Choosing An Instrument For Your Child

It is the beginning of the school year, and just like every other school year, I get several phone calls a week asking me the same question, “I really want my child to play a musical instrument, but I don’t know which one!”

I have to tell you–I’m THRILLED to hear those questions, because it shows a parent who a) understands how important music is and b) shows me that this is a parent who really cares about the “choice” of instruments, rather than just going along with a whim, or…what the neighbor’s kid takes! So, where to start?

First — AGE. Not all instruments are appropriate for all ages.

Ages 4 – 8

In this age group, typically the instrument selection is developmentally narrowed down to:

Piano
Violin
Viola
Cello
Guitar

Why those instruments?

Piano is always a great “first” (and last!) instrument. Since the piano keyboard is set up exactly like the musical staff, it makes learning notes and understanding music theory very intuitive and natural. PLUS, you learn how to read both the Treble Clef (high sound) and the Bass Clef (low sounds). So, if your child ever wants to try another instrument, they can choose just about any of them and already know their language.

String instruments come in several sizes. This doesn’t affect the notes they play at all, nor does it affect the “positions” of the fingers. It simply shortens the instruments to various sizes appropriate for different arm lengths. So, remember: if you DO choose a string instrument, you must bring your child to the rental place to be “sized.” Don’t go “eBaying” an instrument — you’ll usually waste your money.

What about Brass and Woodwind instruments at this age? Usually out of the question, as they take a much larger body to blow through all of the tubing, and better embouchure (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Embouchure) in the jaw/lips/mouth/tongue. Not to mention they can be pretty heavy! Sure, most kids could lift those instruments (except perhaps a tuba!), but lifting for a few seconds, versus lifting for at least 30 minutes while blowing through the instrument AND putting fingers in the right place — that is a totally different thing altogether. Now, before the woodwind teachers shoot me down, I DO realize that some kids may start with a piccolo before going to flute (and the piccolo is about 1/2 the size of the flute).

After Age 9

Pretty much anything is available. Once the children are in 4th grade (about 9-10 years old) the world opens up to them. That is why most schools don’t offer band til that age — the instruments are just not developmentally appropriate for the majority of kids before that age.

Special Concerns for Voice Study
I’ve had some parents downright MAD at me for not being willing to teach their 5-year-old a private singing lesson. I know that other music schools will do this, but MusicMakers will not. Now, if you want to pair piano with voice (what we call a piano/voice combination lesson), that’s different — no more than about 15 minutes of voice for the children under 10 years old is appropriate. And, take it from a vocalist, it is virtually impossible to really learn to read music and understand music theory without an instrument. Voice alone, as wonderful as it is (and it is!), just won’t cut it. Too abstract, need to put your fingers on something!

Why not so young? A lot of people want to sing, kids are very innately musical, and love to sing around the house, in the car, etc. Well, that’s great, and I strongly encourage this in my own children, as well. But, starting formal lessons TOO young can be detrimental to your child’s singing voice, not to mention a waste of money.

Beware of the Flute – Trumpet -Saxophone -Violin Conspiracy
Ok, there’s really no conspiracy. BUT, you’d think there was, just looking at the numbers of kids who choose one of those instruments. My theory is that they choose those instruments because they’ve been exposed to them A LOT and probably have a friend (or two) who plays it. There’s nothing wrong with choosing an instrument because a friend plays it, IF AND ONLY IF the child actually enjoys the sound. But, again, go with what the child feels naturally drawn to (by ear, not by peer pressure)

The Case for Percussion!
When I was in 4th grade, I was SO excited at the prospect of studying drums in the school band and orchestra (we were lucky enough to have both). I had finally, FINALLY, talked my mother into letting me write “percussion” on the form that the music teachers sent home. And, I went on to become a fabulous percussionist (didn’t you know?)….NOT. Nope, this was the 1970s and the two (male) music teachers looked at this very shy, pigtailed, plain little girl and handed me a clarinet! STILL want to take the drums. (gee, it would be so nice if I had instant access to really talented music instructors, like, for instance — owning a MUSIC SCHOOL!). Yeah, I really need to fulfill that dream!!

Getting back to YOUR child — I LOVE the drums, and love percussion instruments in both band and orchestra. However, in most cases, its not the best place to start. For similar reasons to voice, it is just pretty hard to learn to note read and train your ear melodically and harmonically on just the drums. Piano is a percussion instrument — do some piano, do some drums, and be a double threat!

Getting a good “read” on your child’s preference
So, what is a parent to do if they want to get a good “read” on their child’s instrument preference? There are a few things you can do:

  1. Call a local music school and see if they are open to you bringing your child in to sit in on some lessons featuring different instruments. We do this all the time at MusicMakers, and it works very well. The child might just hear something that strikes them as “wow!” and voila — you’ve got your instrument
  2. Call your local high school and ask to come sit in on a band or orchestra rehearsal.
  3. Look at the website of your local orchestra. They often have a family series where you can actually watch a rehearsal, or attend a dress rehearsal. The tickets (if any) are usually pretty inexpensive, and you’ll get to hear pros play!
  4. Go to my favorite orchestra website: http://www.nyphilkids.org. There is a plethora of information about instruments, including fun games and graphics. Also, check out my friend John Bertles’ instrument lab to better understand how those instruments work.

And, the Dallas Symphony has a wonderful kids’ webpage with links to hear each instrument.

Again, when in doubt — take piano! It is NEVER a waste — all transferable skills! Any questions, or need some specific help? Feel free to leave a comment and I’ll reply personally!

Thanks for reading!

Paula

Comments

  1. says

    Thank you for this very informative post. We are in the process of helping our daughter choose an instrument and this was very useful to rule out some.
    Thanks again! :-)