Choosing a Recorder for Steiner Education

Zana Clarke and Peter Biffin

Steiner suggested that the most appropriate tones to use for children between the ages of 3 yrs and 9yrs are DEGABDE. Two different streams have emerged regarding which is the best way to implement this scale when the children begin to play a wind instrument:

  •          using a simplified recorder that can only play DEGABDE
  •          playing the tones DEGABDE on a descant recorder that is capable of playing these tones as well as many other tones;

Both of these streams have points in their favour. Option 1 (pentatonic recorder) was developed so that the DEGABDE scale could be made as accessible as possible. Option 2 (descant recorder) while being initially more difficult, allows the children to develop and expand their musical horizons right through the primary school without having to change instruments.

Descants can sound wonderful in the hands of a competent player, but played by a class full of 7year-olds, being taught by a teacher who has never played recorder, they can produce a quite unpleasant sound. The pentatonic recorder came into existence partly as a reaction to this sonic problem, and so it usually has a soft sound that is not as piercing when a class-full of children play slightly out of tune with each other.

30 years ago, a comparison between a soft-sounding/small range pentatonic and a descant would have indicated a large gulf between the two forms of instrument. Since then, instrument makers have devoted much time and creative energy to the specific situation of how recorders are used in Waldorf schools. There are now several options available, including descant recorders that have been designed to have a similar soft sound to the pentatonic recorder – which means that choosing a recorder should no longer be carried out on the basis of the old adage “pentatonic soft and gentle, descant loud and piercing”. The central issue is now more one of pedagogical approach.


The Pentatonic Recorder

The first of these were made by the Choroi organization in The Netherlands. There are now several other companies making pentatonic recorders along with various individual makers. Apart from the soft sound, the main characteristics are: an instrument that is voiced so that it doesn’t have an upper register (the upper register is not needed to play DEGABDE); a warm and friendly aesthetic, created by the use of wood rather than plastic complemented by a soft oiled finish; a fingering pattern that is closely related to the fingering used on the descant recorder.

Usually the pentatonic recorder is played throughout classes 1 and 2 after which the children change to the descant recorder. The descant is then carried on throughout the primary school years. A change of instruments is therefore absolutely built-in to the pentatonic approach. 


The transition between pentatonic and descant

The pentatonic recorder and the descant recorder are closely related, and so a transition from playing pentatonic in class 1 and 2 to playing descant in class 3 and beyond is theoretically feasible. Both instruments involve co-ordinating breath, tongue and finger movement, and the physical size/form are very similar. Consequently, much of what has been learnt on the pentatonic can be transferred to the descant. The fingering patterns used to produce the DEGABDE scale on the pentatonic can also transfer to the descant, with the exception of the note G. After the change to descant, the fingering of G requires special attention or else the pentatonic fingering can prevail to the detriment of both ongoing recorder playing and ear-training generally.


If the pentatonic approach has been chosen, almost without exception the music will have been written for the DEGABDE scale.  Over time the teacher will learn to read the simple 7note notation needed for these songs, and will come to associate a particular written note with a particular finger pattern. When the transfer is made to descant, the fingering patterns used for the pentatonic will now produce a different note – the descant’s bottom note is a C, whereas the pentatonic’s bottom note is a D. In the common situation where learning to read music has already been a struggle for the teacher, having to re-learn all of the connections between fingering patterns and notation can be a real stumbling block, and a successful transition to descant is often not made.


Descant Recorder

For generations the descant recorder has suffered bad press because of what can happen to people’s nerves and ears when a classroom full of descant recorders are played out of tune. While this unpleasant phenomenon is unquestionably a reality, it is much worse when the teacher is a beginner themselves. If the class is taught by a competent recorder player, the cacophony is less penetrating, and the unpleasant phase doesn’t actually last very long.


There are several positive aspects in using descant recorder, but perhaps the most important for the ongoing heath of a whole-of-school recorder programme is that the class teacher doesn’t have to make any fingering/reading adjustments in order to move from pentatonic to diatonic music in class 3, and as a consequence of this, momentum is not lost at this important point.


School Structure and Recorder Choices

Most Waldorf schools like the idea of there being consistency across the classes in relation to which recorders are chosen. While this has merit from some points of view, there is a strong case for the choice between pentatonic or descant being made on the basis of the musical experience and abilities of the particular class 1 teacher rather than on the basis of a policy.


If the class 1 teacher is a recorder-playing beginner, the long-term musical future of the class is often better served by choosing descant over pentatonic (even though the descant recorder is harder to begin with). When there is no need for the teacher to make a change in the naming/fingering system, continuity in building recorder playing skills beyond class 3 is much more likely.


If the class 1 teacher is a competent recorder player, more options present themselves. An experienced player can successfully direct a class full of descants, and these can quite happily be plastic if cost restrictions mean there are no alternatives available. Alternatively, an experienced player may choose to go the pentatonic route, confident in the knowledge that when the transition is made from pentatonic to descant, they are comfortable with either fingering.


If the individual school establishes a blanket policy such as "in our school we always start with" ……then a much more careful choice has to be made regarding either which teacher takes a class, or which recorders are purchased. If the policy says "in our school we always start with pentatonic", then the school would be well advised to select a class teacher who is a musician. If the policy says "in our school we always start with descant", (assuming that most likely the class teacher will be a novice recorder player) then it would be worth considering either a form of descant that has been designed specifically for classroom work and that has a soft sound, or else the decision could be taken that the bulk of the recorder teaching is not done by the class teacher.

In an ideal situation, a school could have a policy that provides consistency in the instruments chosen for successive class 1’s, while also allowing the variable recorder playing skills of the Class 1 teachers to be taken into account.  This is now possible!! Several highly regarded recorder makers in Germany have spent many years working on this problem in collaboration with Waldorf teachers, and their solutions tick pretty much every box (except rock-bottom cost).

These designs employ a modular concept, in which a single head joint is used in combination with either a pentatonic body or a descant body.  A single recorder can therefore be used by a child throughout their primary school years, regardless of whether the individual class teacher chooses to use descant throughout, or begin on pentatonic and then move to descant in class 3 or 4. In this modular system, it is possible for pentatonic bodies to be used in class 1 and 2, with the children continuing into the later primary years using the same head joint with a descant body. The head joint and descant body could be purchased by the parents, and a set of pentatonic bodies purchased by the school. These pentatonic bodies can then be recycled to the new class 1 again and again.


A quick look at a selection of recorders currently available:


Wood vs Plastic

Almost universally recorder players will choose wood over plastic. Each different timber imparts a particular quality to the sound and wooden recorders, even when made in batches by one maker, still tend to have an individual character. However, making a wooden recorder takes much more time than making one from plastic. This inevitably means that wooden recorders will either cost significantly more, and if they are a comparable price to plastic, they will inevitably be of poorer quality. A poorly made wooden recorder is much worse for children to learn on than a well-made plastic one.

There are good and bad plastic recorders, just as there are with wooden ones. A good one can be a valued instrument, and there are very few professional recorder players who don’t include at least one plastic recorder in their collection. If well designed, their tuning and voicing are impeccable, they are completely reliable for long hours of playing, and are extremely robust. On the positive side: clear, precise, fast, nimble, capable of playing a huge range of music both in ensemble or solo. On the negative side: like any Baroque style recorder, when played out of tune they can be piercing, and they will always look like they are made from plastic.



Composite Wood/Plastic

This design attempts to get the best of both worlds – the warmth in both sound and aesthetics provided by wood (body) combined with the speed of manufacture and reliability of plastic (head). This design also creates instruments that are more affordable. In terms of sound, it is the head of a recorder that does well over 90% of the work, and consequently these composite recorders essentially have the sound characteristics of a plastic recorder rather than a wooden one. They are voiced in the baroque style, so they have similar pros and cons to a fully plastic descant. Price is around $70.



Pentatonic recorders

Choroi: for several decades Choroi have been the principle makers of pentatonic recorders (also known by the misnomer Choroi Flute9). These are one piece instruments made from either pear or maple wood. Cost is approx. $125.

Mollenhauer: One of the premier makers of wooden recorders, Mollenhauer have developed several wooden recorders specifically for Waldorf education. They make a one piece 7 tone pentatonic recorder made from pear wood, priced around $92.

Kunath have also spent much time developing recorders for Waldorf education. Their Sun recorder is a one-piece instrument with 7 tones, costing around $80.


Modular Pentatonic/Descant Recorders

Kunath make a flexible composite pentatonic/descant recorder, using the one head and two bodies. One Kunath model uses an ingenious “soundstrip” which gives the instruments a very soft, friendly sound for beginners, and then later when the strip is removed, the recorder becomes a fully-fledged descant. A pentatonic/descant combi recorder with 2 bodies costs around $140.


Mollenhauer have developed two different modular recorders specifically for Waldorf education.

Prima: These are a composite recorder, featuring a plastic head and a wooden body. The pentatonic and descant bodies are available for around $35, making a combination instrument of one head and two bodies around the $100 mark.

Waldorf Edition: This is a wooden modular system.  The pentatonic bodies cost around $55 each and the head joint/descant body costs around $120. Mollenhauer have also used their very considerable expertise and experience to create an entire matched ensemble of Waldorf Edition recorders comprising descant, alto, tenor and bass. They have even added a tenor-range 7 tone pentatonic (that sounds an octave below the normal descant-range pentatonic).


Descant Recorders

Kunath modular recorders can also serve as a descant recorder, with the pentatonic body not being used. These are good quality wooden descants at a very affordable price (around $95), and have more flexibility for use in classrooms than any other model of descant (with the addition of the soundstrip, Kunath descants become as quiet and friendly as a Choroi pentatonic, but can then become a fully functional descant when the strip is removed).


Mollenhauer modular recorders can also be used purely as a descant. Mollenhauer also make student descants not specifically intended for Waldorf education. Their student range is good value for money in terms of reliable wooden recorders, starting at around $107. Their Canta range begins at around $129.


Kung is a highly regarded Swiss recorder maker, and their entry level descants are the highest quality student instruments available, starting at $156.


Plastic descants. The outstanding brands are Aulos and Zen-on. These manufacturers make a range of plastic instruments, and we have found that the requisite quality level is reached with descant recorders costing roughly $35 and up. For this reason we would recommend either the Aulos AU703B at $35, Aulos AU503B at $41 or Zen-on 150B at $45. These are Baroque-style instruments, with all the characteristics that go with that style.


Ensemble Instruments

When a school considers the instruments needed for an ensemble, it is worth remembering that the best results are achieved when the range of instruments used have been designed to play together. It can be very difficult to get a good ensemble sound using recorders from different makers, in different styles. When it comes to price, often plastic is the only option simply because of the high cost of the larger recorders. Aulos Symphony series trebles are around $80, tenor around $190, Bass around $650. Compare that to Mollenhauer’s Waldorf Edition ensemble instruments made from wood: treble around $450, tenor around $550 and bass around $1900 – wonderful instruments for a school to have, but many dollars attached.


With the exception of the Choroi pentatonic recorder, all the instruments mentioned in this article are available from Orpheus Music.


Zana Clarke is a central figure in the recorder world, working as performer, teacher, composer, publisher and Arts Administrator. She has recorded 8 CDs including Medieval, Baroque, Contemporary and Improvised, and 2 CDs as director of the youth recorder ensemble Batalla Famossa. For the last 20 years she has organized the yearly recorder festivals held in Armidale NSW, and as Artistic Director of Orpheus Music she created Orpheus Music Publications, publishing over 300 new works for recorder. Zana has been head of music at Sophia Mundi Steiner school and at the Armidale Waldorf School, has been the music/recorder teacher for Sydney Rudolf Steiner College’s external courses for many years and is currently Education Director at the Armidale Waldorf School.

Peter Biffin is an instrument maker and musician who has made instruments for some of the worlds outstanding musicians in several different fields. He was a founding member of the Armidale Waldorf School, and has made many instruments for Steiner schools, including specialised instruments for Mood of the Fifth. Peter has also made several thousand pentatonic recorders for Steiner schools in Australia and New Zealand.