Playing with expression, or “creating the feels”, is and should be any musician’s core superpower. But on a recorder? Is that even possible? Yes! Totally! You can play the recorder with expression.
WHAT DO I MEAN BY “PLAYING WITH EXPRESSION”?
By playing with expression I mean using your instrument to make sounds with such emotion in them. The most iconic vocalists, pianists, violinists, oboists, guitarists etc. do this well. And recorder players should be able to, and can, do it also.
SKILLS USED TO PLAY RECORDER WITH EXPRESSION
Note that in order to play a song with expression, you should be able to play the song plainly first. That way, you can intentionally add those skills that will give the song or piece some emotional weight.
Recorder players can express feelings of happiness, joy, anger, romance etc. with this instrument, and here are some of the skills to achieve this:
- ARTICULATION: This is the ability to create interesting tone textures on the recorder using your tongue and/or lips. This is one of the strongest tricks of recorder players, and can be used to express emotion. For example, the hard tonguing (too) can be used to convey anger and sometimes happiness, while sadness can be expressed with softer tonguing (loo).
- VIBRATO: This is the ability to produce sound with a vibrating feel. This always gives me the chills, especially when done to express sadness or romantic feeling. This vibrato can be achieved by increasing and decreasing your breath intensity (I do this easily by moving my jaw up and down while blowing) or by using the finger vibrato, where you use your fingers to half-cover and release certain holes on the recorder.
- DYNAMICS: While the recorder doesn’t have as wide a dynamic range as most modern wind instruments (being an instrument of a time when use of dynamics wasn’t of much importance), its height of loudness and depth of quietness is still sufficient to create feeling. Louder sounds are used to express anger by increasing your breath strength slightly (in lower notes, you use hard tonguing instead), while quieter sounds are used to express more romantic or sad feelings by dropping your breath strength.
- GLISSANDO: Sometimes, especially for the sadder emotions, I move smoothly from one note to the other to create a sliding feel. This is a glissando. I do this by gradually releasing the recorder holes till I get to the fingering I’m aiming for.
- SCALES: Certain scales, such as the blues scale and the pentatonic scales, as well as modal scales like mixolydian, dorian, lydian etc. come with their own subtle emotions. Learn them. That way, you have some handy tricks up your sleeve.
To help with playing with expression, here is a video from Sarah Jeffrey’s Team recorder YouTube channel (a great resource for playing recorder):
So, get cracking! Let’s all show the world our superpowers as recorder players, playing the recorder with expression as we sure can.
YouTube Credits: Sarah Jeffrey’s Team Recorder YouTube channel
Edikan Benson Abia (Fil Harmonix) is a performing recorder player and singer, producer, composer, video editor as well as a piano and recorder instructor. A graduate of the University of Port Harcourt with a B. Sc Biochemistry degree, he would later enroll into, and graduate from, the prestigious Tenstrings Music Institute. He has been a recorder player for more than 10 years now and has been composing since he was 15.