Differentiation Part 3 – Recorders

In a few weeks my fifth graders will dust off their recorders and begin using them in music class again. Many of them loved playing recorders in fourth grade, but some of them struggled. We spend the bulk of our time on whole class recorder instruction, but I also offer recorder tutoring two mornings a week for anyone interested in attending, and post some folk songs for practice on our school website.

When students say they can’t read the notes fast enough to keep up with the class, how can I help them? I don’t want to add letter names to the songs we’re working on, because it feels like adding a band-aid to a bigger issue. Instead, I’ll share a few things that have helped some students.

Selective Labeling

In the past, I’ve experimented with adding letter names under tricky spots in the music. After students have the opportunity to study the music, finger and sing the parts, and play it once or twice, I tap the letter names on the SMART board and they fade out. Usually it is met with gasps and giggles, and a few, “Oh, no!” responses. But we jump right in and play it again while it’s fresh on their minds. The best way I’ve found to do this is only labeling a little, and if it’s more than one spot in the music, letting students play all the way through again before taking away another labeled part.

Did you know the first phrase of the song “Phoebe in Her Petticoat” spells BAGGAGE? It is fun for students to decipher the word BAGGAGE, and then they usually go home and practice that phrase over and over again.

Repeating Motives

Build up to the whole song slowly. Each time we approach a new song in class, we take a minute to study it. We look at the first note, last note, highest, and lowest. Then we look for measures or patterns that repeat and students highlight them on the SMART board.

As a class, students sing the letter names and finger them on the recorder in chin position before trying to play. Then we start at the beginning. Students only play the highlighted parts and I play the other measures. By beginning with the repeating parts, students are not responsible for playing the whole song, but they must follow the music independently and play an accessible section. By the same token, students who need an added challenge may be invited to finger the parts the teacher is playing, or peer tutor those who are struggling.

In the song “Big Fat Biscuit,” students who have just learned “low E” could play G E, G or ‘chew baloo’ in each phrase. Those who need a bigger challenge might be asked to aurally deduce the pitches and rhythms for the rest of the song.

In the song “Chatter with the Angels,” students highlight and play ‘chatter with the angels’ in each phrase, and the teacher plays the rest. This is a great way to practice G E,D, and getting the ‘low D’ to speak. The next step would be adding ‘soon in the morning,’ and then ‘in that land’ and ‘join that band.’

Simplify or Add Harmony 

Consider providing a simplified version of the song for a struggling player, or a counter-melody. In some instances, writing a counter-melody using only BAG with quarter notes and eighth notes would allow students to be part of the group even if they cannot play a melody with more pitches. If both parts are posted on the screen like a duet, I’ve found that most students will choose appropriately.

Solo and Small Group Opportunities

If some of your students are recorder masters, it’s a good idea to let them play independently or in small groups occasionally. Some of them may even come to recorder tutoring to help other students. You’ll never know if you don’t invite them!

How do you help your struggling recorder students?