What Instrument Should Your Child Play?

School is starting up, and depending on your school and district, your child may be given the choice of playing an instrument, usually in third, fourth, or fifth grade.

I well remember when the band director at my elementary school came in to our classrooms with a demonstration of all the marvelous instruments that would be available for us to play. I remember the boys’ eyes lighting up at the drum sets (and the attendant let-down a few days later when they were all given little book-sized woodblocks to beat on). I remember the shiny wind instruments and the gleaming strings. I even remember Mr. Richmond’s name, even though this was $%^# years ago and I never took a single class with him.

Because, very unfortunately, my parents said no (one of the few academic mistakes I think they made): They thought piano was enough, and I already had other extracurricular activities on my schedule. But of course, hindsight is 20-20.

The fact is that in the early years, participation in band and orchestra is a pretty low-impact involvement on family schedules and finances. In the very early stages, school music directors giving group lessons don’t expect a whole lot of practice from students. Of course, the virtuous cycle of practice and reward kicks in immediately — students get out of it what they put in — but it’s still a low impact introduction.The students get their rental instruments, and squeak and squawk their way through a few ear-splitting recitals. Those who take to it eventually move on to private lessons, start practicing for real, and audition for all-district and all-state ensembles. Some switch to another instrument, or join a rock band. Some major in music. 

And those who don’t continue turn their rental instruments, sit back in the audience, and watch their friends continue. So there’s no downside to having your child try an instrument: The instrument cost is minimal (rentals), the teaching is done at school, and the time commitment, at first, is negligible. If you are at all conflicted about taking on another activity or trying out music, school group lessons are a great way to go. 

The upsides are numerous. I won’t belabor that point here (because I’m pulling together an article with links to formal studies about the benefits of music education: participation in a team creative activity, commitment, developing practice and learning habits, and side benefits like, oh, less drug abuse, greater math scores, and better overall academic achievement). 

So for now, suffice it to say: no downsides, lots of upsides. So the question: Which instrument?

Instruments are so wonderfully different from each other. My partner is writing a book on ukulele right now, and while I don’t mind listening to the uke, the thing feels like an alien monstrosity in my hands (even a so called baritone uke). I have to squeeze my big self into its little frets, and it feels all cramped over and high pitched. Give me a cello, a bass: Something that sends an expanding sound outwards and speaks from the gut. I have the same response to piccolos versus tenor saxes.

Other people are exactly the opposite: My just-post-college room-mate, for example, has become a leading piccolo recording artist. Lucky her, because it’s a heck of a lot easier (and cheaper) to travel with a piccolo (or a uke) than a tuba (or a double bass)! Not to mention a piano.

Instruments speak to people: They use the  body differently, and they speak in different voices, they speak from the gut or the heartstrings or the voice box. I can imagine myself playing a cello or viola but not the violin, and the idea of having to hold my breath and control it to put the voice in a wind instrument feels uncomfortable to me. Yet I can understand the appeal of that: What a blessing to use the breath that fueled your body to fuel the voice of an instrument!

And how about drums: The endless, amazing  varied sounds of the world’s thousands of percussion instruments: hand-drums, claves, marimbas, thumb pianos, cymbals, tambourines (and yes, we’re talking about little kids here, so the appeal of BANG BANG BANG).

We ALL respond to instruments differently.

I’d try to stay away from gender stereotypes (Some of my five year old piano students are quite convinced that no boy ever plays the violin). It is, however, important to note that kids have different talents, skills, and physical abilities. The smallest kid in the class may not be able to reach the end note on a trombone, and a little boy who desperately wants to fit in with  bigger tougher peers may find more success and satisfaction with a trumpet or sax than with a violin or a piccolo. Some kids have trouble holding down strings on instruments or the fine motor motion of moving their fingers on small instruments.

Musical taste is another issue: When kids are small, this is a difficult factor to weigh, but the fact is that there are more jazz saxophone players than jazz violists, that it’s easier to score a position playing in an orchestra as a violist than as a flutist, and a clarinetist can not only play both sides of the jazz classical divide; she can play saxophone, too. A violist doesn’t have that many chances to solo because of the limitations of the repertoire; a violinist may or may not — depending on the competition. A string bass player doesn’t get to play in the football marching band (which keeps a lot of kids in music through their high school years) and a bassoonist and an oboist are going to have trouble finding a place in a rock and roll group.

At the same time, the decision you make today isn’t written in stone: Many musical children try several instruments. If your child is simply assigned one (because the school needs a bassoon player), they can always change later. In fact, the exposure to multiple instruments is a good thing, and can be a real asset down the road if you child becomes serious about music, either as a session musician or a music teacher.

And this point is also worth making: if your child hates music lesson, try to find out if it’s because of the instrument. Some kids just aren’t meant to play some instruments. It’s like choosing friends: The fact that your child and the neighbor’s kid don’t get along doesn’t mean that your kid doesn’t like to make friends; it simply might mean he doesn’t like that kid. Same may be true for the bassoon. 

So talk with the school music teacher about demands — physical, coordination, practice-related — of each instrument. Let your kid experiment. PLAY some music for them: If they think they want to play violin, play them a violin sonata or a bluegrass tune; if they are leaning toward clarinet, play a clarinet quintet or a great jazz player. And then let your child be your guide.  

Coming up next:  Should your kid play more than one instrument? (With a focus on piano. Well, I admit it, I do have a bit of a bias on this blog.)   

3 thoughts on “What Instrument Should Your Child Play?”

  1. Physical attributes contribute to this too, and a good band director watches for these things, IMO.

    For example, if a student has a pronounced overbite or underbite or full lips, it may affect their comfort level with the embouchure for certain wind instruments.

    One of my best piano students started out on trumpet, but when he got braces that instrument became too painful for him to play. He eventually got around to trying piano as a 10th grader!

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