What is the right instrument for my child?

Learning an instrument in childhood can spark a lifelong love for music as well as helping children through a range of artistic and academic challenges. Many parents want to ensure that their children enjoy music and selecting the right instrument can seem like an impossible choice. Aside from the financial implications of learning a musical instrument, there are a plethora of instruments to choose from and how they feel about an instrument will depend on your child’s tastes and temperament.

So how do you make the choice? Here are a few things to consider.

What instrument does your child want to play?

It’s obvious that a child is likely to be much more motivated to make a success of something they want to do. Arguments over practising an instrument that your child feels no ownership over is unlikely to inspire musical progression. So, first things first… simply ask your child what instrument they would like to play.

But how can your child know what instrument they would like to play? Children, like adults, can only make informed choices if they have engaged with all of the possibilities. Playing children’s pieces such as: Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens or Benjamin Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, is a good way to expose them to hearing lots of different orchestral instruments. Live performances are always worth looking out for, either formal concerts or even inspirational buskers. Try to provide lots of exposure to a whole range of instruments and musical styles.

Some questions you could ask your child to help guide which instrument they would like to learn:

  • What do they like the sound of?
  • Do they enjoy the sound of a particular instrumental group (Woodwind, Brass, Strings, Percussion)?
  • Do they like an instrument that plays in higher or lower registers?

Another thing to consider is your child’s age. Younger children may struggle with the physicality required of woodwind or brass instruments and may be too small for instruments such as the double bass. If your child has to physically struggle to play an instrument, even if they enjoy the sound, they will be less likely to enjoy playing that instrument.

Trying out different instruments

With so much choice, the ideal is to try a range of instruments before deciding on, and purchasing, an instrument. Music shops tend to employ musicians who can supervise your child trying a whole range of instruments. This will give your child the chance to understand how an instrument feels and sounds. Some Music Hubs in the UK send teachers into schools to demonstrate instruments as well as giving children the opportunity to have a go.

Some children will show a natural affinity. They may be able to blow into an instrument and make an instant sound or the instrument may appear to fit naturally to their body. This will help both you and your child decide on whether an instrument is more suited to them.

Practical considerations

There are some practicalities to think about when playing an instrument. Be aware that you will need an instrument that your child can use for regular practice. Relying on using the teacher’s instrument during lesson time will not suffice. As well as the financial implications of buying an instrument, there are also a range of environmental factors to consider. An acoustic piano (or even full size digital keyboard), for example, needs quite a bit of space. Pianos also need to be kept away from radiators and ideally on a ground floor in a room with an even temperature. Violins grow with your child so and harps need a large car to transport them around.

Cost of instrument

As well as the expected cost of music lessons and exams, some instruments can be very expensive to purchase. There are ways to reduce the cost and high quality plastic versions of many brass and woodwind instruments are available with considerably smaller price tags. These instruments are especially good for beginners.

A number of Music hubs in the UK provide a hire service so you can try before you buy and this is a great way for children to figure out which instrument works best for them. Arts Council England provide a ‘take it away scheme’ via a number of approved retailers. This scheme allows you to spread interest free payment over several months whilst taking the instrument home from the shop immediately. Credit approval is required.

Give some thought to the ‘at risk’ instruments

There are a number of instruments for which musicians are becoming quite rare. Why not consider one of these? They include the Viola and Double Bass in the string family. French Horn and Tuba in the brass family and the Bassoon and Oboe in the woodwind family. Many music hubs can make these instruments available to hire. There are also charities that can help with purchase costs once children reach a stage where they need their own instrument.

Other useful sites:

ABRSM Classic 100 – Popular Classical music showcasing a full range of instruments.
BBC Ten Pieces – Videos, recordings and written resources on specially selected music suitable for Primary and Secondary schools.
The Philharmonia Orchestra – Guide to the different instruments including illustrations, descriptions and videos. 

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