(This article is based on an adult choosing, or an adult helping a child to choose)
This is a difficult question! Firstly, you need to consider if there is an instrument that you have “always” wanted to learn – and then go with this! Remember, nothing is forever – you can change if it doesn’t work out. The beauty of hiring an instrument is that you are not making a massive outlay on purchasing an instrument.
Secondly, practicalities – there is no real sense in picking the cello for example if you can’t transport it around to school/concerts. Equally if you live in a semi-detached house or flat it probably isn’t a great idea to choose a noisy instrument that is going to irritate the neighbours!
Thirdly, your physical size – a six-year-old child isn’t going to be able to handle a full-size woodwind or brass instrument.
It goes without saying that all instruments need to be cared for and looked after. They are all fragile in their own way, and none can cope with being dropped, sat on, left in the sun or anything else that would damage anything fragile. With care and commitment to keeping the instrument in a safe place, all instruments will be fine and need little additional attention.
There are six main categories to consider next; strings (violin, viola, cello), woodwind (flute, clarinet, saxophone), brass (trumpet, cornet or trombone), keys (piano), guitar or drums. They all come with pros and cons which we will consider during this article. These are based on maintenance, overall cost, prospects, and how easy/difficult they are to learn over a period.
The main instruments to consider are violin, viola and cello. They all come in different sizes according to your size. They are sized 1/16th which is tiny and the smallest up to 4/4 which is full size and suitable for adults. As a rough guide a 7/8-year-old child would be looking at a ¼ or ½ size instrument. The instruments are prime for rental as children can outgrow an instrument size within a year if they have a growth spurt! If you were to hire the wrong size this would be a straightforward swap up or down a size depending on the teachers’ advice. All string instruments come with a bow, rosin and a case. The violins and violas come with a shoulder rest separate and have a chin rest attached. The cellos don’t have anything in addition. The care of string instruments is the same as any instrument – it will break if dropped or sat on! The strings can snap if they are tightened too much – this is part of tuning the instrument and will generally be done by the teacher. However, it is very tempting to children to try and tune instruments themselves which isn’t a great idea when they are just starting to learn. Learning to tune instruments is part of learning and will be taught in good time.
The instruments all have four strings. Each string then has different “positions” which when a finger is placed on will give a different note. They are arguably more difficult to learn in the respect of having to “listen” to the note you are playing. It isn’t all marked out, although teachers will use stickers often to indicate the correct place for certain fingers – hence seeing little coloured dot stickers on fingerboards of string instruments.
String instruments are great for being part of an orchestra. They can be solo instruments too obviously, but for ensemble experience they are used regularly by schools.
The most common instruments to learn are the flute, clarinet, and saxophone. Each require the same discipline of learning how to blow through, and which finger corresponds to which note. Once you have a good sound on any of these you are away, and the fingering comes with each note as it is learned. Children can learn but they need to be big enough to hold the instrument correctly and be able to put their fingers on the keys. Teeth falling out doesn’t pose a massive problem, it is more of an inconvenience than anything for a small amount of time.
The clarinet and saxophone require a reed to play. A reed will be supplied with your instrument, but you will need to purchase more. The reeds are no good once they are split or have been chipped. Reeds can be purchased as single, packs of three or in a box of ten. Your teacher will advise which reeds they recommend and what strength to buy. The strength will depend on your level of learning – a beginner usually starts on a 1.5 strength reed.
All woodwind instruments should be cleaned inside to keep them at their best. This removes the moisture and thus helps keep the pads inside the keys from getting too wet which can lead to problems with the instrument.
Woodwind instruments need servicing. Your instrument will arrive fully serviced and if looked after will be fine for a couple of years. However, little things can go wrong but can be of no fault, but none the less mean that you instrument needs looking at.
Woodwind instruments are great for ensemble playing – they are used in schools in groups and orchestras.
Brass instruments will commonly be trumpet, cornet or trombone. Trumpet is the most common of the three. The trumpet and cornet are basically the same instrument – the only difference really is size. They both have three valves which determine the different notes. Brass is all about “embouchure” (the lip position). With just three valves delivering all the range of notes it is important that they player has a good musical ear to enable them to know if they are playing the correct note. The trombone makes the different notes by using the slide – it is arguably more technical than the trumpet in this respect. All three instruments will be used by schools for ensembles.
Brass instruments come in a case with a mouthpiece. It is important that the mouthpiece is correct for the instrument and player. There are many mouthpieces for sale so advice from a professional is key before changing or buying a new mouthpiece.
Brass instruments are relatively low maintenance. They do need a bath now and then to keep them clean and your teacher will advise on this. They also need valve oil that is put into the valves to stop them seizing up. With regular practice your brass instrument will not need much valve oil but as soon as it isn’t used for a couple of days it will feel stiffer and need a little valve oil.
Children love nothing more than removing the valves from the trumpet/cornet which is fine until they are then put back in wrong! If they are put back wrong no sound will come out of the instrument – it is easily rectified but carefully looking at the valve position and placing it back in correctly and “locking” it into place.
Piano & Keyboard
Learning the piano is argued by piano teachers as the hardest instrument to learn but the most important!! The piano is a solo instrument and you won’t necessarily be involved in ensembles, although of course there is always scope for the piano to be used, or the pianist to be part of the percussion section of an ensemble.
The keys on the piano are already there, you must learn how to read the music and translate this into the right place on the keyboard.
When learning the piano, you learn both the treble and bass clef. This is twice as much as any of the other instruments mentioned above. The right hand and left hand have their own set of notes, and both hands over time become co-ordinate to work together on the keyboard.
The piano needs very little maintenance but equally needs to be treated with care. Bashing the keys won’t do them any good!
A guitar is easy to pick up and possibly more satisfying to learn in the short term. A regular guitar has six strings and although it can be played with single notes it is more likely to be learned or taught using chords. This translates into two or more fingers from the left hand on the strings at any one time and the right hand strumming the chord. There are more on-line tutorials for learning the guitar than many other instruments and it is more straightforward to teach yourself than other instruments. Guitar uses tab or conventional music notation, but tab is more commonly used due to being easier to read chords using this. Wind or classical stringed instruments have more technical areas that need to be considered whereas the guitar can be more freely played and in an individual style. There are many technical styles that can be learned but these will be down to the individual to decide how they want to play.
A guitar is relatively cheap to buy straight out but like all other instruments, you get what you pay for, and the instrument and the wood it is made from and the strings can enhance the sound and playing style considerably. There are hundreds of different types of strings for different styles. Guitar strings would need changing more often than a string instrument if it is played a lot. Guitars used nylon or steel strings. Likewise, there are many different woods that can make a guitar – handmade guitars are at the higher price bracket and can be beautiful as a work of art let alone a musical instrument!
There are nylon strung classical guitars that are more suitable if a child wants to learn as steel strings can be a little hard on their tender fingers.
Guitars come in different sizes so can accommodate children well, and they can be left handed too if you are left handed and can only handle learning this way round!
There is also the option of an electric guitar – this has the same strings but would need an amp to plug it into to get the sound out. Likewise, for a bass guitar – these usually only have four strings but there are variants.
Guitars are relatively low maintenance instruments but need to be “set up” correctly. A guitar out of a box from a toy shop won’t be nearly as easy to learn or satisfying on the ear than a proper guitar purchased from a guitar specialist that has been set up. The set up is making sure that the strings sit correctly on the fret, amongst many more technical elements that you wouldn’t believe would make a difference!
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Learning the drum kit is a bold decision! It’s a great instrument to learn as you are looking more at rhythm and co-ordination than anything else initially. Being able to keep a steady beat is a good advantage and a good start. You also won’t necessarily be learning to read conventional music although most drum teachers will teach drum notation alongside conventional music notation. Like all instruments, there are different levels of learning the drums and you don’t necessarily need a full kit to get you going.
There are two main kinds of kit – acoustic and electric. Electric kits have improved over the years and more and more sound and feel like the real thing. The main advantage of the electric kit is noise, or lack of! It can be turned down, and even have headphones plugged into it so that practice can be done without disturbing the whole street.
Price wise to buy it would be pretty much the same for a half decent acoustic kit or an electric kit.
The other addition you need are drum sticks. Again, like for all the other instruments, there is a vast array of different sticks available and you will be advised on what sticks would suit you the best. There are special lighter sticks for younger children.
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In summary, there is no easy answer really. All the instruments have potential, and all can be very satisfying. All professional instruments are expensive and if you end up wanting a professional instrument it will be more down to your budget than anything else when purchasing such an instrument. For example, a student flute will be silver plated, the next step up is a solid silver head joint and then a solid silver flute. They then can come with different options such as open holes. Equally with clarinets, there are different materials used in the body of a student instrument as opposed to a professional instrument and so on and so on with all instruments.
Much of the learning experience will be down to the individual and the time invested in practising and the experience from the teacher in the lessons. An inspiring teacher can make a huge difference to a student as opposed to one who is half hearted.
It is crucial that a good amount of time is given to one instrument before giving up, and or changing to another instrument. Six months would give you a good insight into how it will be, but it can take many years before you are happy with what you can do, and you feel that you can play the instrument.
Everybody can learn, and if an instrument doesn’t agree with you it won’t be because you can’t do it, it will just be a case of finding the right instrument for you. As Thomas H Palmer once said in his teaching manual “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again”!