What is good recorder playing posture?

Two questions to begin:

  • Do you have good recorder playing posture? 
  • What do you think that might look like?

‘My posture is terrible!’

I ask my questions in that order because I strongly suspect that most players – if they ever think of their posture at all – would probably answer ‘no, my posture is terrible’. Our default opinion with regard to posture, whether holding a recorder or not, is that ours is almost certainly not very good. As an Alexander Technique teacher, I have lost count of the number of adults who still hear their parent’s voice in their head telling them to ‘stand up straight!’

‘My what?’

And that’s assuming we’ve thought about our posture as we play at all. Especially if you’ve started playing at a young age, your first thought on picking up the instrument is likely to have been more on what sounds you could make, rather than how you’re going to get the recorder most efficiently to your mouth! But thinking about what you are doing with your body as you prepare to play becomes very important as you become more proficient. Thinking about your recorder playing posture will help you to play more difficult music because your technique will be better, and you’ll be able to play for longer.

As a result, many players have developed playing postures that aren’t as effective or efficient as we would like. In Spring 2017 The Recorder Magazine had this image as its front cover. I adore it for the accuracy of the artist’s portrayal of some of the more common types of error one sees in recorder playing posture.

Collage image of recorder players, from Recorder Magazine, Spring 2017. Many recorder playing posture faults in evidence.

In the back row, 2nd and 3rd from the left, one can see players holding the instrument too close to their chests, with their elbows close to their sides. The one on the left is compensating by flexing their wrists too much; the one on the right is arching their wrists. The player on the far right of the back row is arching their back; this will make it very difficult to breathe in effectively as their ribs won’t move as freely. In the front row, the girl on the left is bending herself down over her recorder, instead of lifting the recorder to her mouth. This will cause her to lose breath pressure, and she’ll probably play flat. The boy on the right looks like he is raising his shoulders up to his ears as he breathes in. As I wrote recently, this isn’t actually necessary for good breathing.

So what is good recorder playing posture?

Principle 1: bring the instrument to you, not the other way around.

Don’t be like the girl in the front row! You don’t need to do anything with your spine to lift a recorder; use your arms. Hold the recorder with your arms down at your sides. Now lift your arms, but think of moving them from your shoulders so that the recorder almost creates an arc in the air as it moves to your mouth.

Moving in this way helps you to maintain a relaxed torso, and that will help you to breathe more effectively. Arms are appendicular structures, and we can move them without having to involve our spine or torso much at all.

Principle 2: allow your elbows to leave your sides far enough that your wrists are reasonably straight.

Don’t be like the two players in the back row! It really helps your fingers to move more easily if your wrists are not overly flexed or extended, but instead are left straight and relaxed. To achieve this, when you raise your arms from your shoulder joints, your elbows will naturally come out to the sides a little.

I think often we worry about taking up too much space. But we aren’t on a crowded bus! Nor are we often likely to be squeezed into tiny orchestra pits. This means that, particularly as a soloist, it really pays to allow yourself to take up the space to which you are entitled.

Tips for working on your playing posture

  • Spend a little bit of time every practice session working on how you raise the recorder to a playing position. 
  • Watch yourself in a mirror if you can. 
  • Try to move your arms while involving your head and torso as little as possible, using the two principles I’ve outlined.
  • Practise this as a separate discipline to working on scales or pieces. This will make it easier to integrate into your playing, as you won’t be trying to concentrate on posture, music, fingerings etc all at once.

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

Image from cover of The Recorder Magazine, Spring 2017.

Recorder clogging up? Try this.

Do you find your recorder clogging up frequently and sounding all muffled and horrible? Today I’m sharing a tip I learned just recently that solves the problem for wooden recorders…

A few weekends ago I attended the Society of Recorder Players Festival 2019 in Durham. It was a fantastic event (please do investigate going to the 2020 Festival in Norwich – you’ll have a ball), and had some brilliant tutors offering great advice.

Perhaps the most simple and practical piece of advice came from Joris van Goethem, who until recently played with the Flanders Recorder Quartet. I was playing with my group Pink Noise in Joris’ ensembles masterclass, and my recorder kept clogging. Joris gave a piece of potentially life-changing advice, and the reasoning behind it.

Moisture and recorders

When we play into a wooden recorder, we have to breathe into it, and the warmth of our breath creates condensation in the instrument. In a well-behaved instrument, according to Joris, the moisture should run in two neat streams down either side of the block:

Where condensation runs on a recorder

Sadly, not all instruments are well-behaved, and not all condensation follows the right path. Sometimes we might end up with a blob of moisture sitting right in the middle of the block. If this happens, it compromises sound quality, and the instrument starts to sound muffled. We could try covering the windway and blowing the moisture blob away; if we’re in the middle of playing, we could try sucking it back in. But just as with raindrops on a window, once moisture has an established path it will continue to follow the path already created; our instrument will clog up repeatedly.

Obviously, we don’t want our lovely recorder clogging up constantly and ruining our concentration and the flow of the music. So what to do?

A paintbrush and some water

Joris recommended throwing a bit of water at the instrument! Put the head joint under the tap, and trickle a tiny bit of water down the windway.

Where to aim water to stop your recorder clogging up

Or, if that scares you, get a little paintbrush, and get the bristles wet. Then paint the block of your recorder through the fipple, and get it nicely moistened. By doing this you create a smooth moist surface over the whole of the block, so there is far less opportunity for one rogue moisture blob to create havoc in the middle of the block. All the moisture should behave in the way we want, and move to the edges.

I’ve tried this with a recorder of mine that has been prone to clogging, and after a couple of seconds of extreme displeasure at being so wet, the recorder then played beautifully each time I’ve tried it, and for over 30 minutes of constant use. One of my colleagues has reported similar results consistently since he started using this method.

But I have a plastic recorder, and it’s clogging…

I haven’t tried the water trick with a plastic or resin recorder yet, so I don’t know if it works in the same way. Bearing in mind that water droplets will behave the same way and create tracks on a plastic surface as a wooden one, it would certainly be worth a try. The other thing that affects plastic recorders is build-up of residue in the recorder, and particularly in the windway. Any brass player will tell you that condensation isn’t pure water, and that instruments need cleaning regularly. The easiest solution for this is to give it a little bath in some diluted washing up liquid, and then let it dry.

Happy clog-free playing!

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 FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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!