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Choosing a musical instrument - what instrument should my child play?
Which instrument should your child play?
The first place to start is to encourage anyone to have a go at the instrument they feel most passionate about. If you really want to do something then you are much more likely to stick at it through the humps and bumps and difficult bits, than if you were forced to play an instrument on someone else's say so.
Having said that, there are a few other things to think about that might make music making more fun:
What does everyone else play? If there are lots of woodwind players in your child's school you might be able to get a band going or a good ensemble group which will be sociable and fun. Alternatively if you play something nobody else plays, you might be much in demand for bands and orchestras.
Can you get lessons easily? Are there lessons offered in school for particular instruments? Music tuition is not cheap, and lessons in school are often less expensive than private lessons.
Is it practical? Whilst it is great to follow your dream, we do have to live in the real world too. Can you afford it? Some instruments cost a lot more than others. You may find that you can afford a piccolo rather than a harp. Can you live with it? Will it fit in the car or on the bus? Do you have space to practise it. Will your neighbours complain - drum kits and trumpets are the usual offenders in this respect!
Having thought about all of that, read on! Not everybody knows much about the huge variety of instruments out there. And if you don't know something exists, then you can't even consider choosing it.This hub cannot hope to be fully comprehensive and cover every possible musical opportunity out there. However having played and taught piano, clarinet, violin, bassoon, recorder, euphonium and singing I have a fairly broad range of personal knowledge to draw on.
Whatever you choose, enjoy your music making and have fun!
What age can I start? - Instruments for very young children
The age to start depends on which instrument you are thinking about. Naturally all the indications given here are generalisations - there are always exceptions. These are either exceptionally musical children or individuals with exceptional physical attributes. So for example, a child who is tall and strong with larger hands and a mature attitude towards concentration and taking instructions will thrive at an earlier age than a tiny little thing who has not yet reached that stage. That of course does not mean that ultimately the child who starts first will achieve the best results. Starting a chld too soon can be counter-productive and lead to a negative cycle of too much nagging and discomfort and not enough obvious progress and success. If that sounds like your house give it a rest for six months or a year and come at it afresh, led by your child's desire to make music.
Too young to start?
If your child seems to enjoy music but is too young to start a mainstream instrument then the best thing you can do is give them as much exposure to singing and percussion as possible. Toddler music groups are great. So is singing in the car, in the bath, on the way to the postbox - anywhere in fact. And don't be shy. Even if you are never going to grace the stage at Covent Garden, let your child see that you aren't afraid to use your voice to make music. If you don't get hung up on the occasional bum note, neither will they, and just like them, the more you sing, the more you will enjoy it and the better you will get.
And if musical instrument lessons are difficult to come by where you live, or seem too expensive, why not check out if there is a good childrens choir in your area. Or better still - why not start a choir? Here are a few ideas on what you might sing.
For really young beginners, the very best instrument to start on is the recorder. This is light, cheap and virtually indestructible. It makes a cheerful note with the minimum of effort and with practice it can be finessed into playing beautiful music. For some reason people can be a bit snooty about the recorder - perhaps because it doesn't have a place in orchestras and most bands. However as an introduction to woodwind or music reading in general it is hard to beat.
Of the orchestral woodwind family the flute and clarinet are by far the most popular. This is partly a reflection of their lower cost when compared to others such as the oboe and bassoon. Lessons are easier to come by, but places in bands etc far more difficult because of the competition.
Woodwind instruments can be a good choice for a young beginner, because options now exist that are smaller and lighter and adapted for smaller hands. Starting young means you will need to upgrade to a different instrument later on, but if your child is keen and eager to get started have a think about these:
Clarinet - a full size B flat clarinet is suitable for a beginner from about age 9 or 10. Much before that stage hands are too small, fingers don't cover the holes and the weight of the instrument makes holding it up for long periods problematic. However alternatives such as the Lyons C Clarinet and the Kinder Clarinet in E flat exist which mean than a child as young a 6 can get started. These models have the same keywork, with a few simplifications, and the same fingering and embouchure will be taught. Making the transition to a full size clarinet later on is reasonably smooth.
For advice on which clarinet to buy see here.
Saxophone - A good option for boys who seem to see it is more 'macho' than other woodwind. Lots of future options for jazz bands etc too. It is quite expensive, but less numerous than clarinets. Saxophones come in different sizes, which play higher or lower parts of music. A soprano saxophone is perfectly suitable for a child of about 9 or 10.
Flute - The world of junior woodwind is full of flutes. Whether you think this is a good thing or not depends on your approach to competition or camaraderie within music. You can start off on your flute journey from about the age of 8 with a curved head on a normal full sized flute. this has the advantage of reducing the reach that the child needs to make to stretch their hands to the finger holes. This in turn makes it less tiring to hold the flute up properly, which in turn encourages and trains better posture, producing better tone, producing happy flautists who don't spend week after week unable to get a note out of the thing.
One thing to bear in mind with flutes - the instrument and hands go out to the side, which somehow means the brain has to think sideways with the fingers, whilst the notes go up and down on the stave. Most of the time this is not a problem, but for some children their brains just don't process information this way. If the flute is hitting a brick wall, don't assume it is the fault of a non musical child, or incompetent teacher. Try an up and down instrument like the clarinet, whereas the notes go up so do the fingers!
One flute teacher I know starts here little flautists off on the fife. This has the same mouth technique and gets people going but only costs about £10 and is plastic. This means when little Jemima throws it on the floor in a fit of temper, leaves it on the bus or decides after a fortnight she wants a pony instead, Mum and Dad haven't spent several hundred pounds on a now redundant instrument.
Bassoon - This used to be out of reach in every sense for small beginners, as it requires both a large hand span and strong arms. However mini-bassoons are now available which means children from about age 8 can start this fabulous instrument. See here for lots more information about choosing and playing the bassoon.
Wider bore than the oboe means it is easier to get a note for a new starter. Very rare, your young bassoonist will find a wealth of opportunities in bands and orchestras, whilst the flautists and clarinetists will be fighting it out for the chance to play. Having said that, mini bassoons don't come cheap, and will be outgrown rapidly, needing a couple of upgrades before moving to a full size instrument around secondary school age. Also, because bassoons are relatively unusual you may find it tricky to find a good teacher locally. Many woodwind teachers will struggle to teach bassoon because it is bass clef notation and the fingering uses a huge number of thumb keys rather than the systems used by clarinets, oboes, flutes and saxophones which are much more finger-based.
Oboe - this is a double reeded instrument which takes a great deal of air pressure to get a sound out of it. It has the advantage that there are very few players around, so you are liekly to be much in demand if you get to a reasonable level on it. Not an instrument for the young beginner to start on however - something to consider from 11+ onwards. If you are looking for something before then, consider a clarinet which will teach you treble clef musical notation, and get your fingers moving, or if you are set on the ethereal double reed sound, try a mini bassoon (although you will have to learn bass clef on the bassoon and swap later to treble for the oboe).
Brass instruments are great! They are reasonably priced, accessible from an early age, make a fantastic noise and are not particularly difficult to start. Some are more suitable than others for the very young beginner. If you live in a brass band area you will be spoilt for choice for opportunities to play!
There is a perrennial debate about the age to start a brass instrument and the need or otherwise to wait until the child has lost and then regained their two front teeth. My experience is that playing a brass instrument with front teeth missing is tricky but not impossible - particularly for lower brass. Higher brass such as the trumpet require a much tighter mouth shape and the lack of teeth and change to the mouth can be a problem. Having said that, the brass embouchure also gets affected later on if a child has to wear a brace, and if you hang around waiting to see whether that is going to happen before you get started well, the instrumental ship may well have sailed and your child will be busy playing volleyball or doing chess club. My view is if the child wants to start, then let them start and let them adapt as things change...
Trumpet or Cornet - these are reasonably inexpensive, and can be started at age 10 or so, although I have known 6 year olds make a pretty good fist of it too. There are lots of trumpeters about, compared to other brass, so bear that in mind. Having said that, a trumpet is easy to carry about, and you get a lot of parp for your money. The mouth shape (embouchure) is very different form trumpet to other brass, so it is not so easy to double up form trumpet to others - not impossible, but if lower brass, or the trombone is your passion, you might be better on a euphonium to start with and then change, as the mouth shape is much more compatible.
French Horn - this is a beautiful instrument, both to look at and listen to. It is quite expensive and difficult to play. In France they seem to start young brass players on mini French Horns as a standard practice, but I have never seen that happen over here. It is suitable from about the age of 11. It is the only brass instrument where the left hand fingers are used rather than the right, so you would think that learning one or the other wpuld be mutually exclusive. However it is not uncommon to transfer to the Horn from other brass instruments at a later age. There are never enough Horn players around which is an advantage when it comes to finding a place in an orchestra or band.
Trombone - calling all budding trombonists. The trombone is officially an endangered instrument. There are not enough of them around, which is odd as they are so cool and kids engage immediately with the sliding motion. As an instrument it is reasonably priced, but bulky to carry around. To play it successfully the child needs to have long enough arms to be able to reach all the necessary slide positions. If the child's arms are too short it would be like trying to learn to play the piano with several of the keys missing. Mini trombones do exist - some have a key to replace the bottom slide position, others are just a smaller scaled down version. Opinion is mixed over the quality of these. The general consensus seems to be that the child may be better to wait until their arms are longer and try a full size 'bone than get frustrated on a poor quality mini one.
Euphonium/Tuba - The tuba is very large, very expensive and gets very boring parts to play in the school band. Having said that there are very few around, so you will proabably get picked to play. However, because it is so huge and cumbersome it is not playable before the age of 11 or 12 and it may not fit easily in the boot of your car. If tuba is your passion, then check out whether school has one to lend, or if there are any hire schemes about. The Euphonium on the other hand looks like a mini tuba but with much more exciting repertoire. Because it is a lower brass instrument it is more forgiving when the child's teeth work their mischief, so you can start from age 7ish. Many players who end up on the tuba start on another brass instrument like the Tenor Horn or Euphonium and transfer later on. However you may find you love the Euphonium so much that you want to stick with it. It is great in brass band areas - lots of opportunities!
Violin - The Violin can be started at a very early age - I have known children as young as three or four start playing by the Suzuki method. This involves playing by ear and from memory, rather than learning to read music. The idea is that the child learns music and technique almost as another 'mother tongue' without worries about whether or not the child can read properly to follow musical notation.
Violins come in full size, half, and even quarter sizes, and if you are looking at a fairly basic model it doesn't cost as much as most other instruments. Of course later on the sky's the limit when you are looking for a top level instrument, but that is a lot later! It also offers excellent opportunities to play with other people as orchestras need an awful lot of violinists, and it is not too tricky to carry about or fit in the car or on the bus. On the down side it sounds absolutely awful when played badly, and it can be demoralising for a while scraping away to little effect. Actually it is usually the parents who get demoralised long before the children - they are having too much fun making a cheerful noise. if you are the sort of parent who requires instant returns on your investment in your children go for woodwind or brass - steer clear of strings.
Finally, the same caveat about processing information in different dimensions applies to strings just as much if not more than it does to the flute (see above). Some children's brains are better adapted to process in a more linear up and down fashion. if violin is going nowhere, don't abandon music. Tey a different family of instruments.
Viola - much like the violin, only a bit bigger and a bit rarer. Orchestras will love you later on as there are never enough around. However it is no huge hardship to start on the violin with your friends and swap later.
Cello - again you canget differnet size cellos which mean it can be started at a very early age and, while expensive compared to the Violin or Viola, it costs no more than many woodwind or brass instruments. Later on it offers excellent opportunities to play with other people as orchestras need an awful lot of cellists. Less handy on the bus or in the back of a mini, but apart form that, a good choice, with some stunning repertoire, and less harsh sound when learning as a scrapey beginner.
Double Bass - Expensive, and every parent's transportatioanl nightmare. Curiously cool though... You need to be big enough to handle one of these, so age 12+ in reality. A good instrument for doubling up onto. For example, the peianist who wants to play in the orchestra might do worse than to take this up. Bass clef will hold no fears, and orchestras are always delighted to have a bass player.
Guitars - These can be cheap to buy and lessons are often availabel in schools. Make sure you check what sort of guitar lessons are being offered. Classical guitar is beautiful but difficult, and offers little or no opportunities for ensemble playing. Folk or electric guitar may be a better option depending on what your child wants to do. Guitar has never been my instrument, so I can't really comment much more, but there are smaller guitars around for kids which work well for beginners.
Percussion includes piano, which is a fantastic instrument to learn once you can play it, but solitary and very demanding whilst you are learning it. It offers no opportunities for ensemble playing, but this can suit the personality type of some children who prefer to go solo. Online resources to help with piano playing are around, but there is really no substitute for a good teacher.
A good music teacher sees your child through from their first musical steps age 5 or 6 right through to the end of High School and beyond. They can be teacher, mentor and wise sounding board, not just for music - choose wisely! There are lots of piano teachers around, and because it is such a one to one relationship - even more so than with other instruments where group playing dilutes matters, you need to be sure you have found the right person. Make sure that the teacher you choose is used to teaching very young children. My son started with a very nice lady who hadn't taught little ones for a long time and was flummoxed when he didn't want to sit still for a full 30 minutes. The most important thing is to make sure your child is enjoying the piano. We left piano for six months and tried again with another teacher who turned every twiddle and improvised plonk on the keyboard into a game or a teaching point. Suddenly fiddling about on the piano was fun and he was learning without even noticing! A good teacher will understand that there needs to be a fit for both people and will let you have a trial run of a few lessons before you commit.
Drums and other percussion - another parental nightmare for transport and soundproofing. Expensive but great fun, and not a huge number of decent percussionists out there so opportunities in bands abound later on. I have known a number of kids with special educational needs including autism who have found a fantastic safe haven in percussion and in drumming in particular. It is repetitive and predictable, and might be a way into music for some children where other instruments don't suit.