If you have ever taught beginning instrumental music, then you have seen children get very excited about choosing and receiving their instrument. Often, the music teacher will demo instruments at an assembly, and then distribute paperwork to take home and return to parents with the parent’s permission to begin lessons, and the child’s instrument choice. But on what does the child choose his or her instrument?
When I have done the instrument demo, I have noticed that often, children pick the shiniest instrument, regardless of how it sounds. To test this, I have tried shining up the instruments I hoped to recruit the most students for, and dulled with fingerprints the ones I had plenty of call for already. For example, I would shine up the trombones and dull down the flutes. It worked well. Whatever was the shiniest was the most popular.
But clever as that strategy may be, it really isn’t the way to fit an instrument to a child. It shouldn’t be like a trip to the toy store just before Christmas to see what a child wants for presents. Parents are all too familiar with what is likely to happen. That toy that their child just had to have gets played with for a week or two, and then is relegated to the back of the closet, as the child moves on to something they like better, often an old toy that remains a favorite. The same can happen with an instrument. That shiny bright trumpet can be the best thing ever, until it isn’t. Until they have trouble reaching those new notes, or they see their favorite pop star featuring another instrument, or until those smaller than average hands just can’t comfortably hold the instrument. There are things that should be considered other than the shine. Let’s see what some of them are.
Researchers have given attention to the influence of personality and timbre preference on a child’s choice of instruments. Notably, Payne (2010) found that students whose personality featured open mindedness tended to prefer timbers of woodwind instruments and the tuba, while students who tended to be extraverts preferred brass instruments other than tuba. If children were to choose an instrument based primarily on timbre, not given the opportunity to be influenced by shiny appearances, then they would likely end up with an instrument they enjoyed playing for the long term, increasing retention of instrumental music students overall. To accomplish this, those recruiting assemblies would be conducted by thematic teacher, not the instrument store representative, and the instruments would be played “behind a curtain” so they could be heard but not seen. Or they could be demoed with high quality audio samples. The excitement of seeing the new instrument would be all the greater when the student received their new instrument at the first lesson.
While a child’s preferences are an important consideration in choosing an instrument, they are not the only factor. The child’s physical characteristics must also be considered. At the extremes, these would seem to be obvious. A child small for their age likely would struggle mightily to manage well with a tuba, while an older students with large hands might be ill-advised to try playing the piccolo. But there are more subtle elements of a child’s physical characteristics to consider. Those with large lips will find flute, trumpet and French horn difficult, often leading to discouragement that would be avoided on another instrument. A young child who is small for his or her age could similarly struggle with the trombone, because a limited arm span would make even sixth position out of reach. Many of this sort of difficulty can be avoided by delaying the age at which a child begins formal music lessons. “By age 10, the child will have a variety of skills associated with their instrument of choice. They’ll also have the physical strength to try a different, bigger instrument, such as a brass or large string instrument that requires a higher level of strength and stamina” (Cutietta, 2012). It is usually physically impossible for a 9 year old to properly support a clarinet with their right thumb, leading to difficulty and discomfort holding the instrument and consequently achieving desired results. There are exceptions. Occasionally there will be a child who simply must play an instrument that, while ill-suited to their physical characteristics, is nevertheless their heart’s desire. Strong desire and motivation can overcome physical mismatches. If a child is determined to play the instrument and is willing to persevere through the added difficulty the instrument will pose, it is best to allow the child to proceed. They can always change instruments later, but usually such drive to succeed wins out.
One last factor I’d like to discuss is awareness. Children are aware of certain instruments because of high visibility among popular artists, and are unaware of other instruments because of limited visibility in popular culture. The latter are usually instruments that are primarily found in classical music venues. Included in this group of instruments are oboe, bassoon, French horn, and euphonium. These also tend to be instruments that are a bit more difficult to master, raising two obstacles to them being selected right from the start. School music ensembles benefit greatly from including these instruments, so it is important that music educators give children plenty of opportunities to listen to music that features them, and for them to be highlighted whenever instruments of the orchestra are taught. Because we know that children are influenced by timbre preferences, some will have a preference for the timbres of these instruments if only they are introduced to them. Giving children the chance to become familiar with all musical instrument timbres will help them find the timbres they like enough to want to produce themselves. If the music teacher is not comfortable teaching these instruments (I had to bring myself up to speed to teach oboe), there are generally college students in music education programs that will be happy to come to your school and assist for a small fee or gratis. On occasion, the university will allow such visits to count toward course requirements. Above all, prepare children to make instrument decisions they can live with for years to come, ones based on more than the shine.
Payne, Phillip David. (2010). An investigation of relationships between timbre preference, personality traits, gender, and music instrument selection of public school band students. THE University OF OKLAHOMA.
Cutietta, R.A. (2012) What’s the right age to begin music lessons?, PBS.org/parents/thrive, accessed August 11, 2020.