4th July 2003 at 01:00
It's not a joke - the recorder is a proper instrument. Janet Murray puts the case forward

The recorder is often regarded as something of a joke: a cheap plastic tube with a high-pitched wail that everyone plays at school. As a "serious" recorder player, I spend a lot of time convincing people that my repertoire extends beyond "Three Blind Mice". But my efforts were thwarted last year when a survey by the Economic and Social Research Council hit the headlines, claiming that recorders put children off music for life. The survey, carried out by Dr Susan O'Neill at Keele University, involved more than 1,000 children, many of whom said the recorder was their least favourite instrument because it was a "child's instrument".

It was a huge blow (if you pardon the pun) for the recorder world. "We've worked so hard to raise the profile of the recorder," says Karen Barton, a recorder teacher and performer from Sittingbourne, Kent. "My friends were handing me press cuttings slating the recorder. It was very dispiriting."

The recorder just ain't cool. Until recently, this was true of many classical instruments. But while Vanessa Mae and the Corrs made the violin sexy, the recorder has yet to find a hip role-model. It's well-documented that singer Dido is a mean recorder player and as a child toured with a national recorder orchestra. She even considered becoming a professional, but now laughs off the idea as "so uncool".

The interesting thing is that everyone thinks they can play the recorder.

When I tell someone I play, it's often followed by a proud announcement that they can do a great rendition of "London's Burning" or similar, so it can't be all that naff.

I say "think" they can play because while it might be easy to produce a few notes, making a pleasant sound requires good breath control and a sense of pitch. Not skills you acquire over night.

As Ms Barton puts it: "Learning to play any instrument takes time and patience. If you're learning to play the violin, for example, it can take years before you're able to produce a pleasant tone. The recorder is no different, but because it's relatively easy to produce some kind of sound, people expect results quicker. And because your standard school recorder is relatively cheap, it's associated with a poor-quality sound."

The notion of "cheap" is not necessarily true. You can buy an adequate starting instrument for pound;6, but a wooden recorder of professional standard could set you back thousands. "There is a great deal of ignorance about the recorder," says Ms Barton. "Many people can't tell the difference between the flute and the recorder."

The recorder predates the modern cross-blown flute. William Byrd wrote music for recorders in the 16th17th century and, Handel wrote recorder sonatas, and Bach used it extensively in his cantatas and chamber music and it made regular appearances in operas. Until the late-18th century, it was regarded as a professional instrument. It's still played on the professional circuit today by some talented performers and the idea that it's a children's instrument is an insult.

But despite the bad Press, Ms Barton believes recorders are still very much a part of primary music. She teaches the instrument in a number of Kent primary schools. At Senacre Wood Primary in Maidstone, headteacher Peter Hellnan recognises that it is an excellent way to give all children experience of a musical instrument. All students are provided with a recorder by the school and children are taught in groups of 15 for 30 minutes every week. "The children get a real sense of achievement from learning to play and read music," she says.

James McAfferty, author of Live Recorder, a beginners' course in music, agrees: "Everyone has the right to musical literacy; that's learning to read music and gaining experience of performing. The recorder is ideal because it's small enough for a child to play easily."

He believes all children should be taught the recorder. But playing in a group requires a degree of competence, and many adults recall being excluded from playing at school and he believes this turns people off.

"There can be a strong anti-recorder feeling in schools," says James McAfferty, who runs recorder workshops for teachers and parents. "When I go into schools to talk about teaching the recorder, teachers are often terrified. They've often been told they're no good at music during their own schooling. When I run courses for parents, I tell them 'You can learn to read music in 45 minutes', and they do."

The recorder is not just a "stepping stone" to "real" instruments. Many of the children Karen Barton teaches continue to play at secondary school and in county ensembles. Some of her students have also have gone on to study the recorder at Trinity College and Guildhall School of Music in London.

"It's wonderful to hear the students play to such a high standard. People are impressed and often say 'I didn't realise the recorder could sound like that'. But everyone has to start somewhere and school is the ideal place."


* The Society of Recorder Players gives details of ensembles.Tel: 020 7385

* The European Recorder Teachers Association has details of teachers.

* Early Music in Schools, James McAfferty's site, contains information about early musical instruments, including sound clips from his musical literacy teaching programme Live Music.

Tel: 01296 712705

* Instruments and music online:

* The Early Music Shop stocks a wide range of recorders, accessories and music at competitive prices.

Tel: 01274 393753

* Recorder Music Mail stocks a range of student recorder music and Dolmetsch recorders.

Tel: 01422 882751

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