backwards. These mistakes may make the instrument painful to hold, may cause player frustration and will limit there ability.

I think at least in the beginning stages instrument lessons should be one to one, one teacher and one student. It enables the teacher to notice and correct mistakes quickly. By comparison a haphazard classroom environment leaves a lot of opportunity for mistakes to go unnoticed. It is likely to produce a mess. Seeing as teachers have trouble with squeaking recorders I have no confidence they could teach how to play the ocarina in tune.

Poor teaching can be worse than no teaching. In my time playing in public I have talked with numerous adults who believe they are incapable of playing music. The most frequently cited reason? Bad experience with the recorder in school.

Finally I think if an instrument is to keep a positive reputation where there are many bad players it must be used skilfully in mainstream music. Unfortunately the general public runs on first impressions. If there only experience is children playing poorly they will assume the instrument sucks. This can be countered by exposure to skilled performance.