I should remark here that the following notes are intended as a simplified overview of recorder technique aimed at identifying those aspects with which children and amateurs may experience difficulty. Conventional (as distinct from avant garde) recorder technique seeks to control three main variables: tone, intonation (tuning) and articulation (the way in which notes are joined together or separated).
For the most part the tone of recorder is determined by its maker. Differences in design together with the material from which it is fashioned make for a surprising variation in tone colour: warm and bland, soft and sweet, or harsh and shrill. The player can influence tone, principally by manipulating breath pressure. A notable feature of the recorder is the lack of resistance to air pressure afforded by the instrument itself. In this it is very unlike other wind instruments. Learning to control the release of a steady stream of air under tension without such a back-pressure to assist is very demanding indeed, and quite beyond the powers of young children and many adults, too. Nonetheless, it is an essential preliminary to effective tone control.
Further, breath pressure must also be manipulated to create an oscillation in volume (tremolo), in pitch (vibrato) or in both. Briefly, the first of these effects is achieved through contraction of the throat muscles, the latter by rhythmic contraction of the diaphragm. In practice tremolo and vibrato grade imperceptivity into one another on the recorder. An accomplished player is able to vary the rate and intensity of this undulation in tone as well as its direction above and below the note. See Vibrato & Tremolo on the Recorder.
As early as 1594, Ercole Bottrigare noted that expert wind players, including those of the recorder, were skilful at playing in tune through breath control and shading the finger holes.
Lacking the complex keywork of modern wind instruments the recorder makes extensive use of so-called cross-fingerings. All but the lowest notes have at least several possible fingerings each with slightly different timbres or volumes. Thus a skilled player can exploit an appreciable range of tone colour by selection of fingerings alone. Additional reasons for using fingerings other than the normal ones include the avoidance of difficult fingering sequences at speed; the avoidance of clicks and extra notes produced by complicated finger movements and between the several register changes when playing slurs or trills; and the avoidance of faulty tuning. In general, fingerings must be selected to minimise finger movements, especially those in contrary motion. See Fingering the Recorder.
Breath pressure and embouchure together have a marked effect on intonation. Variation in pressure without alteration of the oral cavity in compensation will distort pitch intolerably. This coupling of pitch and volume constitutes the recorder's greatest limitation in comparison with other modern instruments. Thus, contrary to general opinion, recorder playing requires quite a sophisticated control of embouchure. Manipulation of the size and shape of the oral and pharyngeal cavities and of tension in the associated musculature enhances tone projection and the ease of production of high notes as well as enabling subtle control over both intonation and articulation. Delicate shadings and contrasts of volume are possible by these means, which can only be taught by providing a suitable model to emulate along with various "psychological aids" to their execution. See Laurin (1998, 1999, 2007) and Ranum (2002b).
On the recorder the full spectrum of articulation is possible ranging from the briefest staccatissimo to the broadest legato. To articulate in a particular style something must be done between successive notes. The necessary attack and release at the beginning and end of each notes is controlled by the tongue and fingers.
Historically, a wide array of articulation syllables has been applied to the recorder since this provides its most convincing means of expression. Consonants used for the attack or commencement of each note range from the soft 'y' or 'l', through the firmer 'd', to the potentially plosive 't'. In double and triple tonguing (used for very rapid passages) a secondary attack alternates with one of the normal single consonants. This can be provided by the guttural 'g' or 'k' but 'l' or 'r' have also been advocated. The sequences 't-k-t-k-' and 'd-g-d-g-' are effective for staccato (detached) playing but the double tonguings needed for portato (smooth, non-slurred) style demand much practice in order to coordinate tongue and finger movements. For a definitive account of 17th & 18th-century French articulation syllables see Ranum (2002a).
On the recorder, as on any instrument, the various kinds of articulation can be combined and contrasted to create the rhythmic and structural definition needed for effective phrasing.
Avant garde or extended techniques possible on the recorder include multiphonics achieved either by special fingerings or else by humming and playing at the same time, microtones, extended range upwards and downwards, flageolet tones, slap tonguing, sputato, flutter tonguing, glissandi, playing shakahuchi style by blowing across the mouthpiece, playing the head-piece alone like a Swanee whistle or by shading the windway, playing without a headpiece cornetto style, using one of the tone holes to play the recorder like a flute, clicking against the instrument with a metal ring, and playing two recorders at the same time. Samuel Pepys described the latter for flageolets (one low and soft) in 1668; and John Hawkins (1776) relates that John Bannister II (1662-1736) was famous for playing on two recorders at once.
Although Vetter (1973) explores the avant garde possibilities of the recorder in great detail, he also includes a masterly essay (in English) on conventional recorder technique. More recent researches into the technical aspects of modern recorder music may be found in Rechberger (1987), and in Kientzy (1982). Microtonal techniques are the subject of The Quarter-Tone Recorder Manual by Bennetts & Bowman (1998).
Vocalising and playing recorder at the same time has been explored in detail by the Dutch composer Jacques Bank in association with the recorder player Baldrick Deerenberg (O'Kelly 1990), and it is the subject of a forthcoming book by Australian player/composer Zana Clarke who has also made something of a speciality out of this technique. Again, this is not so avant garde: a passage in the The Stanley Poem by the harper Richard Sheale (ca 1558) appears to describe recorder multiphonics achieved by singing and playing simultaneously. Claudio Sebastiani in Bellum musicale (1563: XXXIII, 20) described playing and humming different parts simultaneously on a wind instrument. Mersenne in Harmonie Universelle, Livre Cinqueisme (1636/7) notes the possibility of humming and playing the recorder at the same time. And in 1710, a visiting German, Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach, described hearing a Scotsman called Cherbourn in a London tavern giving a perfect imitation on the recorder of the bagpipes and of a transverse flute, and he could also make it sound like two recorders in harmony: "One could scarce have observed that he was singing, if one did not look prodigious sharp upon him".
Helpful considerations of the unconventional notation used for much 20th-century recorder music have been presented by Schmidt (1981) and Wells (2000).
The methods by Hauwe (1984-1992), Orr (1961) and Rowland-Jones (1978) are especially recommended for adult beginners. A Recorder Method Online by Brian Blood is available on the Dolmetsch site.
The special problems and techniques encountered in consort and ensemble playing are addressed by Bart Spanhove (2000).
Kersten (2001) provides a comprehensive approach to introducing the recorder in the music classroom.
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