The Right Instrument For Your Child

Let’s start this discussion with admitting that not everyone will like the colour of this background, so why should every kid like the same instrument. A bagpipe, a piano, a banjo, an oboe, and a cello are sitting in the same room and believe it or not, all of these instruments are desired by someone. It does not matter as to what ethnicity you have arrived from or where you live, it matters as to how the instrument fits your personality and how the sound favourably or unfavourably resonates with you. This discussion will be unable to encompass all possible components of choosing a proper instrument, but it may help you narrow down the ideal instrument. A good selection will lead to a lifetime of enjoyment, learning and creativity. A poor selection will lead to frustration, anxiety, and probably termination of practicing. If we are talking children, we are discussing compliance and practicing routines against perpetual disagreements and resistance to the instrument.

Let’s start with the

Simple mistakes you really want to avoid.

1) Choosing the instrument your child will play because that is the instrument you currently have in the house is definitely a potential disaster waiting to happen. I don’t know how many hundreds of parents have told me about their parents making them play an instrument that was in the house and they wound up quitting the instrument because it was not suited to them. There are many, many instruments out there that are available at on line classifieds, pawn shops, music stores, thrift shops, parental groups, schools, swap shops etc that it is very easy and can be cost effective to getting the instrument you need. Trade the old piano for a violin, or the old accordion for a flute. There are no excuses on this one.

2) Do not live your childhood dreams through your child. Just because you always wanted to play the harmonica, it is no reason  to choose that instrument for your child.

3) If you come from a culture that contains certain instruments, do not expect your child to necessarily want to embrace the instruments from that culture. If you came from Jamaica, do not expect your child to play steel drums, he may want to be a saxophone player or even play the accordion. If your child comes from Belarus, do not expect them to play a balalaika. Instruments are to the ears, like colours to the eye. Everyone has their favourite. If your child comes from whatever background, he may not want to do the traditional instruments he may want to do something like play the pan pipes like Zamfir or the newest space instrument from Alpha Centauri.

4) Do not select an instrument based upon physical dimensions. Because a child may be small, they can still learn to play the big instruments. A child with small hands can play the piano. A short person can play  a bari-sax or a double bass. The only limits they will have will be upon their initiative and creativity. There are many ways around the difficulties you may imagine, and then there are a great many instruments that come in smaller sizes for the developing child.

5) Do not pick an instrument quickly. Read about different the personalities and study your child or yourself for long periods so that you can make an accurate assessment of the personality and find the right instrument match. Talk to teachers, other parents, and ask about their success stories and their failures about matching up the appropriate instrument to the right student.

So now we have talked about things to avoid. How about some

Simple things to think about when choosing an instrument.

1) What age is your child or of the student? There are limiting factors when dealing with very young children, or older adults. For example,

a) Chronological age is not as relevant as mental age. A child should, before beginning lessons, be able to count from  1 - 20 without skipping a number and be able to do basic plus or minuses such as two plus two or three takeaway one. If they can do this simple math, that will indicate that their brains are ready to assimilate musical information.

b) Another consideration is physical development. A child does not usually begin to fully form their bottom jaw until the age of approximately nine years of age. This makes playing most wind instruments somewhat difficult, not impossible but more difficult. The  ideal instruments for children below this age are generally the violin, cello, piano, drums, guitar, voice,  and basically any instrument that requires the use of fingers moreso than lungs.

c) Does the child/student have any serious physical limitations. When I ask this, I am not talking about asthma, bad skin or small hands. I am referring to missing or deformed limbs, badly curved spine or extremely poor blood circulation. There are many ways around smaller difficulties but some limitations are complete roadblocks to playing certain instruments. A seriously disabled person may not have the proper arms to play a violin, but he/she could definitely learn to play a mean harmonica.

e) Hearing sensitivity. Does your child shy away from loud noises or sharp sounds? Is the student hard of hearing? Does the student enjoy dissonant sounds? Every instrument has it’s special tone and volume. A sensitive ear may not want to play drums, while yet they may find a celtic harp appealing. A person who enjoys dissonance may prefer a rock guitar to a diatonic harmonica. Does the student enjoy cranking up the music in the car or prefer to read a book in silence? Does the student study better with classical music in the background or has to keep moving and likes to listen to rap continually? You’ll be surprised what you pick up by watching.

f) Skin sensitivity. Does the student develop rashes very easily? There are some instruments which require contact with parts of the body often and may irritate the skin. Do the lips dry out repeatedly? Wind instruments require constant contact with the lips and eventual need to form very thin calluses. Are the fingertips very sensitive? String players are always having the strings sink into their fingertips and the repeated process will eventually build healthy calluses but it does hurt for the first little while. Does the person suffer joint pain as well? The accordion requires motion from the shoulders in order to articulate the instrument, as the well the drum set requires good flexibility of the limbs.

g) Dental work. Do you have braces, dentures or missing teeth? Any of these can greatly impact your ability to play wind instruments. This is something to check with a wind teacher before buying an instrument. Do you have a bad overbite or under bite? The ability to properly hold a mouthpiece with a reed or shape your mouth towards a proper embouchure can be quite impaired.

2) Mind and Energy

What is your child’s physical and mental energy level like and what are their concentration abilities? Does your child bounce off the wall all day, or prefer to be a couch potato? Does your child sleep in late, stay up late, and seems to run counter to the rest of society? Is your child a punctual person who always has energy for assignments and rests when done, or does your child rest until the last minute and then summons a minimal amount of energy to complete the task before returning to their previous inertia? Does your child do their work well if left to their own devices or do you have to stand over them to ensure completion of tasks?

a) A child who has frantic energy all day, and likes to build things with his/her hands,  does not usually do well on an instrument like piano initially. The piano is an instrument usually stationed somewhere in the corner of a room, or on a wall, and is always in the same place,with the same surroundings.  A high energy child may be bored and feel trapped practicing in the same place, facing the same direction every day. Generally speaking, high energy kids seem to do much better in a somewhat changing environment if they also have the ability to move about a bit. A violin is usually more useful in this situation. Being able to stand, move their feet and face different directions make for good stress relief. The violin can also be practiced in any room in the house. As well, the ability to play some fiddle music allows for the student to use up more energy and play music that reflects their energy level.

b) A child who is very quiet, has good marks in academic studies, likes to read, and is self disciplined may be more inclined towards playing the piano. There are a great many interesting intricacies that attract people to the piano, but if you can’t sit still, you don’t get a good chance to experience the challenge. The piano allows for a child to explore orchestration, harmony, melody and rhythm. Some may not want this complete package and prefer to focus on just melody instruments or rhythm instruments instead.

c) The toughest group to decide is the children/students that reside in the middle of the energy spectrum. They can go in many directions and you can get different readings and interpretations all the time. They can proclaim their love for the instrument in one instance and then absolutely hate it in the next instance. The children in this group have more options and can also dead end on the wrong instrument accidentally.

3) Family history and personal habits?

a) Did your family have a history of excelling at one instrument or another? I don’t mean a one-off version, but a natural penchant for percussion, bowed instruments or wind instruments. There has, throughout history, been families that are predisposed to having certain traits. Certain families became coppersmiths, or luthiers or blacksmiths or warriors because those families had certain talents in those areas. The same applies to music. There are some families that are better at some instruments than others. That does not mean you cannot choose the instrument you like, but it is merely something to consider.

b) In regards to personal habits, there are certain traits that lend themselves to certain areas of study. There is a strong correlation between people who have oral fixations (smoking, gum, or snacking) and wind instruments. There is a strong correlation that has been shown between serious dancers and bowed instruments. There is a demonstrated correlation between active children and percussion related instruments. Study your subject before making a decision. Looking into the previous occupying activities and habits will help one make a more informed decision.

4) Friends have an impact.

If all of your child’s friends were interested in only playing Rock Guitar, it would be a tough sell to get your child to become a serious musician playing the accordion, unless of course your child was one that enjoyed being different. If peer pressure is an issue, then pursuing instruments in a like area may be your only hope. If not Rock Guitar, maybe electric bass, or drums, or singing or even rock keyboards. Basically, anything that could one day lead to being in that possible Rock band with friends one day. If the child is independent or enjoys running counter to the group, then there is a world of possibility awaiting.

So what does the instrument say about the person playing the instrument?

This area is basically speaking of generalizations. There will be people who of course do not fit into the narrative and would seem to defy any analysis of the typical musical portrait. This area is simply to help you when deciding which instrument you wish to select. If it makes you think before choosing, all the better.

The Violin player

The first thing to examine here is what kind of violin player are we talking about. Is it an aspiring classical violinist who hopes to one day play in the first section of the symphony? Is it a concert violinist who wants to be in front of the orchestra and be the star? Is becoming a composer or Jazz violinist the dream? What if we are talking about fiddling? You begin to see the difference. Someone who wants to play in a group as opposed to someone who wants to be the star. Someone who wants to be a composer or likes playing fun dancing music. Or someone who wants to play classical music but is not too picky as to whether it is done right or not. Or even the fiddle player who has a painstaking degree of detail that they apply to their playing. There are many levels of subtext to consider. Let’s look at an example.

a) The classical violinist who wants to one day join the symphony may be someone who enjoys being part of a group. Loves the big orchestral sound and prefers to read their music rather than memorize, improvise, or standout. This person is dedicated to detail and perfection. Loves structure and is quite good at handling responsibility and chores. Punctual and usually organized, this person likes to read  a lot of books, or other reading material, and enjoys being prepared. The classical violinist enjoys a well informed discussion and likes sharp minded people. While appearing a bit shy, these people do well in groups and thrive. They will listen to recordings of like musicians and are able to listen for enjoyment as well as analysis.

b) The concert violinist is someone who wants to be out front and demonstrate their mastery. These are confident, poised and can appear to have a somewhat larger ego than the section player. They may also revel in their superiority or mastery at times. Players seen being at lesser levels tend to be dismissed while players above their level are either idolized or seen as competition. These players are exceedingly attentive to detail, perfection  and complete control. They utilize structure but only as a means to an end. They are not the best at handling group responsibilities but they will not let themselves falter. This person does not read books as much as a section player as they are more impatient and don’t want to waste their time. They prefer to get their entertainment more from other areas of the artistic world, such as the stage, as they do not feel the urge to compete, yet they feel their time is well spent. The self confidence of these individuals can often spread to other areas of their life including conversations. This person will always have their part prepared and expects others to be even more prepared.

c) The jazz violinist or composer violinist, is a completely different personality. They can be seen to be the surfboarders of the violin world. They do their work, but are waiting for the next big wave to make their day. They will practice, but as an ends to a means. They want to relate their musical intentions and will address whatever it is they need to do to accomplish those goals. They will be prepared for whatever comes up but will not remain in a state of preparedness for no reason. They may deviate from routine and structure more often as they see these traits as counter productive. Generally, these musicians will also learn other instruments to keep themselves entertained as they are more concerned with the colour of music rather than the attention to perfection.

d) The Fiddle violinist is again completely unlike the others. More interested in creating a mimicry of styles than knowing the notes of a mode or melodic minor scale. The fiddle player will practice long periods, but is more interested in communicating a rhythm with their music but will love playing without getting caught up with the preciseness of tone. A fiddle violinist will study styles of other fiddle players and try to imitate their idols, whom may be more self taught musicians. The average fiddle player identifies with more popular culture and is harder to distinguish from other working people. Their attention to details may be lost as they are looking towards the next piece before they even finish the last piece. The fiddle violinist is also a more tactile person who enjoys creating or working with their hands. They may feel the urge to compete, but it is not as strong an urge as the others, and they do share some traits of the composer violinist as they like to pick up other instruments, and dabble without expecting to gain mastery. Not big book readers, these people like to listen to other fiddle players for enjoyment and like the visual arts of movies and like material.

The reason it is so hard to pinpoint the musician’s personality is that there are a great many layers to this particular onion and the upbringing, goals, the environment, and the musical experiences can greatly enhance or derail the future musician. The same approach can be applied to guitarists or other instruments. They may be wanna-be Rock Gods, or they could be singer songwriters and use the guitar as a supporting background instrument like Bob Dylan. Maybe they aspire to play purely serious classical guitar or envision themselves to be blues players. Maybe they are country, jazz, bluegrass, or new age fingerstyle guitar pickers. The genres we discussed in regards to violinists can be applied here with the generalizations as well but because of the vast number of guitar players in the world today, it is extremely difficult to isolate individual traits.

It is impossible to discuss the traits of every variation of musician or musical styles. Every attempt that has ever been made has come up short including my few observations. The lessons I am hoping that people will glean from this essay is:

1) Inform yourself, observe habits and traits, read, study, and reflect and then decide.

2) Make a commitment to your instrument and don’t give up. Give yourself at least a couple of years.

3) Don’t exclude instruments from your choices because you do not currently have one.

4) Always remember, that “Everyone is a Musician, They Just Don’t Know It, Yet!”

Good Luck