Kathy Kucsan, Education Director
Most of the time, when people contact the Center for Musical Arts, they know which instrument they’d like to learn. Occasionally they don’t – so here are a few questions to consider before making your decision, whether you’re choosing an instrument for yourself or for your child.
The question, above all others: What instrument do you (or your child) want to play?
Maybe you’re drawn to a specific timbre, which is the distinctive sound or tone color that an instrument produces. Timbre is the thing that distinguishes a trumpet sound from a violin sound, even if they’re playing the same note. (It’s pronounced TAM-ber, not TIM-ber.)
For kids not familiar with different instruments, watch for the sounds that interest them the most. Do they stop what they’re doing and listen if they hear a violin? Piano? Someone singing? Do they mime playing a trumpet/flute/violin? Do they gravitate toward certain types of music or specific instruments?
If their interest is more general, there are ways we can guide them. Some kids have a clear idea of the sounds they want to make; others need to experiment a little.
Should I start with piano before trying another instrument?
There’s no “should” about this, no matter what anyone says. Piano is an excellent place to start, regardless of where the musical journey takes you or your child. It’s a great foundation for learning to read music, learning basic theory, and getting familiar with some wonderful musical literature.
Plus, the piano is an amazing instrument with wonderful repertoire. Study piano to launch yourself into musical adventures, or study piano to become the best pianist you can. But there’s no requirement that you have to play piano before you start any other instrument.
Can/should someone else choose an instrument for me or my child?
We sometimes hear this: “My band director said that my lips won’t work for trumpet (or flute, etc). Is this really true?”
Well. It’s a conundrum because it might or might not be true. Assigning instruments to students based on their facial anatomy is not the way to go without giving them a chance to try.
It used to be that school instrumental music programs would host an evening of instrument demos, including a chance to make sounds on a variety of instruments before deciding on one.
Often, a band or orchestra director would nudge students toward instruments they needed to round out instrumentation for their bands or orchestras. Too many flutes? Try alto sax or oboe! Too many violins? How about starting on cello? This approach isn’t exactly student centered, and often students would eventually switch to the instrument that first appealed to them.
Much of that in-person exploration has gone by the wayside during Covid, but there are still ways to ask questions and gather information. This summer, the Center for Musical Arts plans to offer “Meet the Instruments” gatherings, where families can learn about the different instruments and explore hands-on.
Can I experiment with different instruments before I decide on one?
Of course! It’s a commitment to invest in an instrument, lessons, books and materials. At the Center, we encourage exploration. Try different instruments (we have many on hand), take lessons, and see where it leads you. It might be to continued study, and it might be a path to choosing another instrument entirely.
Specific instrument guidance by age of the student:
Young children ages 3 to 6 – Fingers are tiny and fine motor development is in progress. Piano, violin, cello and guitar are good instruments for little ones. And the Suzuki Method is a great way to introduce young children to playing instruments.
Elementary school – Instrumental music programs in schools usually begin in fourth or fifth grade. School programs primarily focus on band and orchestra instruments, but it’s also a good time to start guitar, drum set, or other instruments not found in traditional band/orchestra.
Middle/high school – If kids missed out on starting an instrument earlier, it’s not too late. Lots of students pick up piano or guitar, and others add or switch instruments. It’s a good time to explore.
Adult – About 20% of Center students are adults, either returning to instruments or starting out as beginners. This is also a great time to explore, switch instruments, hone skills, or get involved in ensemble playing.
Senior – It is absolutely never too late to learn to play or sing. The Center for Musical Arts Community Band exists because a retired pediatrician (72 years old) came to us wanting to learn to play clarinet. She progressed so quickly that she decided to help us launch a community band.