What musical instrument should my child learn?

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Knowing what instrument your child should learn and at what age can be a tricky decision for parents and finding the right guidance can be even more challenging.

If you read blogs and articles you will find such contrasting advice. Some suggest starting lessons at 3 years old can be too late and others will say it’s too soon!

In truth, from my many years of teaching, there is no hard and fast rule for when to start learning an instrument. It actually is more important that there is good support at home, the child is enthusiastic and inspired about the instrument rather than just starting at a young age. One of my most successful students didn’t start learning the double bass until 14 and then went onto study jazz at Birmingham conservatory a few years later!

However, here are some great tips that will take the confusion out of learning a woodwind instrument.

Learning the Clarinet

Many children start learning the clarinet in school band around grade 5 (10 years old). On the whole, the clarinet is pretty straight forward in terms of learning and many children make great progress quickly. It’s also common for students who study the clarinet to eventually play other sized clarinets or double on woodwind instruments such as flute and saxophone. There are a lot of similarities in terms of how the woodwind family work which is why the recorder is such a great starting point into learning any of the woodwind family.

Clarinet Family

The biggest consideration in terms of when to start the clarinet is really a physical one, which is the case for all woodwind and brass instruments. Students need to be able to comfortably reach and cover the finger holes on the clarinet. If they can’t do this the student will not be able to change the pitches quickly and will squeak a lot! This will cause students to quit quickly, so waiting an extra 6 months to start will make all the difference.

The clarinet is quite long and can be heavy on the right thumb, which helps balances the instrument. For my youngest students, I recommend a neck strap so it can help take some of the weight off the thumb. Neck straps are pretty inexpensive (generally around $25).

The other area for parents to consider is ensuring that a decent instrument is bought and it is serviced annually. The clarinet can be made of plastic – generally fine for beginners and then when your child gets to an intermediate standard a wooden clarinet is much better for sound and quality. If looked after, a good wooden clarinet will keep working for many years.

Try to think of buying an instrument a little like buying a car. You need to keep the car serviced so it works and if you buy a cheap car it certainly doesn’t work or drive as well as a better quality car. This is exactly the same for musical instruments.

Like most products, there are better brands to buy and for a clarinet I would recommend Yamaha, Buffet, Selmer and Backun because they make great clarinets for all ability levels. If you are unsure and don’t want to spend a lot of money to start with, then I would recommend renting from a local music shop. They often have rent to buy schemes. Avoid the coloured clarinets on Amazon – they look very pretty but do not play well and any woodwind technician will hate trying to repair it for you!

Clarinets need reeds to make a sound and your child will always need a good supply of these. Reeds can be bought in boxes which is probably the cheapest way to do this. I personally love Vandoren reeds but many teachers like Rico. Both work equally well. Reeds come in different strengths – some of the reason for this is for the ability of the player and at the professional level due to the mouthpiece specifications. Again you will read contrasting advice about what strength reed to start on. In the UK it is quite common for beginners to start on a 1 1/2 strength reed but in American band programmes many teachers go straight to 2 1/2 reeds. There is a difference in the two strengths and the harder reed can be pretty difficult to make a sound on for a beginner. I do tend to start my students on the 1 1/2 reeds and then move them on to harder reeds once they start going over the break on the clarinet but this is my personal preference. There is nothing wrong with the other method.

The other consideration with reeds is to ensure that students change these regularly. They don’t last for many weeks at the beginner stage as they get chipped quickly. When the reeds get chipped or cracked they are very difficult to make a sound with and at the beginner stage students don’t realise it is the reed causing the problem so the student thinks that they can’t play the instrument well, gets stressed and wants to quit. If the reeds start to get too discoloured then it is definitely time to get rid of it for hygiene reasons!

Learning the Saxophone

The saxophone is another great woodwind instrument and a majority of students start on either the alto or the tenor saxophone. In many ways, there are lots of similarities between the advice for the clarinet that applies to the saxophone in terms of a good strap, instrument and reed.

Saxophone family

In terms of starting the instrument, grade 6 (11 years old) and above is ideal but it does really depend on the size and strength of the student. It is worth bearing in mind that the saxophone is a lot heavier than the clarinet so a really good neck strap is needed. If students start too soon, the weight of the instrument on the neck can become a real issue and this means that students end up holding the body of the saxophone poorly or resting it on a chair which again can lead into children quitting quickly. The alto is definitely lighter than the tenor saxophone but often its the sound quality that children are drawn to.

Great brands for saxophones include Yamaha, Selmer, Trevor James, Buffet and Yanagisawa.

Learning the Flute

The flute is a lovely woodwind instrument that many students transition smoothly to from the recorder.

Like the clarinet and saxophone, the real consideration of when to start learning is the weight and length of the instrument. Generally students of grade 5 (10 years old) and upwards can play the flute. Students under that age can play the flute but would benefit from playing the flute with a curved head joint. The curved head joint shortens the length of the flute and this in turn helps with balancing the flute for the youngest players.

Curved and straight head joint on a flute

Unlike the clarinet and saxophone, the flute does not need a reed to make a sound. The student will put the lip plate just slightly under their lip and then blow across the lip plate. Once a student has mastered making the sound the flute is pretty straight forward to learn but getting control of the sound is the biggest hurdle to success. If you have a child just starting to learn the flute it is important to watch that they don’t get too dizzy from over-blowing in the first few weeks.

Good Flute position

Great brands for flutes include Yamaha, Trevor James, Gemeinhardt and Miyazawa.

Whatever instrument your child learns they should have weekly music lessons to help master the basic skills of music reading, technique, good posture and most importantly how to play musically. There is a lot of great material on the internet and in books but the music teacher truly helps with speeding up the learning process and with helping the student stay accountable. It really is worth the financial investment.

It is also important to establish positive practice routines that work for your home and weekly schedule. Practising at 9pm for children really is not effective and turning practice in to a negative chore is an instant route to quitting. Ensure that you listen to your child, praise, take videos and buy the books and accessories. The support you give at home really makes such a difference to your child’s success.

I also encourage students to listen to lots of music, attend concerts and where possible be involved in school music activities and community music groups. Woodwind students who play in concert bands, orchestras or woodwind groups have a much lower quitting rate than those who just play at home. That’s why we offer weekly instrumental lessons and ensembles here at Passionate About Music Education!

Want to know more about our studio and what we offer; then why not drop us a message!

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