Choosing a Musical Instrument

By Davonne Irion

Information to guide you through the myriad of choices so that you can make a more informed decision.

My own formal music experience began in 7th grade with the clarinet. Now, some 26 years later, as I reflect upon my choice of instrument, it’s clear that was less than an educated choice. After expressing an interest in joining the school band, my mother asked me if I might like to play the clarinet. I flatly responded: “What’s a clarinet?” This set off a frantic search through our set of family encyclopedias for a picture of the mysterious instrument. In fact, the sole reason my mother had suggested the clarinet was simply because a friend of the family happened to have an old clarinet sitting around collecting dust.

Although I still play and even teach the clarinet, I’ve always felt that I might have been better suited for some of the other instrument choices. Hopefully, as you take the first steps toward a musical experience for your child, this information will guide you through the myriad of choices so that you can make a more informed choice.

If your child has expressed a desire to play an instrument, it is likely that he, and perhaps you as his parent, already have some ideas of what type of instrument to begin with. If your child has a strong idea of what he wants to play, that choice should certainly be explored. However, if it has always been your dream for your darling daughter to play the harp, you might want to think twice about the realism of such expectations.

First, find out why your child expressed an interest in a specific instrument. If your son wants to play the trumpet because his best friend plays it, you might want to guide him toward other options. However, if even after your best attempts to recommend other instruments have gone awry and your son still has a burning desire to play the trumpet, let him do just that. Keep in mind that the child’s interest level will be the most important factor in his predictor of success and persistence on any given instrument.

Familiarize yourself with the wide array of musical choices. Visit your local instrumental music store. This should not be a purchasing trip but rather an educational experience for you and your child. Ask the store employee to show you the various instruments and explain the uses for each. Obviously if your child wants to march in the high school band he should rethink playing the violin. On the other hand, if your daughter loves orchestral music she should reconsider her choice of the saxophone. These are just the types of issues to discuss with your local music specialist.

Call your child’s junior high school or high school music teacher for a consultation. These teachers are usually happy to speak with the parents of a prospective student. They also can give you information about the total musical experience your child will be able to expect if he should enroll in their program. Consider the vocal/choral experience: This option is a utilization of one’s natural instrument, the human voice. Many school choral programs are active in the performance realm and have show choirs that combine choreography and song.

Allow your child to hear recordings of different instruments. It’s ideal to attend a concert and hear an instrument live. If you can’t, visit your local library to find CD recordings of specific instruments and ensembles. This will give you and your child a good idea of what kind of sound to expect from the instrument. It is important that a student likes the sound his instrument makes. It has been shown that students who like the sound of their instrument will practice more often! Parents will also want to ake certain they are ready to tolerate beginning sounds. Make certain your child has a quiet, isolated practice area, away from the hustle and bustle of the household (not to mention the parents’ ears).

Research the social aspect of your child’s particular choice of instrument. If your child joins a musical group, he’ll be making music with others. He will then be a functioning part of larger instrument—the musical ensemble. However, if your child chooses to play an instrument such as the piano, which is mainly a solo instrument, he will not have the experience of making music with others as often. There will be a point where he may be able to play duets with another piano student, and later, even accompany a choral group, but piano remains virtually a solo instrument.

If you go online to and click Nurturing Talent, you’ll find the points I brought up about age-appropriate instruments in “Is My Child Ready For Music Lessons?” Also, look at your child’s physical structure. Large instruments are generally unfriendly to small students. Also mouth, teeth and lip structure may come into consideration with the wind instruments. For example, as a general rule, thin lips make it difficult to play tuba, an instrument that has a large cupped mouthpiece. Some bite problems may also be a hindrance to playing certain instruments. These topics are excellent questions for your school music teacher to examine with you and your child. But remember: Your child’s preference should, in the end, override all else. In other words, if your thin-lipped daughter is yearning to be the school tuba player, let her give it a go!

Now for a few words on purchasing instruments. It’s difficult to contemplate buying an expensive instrument for a child when you are not certain of his dedication or his long-term commitment. However, if you pinch pennies in the beginning and purchase a low-end student instrument, your child will very likely be discouraged—and fast. Lower-priced instruments tend to sound bad, break easily and need many repairs. On the other hand, I would not recommend rushing out and purchasing a top-of-the-line professional instrument for a beginner. We all know how rough kids can be on their belongings. One alternative to purchasing an instrument is to rent one. Call your local music stores and ask for their instrument rental and purchase options. Some stores offer rent-to-own plans, so ask for the details. Also, ask the school music teacher about rental plans on school-owned instruments. Most school music programs own instruments and rent these to their students. Check the quality of these rentals: Some of these instruments may be in less than desirable condition. Get specific information from your school music teacher or private teacher who specializes in the instrument your child wants to study.

Pay close attention to this information before you rent or purchase anywhere. Another important consideration in choosing an instrument is its popularity. Music, although basically a cooperative experience, also has a competitive component. In many programs students compete for chairs in their ensemble. The better players occupy the higher-ranking chairs. There are also solo and ensemble contests in which most music programs participate. Also, there is always the accomplished young musician who is striving for a college music scholarship. If your child picks an instrument that is less popular, there will automatically be less competition and, as a result, more chance of advancement for him.

Remember: All the guidelines given here are meant to help you through a confusing process. However, I would like to re-emphasize that your child’s choice of instrument may need to override all other considerations. Discuss your child’s choice with him, then come to an agreement. With a few careful considerations, playing a musical instrument can be a rewarding, life-enriching experience for your child!

Posted on Nov 16, 2011

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