A Rant Against The 3rd Grade Torture Device Known As The Recorder

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Closeup 3rd-grade student playing red flute, which is considered a torture device while wearing a ye...

Flashback: I’m in third grade music class, and we’d been waiting for this moment, it seemed, since kindergarten. Our teacher sighed. “Today, you start learning to play the recorder,” he said. We cheered. He doled out our cream-colored instruments, and the room immediately became a cacophony of high-pitched shrieks and squeals as we blew into our brand-new instruments with no finesse whatsoever.

We never did learn that finesse.

Too many years later to count, I can still play “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” I could recite its notes (BABA BBB…). I could not find them on a G-clef. We never learned that part. We only learned notes’ names. Years and decibels must have long worn Mr. Jones out of actual musical notation; I can’t plumb the depth of hell we inflicted on him and anyone within a hundred-foot radius. Listening to small children squawk out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” for months at a time would have me hiding a bottle of Stoli in my desk. I wouldn’t bother to hide it. The principle would understand.

Why Do Kids Learn To Play The Recorder, Anyway?

My mother loathed it. “Practice in your bedroom,” she always insisted when I tried to jam out in our living room. “Oh no, you sound wonderful,” everyone told me. They were lying through their teeth. No one sounds good on a recorder. It’s weedy and wheezy and shrieky. Were they trying to prepare us for high school clarinet? For oboes? For bagpipes?

Apparently, there’s a form of music teaching that’s really, really popular which emphasizes participatory music. Hence, kids learn to play the recorder because it’s approachable and cheap and plastic. In Canada, they use the ukulele, which is far less offensive to the ear. But it involves both complicated fingering and chords, and American kids are too stupid for that or something. So we hand them the musical equivalent of an emergency whistle.

But take heart! Apparently the recorder was a Big Thing in the Renaissance. Allegedly people adored it during the Baroque period. Currently, some people, who we can only assume have too much time on their hands, write jazz for recorders. These people should have their performance rights revoked. Forever. Except Paul McCartney used it in “Fool on the Hill,” but we can all agree that was one of the worst Beatles songs.

Professional Musicians Think It’s A Bad Idea For Kids

“The recorder is not so very suitable for children to play in their formative years. Indeed its use in schools throughout the world have made it more an instrument of torture than an instrument of music, and it must have turned generations off music-making for the rest of their lives,” said Nicholas Lander, owner of the Recorder Homepage site, to Atlas Obscura. It definitely turned me off woodwinds permanently.

Technically, a recorder is a kind of flute. A bad, bad kind of flute. Don’t tell me it’s old. Don’t tell me it’s fond the world over. It’s screechy and awful and “The Fool on the Hill” sucks.

Susan Burns, the administrative director of the Recorder Society of America, says, “It is a professional instrument in its own right. Everyone says, oh, it’s so easy to play, but it takes a lifetime to master.”

Newsflash, Susan: My third grade class did not muster a decent “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” much less “The Fool on the Hill,” much less some avant-garde jazz composition people keep talking about. People can rant about how it teaches children to regulate their breathing until the cows come home. They aren’t learning it. They’re screeching for fun.

“I do feel for parents, but let’s face it, a recorder is a lot easier to listen to than beginning violin,” says Valerie DePriest, a board member of the Chicago chapter of that mythical Recorder Society of America. Hey, Valerie: let’s slap a truth bomb up in here. When kids learn to play the violin, it’s unpleasant and screechy and they actually learn musical notation. When kids learn to play the recorder, it’s unpleasant and screechy and goes exactly nowhere. Violinists improve; recorder players generally do not.

In The End, Did We Really Learn Anything?

Can any American adult actually play a decent recorder? Has any American adult played a recorder in the last two decades? Paul McCartney does not count because he’s English. Neither do those artsy people who should switch their recorders for glockenspiels or something.

We learned to squawk in company. We learned to annoy our bus drivers. We learned that recorders can be heard from a shocking distance.

But we didn’t really learn to play them. So what’s the freaking point? Just because you can hand a kid an instrument doesn’t mean you should. Sure, maybe recorders stir some glorious talent in a few kids. Awesome. Wow. Not worth everyone else’s screeching.

It’s time to ditch the recorder. Just bore them with music theory. At least they’ll learn something.

This article was originally published on