If your child is showing interest in music, you’ll definitely want to help them pursue that endeavor! Maybe, though, you’re not quite sure what instrument they should learn to play. You just know that your 4 year old won’t stop singing Mary Had a Little Lamb, your 6 year old is fascinated with listening to his cousin play piano, and your 12 year old talks obsessively about starting a rock band.
So you look into lessons and programs… and quickly begin to feel overwhelmed by the number of choices. You mean there’s more than one type of guitar? (acoustic, electric, bass, classical, and more) There are several styles of piano? (classical, popular, and jazz, to name just a few) Not to mention countless band and orchestra instruments… what is a bassoon anyway? Here’s a quick rundown of some of the different types of instruments, with those that beginners often start with bolded:
Piano: classical, popular, jazz
Guitar: acoustic, electric, bass, classical, rock, blues, country
Drums: snare, bongo
Voice: classical, contemporary, jazz, country, rock
Strings: violin, viola, cello, double bass
Woodwinds: flute, saxophone, clarinet, oboe, soprano saxophone, bassoon, piccolo
Brass: trumpet, french horn, euphonium, tuba
Other Fretted Strings: ukulele, mandolin, banjo
So how do you even narrow down the list? Let’s start with your child’s age and readiness– because it doesn’t matter how much your 3 year old wants to play the Tuba, he simply isn’t large enough and hasn’t enough lung capacity to make it practical. String instruments come in smaller sizes to accommodate younger children, but most other instruments do not.
If your child is very young (5 or under), he’ll be quite limited in his options. However, he could easily begin classical piano, voice, violin, or ukulele. There are also many music readiness classes available for small children, in which they get to experiment and learn about several small, simple instruments (including “instruments” such as maracas, bongo drums, clappers, and xylophones). If your child is a bit older, perhaps 6 – 8, it would also be possible for them to learn popular piano, acoustic or electric guitar, snare drum, viola, cello, double bass, mandolin, and possibly trumpet. If your child is 9+ there are few limits.
After determining what is practically possible in terms of size and difficulty, you should then consider what your child is interested in (of course, you certainly could take these steps in reverse order, but if you determine that your 4 year old is destined to play the tuba, you may just need to put that off for a few years). You can start with simple observation– what instruments does your child show preference for? Do they love to watch people singing on TV? Do they spend hours tinkering at the piano? Or perhaps they are fascinated by their grandpa’s guitar.
Even if your child seems very interested in a particular instrument, you still might go on to the second part of this step, which is to ask them if they have a specific interest, or if there’s an instrument they’d like to learn. Because, your child might be playing the piano because it’s the only instrument around, when really they dream of being a cellist. At any rate, do a little research, and figure out what your child really wants.
If your child is open to several possibilities, or doesn’t know what they want, then a good way to decide what they should study is to consider your own preference. Now, certainly you don’t want to be negatively projecting on your child, or imagining your desires are theirs; and just because you dream of your child playing first chair violin with the New York Philharmonic doesn’t mean that they necessarily should, or that that would make them as happy as you feel it would make you.
However, if your child expresses that she has equal interest in learning trumpet and flute, and you feel that flute would be much easier to listen to– especially for the first year or so– there’s no reason you can’t suggest to her that, personally, you’d prefer the flute. Neither would there be anything wrong with confiding in your son that when you were his age you really wanted to learn to play the piano, but never got the chance.
Now that you’ve really narrowed down the list, there’s a few more practical considerations that must be made. How large is the instrument? Your 13 year old daughter might be big enough to play the double bass, but that doesn’t mean your two bedroom apartment is necessarily able to support its presence.
Is the instrument readily available? If you live 200 miles from a major city, and your child thinks they might be interested in trying out a soprano saxophone… and the local music store doesn’t have one to rent… well, maybe you should try a different instrument, at least to start. Keep in mind that most players of the more unusual instruments didn’t start with that instrument originally. For example, most soprano sax players start with an alto sax, many viola players started on violin, and a lot of euphonium players started with the french horn or trumpet.
You also should consider the cost. Instruments vary widely in price. Generally, the smaller and more common instruments are less expensive (think violin, piano, guitar, and, of course, voice) at least for a starter instrument, whereas larger and more unusual instruments are generally much more. The most common starter instruments are occasionally even given away, they are so plenty. However, if you have been the fortunate recipient of an instrument, you’ll want to check with a music teacher or tuner before you begin to learn on it, to insure that it’s sufficient and won’t encourage any bad playing habits or frustrations. This is a time when you may want to look that gift horse in the mouth… or at least check under the saddle for any burrs before you climb on. (Best for beginners to not get bucked off the first time; most students find that to be discouraging.)
Finally, you should consider the availability and cost of instruction for whatever instrument you and your child are considering. The size of city you live in generally dictates the availability and variety of teachers available (again, a little country town probably doesn’t have a soprano sax teacher– but it is always possible). Lessons tend to be somewhat more expensive in larger cities, but there are also many more options, and teachers experience greater competition.
It is vital to consider each of the above points prior to selecting an instrument. However, above all else, your child must be interested in, and genuinely like the end choice. If you don’t have their interest, your efforts will more than likely come to naught.