Divide and conquer: learn tonguing and notation independently to make practice easier

Imagine that you’re working on a new piece. It has a quaver or semi-quaver run in it, and you need to learn a new fingering pattern that you’re not used to. It also involves a particular pattern of tonguing and slurring that makes it trickier.

How would you work on this? What would be the best approach to make practice easier?

Slow down!

My first tip is to slow the passage right down. If I’m working on a new piece, I’ve been known to attempt new fingerings and note patterns at less than a quarter of the suggested metronome marking. Or slower: a musician that my son follows on YouTube, a bassist called Adam Neely, once emphasised the SLOW nature of slow practice by asking his viewers to play ‘glacially slow’.

We slow right down because pretty much all of us are tempted to try to be perfect immediately. We want to be able to play our shiny new piece at the suggested tempo – except we can’t. We haven’t done the work yet. I know that playing slowly can be frustrating, but not nearly as frustrating as trying to play quickly and failing. So keep it slow. Glacially slow.

Divide and conquer

Start off by deciding whether you want to get the notes under your fingers first, or feel comfortable with the tonguing. Once you’ve decided, spend some time on one, and then on the other.

Tonguing: put the recorder down, and say the tonguing pattern out loud, in the metre of the piece, at the nice slow speed you’ve picked. In the example below, remembering to tongue the E after the semiquaver slur might be tricky. If I was working on this passage, I would say the tonguing (written in over the notes) a number of times to make sure I was completely comfortable with it. Note that I’ve also chosen a particular articulation. It’s fairly samey, but it might look different if some of the notes were marked staccato.

Notation with tonguing

Notation: again, play the notes at the glacially slow speed you’ve chosen. Don’t even worry about what your tongue is doing for the moment – just make sure you have all the right fingerings. Do it a few times at that speed. You could try it a little faster and see if you can spot any ‘micro finger flails’ *- this tells you which parts of the passage you’re not comfy with thus far. Go back to the slow speed and work on it some more.

Adding them together

When you’re confident that each skill feels comfortable, try adding them together – at the glacially slow speed. Then gradually speed it up.

How long does this process take?

It depends! Sometimes it will be just a single bar that has you foxed, and you’ll fix it in a minute or two. Sometimes it will be sections of a longer run, and you’ll find yourself mouthing tonguing patterns as you wander around the supermarket. But in reality, the speed of success doesn’t really matter; what matters is that you get the passage under your control so that you feel confident when you play. That’s all that counts.


* Hat tip to Lynne Phillips (@teachypiano on Twitter) for this wonderful phrase.

Improve your sound by playing with articulation

Different consonants create different articulation.Typically speaking, when a student first starts recorder, they begin by learning the importance of a steady breath stream and how to use their tongue to start each note. And usually, people start off by using a ‘t’ sound.

It’s a great starting place for articulation: it’s easy to do and creates a good clear sound, especially in the mid-register where most people start learning their notes. But if you are using a faster breath stream to play a little more loudly, or if you are playing lower notes, sometimes you might find that you get a little unwanted ‘pop’ sound before the note. If you are particularly vigorous, the note may break or not sound properly at all!

So you could try playing more softly by using a little less air, or you could start to play with your articulation by using different sounds to start the note. Think about how many different consonants you can make without using your lips to form them: d, g, r, l, n. You can use all of these as articulations when you play your recorder.

Each articulation creates a very different sound and attack on the note; some create a different sound post-attack; some are great for playing at speed; all of them can be used to create different moods and characters to your melodic line.

If you’re more a beginning player, start off by trying a ‘d’ sound and see if that helps you to make your melodies more smooth.

If you’re an intermediate to advanced learner, practise using different articulation in your scales and arpeggios. Then try experimenting with different articulations as you work on your repertoire. You can use different sounds to help you with phrasing, or to emphasise certain notes or beats. They’ll also help you to play high notes without them cracking so much.

Give it a go, and let me know how you get on.

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti at

Slip sliding away: Taming wobbly recorders with thumb rests

Does your recorder threaten to slip out of your hands as you play? Having (or feeling like you have) a wobbly recorder is a  very common problem, and can cause players to use excessive amounts of muscle tension in their fingers to try to grip the recorder and stop it sliding away.

There are a couple of different things you can try to solve the problem: changing the way you hold the recorder, and adding a bit of support to the instrument. Let’s examine both options.

1. Holding the instrument.

When a student has trouble with a slippy instrument, very often they are holding it quite low and close to their body. They may even be lowering themselves down to the recorder, rather than raising it to their lips.

Spend a little time assessing where you hold your instrument. Try raising the end so that you are closer to parallel with the floor than perpendicular. And make sure you are using your arms to raise the instrument up to your mouth.

2. Adding support to the instrument.

Some people get very sniffy about adding thumbrests to their recorders, as though using one is tantamount to admitting defeat or inability. But I strongly encourage you to think differently. Adding a thumbrest to your recorder adds a level of comfort and security; it is not for nothing that Suzuki Method teachers recommend even descant recorders have thumbrests. 

On a purely physical level, you give yourself a ledge to rest on your right thumb which helps you to stabilise the recorder. This means that you’ll be far less tempted to use tension in your fingers to hold the instrument steady. On a  psychological level, you feel less worried about whether the recorder will slip, which means you’ll have more brain space to think about the music you’re playing.

thumb rest screwed into recorder
Thumb rest screwed into a wooden recorder. It’s very adjustable.

You can buy plastic thumbrests for plastic recorders; there are thumbrests that you can stick or screw onto wooden instruments (I recommend you send your wooden instrument to a professional if you want a rest screwed on, so that it is properly fitted). You can also be creative: I have used  O rings from a plumbing supply shop on my recorder, and often resort to a piece of Blu Tack stuck onto the instrument!


An o ring functioning as a thumb rest
An O ring functioning as a thumb rest! Even a little support helps.

Give it a try, and see how you get on. No one needs to put up with a wobbly recorder!

Fingers: where do they move from?

To play the recorder, you have to move your fingers to cover and uncover the holes. But how do you do it? Where do your fingers bend?

I have played recorder since I was six, but it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I started getting RSI-like wrist pain. I did all the usual obvious routes: doctor, physio, specialist, osteopath… Nothing really helped. In fact, it got so bad that I stopped playing.

Even after I started experiencing improvement in my arms after studying the Alexander Technique, it took a while for me to pluck up courage to start playing recorder again. And when I did, I got some help from an experienced and very wise teacher friend, Jill Tappin.

Jill quickly became fascinated with the way I was using my hands. We discovered together that I had a very odd idea about the way my fingers moved. I believed that they should bend where the crease line is at the bottom of my fingers, here:


Of course, that isn’t right at all. They flex much lower, at the knuckle. That’s where the joint is:


But even though it wasn’t anatomically possible to flex my fingers higher up, I had managed to create a set of complex and exhausting muscular contractions that had the net effect of moving my finger where I believed it was correct.

My brain power overrode my anatomy.

Changing my idea of where my fingers flexed had a dramatic difference upon my recorder playing. I found I was able to move my fingers more easily and more quickly. I found I could play the fast passages faster, and do cross-fingerings more cleanly.


Today as you play, I want you to take a moment to think about your fingers. Where are you flexing them – at the knuckle, or at the skin crease? What would happen if you did it differently?

Tennis lessons: what playing tennis has taught me about learning recorder

When I decided to take my Youngster out to buy him something as a reward for a really good school report, I didn’t expect him to choose a tennis racquet. But he did.

And then I didn’t expect his enthusiasm for it to last beyond a couple of days. But it did.

So a trip to a charity shop later, we have two racquets, and have been out to our local park every day to hit a tennis ball around. Every day. For at least an hour.

I was terrible at tennis at school – couldn’t even get the ball and racquet to connect – so was a bit apprehensive about playing, especially when the Youngster demonstrated that he was able to hit the ball very effectively from the off. But the outcome of nearly two weeks of going to the park has led me to a couple of surprising discoveries.

Firstly, tennis is good fun.

Second, I have learned some really good stuff about learning skills. Learning this new skill has reminded me that the principles that I believe to be true about learning in music are true for other areas too. Here are some of the ones that jump out most strongly.

  • In the beginning, you will almost certainly stink. You will play badly. Accept it. Enjoy it. There really is fun to be had in being joyfully bad at something.
  • If you enjoy doing something, you will want to do it more. That’s why the Youngster and I have been out playing every day. We’re poor players, but we’re having fun, and that’s what counts.
  • If you do something a lot, you will get better. At first, I was pleased if I could connect the racquet and ball. Then I started to do that reliably on the forehand, but with no directionality. Then I got directionality on the forehand, but couldn’t hit a backhand. Then I started connecting the backhand, but with no control. Then I started developing the beginnings of control on my backhand. Over two weeks, I have seen improvement.
  • There will come a point where you will need to think about technique. The Youngster and I have enquired about tennis lessons. We’ve both improved a lot, but we realise that our rate of improvement will start to tail off, because we don’t really know what we are doing. We need to learn about how to hold the racquet properly, how to properly play a forehand and backhand shot, how to gain accuracy in our hitting.
  • When you gain some technical knowledge, your ability, your enjoyment, and your fun will increase. A friend of mine recently had a piano lesson with a very accomplished teacher, and came away enthused with all the new ideas and technical things she had to experiment with.

Moral of the story?

Have fun. Practise. Play around. Then get some technical help, and play some more. It’s as true for recorder as it is for tennis. If you’re at the ‘get some technical help’ stage, find a local teacher, or contact me for a lesson via Skype. Get enthused, and get back out there to play some more!


Image by Suat Eman,