Research shows that the act of READING music notation (not just making music) has a direct correlation to "academic" achievement. Reading musical notation while perfoming on an instrument or singing is a cross-brain activity which builds brain connections and strengthens neural pathways. Research also shows that the neural pathways forged as a child should be used often to avoid the brain's "pruning" process that happens before adolescence has ended. One way to make sure the brain pruning doesn't happen is to provide plenty of notation reading experiences to kids--and the Recorder Karate program is a great way to accomplish this.
This little gem of a teaching program is available from Plank Road Publishing (the same folks who publish Music K-8 Magazine) and is the single most successful recorder teaching method I have ever used. Basically, it works like regular karate--kids earn belts that correspond to certain skills. The program begins with the white belt, which teaches the perennial recorder staple, "Hot Cross Buns", and progresses through the black belt which teaches an eternal kid favorite, "Ode to Joy." You will be amazed how kids buy into this program! The prospect of tying colored yarn belts to their recorders seems to be irresistable and they are truly motivated to achieve as many as they can. You will never go back to teaching recorder the same way again.
That being said, I only require kids to earn their first three belts (almost every child, regardless of ability, can learn the third belt--"Merrily We Roll Along"--even if it is by rote--and we learn the belts as a class so everyone can be successful.) There are always classes that move past the first three songs in short order because they simply must get the next belt! They beg to go on. I'm not kidding. I also provide many opportunities during class to play songs outside of the Recorder Karate program and Music K-8 has some great recorder collections for supplemental material. High level belt testing (above purple) is almost exclusively outside regular classroom hours, so no one has to test or play in front of others on songs that are hard. Children always have a choice about whether to test alone or in a small group (I can easily distinguish between 3 players as they are testing)--there is confidence in numbers!
And here is another cool thing about Recorder Karate: Kids can practice for their belts with accompaniment online at the Recorder Karate Dojo. With the online accompaniment (available in varying speeds), they can be sure they are playing the songs correctly. This is a really great feature for the high ability kids who are self-motivated and want to earn every single belt. Entrance into the Dojo requires a username and a password which you will receive when you purchase the book.
The pattern for this guy is in the premier issue of Recorder Classroom magazine. (Published by Plank Road Publishing--the same people who publish Music K-8.) I photocopied the template on colored paper, laminated it and fixed it to my wall. I test kids on their fingering knowledge by holding up flashcards that they have to make Recorder Dude finger. We have two Recorder Dudes in the room and sometimes we have races.
It's not very pretty, but it works. I got an old copier paper box, collected paper towel rolls and glued them in. The recorders fit into them nicely if they don't have the zipper case. (The zipper case will fit as well, but you have to finesse it a little bit.) I leave room for book and misc. storage. I have one box for each class I teach. I'm sure there is a lot of decorating one could do if one was more creative than I.
Once children reach their black belts, many are quite motivated to keep going. I have devised a further nine belts (2nd degree thru 10th degree) for them to study. I have scoured many different recorder methods and found songs that teach many different skills, from new notes and fingerings to new rhythms; new time signatures and new key signatures. These songs are in the public domain so I have arranged them with accompaniment and recorded them to a CD for the kids to practice at home. I always have at least one child, and often more, who reach the 10th degree level. The 10th degree level is a pretty substantial piece--one I would have to practice.
I spend an entire semester working on recorder playing. At the end of the semester, we have a recital where parents and others can come and hear how much progress has been made! I hold the recital during the school day and keep it to about a half-hour in length. Each class plays a song, then the black belts play "Ode to Joy", then the kids who have earned the highest degree black belt play. The response has been very positive and the parents who have been listening to a semester's worth of squeaking appreciate hearing that their patience has not been in vain.
When I come across a song I think the kids will enjoy, I copy it and put it in a binder. I have sequentially ordered the songs in the binder from the easiest songs to ones that are more difficult. Some days are request days where students can pick any song in the binder to play. Almost every song in the binder has CD accompaniment. If you haven't used CDs with your kids, I encourage it. Not only are the orchestrations imaginative and motivational, but the kids are forced to keep a steady beat and to listen to an "ensemble" while they play. (I also include plenty of opportunities for them to play sans CD so they can practice maintaining a steady beat on their own along with other important skills.) Some binders have the letter names written in above the notes to accomodate all learners and no one seems to notice who is reading what, especially since I don't make a big deal of it.
I have adapted this trivia game for use in music class. Basically it works like this: I have a set of flashcards that have the notes in the treble clef printed on them. Two children stand up and try to name the note on the flashcard when I hold it up. The child that gets the answer correct first, moves to the next child in line. Those two now go head to head in the note naming contest, with the winner moving on to the next child. The object of the game is to try to make it "around the world" by defeating all the kids in the class. I use the game sparingly as it can be lengthy. Kids love it and it can be adapted to accomodate all sorts of skills--like call and response, for instance.
When a child reaches his or her black belt, I take a picture and put it up on my Wall of Fame. I leave the pictures up even into the next year so I can motivate the next crop of recorder players to achieve black belt status. Once one of the new crop reaches black belt status, the old pictures come down and new ones are put up. The kids enjoy tracking who gets their balck belt.
Around my room, I have placed large pieces of construction paper that correspond to the belt colors. As soon as a child successfully tests out of a belt, s/he gets to write his or her name on the poster. This has been surprisingly motivational. As you may notice, kids are able to sign the black belt poster again for every degree past the black belt they achieve. Emma looks like she has completed her 2nd degree black belt; Ryan A. looks like he has completed his 4th degree black belt. SInce I require all my kids to earn up to their orange belts, the white, yellow and orange posters are full.
It's amazing how hard kids will work for those silly, 8" pieces of yarn. They take great pride in tying them to the bells of their recorders. The yarn belts are half the reason the Recorder Karate program works so well! I just buy yarn at Walmart and cut it into the appropriate lengths, but you can get fancy ones from Music K-8 along with other recorder accessories.
In 2010, I presented a session on the subject of teaching the recorder to music teachers across the state of Nebraska at their annual All-State Conference/Clinic. Many of the ideas I shared are highlighted on this page and a few aren't. Click here for a copy of the pdf file I handed to each participant. (link coming soon)