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!

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,

Equipment matters: how a stand changed my practice routines

Jen's recorder stand

This is the story of how one simple piece of kit (apparatus, if you’e not English!) completely changed my practice regimes and helped to make me a better recorder player.

For my birthday, my lovely husband commissioned a local wood turner, Jonathan Rees, to make me a recorder stand. Initially the idea was that I would be able to take it along to quartet rehearsals and have my instruments all together, instead of them lying around on the floor all higgledy.

Actually, I haven’t used it for that at all.

One day, I began to think about all the little fragments of time that can get wasted during a day – waiting for the kettle to boil, waiting for an Alexander Technique student to arrive, and so one – and wondering how I could make better use of them. And then I looked at the recorder stand.

It suddenly occurred to me that, if Dame Nellie Melba is correct, and small parcels of practice time can be just as effective (if not more effective) than lengthy periods, that I could utilise these little scraps of time for recorder practice. And the best way to do that would be if I didn’t put my instruments away, but left them on the recorder stand, ready for use.

So I tried it out. I left the recorders on the stand, and left the music stand out and ready, too. And any time I had a few minutes lying spare, I would pick a recorder, pick a few bars of music, and play.

The result of this little experiment has been extraordinary.

  • I have practiced more. I am putting in more time than I ever have before, but in small pockets spread throughout the day.
  • I have become more proficient. Quite simply, I am playing better.
  • I have enjoyed myself. Practice has become a keener pleasure than I have ever experienced before. I find myself itching to pick up an instrument and play. It has become an extension of my thought processes.

So here are my tips for improving your practice:

  • Keep the instruments out! Get yourself a really nice stand so that you’ll be happy to keep them on display.
  • Be on the alert for those spare minutes when you can play.
  • In those spare minutes, pick one or two phrases, and work on those. Or just one scale.
  • Remember to look after your instruments. They will still need checking over, and the joints greasing, at the end of the day.

Try this, and let me know how it turns out!

3 Tips for using a metronome when practicing recorder

Has anyone ever told you to use the metronome when practicing recorder? Perhaps you tried it, but found it stressful, or difficult? It’s a common thing, particularly if you’re less experienced or you’ve just never tried using one before. But using a metronome when practicing recorder really can make a difference to your playing. Here’s why.

ticking metronome on a shelf


My recorder quartet has been playing for a while, and one of the pieces in our repertoire is ‘Pina ya Phala’ by Soren Sieg. Sieg writes wonderful trios and quartets inspired by African rhythms, so they are full of syncopation and notes occurring just off the beat. We’ve played this piece for a while, and feel fairly familiar with it.

Pina ya Phala is actually a trio, and while I stay on the tenor line, the treble line is played by two quartet members, depending on who is around and available. Last night at rehearsal, Tim, who hasn’t played it so much, found it difficult to count the 15 bars before his entry. He said that Ellen and I were adding in extra quaver beats that made it hard to count.

We were a little affronted, but got out the metronome and played the movement again.

And Tim was right. Darn!

Sometimes, especially with pieces that have syncopation or irregular time signatures, it can be tempting to add in extra notes. Or maybe you speed up during the faster passages, and wallow around in the beauty of the slower melodic lines (like me!). It is at points like these that using the metronome when practicing recorder can be really handy.

  • The metronome doesn’t lie. You find out all the spots where your tempo is off;
  • It takes away the added mental process of having to keep time, so you can concentrate on playing what is in front of you. You are effectively outsourcing counting to an external device;
  • Fast passages can become easier because you are less likely to rush, and therefore have more time.

So have a go at playing through your piece with a metronome, using the following tips:

  • LEARN THE NOTES FIRST! There’s no point discouraging yourself trying to keep in time playing something you don’t know properly;
  • Pick a sensible speed. Sometimes people choose  tempo that is too fast, break down in the fast sections, and then beat themselves up for not being able to keep up. The metronome is there to help you learn a good even tempo; it isn’t a stick!
  • Don’t beat your foot. Typically you’ll beat time with your foot at the (variable) speed you usually use, and get out of time with the metronome. That just leads to confusion. Let the gadget do the work.

Do you use a metronome when you practice? How does it help you? And if you don’t give it a go, and let me know if it helps!


Photograph of metronome by Jennifer Mackerras