February 2023

 A Focus on Thumb Technique, Part 2

by Marea Chernoff

This is the second of two articles addressing good thumb technique on the recorder. The first article introduced the basics of thumb positions, provided exercises to practice accuracy in thumb technique and highlighted the importance of approaching these techniques in an efficient and relaxed manner. Players unfamiliar with playing high notes might be well served by first reviewing the initial article. A Focus on Thumb Technique, Part 1

This article discusses the role of the thumb in high note production and includes practice exercises to help players achieve confidence and results that will sing. Throughout the article, the C and F recorder notes will appear in the order C/F.

Overcoming Fear and Building Confidence

High notes can be a point of frustration for players and may create fear, avoidance, tension and a lack of confidence. This, in turn, can lead to habits that present even more challenges. By learning and practicing effective thumb techniques, recorder players will achieve high notes that sing out musically, are relatively easy to produce and are predictable.

Air speed is an important consideration. Navigating the range of the recorder from low to high involves changes in the speed of the air filling the recorder. The lowest register requires the slowest, warm air (think slowly fogging up a mirror), and the high register needs more of a gentle cold tornado. But keep in mind that faster air is not produced by just blowing harder.

High notes can also be affected by the tongue. Articulating a firm ‘t’ slightly further forward toward the teeth (not touching the teeth) can help the air speed increase to pop out high notes with clarity. The higher the note, the more this is helpful.

The Role of the Thumb in High Notes

The thumb hole, when partially uncovered, acts as a vent, raising the pitch by an octave. While some high notes are produced by simply venting the hole, others are fingered differently from the lower octave. Though described as a half-hole, the opening in the thumb hole is often smaller than half. If we literally cover only half the hole, not all notes will sound their best. 

Focus on uncovering the upper third and less for successful high notes. Every recorder we pick up may have a slightly different opening for the same note. One alto may differ from another in this respect, and each different size of recorder requires a specific placement that the thumb needs to memorize. A note that needs a very tiny opening on one recorder may be more flexible and allow a bigger opening on another recorder. For basic movement of the thumb to half-hole, please refer to the first article on thumb technique.

Each note may require a slightly different thumb position:

  • E/A is the easiest to play, speaking with no thumb or with the hole almost covered.
  • F, F#, G, Bb, D/Bb, B, C, Eb, G are relatively easy to find with one third to one quarter of an opening.
  • B/E depends on the recorder. Try starting with one quarter open and adjust either way as needed.
  • C/F can be tougher to find. Start with one quarter open, and if that isn’t ideal, make the hole smaller.
  • G#/C# works best with just a sliver of opening.
  • A/D can require more time to find the correct placement. Start with one quarter open and be prepared to go smaller. This note is an exception and sensitive to strong articulation and high air speed. Back off from both.

Embrace Your Practice on High Notes

When practicing high notes, embrace the process; it may take some time to find the balance of required techniques. Be patient and enjoy the chance to experiment and make crazy sounds. Note what works, as much as what doesn’t, to find success. Practice regularly to build skills.

Be aware of negative habits creeping in. Human nature usually prompts us to try harder if something isn’t working as we wish. This can result in more tension in the body, hands and face and get in the way of progress. Frustration can lead to blowing harder, squeezing fingers or digging in with the thumb nail, or even unnecessary lip pressure (biting). Hesitancy can lead to too little support, slow articulation and not enough air speed.

Before beginning high note practice, make sure the left thumb nail is short and won’t hinder the precise position of the thumb for the half-hole. Having a nail file right where you practice is convenient.

When setting out to learn or improve high notes, aim to move the fingers and thumb in perfect coordination, only at the exact moment the note changes. Particularly in slower moving music or after long notes, the fingers/thumb can move sluggishly to the next note. This may cause extra noise or ‘blips’ in the intervals. Slower action in the thumb can prevent the high note from speaking altogether. 

Once confidence and consistent high notes are attained, seek to hone the pitch and tone of the notes. Micro adjustments of the thumb and hole opening can change the clarity of tone from pure to fuzzy sounding. A tuner is a helpful tool to use when practicing, keeping check of where the notes are sitting. A bigger thumb hole opening can raise the pitch; a smaller opening lowers the pitch. Balance the pitch and tone to find the ultimate thumb position.

Some Helpful Exercises to Gain Facility (click here for PDF)

1. Octaves are a great way to focus on the thumb, while also observing the required air speed to achieve the higher pitch. Repeat each measure multiple times slowly.

a) Basic octaves, concentrating only on accurate thumb motion to play the higher octave.

b) Octaves that move increasingly more fingers, as well as the thumb.

c) Octave that moves at least 5 fingers and the thumb.

d) Octave with only 2 fingers and the thumb, where the thumb requires great precision, a much smaller opening.

2. Stepwise intervals: practice moving from one half-hole note to another. Adjustments to the opening of the thumb hole may be very small or more exaggerated depending on the note. Repeat each measure multiple times slowly.

3. Interval scales: descend or ascend a scale, returning to the same note. Find the placement of the high note each time. These exercises will build confidence and consistency in playing the high notes with correct thumb placement and air stream. They can be modified to use any note as the returning note for practice and expand to the full range of the recorder.

4. Advanced: For more difficulty, play the interval scales chromatically in the same manner. Again, try expanding further up and down the range and change the repeated note.

5. Smooth out the interval D-E/G-A using alternate fingerings for E/A to build finger mobility and accuracy to the full fingering. Try tonguing and slurring. Repeat each measure multiple times slowly. Then combine the two measures.

Troubleshooting when things aren’t working

If the difficulty in producing nice high notes is sudden, the windway may be clogged with condensation. This problem can be reduced by warming up the top of the recorder before blowing air into it, and regular “slurping” (sucking air into the mouth to clear the windway).

High notes can be an issue with the instrument itself. The thumb hole on the recorder may have been partially carved out by the thumb nail. In this case, a wood recorder can be re-bushed by a repair technician to restore the proper dimension. Relaxed thumb technique, keeping the nail short and avoiding digging the nail into the thumb hole can help prevent excess wear.

from Prescott workshop

With a wooden recorder, high notes may not speak easily if the instrument needs revoicing. This involves the removal of the block to clean and reshape. The block swells and dries repeatedly with the condensate moisture from warm air, leading to an eventual warping of its shape. Revoicing is done by a repair technician or instrument maker and can have a big impact on the performance of the instrument.

Finally, the recorder could be dirty. With a wood instrument, the block may need cleaning. If it’s a plastic recorder, give it a bath (watch that pads on larger instruments with keys don’t get wet). Wooden recorders, if not wax impregnated, may be dry and need oiling. Avoid getting oil on any pads and especially not on the block. There are many great videos and articles about regular recorder maintenance that can help keep instruments in great shape.

Caring for Your Wooden Recorder

How Do I Know When My Recorder Needs Revoicing?

Recorder Maker Tom Prescott's video on Recorder Care

Marea Chernoff is an oboist, Baroque oboist and recorder player in Vancouver B.C., Canada. She is the founder and director of the Recorder Program at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra School of Music which includes several recorder classes, in person and available online. Recorder Programs - VSO School of Music

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