One of the questions I'm asked most frequently as a teacher is how to play in tune on the recorder.
There is, unfortunately, no magic tuning fork. The recorder may be relatively easy to pick up and make noise on, but as many have discovered, it's an instrumental honey trap, keeping its difficulties in reserve until you're hooked!
It is absolutely possible to play in tune on the recorder, and some intelligent work can help you move closer to your goal.
Change your mindset
The ability to play in tune is a skill. It is not a talent, something a person possesses or not. Nor is it a discrete piece of knowledge that can be absorbed and implemented in one go. Whether or not you can play in tune does not speak to your musicianship, intelligence, or value as a person. Be kind to yourself, and to others!
Skills require practice, but are ultimately accessible to everyone. It is true that, due to innate predisposition or prior experience, some of us pick up particular skills more quickly than others. But with focused practice over time, anyone can improve a skill. Viewing tuning as a learnable skill, just like moving your fingers between notes, is the first step to playing better in tune.
Improve your tone
Recorders are designed to play in tune when they're being blown correctly. If you're not producing a clear, open, resonant, and steady tone on the recorder, there's a very small chance that you're playing in tune. In contrast, if you are breathing efficiently and producing an excellent tone, you've fought at least half the battle already.
Tone is among the trickiest things to improve on the recorder. The best way to improve your tone is to work with a teacher -- learning to blow and breathe properly is a complex process that benefits from expert advice and consistent feedback. You can find a teacher on the American Recorder Society website. If you don't have access to a teacher, the ARS website has a series of instructional videos by recorder professional Vicki Boeckman.
Learn your instrument
The recorder is a sensitive -- and particular! -- instrument. Every recorder is different, and each note on the recorder wants to be blown in a specific way. Spend time with each of your recorders, learning their tendencies. Is your recorder particularly sharp? Is this particular note unusually low? A tuner with a needle can be useful for this task.
If the recorder is generally out of tune, it can be "pulled out" or "pushed in." In other words, the head joint can be slightly pulled away from the body, lengthening the instrument and lowering its pitch, or pushed back in, raising its pitch back up. Make sure your recorder is warmed up before you assess its tuning, since a warm recorder will be a different pitch than a cold one. And make sure you don't pull out very far -- more than a few millimeters and you will have disrupted the relationships between individual notes.
Step away from the needle
Tuning comprises two separate, yet interlocking, skills: the ability to hear whether something is in tune, and the ability to adjust your playing according to what you hear.
A tuner that provides you with visual feedback, like a needle or lights, is very useful when you're working on the first of these skills. But many people still rely on the needle when it comes time to practice adjusting their own tuning. This is a mistake. You don't need to learn how to adjust your tuning to visual feedback. You need to learn to adjust to a note you hear, whether that note be in tune, sharp, or flat.
Instead of the needle, use a drone.
Most good tuners or tuning apps have a drone function, the ability to produce a sustained note. Practice playing along with the drone. Can you hear when you are sharp or flat? If not, use the needle as a spot checker to help you learn to hear what it sounds like when you're in tune -- or not -- with the drone.
Once you can hear if you're off, practice beginning your note deliberately sharp or flat -- and then adjusting to match your pitch to the drone. Practice intervals -- thirds and fifths, particularly, so you can hear what good intervals sound like. Practice matching pitches in the same octave, as well as the octaves above and below you. If you have a tuner that offers different temperaments, use the opportunity to practice tuning to slightly different pitches.
You can use a physical tuner, an app, or even a CD. I use a Korg OT-120 -- it's on the bulkier side, but produces a nice, loud drone in various temperaments. Clear Tune and other tuning apps offer drones and even more temperament flexibility, though sometimes a drone from a phone can be a little soft for initial practice. My colleague Jody Miller, who directs Lauda Musicam in Atlanta, asks his ensemble members to work with a product called Tuning CD. (I've never used it, but I've met a number of Atlanta recorder players who play remarkably well in tune!)
If you've put in sufficient time with your instrument and a drone, you've likely developed a subconscious feel for playing in tune. Often, your subconscious tuning-master is faster and more accurate than your conscious brain. Try "hearing" a note in your head before you play it: Ten to one, that note will be better in tune than if you'd approached it with no forethought.
Our hearing changes as we age. This is particularly true of our high frequency hearing, the kind that allows us to hear some of the overtones that tell us whether or not we're in tune. If you know your ear for tuning is no longer as reliable as it once was, or if you are in the learning stages and feel you could use the extra help, one way to keep playing pleasurable is to make an arrangement with a buddy, someone who can tell you if, in ensemble, you need to adjust your pitch. Formalizing this relationship can help to take some of the angst out of it -- and who among us, in our musical journeys, doesn't need a little help along the way!