Avoiding a recorder disaster in the ocarina community

A recorder, a widely misunderstood musical instrument. While often seen as a child's instrument or child's toy, they are capable of beautiful music in skilled hands

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 role models. Recorders rarely feature in mainstream music. They are taught by people who are not expert musicians. The children have no idea how cool recorder music can be, so they have no interest to progress.

The recorder also suffers from an illusion of simplicity. It looks simple to someone who is inexperienced, lacking the visually complex key systems of other wind instruments. Unfortunately, this does not translate into the instrument being easy to play.

All instruments have technical pitfalls which require tuition for most students to learn. On the recorder pitch depends on blowing pressure and blowing too hard will cause the note to squeak. The player has to control both their breath pressure and fingering simultaneously, and make sure they cover the holes correctly 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. But from what i have seen, that is exactly what happens. Teachers don't have enough time, skill or desire to fix the mistakes made by their students, leaving the students frustrated. Issues like intonation are frequently addressed with ignorance.

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.

It is certainly possible to teach children to play the ocarina, but doing so requires a good approach which addresses all aspects of the instrument, including:

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 their 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.

Consider that 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.

Teaching an instrument means teaching the whole instrument, and ignoring details like intonation or articulation is not ok. Either teach intonation and tonguing, or teach an instrument that does not require them. Make sure that there is a progression path for students, from beginner to advanced. Don't just stop abruptly.

We need to learn from the mistakes of our past, not repeat them. The recorder's reputation has already been ruined by bad teaching, and I do not want to see the ocarina meet the same fate.