Musical Instruments For Children

Thiis is a question which I received via email a few months ago – It took me lots of careful consideration and research for my reply below, as I believe this is a very important topic affecting many parents. Your comments are welcome below, as I would love this to be a forum for discussion on this topic.

Should the Band Director be selecting the instrument for my 6th grader child and
what should I do if I don’t agree with the instrument selected by the band director?

Joining a school band is an exciting and inspirational experience for any child. Not only will they learn to play music, but they will have the opportunity to learn it in a fun, friendly and a nurturing environment. They will make special musical friendships with teachers and tutors and students and will have opportunity to play in major school and community events. The feeling of importance and value that a child can gain by playing in a band can make a huge difference to their schooling and self confidence.

Great band directors have always got the child’s best interests at heart. Their whole life is to care for and provide an inspirational learning situations which will bring out the best in every child. They have hands on experience with working with children playing music day in day out and know what works best in the most tried and tested situations.

It looks really easy to stand up there and work with 50 or more kids at a time at rehearsal at a concert, but let me rest assure that it is definitely not as easy as it looks. Their ability to make it all look easy is paramount to being outstanding at their job. In reality however, there is enormous pressure placed on them and becoming a band director is a highly specialized job. From making sure that the children are able to play their parts correctly to ensuring that the correct instruments have been chosen for each child there are pressures placed on these people who work tirelessly to make sure that it all comes together.

It can be a real juggling act for a band director to find the correct instruments to suit each child. Most programs will assign instruments to their students based on the factors surrounding their circumstances. Factors such as the size of the child,the work ethic of each child (as some instruments are harder to learn than others), the amounts of instruments they have available through the program and the happiness of the child to play the instrument are taken into account.

Some band programs may have a little interview with each child, others will use a musical aptitude test and some will find out a little bit about each student from their other teachers. Most band directors won’t know very much about each child and their families until they have begun to work with them. The process of picking an instrument can be tedious and is really only the beginning of a child’s musical journey.

As a parent, you have to live with the decision that is made and need to be happy with the choice. You will be the one who has to support and encourage it so that your child can receive the maximum value and significance out of the activity. You are the one who will need to enjoy listening to it in the background every day- and that will wear on you if it’s an instrument that just doesn’t fit your family lifestyle.

My advice would be to ask the musical director some questions if you are not sure about the choice with an outcome in mind. Be real and truthful about the reasons why you’re not sure about the decision and tell this to the band director. They may well have a very clear reason why a particular instrument was chosen for your child and may be able to share an insight with you that you may not have seen before.

Also as I said before, a great band director will always have the child’s best interests at heart and wouldn’t intend to make it difficult. If your outcome is to change onto a different instrument, I would have some solutions in place for the band director so that they had no reason to say no. Talk about the options of buying or hiring the instrument of your choice from another provider.

I know that my opinion is only one, and many band directors, teachers and parents may have a different perspective on this, so please feel free to add your comments to this discussion below.

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36 thoughts on “Musical Instruments For Children”

  1. My daughter was allocated a place and an instrument in a year 5 band. We knew it would be instrument allocation rather than choice, and were very interested to see what would happen. I wanted her to be allocated a clarinet, because I knew a bit about playing the instrument (I’m a pianist of mnay years, but have tinkered with a few other instruments). Because she has ASD I knew she would need extra help, and offered to learn her allocated instrument along side her. Thus the hope that it would be a clarinet. Well, she was allocated a flute. This was after the band director assessed the shape and size of her hands, her teeth and mouth. Well, she took to it like a duck to water. I’m attempting to learn with her, but I’m finding it very hard. But she’s loving it.

  2. As a high school musical theatre teacher, I don’t have to deal with the problem of connecting student to correct instrument. But I can see both sides of this situation. As a 4th grader, I was told that I would be joining the school band. Now, I am a vocalist, and really had no interest in being in the band, but it was required by my school for at least one marking period. I decided that I wanted to play the flute, because I liked the sound of the instrument. My dear father and the band teacher disagreed with my choice, saying that a flute is a girl’s instrument ( this was 1964). So I was forced to play the drums. Normally, any kid would be thrilled to be allowed to bang and make noise without being yelled at, but I am VERY left handed, and could not get the right handed control of the sticks to suit my teacher. It was the worst experience of my life. I was constantly frustrated by being told that I wasn’t holding the sticks correctly, and since I wasn’t really sold on being a drummer anyway, I withdrew and became beligerent about the band.

    Parents and teachers need to work closely with the student in choosing an instrument and fostering the child’s talent. Not everyone is cut out to play violin, or clarinet, or trumpet, or even the flute. Yes, every student can benefit from musical training, as it will help to build discipline, mathmatic skills, and understanding of complex subjects. But for a child to excell rather than just being a technician, they have to WANT to play the instrument. Parents need to nurture that talent. If your reasons as a parent for not wanting a child to play a specific instrument is because of a physical concern, then talk that over with the child and the teacher. If it is a financial situation, then discuss that frankly with the teacher in private. Most of us are more than willing to help in any way we can. But if a parents concern is, as an example, that they don’t want their daughter playing trombone because it isn’t feminine, or their son playing clarinet because they are afraid that the reed will cause the kids teeth to protrude, then the teacher needs to talk with the parent and help them see that these concerns are superficial.

    If it is a situation where the student wants to play a specific instrument and the band teacher is insistent that the student play something else, then the parent needs to make an appointment to talk to the teacher in private. Please don’t call during class time. It will only cause frustration on the part of the teacher, because they are trying to give you their attention while keeping an eye on 60 rambuncious kids with large expensive potential flying objects in their hands.

  3. In my opinion, the taste/ interest of the child should be the main decision driver – I think that the kid should feel happy about the instrument to be motivated to practice. The parent will also discuss the choice with the band director, but first discussion should be with the kid.

  4. The article about Musical Instruments for Children is very well written. As a music teacher and choir director, I would definitely recommend this article to any parent new to a band program. It brings to light the job of the music/band director, the child playing the instrument and, of course the concern of the parent about the choice of instrument for their child.
    Well Done!

  5. I read with interest this article. I am operating in Italy as responsible of a Band program.
    At each school year beginning we go to school to show musical instrument and to make the children enter the program and starting to play. We are having a young band of 20 components. The most of them arrives at our courses with clear ideas about the instrument they want to play. If the child needs suggestions, we try to understand from his speech which may be his attitude and we adress him to an instrument. Really we are open to change of mind. Usually we give the instrument without any charge at the beginning. Then if the child wants to continue, usually parents buy the instrument for him. We meet more problems in convince parents to let children learn an instrument than to convince children to play. Giving the instrument freely helps a lot.
    Unfortunately in Italy there is no a great music culture and it is difficult to find funds enought and to bring some situations to success.

  6. Yes, communication is the best tool for all involved.
    You might have mentioned that the group is always
    more important than the individual when it comes
    to forming a band. The right instrumentation always
    makes for a better sound ensemble and what we
    want and what needs to be may be two different things.

    Certainly speaking with the band director would be
    the best route.

  7. I like your article. It explained the band director’s view and also put the parent at ease. Although I am a chorus director, both of my children are band students. The band director went to their elementary school and showed the students the instruments available nd then asked them which ones they were interested in. Once he knew their area of interest, he showed them the armiture needed for the instrument, tested their ability and steered them in the right direction based on that. I believe he tested students for their hand-eye coordination for percussion.
    There is definitely a fine art to it all and I know I could never do it. My hats are off to those who can.

    Best regards,

    Donna Reese

  8. Hello Janice,

    I think your response answered the question effectively. As a music educator of young children, I myself sometimes have assisted parents with similar decisions and, I while I do give serious consideration to the child’s size, I often battle with their parent’ opinions about instrument choices. Usually the parents consider and respect my suggestions and opinions and the children are usually happy with the final choice of instrument.

  9. Hi Janice,

    I agree with your article. Band directors can sometimes see if there is going to be an issue with blowing and articulating with different instruments because of teeth placement etc. It is important that parents have a discussion with the band director so they are able to understand where the director is coming from.

  10. Aloha Janice,

    In my own experience wanting to play the Saxophone and being turned down
    by my band director due to the fact that I was very petite and the
    Saxophone was pretty large in front of me, I was given the Clarinet. I
    went home so bummed, but my mother said that I should be happy that I
    have an instrument and something not to large to carry home. Almost
    every student wanted to play the saxophone. The director looked at
    every student’s embouchure and decided which instrument suited him the
    best. We didn’t question it. But, that was 30 years ago.

    Times are different now with parents wanting their own child to stand
    out and be recognized with the status of the “cool instrument” and maybe
    not the tuba! But, someone has to play it! I honestly feel that the
    band director should have the say in what instrument. I trust their
    judgment and hope that parents will give the teacher a chance. If it
    really doesn’t work out and the “child” is unhappy (not the parent!),
    then more discussion would be necessary. I haven’t seen too many
    unhappy parents in my day, but times are different.

    Mahalo,
    Ruth Babas

  11. Janice,

    As a former band director for 29 years at the Middle and High School levels (Grades 6-12) I find that your answer to this question is both very honest and very well presented. Having started from 47 (my smallest beginner class) to 173 (my largest beginner class) I was always faces with the queston of “What does each student select as their chosen instrument?” I will now attempt to give you a concise answer as to how I arrived at answering this question.

    In my situation, I was responsible for the entire band program from Beginner band throush the Seniors in High School. This provided me a first hand knowledge of the distribution of instruments throughout the entire program which I tried to balance for obvious reasons. My goal was to achieve as close to full concert instrumentation in every ensemble so that when we performed we sounded like a band with all of the beauties of the tonal colors blended together to make a pleasant presentation for the audience, but especially for the performers who had to listen in rehearsals on a day to day basis.

    In assigning instrument selections I first looked at the total number of students enrolled and worked to balance each year’s beginner class. Students who already owned an instrument were given first choice, students who would be purchasing an instrument or renting an instrument would then be screened for common physical characteristics useful in achieving success on each instrument, and finally I ask each student to select their first three choices. In 29 years of teaching band, I never failed to be able to balance the band’s instrumentation while stile honoring the student’s choices using this method. (I might add that seldom did I have more than a 3% drop out rate during this time frame.) When the students began to hear comments about how well the band sounded whatever petty dislikes they may have had for their instrument seemed to melt away.

    I might also add that I started at an early stage in the student’s learning process to begin to make them aware of the similarities of their instrument to other instruments in either their family or instrument or range function. I also encourage discovering new instruments which helped to provide players for those less popular instruments such as Oboe, Bassoon, Tuba, French Horn, etc. (You always have students who wish to be the “Big Fish in the Small Pond”)

    Well enough of my rambling. If you have any questions concerning any of the above please let me know and I will be happy to provide more details.

    Sincerely,

    Fred E Cameron

  12. I majored in teaching band and orchestra and also in keyboard because I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do. I ended up teaching piano which I dearly love, but only after experiencing teaching band and orchestra for a few years.

    There are some physical things that a band director takes in consideration when recommending an instrument for a child. But, in the end, if a child really wants to play a certain instrument, then the child should be given a chance to try it, no matter what the recommendation was. The band teacher is NOT the final say in the matter. I recommend that the family rent an instrument until the child has proven that they can succeed, and then purchase a quality instrument.

    Sometimes schools have instruments that they loan to the students. That could play a part in what instrument a band director chooses.

  13. Janice,

    Totally agree with your comments about choice of instruments for a child to play in a band. Both of my own children have taken up instruments to play in their Primary School Band. One on the baritone and he is still playing in the high school band and the other has started this year on the drums and both are really enjoying their instruments. The confidence that playing an instrument has given my oldest son is amazing. He even performed a solo piece in an Eidstford about 2 years ago and various solo concerts at the end of year performaces for musicial children throughout the year.

    Your best bet is to talk to your band conductor.

  14. I read your article. I plan to email the link to the educators in my district, as it may help them with similar queries from parents.

    I am a general music educator in elementary schools in the Evergreen School District in Washington.

    I think your answer to your parent was excellent and I would have given the same advise, even though I don’t teach band.

    I have watched and talked with our orchestra and band teachers in our school system through the years and know it to be true.

  15. Janice,

    I love getting information from you and the recent article is “right on”. I have suggested to students, who are considering learning a band instrument, to also check with their dentist or orthodontist. Daily practice on an instrument that is unsuitable for an overbite(clarinet for example) can have devasting effects for a student.

  16. Great article! I would comment that students who are already having private instrumental lessons on a band instrument usually have priority in instrumental selection and can usually stay with their instrument. So if parents are really concerned about instrument selection, and their son/daughter feels very strongly about playing a certain instrument, have them start private lessons on that instrument the summer before their first year in band. If they love the instrument they will most likely be assigned the same one. If they do not enjoy their private lessons with the selected instrument, no money wasted! A different instrument will be assigned and the student has some general music knowledge that will further their instrumental study.

  17. Although I teach general music ed in our elementary school, I give our fifth graders their listening “band survey”. The representatives from the store where our band director orders the instruments for his new band students also sets up in my classroom. The band survey has the students listening for higher or lower, same and different sounds, and also same and different melodies and rhythms. The representatives from the music store allow the students to try any instrument that they would like to. He then asks the student which instruments he or she likes best and also tells the parents what instruments he feels the student makes the best sounds on and also the instruments that seem to fit their embouchure better. If the student has narrowed their decision down, then they look at the “survey” and sometimes this will help determine which of the instruments left seems most suited to the child’s listening skills. For example, if the student has missed all the rhythms on the listening survey, then the snare drum might not be the best instrument for this child.
    Our band director ultimately lets the student choose their own instrument, because he feels they will work harder and be happier with the instrument they have chosen.

  18. I am in charge of a large group of kids in Year 5 in an Australian College and we always try to balance the ensemble, the wishes of the parents and the best for the child. Most times this works out, but sometimes the parents want the smallest instrument or the easiest one!
    I thought your article excellent and will use a bit of this to talk to my parents if that is OK.
    Well done on a very hard situation for most music teachers

  19. hi Celine,

    Anyone is free to use this article in any way that it is helpful, including newsletters, letters and reports – We’d be grateful if you left a reference to parentsmusicguide.com/parentsmusicguide at the bottom

    Janice Tuck

  20. I was interested to read your article. I think it helps if children have an idea of which instrument they would like to play. Parents can take there kids to Orchestra Childrens concerts, put on a video of Fantasia or sit in on a rehearsal (Brass band style).
    As a professional horn player I actually started out wanting aged 7/8 to play the Trombone, I had seen it in the circus and as I was an extremely small girl it was suggested by my music teacher when 2 French horns became available that I try one. I have never looked back,as I always knew that a brass instrument was the one for me. Parents teachers and children should work together.
    Temperament should also be taken into account not just size as most children do grow!!

  21. Jancie,
    I think the article is well written with sound advice when it comes to auditioning or joining a band. If a parent isn’t satisfied with the instrument chosen my first question would be Is it the child or the parent who is disappointed with the instrument and why??? If the child, then a meeting between band dir.& child would be appropriate, and if that isn’t resolved a parent/child/director meeting should be scheudled. At this point, you can ruin a child’s first experience with band, being part of a group in general or worst of all, the child’s view of music and how groups like band, choir, ensembles work. I would say to them..be strong and try it..”you might like it” both parent and child!
    suzi

  22. I agree that parents should talk to the band director, but they should also keep an open mind and encourage their child to stick with their instrument for a year. They can always change next year.

  23. I agree with this article. As a former band member myself, it is easy to tell that the band insructor choses an instrument for each child based on their individual personality and musical ability.

  24. Dear Janice,
    When my children were in their first years of school I send them to a music class where they learned music in an enjoyable playing fashion where learned rhythm, singing and playing the simple accompanying instruments as maracas, tambourines, clavios etc. They were first selected for their musical talent if they had any. My daughter went to a choir and my sun was fascinated to play drums. He has taken lessons and has improved his skills as a drum player. His teacher helped put to buy a secondhand drumset from another student who was not so talentful with the drums and saved the loss of his parents for that expensive instrument. On his own and with videos he learned to play guitar and bass guitar. I’m convinced that his musical interest and skills were developped during his first encounters with music. As a grandfather now my two granddaughters were first teste musically and the first one is playing the violing while the second one must choose betwee. violin, cello and piano. The experienced teacher therefor is not only capable of helping the students but also their parents to help choose and guide them to a succelful musical future. By the way as a teacher I’ve learned that there are a great deal of ways to select an instrument that fits the child best performance with the parents best ability to buy an instrument that they can afford.

  25. Hi Janice,

    I read your article, as requested, and found it interesting.

    My children are 6 and 3 but do not play any instruments. However I do and have always played them various types of cds. They also have children’s plastic keyboards and guitars. My husband and I have no musical experience or background, but I consider it an essential part of good child development.

    I agree with your response regarding the article. The only thing that I would add, is that in the end a child will only play what they want to do – it ultimately has to be their choice or they will not enjoy the experience.

    regards,

    Susan

  26. Hi Janice. I read your article and I agree with what you have written. It’s important for the child to be happy with what they are playing but they can’t all have the instrument they first want, otherwise we could have 22 guitars and 1 violin! It’s important to work with the children in explaining why they have been allocated a certain instrument. They might find they like
    it. I started 12 new children on Flute in a school allocation. 5 of them turned out to be very good and love playing it. 10 of the 12 decided to continue lessons. None of them would have thought of playing a flute if they hadn’t been allocated it. You never know!

    Regards, Margaret

  27. Dear Janice,

    First suss out what is available in the area and what the teachers are like(if possible). When you have a list of possibilities, let your child hear and see the possible instruments, and guage the interest shown. Thirdly know your child’s mental and physical capabilities, and help them to choose. e.g. piano is a tough call if a child is not well co-ordinated, but it is manageable if a teacher can keep them interested and working, and is not impatient for them do do music exams before they are ready. Remind parents that a keyboard and a piano are totally different and a child who starts piano lessons on a keyboard needs to change to a piano (or digital piano) as soon as they are showing real enthusiasm. If possible ask local teachers if a lesson or to can be observed before a choice is made. This will obviuosly depend on the individual teachers. Remind parents that this choice is so important, and that they should be prepared to be involved, encouraging practice in a warm friendly environment, with regular encouragement and help with HOW to practise, and playing games (like yours) in the early couple of years.

  28. I think your response to the question was excellent. You have no way of knowing why the band director didn’t let the child play the instrument he/she wanted to. It could have been a physical problem such as a tear drop lip and flute, too small fingers and clarinet, no sense of rhythm and percussion, etc. I hope it wasn’t because the band director had too many of that instrument. If a child desperately wants to play a certain instrument, the balance in the band can be worked out in other ways. I appreciate your emails and information.
    Thanks,
    Claudia

  29. Dear Janice,
    I would just like to make a comment on the question posted.
    I taught piano for 25 years and also taught class music in primary schools for 10 years.
    In my experience a band director needs to ensure they have all the instruments they need to create the overall effect they want and each instrumental part fulfilled.
    Unfortunately sometimes the need to fill an instrumental ‘void’ may lead to a little persuasion to be able to require that instrument in the band.
    My suggestion would be to make sure that her child is completely happy with the choice presented. – This is the most important factor! If they are not, then discussions with the band director are required to resolve the problem so that her child can feel happy about the decision and ultimately enjoy being in the band.
    I good band director can re-write parts for other instruments to fill any ‘gaps’ in the compositions. If they are committed to the children enjoying the whole band experience then they should happilly do that.
    Karen Van Elk

  30. Excellent letter. My husband has been a band director for 35 years. And he considers all those factors plus works with parents who may not be able to rent an instrument and sometimes suggest a student play a large instrument like the tuba or french horn. Their school have those instruments available to borrow from the school district

  31. Hi just a quick response to your question,
    I believe it would be logical for the person who knows the students abilities, family finances and importantly the likelyhood that the students on going commitment warrants an expensive instrument or simply a student model, should be the one helps select it. Probably the students tutor would most likely suffice.
    Im sure not many band directors have time to run all over town helping student select instruments.
    Bye for now
    Rod murray

  32. i think that if the child enjoys the instrument then you shoul let her play it, even if its not the instrument that you wanted the child to play. If you really wanted the child to play it, why not teach them yourself?

  33. Great advice!

    Most band directors have the ability to know what instrument is best for an individual. Yet, parents must also assure that they understand why does a music director have chosen a particular instrument for their child.

    Thanks for sharing.

  34. Terrific post. Sometimes a band teacher’s choice of instrument for a child does not mesh exactly with the parent’s idea of what’s best, but I think it’s important for families to put their trust in the teacher’s expertise. Important but often difficult tightrope to walk.

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