Walter Bitner

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How to Teach Recorder Fingerings

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This post is especially for those teaching the recorder to children in school settings – but it might be worth a look if you are learning how to play the instrument as well.

playing recorder with Blue Rock School students, 1991

playing recorder with Blue Rock School students, 1991

I hope that this brief post will be helpful to those teaching recorder in elementary school who have little or no background with the instrument as players themselves.  My impression is that most elementary school music teachers haven’t actually studied recorder for its own sake (e.g taken lessons, played in a consort or performed solo recitals on recorder, etc.). I thought about the topic of this post recently when I remembered that I have never encountered middle or high school students that had been taught recorder in elementary school (by someone other than me) who were familiar with this system.


Don’t use those silly charts

Anyone who has stood before a group of children, each of whom holds a recorder in their hands, and tried to get them to all play the same note knows that the primary means for making sure everyone is playing the same fingering is to show them yourself on the instrument in your hands.  However, for several reasons including accounting for differences in learning styles, being able to provide students with a reference to consult for fingerings when you are not there, and (important) being able to verbally describe fingerings, it is necessary to have a system.
ThrowAway2The usual system that school and introductory recorder methods provide for fingering instruction is some form of chart that shows pictures of recorders or a more abstract stack of circles representing the fingering holes on the instrument, usually showing the holes that should be covered for each note filled in and the ones left uncovered empty.  Often a tightly folded piece of paper with such a chart arrives with each plastic recorder, tucked inside the recorder’s case along with the instrument and covered in Japanese characters.

Throw these charts away.

Use this system instead:


click to enlarge – free to print, copy, and distribute

It seems so obvious

0 = the “thumb” hole, played with the thumb of the left hand

1, 2, 3 = the holes covered by the three fingers of the left hand descending down the instrument beginning with the index finger

4, 5, 6, 7 = the holes covered by the four fingers of the right hand descending down the instrument beginning with the index finger

Numbers articulated for a fingering indicate that hole is to be covered. Absent numbers = open holes.

The “cracked” or “pinched” thumb hole and “half holes” on 6 and 7 are indicated by a slash through the number – they can be verbally described as “pinched thumb” and “half 6”, etc.

Here is the chart above in PDF format:


*       *       *

I didn’t invent this system, I just made the chart above.  I first encountered it more than twenty years ago in Walter van Hauwe’s 3-volume method The Modern Recorder Playerwhich is an excellent method for the adult who is already a musician to learn to play the recorder.  This was the system to indicate fingerings I used with my own students thereafter.  Walter van Hauwe provides similar and much more extensive charts in his books – including many indispensable alternate and trill fingerings for advanced players – for alto recorder, which is the primary solo instrument for the historical recorder repertoire.  The simplified chart above – which I encourage you to print and use with your students – provides the basic fingerings for soprano recorder.

The numerous advantages to this system include:

  • Fingerings can easily be described verbally by simply naming the numbers corresponding to the holes to be covered.  Always do this in ascending numerical order, beginning with 0 (always pronounced zero).
  • Fingerings can easily be notated (in your music!) e.g. on soprano recorder, Bb = 01356
  • Using a system like this treats the recorder like a real instrumentStudents who already use a numerical fingering system for their violin or piano study, etc. will appreciate and grasp this system immediately.

In my experience, elementary school students who can count to seven will be able to understand this system within a few minutes, and will be able to apply it with a minimum of repetitions – if you use it regularly, by the end of the second class you use it in you won’t have to explain how it works again.

Trust me, you won’t go back.


  1. yjloiselle says:

    I agree wholeheartedly about throwing charts away. I do model the fingerings and teach different techniques on how to look at moving up or down the register while reading/decoding notes on a staff. I don’t agree about using 0-1-2-3, 4-5-6 and 7 for naming fingerings. Better to use T- 1-2-3 and 1-2-3-4. Students will quicker learn what the 6th hole is by knowing it’s the 3rd hole of the right hand.

    Thanks for posting this.

  2. jwocrc says:

    I like the old numbering system that is new to the writer. It is certainly easier to include in an article, letter or paper than the other graph, which sort of requires a jpeg or some such.
    However, no, no, no, it is not silly. It works also. It might not work for the author, and it might not work for some others, but, yes, it certainly works for some.
    I would wager that if you take a look, you will find that there are some for whom the pictorial graph is more useful. In any case, the pictorial graph is a useful and helpful introduction to the numerical graph, a la “See, this is what I mean by zero, and this is what I mean by one, and this is what I…” etc.
    Without some intervening pictorial graphic, I can well imagine the numerical graph being met by kids with a lot of WTF expressions. Whereas, if you phase from the pictorial into the numerical, it ought to flow relatively seamlessly, at least for a lot of kids.
    Watch the kids like a hawk and see what is working for them. If there’s something we need to throw out, it’s the notion, “I’m sure this system is clearly superior to that system. Throw that silly system away.” What works is what I use. And it can vary from day to day. Kids are kids! They are not automatons; they are not machines; they are not logical.

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  6. David Wood says:

    As is so often the case, potentially good advice is overdone. Actually throwing the charts away is unwise, as they can still provide a useful reference guide later.

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