What musical instrument should your child learn to play? Good question! Helping your child choose an instrument when they have no idea what a clarinet or an oboe is can be tough. And what if they start an instrument but then they don’t like it? Or how do they make the right choice between two instruments if they’ve never played either (and neither have you)?
To help answer this question, I’m doing a series of blog posts. Part 1 is for everyone but especially for adults or teens trying to choose their own instrument. This post, Part 2, is primarily for parents trying to help their child choose an instrument. Part 3 will be for all audiences, and it will be my opinions on the experience of learning various specific instruments.
Before I say anything else, I strongly recommend learning to play piano. SO many people have come up to me over the years, saying, “I wish I’d learned to play the piano!” or, “I wish I hadn’t quit taking piano lessons when I was a kid!” This by far the most common instrument to learn and in my opinion, it’s the most versatile. You can play music of any style on the piano and have a great time doing it! On piano your child can learn to play melody, harmony, and accompaniment all at the same time, which teaches them a great understanding of music as a whole. Learning piano also has all kinds of other benefits, and since it teaches you to read music for high notes AND low notes, it’s easier to go from learning piano to another instrument later. Piano has the greatest potential of any instrument to lead you in any musical direction you want to go. Schedule piano lessons with me here.
Demonstrate each instrument to them
One of the best ways to help a child choose which instrument to learn is by taking him to a school or a music store where each instrument can be demonstrated to him. Schedule a time with a music tutor or tutors to demonstrate what it is like to play the flute, the oboe, the clarinet, the trumpet, and so on. More than likely, your child will find a few favorites just by hearing them all played. Then, work it out so that your child can actually feel what it is like to hold each instrument. There will definitely be some awkwardness due to inexperience, but you and your child will both get an idea for what feels more natural for him. Also ask an instructor to tell your child the basics on how the instrument is operated – how is a sound made? Is it by blowing into something, by using a bow, by striking a key or by plucking a string? Different children will relate better to different instruments, and this is a great way to test that out initially before purchasing and pursuing their music education.
In Part 1, I shared some basic questions to ask before choosing an instrument. As a parent, you should ask your child these same questions and come to that decision together. Here are the same questions with answers from a parent’s perspective:
What kind of music does your child like?
Most young children haven’t settled on their music tastes yet. Encourage them to figure out what they like and help them choose an instrument that will help them learn to play (or sing!) the kind of music they like best. It may help them to know what kind of music you like and what you’d love to hear them play. Most children will get even more excited about playing their instrument for their proud parents.
Why does your child want to learn an instrument?
Does your child want to learn music for fun, because their friends are doing it, or because they’ve shown a natural talent for it? Are you encouraging them to learn music to broaden their extracurricular activities? Most kids will have a great time learning any instrument, as long as they have a setting that facilitates learning and will help them when they have trouble figuring things out. If your child is one of those unusual children who knows from a very young age that they want to have a career in music (that was me!), encourage them to choose something to stick with. Making a career out of music requires a lot of dedication, typically to one instrument. Most professional musicians have one main instrument that they’ve been mastering for YEARS. But, starting young, some experimenting with different instruments is good and is actually encouraged to help them find what they really love.
Where would your child play their instrument?
Your child may be shy about performing at first, but as he gains experience he’ll also gain confidence. Luckily, there are all kinds of opportunities for children to perform their music. Lessons, family gatherings, recitals, school band, school orchestra, community theatre, etc. are great opportunities for your child to gain experience playing. If your child is more reserved by nature, maybe you’ll want to encourage him to play a softer instrument like the flute. If he’s very confident and loves to perform, he may be more suited to the trumpet, saxophone, violin, or drums.
What instruments are available, and what can you afford?
Sadly, not every instrument is available everywhere at a price everyone can afford. If only! When I was in 4th grade I really wanted to learn to play the saxophone, but we didn’t have one and couldn’t afford it at the time. My sister had an old flute, though, so that’s what I ended up learning. It turns out I liked it a lot and played flute well into college, and now I teach flute lessons. But don’t let price deter you from checking out your options — you can always choose a cheaper starter instrument for your child and upgrade it later. Also, a lot of music stores rent out instruments for affordable rates, and in some schools there are school-owned instruments that students in band or orchestra can “check out” like a library book. In fact, that’s exactly how I learned to play the french horn, clarinet, saxophone, marimba, and more. If your child isn’t sure which instrument she likes best, this is also a great way to hop from instrument to instrument until she finds the one that’s perfect for her. If she knows what she want to learn and you can’t seem to find it for an affordable price, ask around at music stores and schools. They’ll probably be able to help you get your hands on it.
What instrument could your child physically play?
Many people don’t even think about this point, but some children may simply be too small to comfortably play certain instruments until they grow. (This is why the piano is a great instrument to start with, because children can easily reach the keys and they don’t have to carry anything at all.) Even thin, light instruments like the flute can be a little difficult for children. I have a young flute student whose arms struggle to have the strength to hold up her flute for very long. As part of her practice, she has to exercise her arms by holding the flute up in proper playing position for a certain amount of time every day (without playing it), so she can strengthen her arms. Can you see your child supporting a cello and pushing it around to and from orchestra practice? If not, maybe you’ll encourage a different instrument, or maybe you’ll want to help them do it until they’re big enough to do it themselves. Are your child’s legs too short to reach a piano pedal? Perhaps the pedal will be something to learn about theoretically until he’s able to reach it. Maybe you’ll want to start your child on violin because violins come in smaller sizes for children, so their instruments can grow along with them.
Consider these things, but don’t let them prevent your child from ultimately learning what he wants to learn! Even if it may be physically difficult to play something, if it’s possible and he’s motivated, he can do it. Just recognize that a little extra work may have to go into it for a while. And, speaking realistically, if it genuinely isn’t possible for your child to physically play his desired instrument now (but it will be later as he grows), start with piano for a while. Tell your child that he can start cello or saxophone in a year or two when he’s bigger, and that for now, he can learn music now on the piano. Piano will provide him with an excellent musical foundation, and then when he switches to his other instrument, he’ll have most of the basics down and already know how to read the music. Plus, he’ll know how to play TWO instruments, which is pretty fantastic.
Does your child want to learn more than one instrument?
If your child wants to learn multiple instruments, I’d definitely suggest starting with the piano for the reasons I shared earlier. Can you imagine how much easier it’ll be for her to learn a second instrument when all she has to do is learn how to play it, rather than learn how to play it AND how to read the music for it? She could also learn multiple instruments that are similar in one area or another. For example, the flute and saxophone have nearly the same fingerings. The clarinet and saxophone have similar mouthpieces. And many of the brass instruments are fairly easy to switch back and forth between. Just remember, once she’s started a second instrument, it can get addicting…your child could end up with a hunger to learn them all! (I’m still working on that myself.)
If your child could play any musical instrument, what would it be?
This is the most important question you could ask your child. What instrument does he WANT to learn? The answer to this means more than anything else above. Learning to play a musical instrument should be something you enjoy. If your child doesn’t even want to learn the instrument, it won’t be as positive an experience as it could. He may even get discouraged and quit, never returning to learn what he wanted to learn in the first place. Figure out what your child really wants to learn, and do what you can to make it happen.