‘We do not like the recorder’: why is the instrument loathed by Australian parents still taught in school?

Shrill? Screechy? This is not the recorder Hannah Coleman knows. The very first time the Melbourne musician blew into the instrument, she knew she could make “beautiful sounds”.

“Even within that beginner repertoire … I felt like I could express something of who I was,” says Coleman, a professional recorder player and teacher. During school lunchtimes, she would sit under a tree with a friend and their recorders, and together they would play tunes from a dog-eared music book.

But for some parents, the instrument’s sonic beauty may prove elusive. “We do not like the recorders,” says Elena Duggan, a cook, former MasterChef Australia winner and parent of two boys aged two and four. Her sons screech into their instruments – a grandparent’s Christmas presents – to scare crows off the outdoor bins, à la Bluey. “We have strived to pay the recorders little attention, so our detest isn’t used against us.”

Meanwhile Rebecca Lloyd-Jones, a Brisbane musician, says her child’s recorder-playing is “apathetic”.

‘The actual recorder is this phenomenal, beautiful instrument.’ Photograph: Nadir Kinani/The Guardian

Her daughter, now 10, learned the recorder in the classroom from years one to three. “I wouldn’t say that her ability shone through, but I also think the recorder kind of has a bit of a bad rep … When you think of plastic recorders, you just think of this screechy, sort of overblown kind of sound. But the actual recorder is this phenomenal, beautiful instrument, which gets lost on a grade 1 student.”

For all the instrument’s notoriety, why are they taught in classrooms at all? Recorders have a storied history in Australian schools – after a United Kingdom revival of the Renaissance instruments in the early 1900s, they made their way to Australia and were popularised in classrooms in the 1950 and 60s.

Then, as now, the instruments were affordable and accessible for families and schools. Musicians typically play with wooden recorders, and while cheap, plastic musical classroom recorders can produce a beautiful tone, novelty toy recorders cannot, says Coleman. “The ones that you buy at The Reject Shop that are blue and pink are dreadful.”

Dr Robyn Staveley, a Sydney-based music educator with a PhD in cognitive neuroscience and music pedagogy, says it’s critical for a classroom to have recorders from the same brand so they’re in tune with one another.

Playing the recorder also helps develop coordination, dexterity and fine motor skills. But starting students too young may do more harm (to parents’ ears) than good (for small fingers). Staveley prefers that students are taught when they are eight or nine years old, when their hands are large enough to fit the instrument (though she concedes some educators will disagree). “If [their fingers] don’t cover the holes, the sound isn’t right and they’ll feel frustrated and they won’t want to play.”

But most of all, she says, students must have a good music teacher – not necessarily a recorder expert but a classroom teacher who has specialised in music teaching. Staveley advocates a holistic approach to music-making that incorporates singing, movement and body awareness.

“It’s not just blowing it and putting your fingers in the right place,” she says. Singing, for example, helps familiarise students with melody and pitch, and with breathing techniques that guide their playing and phrasing later on. Students embody the music before they blow their first note.

“But if you are introducing the instrument in the traditional way where you put a book in front of students, you’re expecting them to decode notation symbols and coordinate their body and coordinate their breathing and listening, it’s just not going to happen,” Staveley says.

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‘If your child is learning recorder in a primary school classroom in Australia, they’re already really, really lucky’: Coleman with her collection of recorders at her Melbourne home. Photograph: Nadir Kinani/The Guardian
When it comes to learning the recorder in the classroom, a specialist music teacher can make all the difference. Photograph: Nadir Kinani/The Guardian

The recorder may be maligned and anecdotally, according to Coleman, it may also be on the decline in Melbourne classrooms. “When I was a child, for example, there was a competition and you’d have tens of schools coming to play … Some of those competitions have actually stopped happening now due to lack of entries.”

But the apparent demise of the recorder may be symptomatic of another more worrying trend: a decline in music education in Australian classrooms. In her 2012 thesis, PhD candidate Irina Petrova found 62% of primary schools in Australia do not offer music – which Petrova described as a “deficit” in music provision nationwide. Which is to say, says Coleman: “If your child is learning recorder in a primary school classroom in Australia, they’re already really, really lucky.”

But beyond checking their privilege, recorder students are likely more preoccupied with another form of self-awareness: social capital. The recorder has a vast classical repertoire, and also features in songs by the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and in the instantly recognisable introduction in Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. But primary schoolers do not care for John Paul Jones on the pipes. They are, however, swayed by TikTok and Richard Lindesay.

The New Zealand comedian, now based in Sydney, incorporates recorder in his standup performances. Onstage, he has been known to play four recorders simultaneously, from his mouth and nose. On TikTok, his recorder playing has found a wider audience – his songs Recorder in the Corner (“My name is Richard and I’m sitting in the corner/Sitting in the corner, playing the recorder”) and Sitting on a Rock (“It is underneath me and I am on top/Next-level life powers I have unlocked”) have had more than 14m views each.

Music teachers contact him saying their students want to learn the recorder after watching his TikToks; others are teaching Lindesay’s songs (the Recorder in the Corner sheet music is available from his website). “It’s exciting for them to play something that they’re a bit more familiar with,” says Lindesay. “I don’t know how I managed to make recorders cool, but a lot of kids think they are.”

“For all I know, it might be that a load of people then move on to become musicians in some form or another [who] might not have before, and they might create really amazing things. That would be nice.”


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