Do you want to unlock your child’s musical potential? Perhaps you just want them to enjoy music making. Either way, it’s important to start the right instrument at the right time. The more thought you and your child devote to the process of choosing an instrument, the greater the rewards will be.
Is your child ready?
Does your child show an obvious enjoyment of music?
Have they been given the musical exposure necessary to develop an inner ear?
Hopefully they’ve been singing and dancing (informally at least!) from an early age. If so, they will have a small repertoire of favourite songs. They will also have had opportunities to experiment with percussive instruments and listen to live musicians.
“Young children should be encouraged to play with musical instruments in their own way and be excited by the sounds they make – one should not insist that they play conventionally before this personal contact has been established.”
Richard Beauchamp - Piano teacher, St Mary’s Music School
In order to make the most of formal lessons, a child needs to be physically, mentally and emotionally ready. If they are too young to focus, or lack the stamina and motivation to practise, lessons will be counterproductive. Every child is different, but professionals would generally advise waiting until they reach the age of 7 or 8.
Finding the right instrument
Copies of The Right Instrument for Your Child by Ben-Tovim & Boyd – to which this article is indebted – can be purchased online. This respected guide offers a systematic, child-centred approach to finding an instrument. In a nutshell: the chosen instrument must be comfortable and rewarding to play. And the child’s individual makeup (physique, character, temperament, intellect etc.) should, ideally, determine their choice.
These instruments do much of the work in forming a sound, so they are suitable for children with a less acute sense of pitch. Since the child plays one note at a time, the music is not too tricky to read. Nor is a good memory required. For each instrument, the blowing sensation differs greatly and will either appeal to your child, or not. Factors to consider include: the shape of the child’s lips, size of teeth, breath and lip control and finger-coordination. Children will enjoy playing these instruments in orchestras and wind ensembles. N.B.: The descant recorder is considered good preparation for the flute because the fingering is similar.
To play a brass instrument, your child will need to develop good breath control. They must also enjoy the sensation of tingling lips! There are far fewer valves than on woodwind instruments, so less finger-coordination is necessary. Like the instruments, brass players come in all shapes and sizes, but they tend to be gregarious. Thus they enjoy making a splash in brass bands and orchestras, even with just a few notes! The french horn (not found in a brass band) and trombone are difficult to master because each note has to be individually pitched. Thus the player requires a very good ear as well as good lip control. But both instruments reward talent and hard work since they are so expressive.
All string instruments require a very keen sense of pitch, but a child’s hearing may improve (or worsen) over time. To produce a beautiful sound on a bowed instrument, your child will need excellent one-to-one tuition, natural talent and a diligent approach. Good technique takes years to develop and bad habits (which effect sound quality) are easily acquired. Thus parental supervision is often needed early on. Violins, violas, cellos and double bases are all in demand in school and youth orchestras, quartets etc., and the repertoire – which includes classical, modern and folk music – is extensive.
Of the plucked string instruments, the guitar and harp are both technically and intellectually demanding. Finger strength and co-ordination is a must, but both can be developed. These instruments suit children who are self-motivated and independent. Most harp players start with the (smaller) Celtic harp, which is portable.
Is your child constantly fizzing with energy? Perhaps they could do with developing better co-ordination? If so, the drums – or more specifically, the side-drum (at first) – may be the solution. The good news is that drum practice doesn’t have to be deafening: a practice pad will dampen the sound. Children typically progress from the side-drum to a drum kit (for playing in bands) or to learning the many other (tuned and untuned) percussion instruments found in an orchestra.
The piano is the ideal instrument for developing general musicianship. A child learns about the relationship between melody and accompaniment and becomes adept at identifying individual lines in music. Thus it makes sense for a musical child to learn the instrument, either as a first or second study. The piano is, nevertheless, an intellectually demanding instrument. Reading two staves is challenging and a good memory helps. No particular physique is required: strength and co-ordination come with practice. Pianists benefit from a vast repertoire, but must be content to entertain themselves.
The importance of trying out instruments
Having established which instruments might suit your child, visit a respected shop, or two. A crucial step is to find out which instrument feels right to your child. An expert will help you find the right size of instrument.
Advice on sourcing instruments
Many schools will allow you to borrow instruments, at least initially. Otherwise, you have 3 options: hire, hire to buy, or buy outright. Your decision will depend on the cost of the instrument and your pocket. If your child is at a Scottish state school, you could apply for a discount under the VAT Free Assisted Instrument Purchase Scheme.
Unless you are are a player yourself, private and online (only) dealers are generally best avoided: instrumental defects are not always obvious, but they discourage a learner. Do consider guaranteed, secondhand instruments, which are often better value. Better quality instruments tend to be more expensive and easier to sell on.
Buying or renting pianos
To be used as a learning instrument, a keyboard must be touch-sensitive, have a range of 4 octaves and keys of a good width. In order to develop a good technique, a child needs to feel closely connected to the instrument’s mechanism, so that what they do and feel physically affects the sound. For this reason, it is best to source an acoustic piano, not a digital one.
Edinburgh suppliers recommended by music teachers
For a varied stock of new and refurbished acoustic pianos to suit every budget. Workshop on site. Open 7 days a week, by appointment. Tuning and repair services also available. www.facebook.com/newlands.pianos
Stringers of Edinburgh
For violins, violas, cellos and double bases. Every instrument passes through the on-site workshop. There is a second-hand beginner violin for every pocket. Stringers also operate a monthly hire scheme and a repair service. www.stringersmusic.com
The Wind Section
Specialists in woodwind and brass instruments. You have the option to rent a new instrument for a 3 month period. The buy-back scheme also allows you to return an instrument within 4 months of the purchase date for a 75% refund. www.thewindsection.com