Frequently Asked Questions
Listed below are some questions you may have if you are thinking about learning to play recorder. We have many other resources on our website as well. You might start with our Learning Resources for Recorder Players
- Which recorder should I learn to play first?
- What is the difference between c and f recorders?
- Please compare the different brands of plastic recorders.
- What music should I buy to get started?
- What should I look for when I buy a wood recorder?
- What is the difference between Renaissance and Baroque recorders?
- I would like to learn to play the recorder. Will membership in the American Recorder Society help me?
- What does “revoicing” involve? How do I know if my recorder needs revoicing?
- What is the difference between a=440, a=415 and a=442?
- Is there an a=415 plastic alto?
- Can I add a key to my recorder?
- What kind of thumb-rests are available? Should I use one?
- Are there left-handed recorders?
- Why does a hand-made recorder cost so much? Is it really better than a factory-made recorder?
1. Which recorder should I learn to play first?
Probably the two most common recorder voices that beginners learn to play are soprano and alto; which one you might choose could depend on a number of factors. We recommend that you begin on the alto recorder. The alto is a great choice if you plan to play in a group with other recorder players. It is also great for playing hymns and folk music. Some players with smaller hands will find starting on the alto difficult (and learning the tenor or bass later may present the same challenges). However, there are models available from ARS Business Members to help players with small hands avoid fatigue when playing.
If you are already a player of another modern wind instrument (flute, oboe, saxophone), you will find the fingering patterns on soprano or tenor recorders to be close to those with which you are already familiar. If you can, start on the tenor rather than the soprano.
If you prefer playing Baroque music, you may want to start learning on an alto (For players of modern wind instruments, you may find the finger spread of the alto recorder to feel much like your modern instrument--but the fingering pattern may take some adjustment: "all fingers down" is the fingering for "c" on most modern instruments, but produces "f" on the alto recorder.) The majority of Baroque sonata literature for the "flute" was composed for the alto recorder, so there is a lot of available music.
2. What is the difference between recorders in "c" (soprano or tenor) and "f" (alto)?
The note produced with all holes closed on an alto recorder is f' while all holes closed on the soprano is c”. The fingering patterns are the same on all recorders, with minor variations according to instrument. If you play with a recorder group, it may include a soprano in c”, alto in f’, tenor in c’ and bass in f. These are the recorder family members often used playing for ensemble music.
Unlike modern band instruments, for which the music is transposed, recorder players usually learn the note-names associated with fingerings for both c and f recorders. For instance, on a soprano or tenor, the note that plays with the thumb and top two holes covered is A. On an alto or bass, that same fingering will play D. When you know the real note that you are playing, everyone can read off the same score, and this is useful for playing with mixed groups of recorders and other historic instruments, or with singers and keyboard players.
3. Please compare the different brands of plastic recorders.
Plastic recorders have come a long way since Dolmetsch produced the first molded recorders in Bakelite. Around 1980, the three major manufacturers of plastic recorders realized there was a market for well-made high end recorders and hired prominent recorder makers to design plastic models based on 18th century originals: the Aulos Haka, Yamaha Rottenburgh and Zen-On Bressan. Each has slightly different characteristics, and the model you choose will be largely a matter of what you like in sound and response. The Yamaha Rottenburgh has a clear sound which is ideal for ensemble playing. The Aulos Haka has a complex timbre with more prominent overtones and a pronounced ‘chiff’ to the attack. Zen-On’s Bressan has a rich sound and undercut tone holes for improved response. But it’s best to hear the differences. Here are some resources: Sarah Jeffery: Choosing a plastic recorder Sarah Jeffery: Review of Aulos Haka recorders
4. What music should I buy to get started learning the recorder?
These are all well-regarded method books for beginners. Be sure to choose either soprano/tenor or alto, depending on which instrument you are learning:The Sweet Pipes Recorder Book (A metnod for adults and older beginners)
by Gerald Burakoff and William HettrickPlaying the Alto Recorder
by Gerald and Sonya BurakoffBasic Recorder Technique
by Hugh Orr Method for the Recorder
by Mario Duschenes
Also see our ARS NOVA e-Mag article from July 2019 “Some Things Old and Some Things New in Recorder Methods and Technique Books
5. What do I look for when I buy a recorder in wood?
We recommend that you play on a quality plastic recorder rather than on a poorly made wood recorder. Some recorders, particularly older ones, were mass-produced with little attention to tuning or response. You will be better served by playing a well-designed plastic recorder. Ready to take the leap into wood? Here are some ideas for choosing a recorder in wood.
See our ARS NOVA e-Mag article from October 2020 "Choosing a Wooden Recorder
There are also articles in archived issues of American Recorder magazine on choosing a recorder: OPENING MEASURES: Some well-chosen and timeless words about choosing a recorder
by Frances Blaker (Excerpted with permission from American Recorder, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1, January 1997).
More advanced advice on evaluating a recorder was published in a longer article by Dale Taylor, "Putting Recorders and Their Players to the Test
," American Recorder, Vol. XLI, No. 5, November 2000
, available as a download to ARS members).
6. What is the difference between Renaissance and Baroque recorders?
This question is addressed in our ARS NOVA e-Mag article : "Baroque versus Renaissance Recorders - What's the Difference?
Also, read Philip Levin's Q&A answer on Renaissance or Baroque
(Excerpted with permission from American Recorder, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4, September 1997)
7. I would like to learn to play the recorder. Will membership in the American Recorder Society help me?
Yes! Start with the ARS Membership Directory
, which is your source to find other ARS members. You can also find out if there is an ARS chapter
nearby. Chapters welcome beginners (we all started out that way!) Some chapters have special programs to help beginners develop skills and confidence. The Directory also lists recorder teachers
, including those who teach online.
If you live where you can take even a few lessons from a recorder teacher, you might consider doing that to get off on the right foot, which is much easier than breaking bad habits later. Many teachers offer lessons via Zoom, making geographic location no problem. The ARS will help you find weekend and summer workshops (regularly listed in American Recorder magazine and the ARS Newsletter; click HERE
for a list of our Workshop Partners) at which classes for beginners may be offered.
American Recorder magazine is a terrific resource for recorder players. It is mailed to members four times each year. As a member you can look at over 50 years of back issues of AR magazine
on the ARS website. The magazine includes beginners' tips, news of the recorder world as well as scholarly articles on the recorder. It also lists advertisers who could help with the choice of recorders, method books, and music.
8. What does “revoicing” involve? How do I know if my recorder needs revoicing?
Revoicing a recorder restores the windway dimensions to their proper size. It is normal for a new wooden recorder to need revoicing after it has been carefully broken in. The block swells and changes the size of the windway. Recorder windways can also get dirty, so sometimes an instrument needs a thorough cleaning. If the instrument that once thrilled you is no longer as wonderful, you may need to send it to a professional for revoicing.
Also see our ARS NOVA eMag article from November 2020, "How do I know when my recorder needs revoicing?"
by recorder maker Tom Prescott.
9. What is the difference between a=440, a=415 and a=442?
At most chapter play-ins, the common pitch will be somewhere around a=440, referred to as “modern pitch.” For a much more in-depth exploration of pitch, here is an excellent ARS NOVA e-Mag article by Eric Haas, “What is a=440 Pitch?
10. Is there an a=415 plastic alto?
Yes! In 2019 Zen-On introduced a baroque pitch model of the G1A alto designed to play at a=415. This new Bressan plastic recorder has been designed by recorder makers Shigeharu Hirao and Hiroyuki Takeyama. Made from ABS Resin, this recorder has been designed as a high quality plastic recorder modeled after Bressan's original instruments. Features of this new model include undercut toneholes, arched windway and matte finish.
Consider purchasing this instrument from one of our ARS Business Members
11. Can I add a key to my recorder? Are there recorders made for people with really small hands?
Yes, you can add a key. However, the size and placement of holes on a recorder can only be modified a very small amount without affecting the overall pitch, tuning, or response. You may be better off buying a new recorder that is comfortable rather than modifying one you already own.
Most of the major manufacturers offer ergonomic tenors with additional keys on the center joint to reduce the hand stretch as well as ‘knick’ or bent-neck models which relieve the strain on the right wrist. Several makers also offer altos with keys on the foot joint. Paetzold by Kunath
square recorders, including their tenor, bass, and larger instruments, are fully-keyed with a finger spread no larger than an alto. Adding keys, or a bent neck will all add to the cost of an instrument.
12. What kind of thumb-rests are available? Should I use one?
If using a thumb-rest makes playing your recorder easier, then yes, use a thumb-rest. See our ARS NOVA e-Mag article from June 2016, "Rests for your Recorders,
" including tips on how to make and attach your own.
13. Are there left-handed recorders?
Yes – you can find a maker to craft you a custom recorder where the right hand is in the top position and the right thumb controls the thumbhole. One other option is to drill a second set of holes in the body and foot, and fill the original holes with Plasticine. This will probably eliminate much of the intrinsic value of the recorder. However, we recommend that you relearn to play with your hands in the typical position. Recorder maker Tom Prescott has made almost 5,000 instruments over the last 45 years, and only two customers ordered their recorders designed for left-hand play. When recorders were made back in the Renaissance era, there was no accepted standard for which hand was on top. As a result, the bottom note was drilled for both left and right handed play, with the unused hole filled with wax. This was also possible because Renaissance-style instruments don't use the more modern convention of double holes for the lower two notes, so hole #6 was centered and could be played by either hand.
14. Why does a hand-made recorder cost so much? Is it really better than a factory-made recorder?
We’ll answer this question with a question: Why does a Honda cost $20,000 but a Lamborghini Urus $200,000? When you buy a hand-made recorder, the attention to detail is considerably greater. The wood is prepared and seasoned for several years. The wood is progressively shaped over time, which allows the wood to adjust to the changes in size and makes it more stable. The care taken in reaming the bore, fitting the block, forming the windway, tuning, and finishing, including undercutting and rounding the toneholes and sanding the wood to finer and finer degrees all are labor intensive. In addition, the bore design has been refined over decades until it plays as perfectly as possible. Finally, you are paying for a “master mechanic”, someone who crafts each instrument based on years of experience. A hand-made instrument can also be customized for your needs. Tone holes can be shifted for easier play; voicing can be modified for specific playing preferences.