It’s a recorder’s world, we’re just living in it

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By Dan Szczesny

Transcendental DadLittle Bean and her fellow third-grade friend have an idea. A concert idea. They are going to perform a recital for us.

With their recorders.

Because we are good parents willing to make all manner of sacrifices for our children, we settle in for the show. The girls have placed a gym mat down on the floor of the bedroom and have surrounded their “stage” with stuffed animal attendees.

They sit on the floor cross-legged and open their books in front of them. There are a few minutes of shrieking and honking as they limber up their instruments – like a real orchestra would – and then fall quiet.

“Count, Daddy,” Little Bean says.

“Three, two, one, go!” I say. The bleating begins.

I bet you were expecting me to comment on how lovely this impromptu concert was, the two little ones squawking away, trying hard to be musicians, the snow gently falling outside; a veritable afternoon of domestic bliss.

No. Honestly, I’m suddenly grateful that AC/DC stole half my hearing all those years ago. My wife, her eye twitching, whispers, “Is that thing supposed to sound like that? I mean, is it possible to play it well?”

As a matter of fact, as it turns out, the answer is yes. One CAN play the recorder well. So why don’t they? And why is it that every third grader in the country, every year, is handed a recorder and sent home to torture their parents?

The story is pretty interesting, even if the sound isn’t. And it all starts around 1950 – the modern recorder that is – with a famous classical musician and his groundbreaking idea that children, all children, can be musicians if only they ascribe to the theory of Play First, Learn Later.

And I’m here to tell you, I’d like to have a few words with Carl Orff. Because I’m pretty sure that old Carl Heinrich Maria Orff – yes that Carl, of Carmina Burana fame – never heard Hot Cross Buns played quite like this!

So, the existence of the recorder itself dates all the way back to the Middle Ages, believe it or not. It is classified as a flute, or more specifically, as an internal duct flute, meaning a flute with a whistle mouthpiece. There are many, many different variations of recorders and it wasn’t unusual for some of the most famous composers in the classical world – guys like Bach, Handel and Vivaldi – to compose works for the recorder.

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Most other languages, by the way, call it some variation of flute. The English name, recorder, comes from the Latin, recordari, meaning to call to mind or recollect.

So, how did such a classic instrument with such a depth of history come to be known as the ear-splitting, whistle scaring the animals away in my house?

Well, mainly because one of the most famous classical composers of the 20th Century, Carl Orff, had an idea that went something like this – instruments are really hard to play and take tons of practice. But was there a way to hook kids into learning music that was fast, easy and cheap? A gateway instrument, if you will, to lighting a musical fuse for them.

He called this lesson Orff Schoolwork and right around mid-century the whole third-grade recorder movement just exploded in a cacophony of honks and toots. Orff’s primary music theory was that the recorder allowed children to pick up an instrument and, basically, immediately make music. In other words, learn as you play. That, coupled with the fact that plastic recorder production was cheap and easy combined for the perfect musical storm. Indeed, the recorder in our house, should it accidentally get run over by a car, would cost only $10 to replace.

Finally, a word about the recorder’s most famous song, Hot Cross Buns. The song has had three lives; English street cry associated with the end of Lent as food eaten on Good Friday, to mid-19th century nursery rhyme, to use as the first song many children learn to play due to its sing-song repetitive note structure.

Now pull that all together; the German composer, the plastic affordability and the simple nursery rhyme song and perhaps your child’s living room recitals can be heard in a different, more enlightened way.

No. No, they cannot.

Here’s the thing to remember: Orff never said a child would be good at playing the recorder without any education or practice. He just said that they could play it. And that’s what the two little ones in our home are doing – they are playing with the fervor and gusto of two professional musicians at Carnegie Hall.

They blow and howl their way through several versions of Hot Cross Buns while the dog runs in circles and the cat runs downstairs. I can’t emphasize enough that they do not play the song well. But they play it. And my wife and I watch and scrunch our faces only once or twice and when it’s over we applaud and quickly find other house chores that must be done.

The girls are playing music and that’s all that matters, ultimately, along with seemingly every other third grader in the past 75 years. But we’ll leave the encore to the stuffed animals audience. The music screeches on!

About this Author

Dan Szczesny

Dan Szczesny is a longtime journalist and author who lives with his wife and energetic daughter in Manchester. Dan writes a daily journal called Day By Day where you can subscribe for FREE to get essays, articles and updated. Learn more about Dan’s adventures and Day By Day at