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Choosing an Instrument - 8 steps towards making a great decision

Introduce a variety of instruments

    Which instruments make sounds that are pleasing to your child? Consider the styles of music they enjoy (symphony, concert band, rock or pop, country or bluegrass, etc.). Depending on the child's age consider bringing them to concerts to watch and hear the instrumentalists, or listen to CDs featuring specific instruments in that genre.

    If you know someone who plays an instrument, have them demonstrate it for your child. Another good resource for learning about the sounds of instruments is the San Francisco Symphony website Instruments of the Orchestra.

Try out a variety of instruments

    If you have a friend or relative who plays an instrument, ask them if your child can try it. Your school band or music teacher can be a great source of help, or some music stores may be willing to to let you try different instruments. If you can make a sound that holds the promise of music, the instrument is worth considering.

Consider the student's physical capabilities

    The first factor to consider is the student's age. Very young beginners (before 4th class) often have the best results learning piano, violin, cello or recorder. Even small children with limited finger dexterity and lung capacity can make progress on these instruments. Any of these instruments provide a great musical foundation for learning other instruments in the future.

    Older children and adults need to consider how well their physical characteristics fit the requirements of each instrument. Among the factors to consider are:
    tooth formation (if the student wears braces, always consult your orthodontist before taking up a woodwind or brass instrument)
    lip structure
    finger dexterity and shape
    size of hands and length of arms, and
    ability to carry bulky or heavy objects, such as to and from school on the bus.

Here are some specifics:

    PIANO requires good coordination. Students should be able to move their hands and fingers independently.

    BRASS instruments work best with firm, straight teeth and medium to thin lips. Students should already have their permanent front teeth.
    Trombone playing requires long arms. The instrument may be bulky to carry.
    Tubas or Euphoniums are heavy and bulky to carry.

    WOODWIND instruments require finger dexterity
    Flute requires long arms, since the instrument is held out to the side.
    Clarinets are fine for students with irregular teeth, overbite or full lips. It is best to start after the student's permanent teeth are in. The muscles around the lips may get tired after long use. Small pointed fingers may have trouble covering the tone holes.
    Saxophone requires larger size hands and fingers to reach the keys. Arms should be strong enough to support the instrument.

    STRING instruments come in a variety of sizes to fit any age student
    Violins or Violas require sufficient arm strength to hold up the instrument and bow.
    Cellos are larger and more awkward to transport, but comfortable to play in a sitting position.
    Double Bass requires longer arms and fingers. The instrument is very large and heavy.

    GUITARS come in left- or right-handed versions
    Acoustic guitars come in different sizes. Student should expect sore fingertips at the start, but they will toughen up in time.
    Electric guitars with solid bodies may be too heavy for younger children.

    PERCUSSION Instruments come in a variety forms, from small hand-held drums playable by young children to complex mallet instruments. Practice pads can provide a smaller and more portable alternative to a full drum set

Consider the student's personality

    Music can be either a solitary or a social activity, depending on the instrument. Students learning band instruments should thrive in groups. Piano students should be comfortable working by themselves for stretches of time. Instruments like violin, cello and flute can be played in either solos or ensembles.

Consider the home environment

    The size and layout of the home can affect which instrument is chosen. Ideally, the student should have a space to practice without distractions. At the same time, practice sessions should not disrupt the rest of the family. If the home is small, a very large instrument (grand piano or harp) or a very noisy instrument (trumpet or drum set) may not be the best choices. If you suspect you will change residences frequently, choose an instrument that is smaller and more portable.

Determine the budget

    Some instruments are more expensive than others. Consult your instrument dealer or school music teacher to get some general price ranges. Take into account, also, any possible maintenance or repair costs associated with the instrument. French horns, tubas, and bassoons, for instance may be on the pricey side among band instruments.

    Once you have some sense of the costs of the instruments that appeal to you, think about whether it makes sense to borrow, rent, or buy. If a friend or relative offers to give or loan you a used instrument, have a professional check it out to make sure it is in good enough repair to be usable.

    Students can get very frustrated trying to get pleasant sounds out of damaged or antiquated instruments. School instrumental music departments may have a small number of instruments in their inventories for loan. Once a student has proven their interest in learning an instrument, however, purchasing a high quality instrument is a valuable investment in their ongoing musical training.

Consider the demand for the instrument

    If you'rechild is interested in and seems to have an aptitude for more than one instrument, find out which one is most in demand. Students joining a band or orchestra should talk to the director to discuss which instruments are most needed. It's usually not the best idea to choose an instrument that's just like all your friends are learning. You'll have more fun if your instrument complements them instead of competing. And, you will tend to get more attention and better instruction if you elect to play an instrument that is in high demand.

Realise this is just the start

    The instrument your child starst out on may just be a preliminary step toward other musical pursuits. The basics learnt about music theory, harmony and ensemble playing can be applied to any other instrument. Switching to a different instrument within the same "family", such as clarinet to oboe within woodwinds, is easy and fairly common.

    Copyright 2004 Valarie Milazzo

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