FAQs for Beginners

Dear ASW:

What is a good all-around recorder for an adult beginner? I am not certain whether I will ever become an advanced player and don't want to spend a whole lot of money, at least not at first.

You should first decide whether you want to play soprano or alto recorder. Most advanced players eventually learn to play both c-fingered recorders (piccolo, soprano, tenor, and greatbass) and f-fingered recorders (sopranino, alto, bass, contrabass), but the beginning player needs to concentrate on one or the other. Trying to do both often leads to confusion and discouragement.

A soprano recorder is cheaper and usually plays the top or lead voice in recorder ensembles, but it is small for adult hands, has a higher and shriller tone quality, and has relatively little solo literature available – and the bulk of that consists of arrangements and transcriptions, not original recorder music. The soprano is usually the beginning instrument of choice for children or adults with small hands.

An alto recorder, on the other hand, is more expensive to purchase (2-3 times as much for a wooden alto than a soprano of corresponding make and model), usually plays an inside voice in recorder ensemble, but is better suited to adult hands, has a more pleasant tone and range, and has a vast amount of original baroque solo music available. The alto is, all things considered, probably the best beginning instrument for most adults.

A tenor recorder can be another possible choice for a beginner who wants to play melodic material in a soprano range but prefers a deeper-toned, mellower instrument, can afford to spend a good deal more money for a recorder, and has sufficiently large hands (please see additional information on this issue). The tenor recorder is largely an ensemble instrument and has relatively little solo literature written for it; however, much of the soprano solo literature can be played to good if not better advantage on a tenor, and solo oboe music from the baroque period also usually works well on tenor recorder.

I notice that you have both plastic and wooden recorders. Is wood preferable to plastic?

All other things being equal, yes – but then all things are not always equal. There are good and bad plastic recorders, as well as good and bad wooden recorders. A good plastic recorder is far better than a cheap poor wooden one. However, a good wooden recorder is almost always preferable to a good plastic instrument – AOTBE.

Advantages of plastic instruments: they are relatively inexpensive to purchase and require little if any care.

Disadvantages of plastic instruments: they have a hard, glassy sound which many players find unpleasant, and they also tend to clog up with moisture easily and repeatedly. Also, although there are a large number of makes and models of plastic recorders on the market, only a few models are really decent instruments – and those still need to be tuned if they are to give their best performance.

Advantages of wooden recorders: they have in general a much more pleasant tone than plastic instruments and tend to clog less readily if correctly voiced and when properly played in. Perhaps most important, there is a wide choice of good makes and models available, although there are still many inexpensive wooden instruments of very poor quality being sold through commercial music channels. In addition, many more expensive wooden recorders have idiosyncracies and drawbacks for a beginner of which the informed buyer needs to be aware before laying out a substantial amount of money.

Disadvantages of wooden recorders: they are more expensive than plastic ones and usually require more care and maintenance. In general, less expensive wooden instruments made of maple or pearwood are less care-intensive than more expensive instruments made of exotic tropical hardwoods, which typically require humidification in dry climates and periodic oiling. However, we supply humidifiers with our hardwood instruments and the occasional oiling is scarcely an onerous task.

Summary:As with anything else in this consumer-oriented world, you pays yer money and takes yer choice -- and you will only get what you are willing to pay for. If you are anguishing over whether to invest in a custom-serviced instrument to replace your store-bought one, or whether to spend the extra money for a wooden instrument, take our course Recorder Buying 101. Whether you buy a plastic or a wooden instrument, you would be best advised to buy an instrument from a dealer that will customize, voice, and tune your instrument before it is shipped and can guarantee that it will stay that way. Recorder makers typically offer a limited guarantee on their instruments for six months to two years, but such warranties can be of little or no value if the ability and experience of the person doing the repair work are limited. Caveat emptor!

Ultimately, it is the selling dealer who is responsible for the customer's satisfaction. When you purchase a recorder, you should be buying not just a musical instrument as a commodity but rather a complete package of goods and custom services, as well as investing in an on-going relationship with someone who will be able to provide you with information, education, and professional guidance, both before and after the sale. Internet discounters typically provide a limited choice of instruments, no custom service before delivery, and no support after the sale is made. Customers who buy recorders from the cheapest commercial sources on a price basis alone should be aware that they are buying an instrument off the shelf "as is." After you have bought it, it's your problem. To quote John Ruskin, "there is scarcely anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little more cheaply. The people who consider price only are this man's lawful prey."

Dealers who make a practice of sending out multiple instruments on extended trial to their customers typically have an inventory of mostly used instruments which have been shipped out several times, heavily overplayed, rejected, and returned by any number of prospective purchasers. Such instruments rarely play well when new due to lack of custom service, frequently and chronically clog up due to poor treatment by multiple users, and will most definitely deteriorate further after they reach a final owner. Buying a used instrument, especially from an on-line auction source like E-Bay or Craig's List, is like buying a used car: you are usually buying somebody else's problems. We do NOT sell used instruments and represent them to be new ones; when we sell you a new instrument, you may rely on its being new, unused, and unabused –– and it is custom-voiced and tuned by a skilled professional player and fully guaranteed as well. We stand behind our instruments and support our customers.

Okay, I think I want a good but inexpensive wooden recorder. Is there anything in the around $100 range that would be a good choice?

You can get any one of several very good wooden soprano recorders for about $90-$150 that will provide excellent quality and performance as well as maximum bang for your buck. The best choices in that price range in order of preference are the Huber Model II, the Küng Model I, and the Mollenhauer Canta sopranos. Our recommendations for inexpensive altos and tenors are exactly the same as those for inexpensive sopranos, but you have to spend roughly $250 to $400 for an alto recorder and $400 to $700 for a tenor recorder of equivalent quality. See the section on inexpensive modern recorders in our ASW Guide to Recorders. The Mollenhauer Student wooden soprano is the least expensive instrument that offers good quality and performance at a bargain price, but it is a stand-alone instrument; there is unfortunately no matching alto or tenor recorder.

There are two other more specialized Mollenhauer models that might be suitable for beginners with very specific and focused musical interests: the Waldorf Edition recorders are wide bore, neo-renaissance style instruments suitable particularly for recorder ensemble playing, and the Denner series instruments are neo-baroque designs that are particularly well suited for playing baroque solo and ensemble repertoire. All of these recommended instruments are summarized in the following chart:

Maker Soprano Alto Tenor Bass
Huber Model II $180.00 $470.00 $694.00 N/A
Küng Model I $135.00-$175.00 $371.00-$485.00 $607.00-$788.00 N/A
Mollenhauer Canta $100.00 $265.00 $434.00-$1,095 $1,668.00
Mollenhauer Student $88.00 N/A N/A N/A
Mollenhauer Waldorf Edition $116.00 $358.00 $491.00 $1,924.00
Mollenhauer Denner pearwood $232.00 $381.00 $584.00-$1,245.00 $2,092.00

If you have never played a musical instrument before and have some doubts as to whether you will want to continue playing, it probably makes more sense to minimize your financial outlay and buy a plastic recorder, provided that you will not be deterred by the hard sound and chronic clogging problem. See the section on plastic recorders in our ASW Guide to Recorders for a list of recommended makers and models. If you find that, after a period of time, you are seriously interested in learning to play the instrument well, you can upgrade to a wooden instrument and retain your plastic recorder for backup. If you find that you are not all that interested, a good plastic instrument may be all the recorder you will ever need to buy. And if you find that recorder playing is really not for you and you would rather spend your spare time doing something else, then you haven't blown a big chunk of your disposable income. On the other hand, if the tonal properties or constant clogging of a plastic instrument will be a deterrent to your enjoyment and progress or if you already have some musical background and are sensitive to the tonal quality of an instrument, you would probably be better advised to get a good wooden instrument at the outset, minimize your annoyance, and maximize your enjoyment from the very beginning. It will be money well spent.

Fine, let's cut to the bottom line. Tell me what I need to get started.

If you are a musical neophyte, get yourself a top quality, custom-tuned alto recorder, either plastic or wooden, both volumes of the Hugh Orr "Basic Recorder Technique" for alto recorder, and Hans-Martin Linde "The Recorder Player's Handbook" to educate yourself as to what it is all about. Come back when you have worked your way through both volumes of Orr and read the Linde book from cover to cover, and we can talk about where to go from there. If you already have a musical background, especially if you already play a modern woodwind instrument, get yourself a good quality wooden alto recorder, skip the Orr method and get the Alan Davis "Treble Recorder Technique," and by all means get the Hans-Martin Linde Recorder Player's Handbook. You will be up to speed as a proficient solo alto recorder player in no time at all.

I would like to get my elementary school-age children interested in recorder playing as well, so that we can learn together as a family. What beginning instruments and methods would you suggest for youngsters?

I have always been an ardent advocate of family music-making, which is called Hausmusik in German, and firmly believe that "the family that plays together, stays together." Many families have a home music tradition that goes back for decades and spans two or three generations. The recorder and early music are also an ideal choice for both parents and children involved in home schooling. The Yamaha 300 series woodgrain soprano recorder in either palisander or ebony or the Mollenhauer Student soprano, and Volume I of the Mario Duschenes "Method for the Recorder" for soprano recorder, together with a bit of adult supervision, should get any youngster off to a good solid start. This method has some useful easy duets for soprano and alto recorder in the back for beginning parent/child ensemble use. There is also a separate volume of simple piano accompaniments available which can make learning a fun family project if someone has rudimentary piano-playing ability, and the piano accompaniments are now also available on a CD recording.

If several adults and kids are learning soprano recorder simultaneously, the Giesbert School of Ensemble Playing offers a wide variety of easy trios for soprano recorders. However, if you are seriously interested in family ensemble playing, I usually recommend that one parent learn to play soprano along with the child, and the other adult learn to play alto recorder. After the child has gotten beyond the beginning stages, the adult playing soprano can switch easily to tenor, since the fingerings are virtually identical, and the family ensemble will then be able to access the vast amount of trio literature available for soprano, alto, and tenor instruments. Edward B. Marks publishes three excellent, extremely inexpensive anthologies of early music (renaissance, baroque, and preclassical) that, like the useful ARS and Centaur Editions, can be played on either SSA or SAT recorders; these publications provide a wealth of inexpensive material for the beginning family recorder consort.

If two adults (or an adult and a teenager) want to learn recorder together, alto recorders are probably the best way to go. The Giesbert Method for the Treble Recorder is an excellent and musically rewarding volume consisting entirely of progressive duets for two altos which can be used to supplement the recommended Orr or Duschenes methods. There is also a substantial amount of high quality baroque duet literature available for two altos with or without keyboard accompaniment. If a soprano player and an alto player (typically a child and a parent) want to learn together, the only option is to use Kuhlbach & Nitka The Recorder Guide. This tutor is rather dated and something less than authoritative, however, so we strongly recommend that it be used only in conjunction with the Orr or Duschenes methods, which are more sound pedagogically.

All of the methods and materials mentioned on this page are listed in our detailed discussion of Adult Recorder Methods and Materials. as well as in our complete catalogue. If you have any further questions, contact us via E-mail at sales@aswltd.com or give us a call M-F 10-6 EST at +1 (508) 833-3979. Please note: we ask that all orders for plastic recorders and sheet music be placed using our ASW Order Form. This will enable us to process and fill your order much more quickly and efficiently. Because of the great volume of orders for our custom-tuned plastic recorders, we are not able to accept telephone orders for or answer calls about these items if we are also to continue to provide time-consuming custom service for such inexpensive items; they are what they are. we must ask for your cooperation and understanding in this regard.

David H. Green, director
Antique Sound Workshop, Ltd.

Copyright, Antique Sound Workshop, Ltd., 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2006, 2007, & 2021. All rights reserved.

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