Which musical instrument will turn your child into the next Mozart?
Choosing the right instrument for your little one to learn is not as simple as it sounds and often involves asking very basic questions at the outset, such as the size of the family car and the amount of space available in the home.
There would be no point, for example, in encouraging a child whose family were fond of their small hatchback to play the tuba or the harp as transporting it would be very problematic! So be practical!
Orchestral instruments fall into 3 main categories – String, Woodwind and Brass. Each has its own attractions and disadvantages, and most (but not all) instruments are available in smaller sizes so that children can start early and then move up to the full size instrument when they are bigger.
Violin, Viola, Cello and Double Bass
Smaller versions of string instruments are available in different sizes as your child grows into the full-size version – there are even small versions of the double bass! Progress on string instruments can be slow in the early days so parents should be prepared to help out with practise at home and should observe lessons to pick up tips to help their children in between lessons.
Relatively inexpensive to hire/buy to start with. There’s a vast repertoire of classical and popular music available for this group of instruments. Violinists can swap to learning the viola when they’re older, which are very sought after by local orchestras and music groups
Children need to be fairly co-ordinated and also mature enough to cope with comparatively slow progress at the start. Good quality instruments can be very expensive to buy at a later stage.
Clarinet and Flute
Playing the clarinet or flute is an exciting option for lots of children as young as year 3. Both instruments can be adapted so small children can hold and play them comfortably.
The smaller and lighter C Clarinet is ideal for small hands, and children who start on this usually progress to the larger and heavier ‘B flat’ clarinet after a year or so.
The normal flute can be fitted with a curved head joint so that the stretch out to the side is shorter. When the child can reach out to the side comfortably the curved head joint is replaced with a straight one. The body of the flute remains the same whichever head is used.
Fast initial progress means that your child will quickly be playing familiar tunes.
Relatively cheap to purchase beginner instruments and not too expensive to upgrade to more sophisticated instruments later.
The compact size of both instruments when disassembled is definitely an advantage when walking to school.
Valuable lessons learnt on the flute or clarinet pave the way for a relatively easy transition to the saxophone at a later stage.
They are comparatively popular instruments played by many children so yours won’t necessarily stand out in a crowd. Having said that, I love watching and listening to my daughter in the midst of her hundreds of ‘flute friends’ all playing together!
Oboe and Bassoon
Other wind instruments to consider are the oboe and bassoon. Both are ‘double reed’ instruments which require the children to be really careful with how they play and handle them – reeds break easily and cost money, and if they break they need to be replaced in order to make the instrument work.
The oboe has the most beautiful haunting sound but also the reputation for being one of the most difficult instruments of the orchestra to play. As an oboist myself I would encourage children to learn but not until at least aged 10. I started on the clarinet at 8 and then became so obsessed by the beautiful sound of the oboe that I switched to learning the oboe at age 11. By learning the clarinet first I made very quick progress.
The bassoon, a large heavy instrument, is now available in a small size for young hands. If your child learns the bassoon they will be in demand to play in orchestras and wind bands the breadth of the country.
As second ‘front teeth’ are needed before starting to learn brass instruments, to learn children typically need to be in Year 4 or above. Most brass instruments are available in small sizes.
Trumpet, French Horn, Trombone and Tuba
The French horn, along with the oboe, has a reputation for being one of the most difficult instruments in the orchestra. This is because many of the notes are made by just changing the embouchure (the lip shape) and so the notes can easily ‘split’, which means you hear a sound exactly like a ‘split’. The French horn is sometimes a little awkward for young children to hold so the smaller size suits beginners.
The trombone comes in a mini version so that the reach out in front is shorter.
If your child is desperate to learn the trumpet when they are still quite small then a start on the cornet is a solution. Both the trombone and trumpet are versatile instruments with many different musical personalities.
The tuba is only available in its original size – and a rare opportunity for the right child. Sometimes children will learn the euphonium first and later swap over to the tuba.
You will always be in demand by your local orchestra and music groups. The repertoire is varied and brass players fit into many different musical groups e.g. jazz groups, brass bands, orchestras etc. Relatively cheap to buy a beginner instrument and moderately expensive to upgrade.
All the huffing and puffing is quite hard work in the beginning and tired lips can be a problem.
For more information about when is the right age to start learning an instrument and how to get your child involved in music, please see Introducing your child to a musical instrument.
Photography: Frédéric de Villamil @Flickr