Finding the right instrument for your child is a difficult but important factor in your child’s continued musical success. Forcing a child to play an instrument rarely leads to the love of music making we want. Here are some components to consider when helping your child choose the right instrument.
The first thing to consider is your child’s age. If your child is younger than six, make sure you understand the purpose behind playing an instrument at such a young age and acknowledge the physical limitations of a child that young. Piano and violin are the most popular instruments for children under six because they help build a foundation for your child to choose a different instrument at a later age, should they want to do so.
The violin is a smart choice because the instrument can be manufactured in particularly small sizes, making it easier for younger children to handle. Although instruments like the guitar are also available in smaller sizes, the violin is advantageous in its lack of frets or keys, allowing your child to focus solely on the sounds produced. In addition, this helps kids learn to play in tune, and the bowing of the right hand teaches the concept of musical phrasing. Both of these skills are the foundation for playing most other instruments.
Although a child doesn’t control the tune or pitch of the keys on a piano and there is no “bowing” skill necessary, the piano has its own advantages. For example, playing the piano allows musicians to play both the melody and harmony simultaneously, thus teaching important perceptual and musical skills. The piano also provides a visual representation of music that is essential to understanding music theory. In summary, choosing either of these introductory instruments is a wise decision for young children.
As children get older, some will move on and experiment with other instruments. With age comes the physical strength required to play brass instruments, woodwinds, or larger string instruments. It’s important to make sure that your child and his instrument are physically similar in size. For example, although there are exceptions, a child with small hands might have difficulty with the string bass or even the piano, which a child with large hands or awkward fine motor skills might have trouble with an instrument such as the mandolin or oboe. One test of matching physicality should be whether your child enjoys holding the instrument or if it’s overpowering and limiting to him; while this seems like common sense, it is often ignored because children imagine themselves playing the instrument before they even hold one. Sometimes the desire to play a certain instrument can trump the limitations; however, it’s better to start with an instrument more compatible with your child’s body.
Another important factor in choosing the right instrument is the sound of the instrument and how it’s produced. If your child doesn’t like the sound that an oboe makes, they won’t enjoy playing the oboe. Similarly, if your child doesn’t like the way the sound of a trumpet is made (by blowing) they won’t enjoy playing the trumpet. These are extremely important considerations because there will be little motivation to practice, your child might resent the instrument (or playing music in general) and the sound and way of playing aren’t attributes that “grow on you.” This may seem obvious to parents, but be aware that some teachers or band leaders might encourage your child to play an instrument they don’t like because the band “needs” another bassoon or French horn.
One of the most potentially defeating aspects of choosing an instrument is its “social image,” meaning kids will choose the instrument they perceive as the “coolest” even if that instrument seems like a bad fit. For some, this will lead them to their life’s instrument (as happened for me with the electric bass) but for others it will be a dead end because the “coolness” factor often clashes with the previously mentioned considerations. You can’t ignore your child’s preconceived notions of an instrument (or themselves playing it), but you should temper that with the reality of the other factors.
There is no greater joy than finding “your” instrument. I believe this is a cornerstone of future success. Keeping an open mind (both you and your child) and following these common-sense rules will serve as the stepping-stones to the perfect match of child and instrument.
Dr. Robert A. Cutietta is the Dean of the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music. He is the author of “Raising Musical Kids” and a popular speaker whose areas of expertise include the middle-school learner, choral education, learning theories and the psychology of music. Additionally, he is a highly regarded musician and educator with extensive knowledge about the full range of musical talent nationally as well as internationally.