(Part of this article was originally published as my very 1st post; it was very helpful to a lot of parents and educators. Here it is again, along with some additional thoughts, in time for instrument selections in many public and private schools.)
I think it’s fantastic that you want your child to learn to play an instrument! Aside from all the studies that show how music helps engage many areas of the brain at the same time, and that it builds a sense of cooperation, teamwork and certainly commitment, there are other merits. Music expresses emotions that cannot be put into words.
So now, how do you choose what’s right for your child?
You just saw a great concert and there was a phenomenal sax solo in it….You always wanted to play the drums, and think it would be a great idea for your child to learn them….You played flute as a child and want your daughter/son to do the same….Grandpa used to play the clarinet, and we still have it sitting in the attic…
These are all good, valid reasons, but there are a few more things you should consider…
- At this point in time, does your child have the right physical characteristics to play that instrument? For example, the saxophone is a wonderful instrument. But the weight of the instrument lies on the child’s neck and right hand. Can he/she hold it up long enough to be able to practice effectively? Are your child's hands big enough to reach around the keys?
- Does your child have,or will he/she be getting braces in the near future? Certain instruments will be more challenging to play with braces. (Check out my article on dealing with braces here.)
- Does your child like melodies,harmonies or bass lines? People tend to gravitate towards certain aspects of a song. You may want your child to play flute, but he/she relates to bass lines better. Have your child think about this; this will narrow down your choices to groups of instruments that fit the desired range.
- Will your child be able to commit to practicing 20 – 30 minutes everyday to improve their skills? Playing an instrument is like learning a sport; you need to reinforce skills through consistent practice. (If you want to learn more about Setting Up a Practice Plan, click here.)
- Does your child want to play an instrument? I have had a number of students tell me outright they are only taking an instrument because their parents want them to, or because they want to spend more time with friends. That’s fine, but in the end, it is their own motivation that will lead to true enjoyment and continuing to perform.
- In many public schools,children are pulled out of their classroom for a 1⁄2 hour lesson each week. The child is expected to make up the classroom work on their own. Are you and your child comfortable with this?
Six more thoughts to help your decision…
- Listen to several recordings of different instruments (CD’s,iTunes,YouTube, Spotify, going to concerts) and see which instruments your child likes. Listen to the instrument in a solo setting and in an ensemble (like a Concert Band, Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band or Orchestra) to ensure that your child is still interested. (For example, many students in my school want to play saxophone because they want to be in the school's Jazz Band. That thought alone may inspire a child to play an instrument.)
- Consider your child’s after school activities. Is your child involved in a lot of sports teams, dance practices, religious activities that have multiple time slots each week? Are your weekend's filled with games and recitals?
- Create a practice schedule (20-30 minutes every day) now, before an instrument is chosen and a commitment is made, and see if playing an instrument is do‐able with all the other activities. Remember, in order to achieve success, daily reinforcement is necessary to build the facial muscles, arm strength, dexterity and coordination to play an instrument.
- If your child needs incentives, plan a system now, so when the craziness of September comes you are all set. Many people use stickers for each weekly practice goal, with a big monthly goal of the child's choosing at the end of the month. (Try not to make that goal food; it's better if it's tangible and valuable. For example, If your child practices 30 minutes, 5 days every week for a month, make the reward a purchase of a book of sheet music with popular songs.)
- Does your school's band program allow your child to test the instruments? Some schools allow this, some don't. The advantage is to see if the instrument is the “right fit.” For example, your child make have his heart set on the trumpet, but when he “buzzes” his lips, his facial muscles are more suited for playing trombone. Trying out different brass mouthpieces can help make that decision. If your school does not have instrument testing, go to your local music store and ask if they will allow you to test out certain instruments. (I would suggest you do some research beforehand and decide upon 2-3 different instruments to try. That will save you time and confusion, because it can get overwhelming trying out too many different instruments) The store may even be running rental specials at that time.
- Get input from your child's music teacher. In some schools, the 3rd Grade music curriculum includes learning the recorder. The General Music teacher will have a pretty good idea about your child's musical interests, fingering coordination skills (important especially for playing woodwind instruments), and articulation skills (important for all Band instruments except Percussion). They will also have an idea of your child's tonal and rhythmic strengths, which will be helpful in determining how well they may do on Percussion instruments (which, by the way, involve playing melodies on the Bells in addition to the rhythmic parts in the snare, bass and other drums).
- One Bonus Thought! How coordinated is your child? It takes a tremendous amount of coordination to understand and play the woodwind instrument fingerings, as well as playing Percussion instruments, including the drum set. Some people argue that taking these instruments will improve coordination, and they most certainly will, but if coordination is an issue, and your child gets frustrated easily, instead of working hard to master each skill, he/she may quit.
Playing music can become a lifetime love and provide much enjoyment when given the proper attention and a solid foundation. Taking the time now to plan activities and practice time into current schedules before the instrument is chosen will allow for a smooth transition when your child starts their formal learning.
One question I always get asked by parents and students: “What is the hardest musical instrument to play?”
My response: “The one you don't practice!” Remember to keep this in mind when preparing for this very important and exciting event in your child's life.
- Do your research now, and live “as if” your child is playing a musical instrument. Set up the practice schedules and find out what will motivate them to practice now before it gets to be too time consuming in the fall.
- Get feedback from your school's music teachers, and see if there's a way to test out the instruments either in school or at a local store.
- Did you like this article? If so, please Like and Share it on your social networks. I appreciate it!!!
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Another excellent post, Donna. I especially like your suggestion of considering an instrument’s usual role in an ensemble; be it playing melody, bass, or inner part. I might add one more thing to consider: timbre preference. Aside from musical styles and voice parts, many children have a preference for timbres that can be pure or complex, dark or bright.
Thanks Robert for your comment – and yes considering timbre is another important consideration. Thanks for sharing!