As a band director, a question I’m often asked is, “What instrument should my child play?” There are a few things to consider along with this question — age, physiology, gender, and character. While not “set in stone,” many agree that children should not start playing a wind instrument (woodwind or brass) until they are a little more developed physically. We don’t begin teaching those instruments until the fourth grade. On the other hand, string instruments and piano do not have any potential “dangers” for a young player.
Physiologically, parents and teachers should consider the size of a child’s features that would be involved in playing the instrument. Everyone can overcome difficulties, but most of the time, we do not want unnecessary difficulties for a beginning instrumentalist–there are enough things to overcome without creating more.
There is no such thing as boys’ instruments and girls’ instruments. James Galway is probably the most popular contemporary flautist. But with that being said, most parents will not want their boys to be learning a flute–it does have a effeminate connotation. The clarinet is not as pretty an instrument as the flute, but more girls play the clarinet than boys also. I say that because you probably want to be thinking about who your child will be sitting next to in rehearsals. A fair number of girls play brass instruments, but the majority of brass players are boys. Boys typically want to be loud and boisterous and the brass instruments are more accommodating to that desire.
The most popular beginning instruments are the flute, clarinet, alto saxophone, violin, trumpet, and trombone. One reason these are popular is that they are relatively inexpensive to own. Good instrument companies manufacture good student models of these instruments at fairly reasonable prices. There are also many used ones available in most communities. Each of these instruments have characteristics that make them easier to play than others and also difficulties that “catch” every beginner.
It’s fairly easy to get a tone out of a flute, but then again, sometimes you get three tones at the same time out of it. You won’t have that problem on the clarinet, but if you’re not absolutely precise with your fingering (and many beginning clarinetist have small fingers), you’ll get a nice loud squeak rather than a beautiful tone. The alto saxophone does not squeak as easily and is probably easier to get started on than the flute, but is is also a little more expensive to own and players have a tendency to play this instrument in a sloppy manner. Trumpets are probably the most popular brass instruments and are a good choice for starting any brass “career.” The smaller mouthpiece may cause some difficulty for some children. The trombone is an easier instrument to get a tone from, but the slide presents a problem for young children. Valved instruments require the student to move their fingers approximately one inch to change notes. Trombonist must move their arm close to three feet to change some of their notes. I’ve had no experience with string instruments, so I require any of my string students beginning in the fourth grade to have already had private lessons if they want to join the school band program. This works out because string instruments can be started at a much younger age than wind instruments.
Finally, the piano is quite an easy instrument to get a tone out of, but adds the complexity of playing more than one note at a time. While difficult, it is foundational and would not harm anyone to learn. I make that statement while also agreeing with Kent’s first post on this topic. If you have the right goals for your children, piano will help them. If you make being a good piano player the goal, your sons will suffer. It takes a lot of time to master that instrument, and most boys I’ve seen that do are lacking other significant manly characteristics. They spent too much time mastering the piano when they should have been outside playing football or wrestling with their brothers. I have also met some very manly young men who also can play the piano.
If you want your child to learn to play an instrument, you should evaluate yourself and your home before making an instrument choice. If your home is undisciplined and you won’t change that, don’t waste your money. It takes discipline (from parents and children) to be able to learn an instrument. If your home is well organized, but you’re not very musically inclined, choose a familiar standard beginner instrument. If your home is disciplined and your children show musically ability, you could consider going straight to other instruments such as French horn, oboe, bassoon, tuba, etc.
In another post I hope to give some tips for finding instruments reasonably. Please comment with any ideas or questions.