In Part I, we discussed skillfully guiding your child to have a positive experience exploring the instruments of the beginning band and orchestra. We also explored ways to expose kids to the sights and sounds of the instruments.
In Part II, we'll dive into more details about each instrument family, how to navigate the initial challenges, whether it's better to rent or buy, and how to support your young star.
The string family is well suited to younger students. They are made in several scaled sizes for young learners. The smallest violins are really cute and very functional as well! Students can start around five years old. It is a good instrument family for visual learners as you can see the bow and the fingers as they work together on the instrument. The string family is closely associated with classical music but they used in virtually every style, including jazz and rock.
Woodwinds and Brass
The next two families are related by the concepts of air stream and embouchure. All woodwinds and brass instruments are played using a steady air stream. Beginners shouldn’t have to use a large volume of air to get a sound but it has to be steady. Embouchure is the term for the shape you make with your mouth when you play a wind instrument. All brass and woodwind instruments are played by forming the proper embouchure for the instrument and keeping a steady air flow.
Here are some examples of how they are played:
The flute sits under your lower lip and you blow air down into the opening. The clarinet and the saxophone have a mouthpiece with a single reed. You put the mouthpiece in your mouth and blow into it with your top teeth on the mouthpiece and your lower lip as a cushion over your bottom teeth pressing against the reed.
The oboe and English Horn are double reed instruments that you play with your lips over your top and bottom teeth while you blow air through the double reed set up. Brass instruments are played by puckering a little bit with your lips and making a sort of buzzing sound while blowing into the mouthpiece.
The keyboard family has always been a traditional starting point for very young students. The typical starting age is five years old. It is so important to get a teacher with the right attitude and skills for these young learners because the piano is one of the most demanding instruments to learn and to play. The keyboard family can be found in the concert band and/or orchestra, usually as a featured solo instrument.
Percussion is another great family for the really young learner. I’ve always said that rhythm is the universal concept within the universal language of music. Every style of music has some form of rhythm. Most beginner percussion students start with a drum pad and a pair of sticks. Once they understand some of the concepts of using the sticks they can pick an instrument from this vast family. In the concert band or orchestra most percussionists play one instrument at a time. Many students will eventually gravitate to the drum set, which is a great way to segue into the next factors to consider for parents - the expense and the sound levels.
Why do schools introduce students to the orchestra before band?
Many parents wonder why the orchestra program is introduced to kids a year (or more) before the band. The woodwind and brass families have a slightly higher age requirement because you have to be big enough to hold the instruments properly, form the embouchure and generate enough air stream.
The basic rule for the woodwind and brass families is ten years old for beginners. I recommend starting earlier if they are able. I’ve had students start as early as second grade on woodwinds. Previous lessons on piano will help wind instrument students learn their new instrument much quicker. Ask your teacher to help evaluate if your child is old enough to start lessons.
Some challenges with beginning woodwind and brass instruments
If you've decided on a woodwind or brass instrument, there are a few initial challenges to be aware of (don't worry, you can work through all of these with a great teacher!). The flute can be awkward to hold at a young age. The student has to be able to hold the flute pressed against their chin using the proper hand position. They make a special head joint for the flute that is curved, which makes it easier for young students to reach the keys. Beginner flutes don’t have open holes in the keys, which helps young students get started even if their fingers are small.
The clarinet has open holes that have to be covered. There are some clarinets made with covered holes but they are very rare and probably not worth the effort and expense in finding them. If the student’s fingers are too small the clarinet will squeak a lot or not produce certain notes. If that is the case maybe the saxophone will be a better fit.
The saxophones all have closed holes. Most young students will probably start on alto sax and everyone uses a neck strap to hold the instrument. If the student is strong enough to support the weight of the saxophone on their neck they can get started playing.
The trumpet can be easier for students with smaller fingers but they have to be able to hold it parallel to the floor and form the buzzing embouchure. French Horn, trombone, and tuba are quite a bit larger than the trumpet. Students can start on the trumpet and switch to one of these instruments later on.
Purchase or rent?
instrument I’ve named can be purchased used for less than $500. Most of them can be rented from your school or a local retailer for a monthly fee. Usually an instrument rental company will require a ninety day minimum rental and they will provide repairs and insurance.
If the child likes playing the instrument ask your teacher if it will be best to rent or own. The string family is more of a rental situation at first because the size of the instrument can be changed as they grow. The rest of the instrument families should be kept as close to the ninety day rental window as possible because they don’t come in different sizes. If your child is doing well and likes the instrument you can save money buying one instead. Always ask your teacher for guidance first before purchasing an instrument.
Sound and volume
Finally let’s discuss the sound and volume of these instruments. When your child starts playing their new instrument the sound will definitely travel. If they pick the piano you can get a digital keyboard, which can be virtually silent if headphones are used. Most of the other instruments listed above will produce anywhere from seventy to ninety decibels. How loud is that? Seventy decibels is normal conversation volume with three or four people in a room. Ninety decibels is normal volume for a drum kit measured from about five feet away. The sound waves these instruments make can be very persistent and the sound will move easily through walls. Pick a place in your home that is both comfortable for your child to practice in and also provides a good audio space for them and the rest of the family.
Encouraging your young star
Make sure you give your beginner a lot of positive reinforcement as they work their way through the basic skills on their instrument. It might take a few weeks to produce the sound of the instrument consistently. It can take several months to learn how to play through a complete song with correct notes, rhythm, intonation and tone. Once they get to that first plateau encourage them to learn as many songs as possible and to play the songs often. As they get older they will work on more technically oriented aspects of music and their instrument to build the skills needed to play more complex songs and arrangements.
Starting young with a great teacher is the key!
If you start your child at a young age on one of these instruments, it will help them to get the most enjoyment and reward out of being in a concert band and/or orchestra in school. Students that can play their instruments confidently have the most fun in these groups. Having fun with music will keep students motivated to continue playing and studying these fascinating instruments.