Which Musical Instrument Should my Child Play?

It’s the beginning of the school year, the band and orchestra teachers are pushing for students to join their groups, and your child comes home from school asking to join the band. Or the orchestra. Or maybe all your child’s friends are starting instruments and your child doesn’t want to be left out of the fun. So, which musical instrument should he play? Here are five things that will help you with that decision.

Which musical instrument does he/she want to play?

Always start there! If your child shows an interest in a particular instrument, there is a better chance of her sticking with it. Ask questions. Why that instrument? Who else is playing that instrument? What do you like about it? Get your child’s opinion! You can offer some guidance, or limits, but let your child have a say in the matter.

How old is your child?

What difference does that make? Does it really matter? For some instruments, yes. Band instruments require a certain amount of muscle development around the mouth in order to produce a good sound. (Did you know that there were muscles all around your lips?) Is your child old enough for the responsibilities that go with playing an instrument? Like putting it together? Cleaning it? Not dropping it or sitting on it? And doing all this without you watching over him like a hawk? (Just a suggestion – Check to see if your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance will cover damage and repairs to instruments!)

What physical limitations will affect your child’s ability to play his instrument of choice?

Does your child have the physical strength and stamina to hold the instrument properly? String instruments come in different sizes for younger children; band instruments do not! (for the most part) Will your child’s arms and fingers be able to reach the keys on his chosen instrument? Can your small child reach far enough to get the trombone slide to 6th or 7th position? Sometimes compromises work – Encourage your child to start on a similar instrument and then switch to the desired instrument when they are older/stronger/bigger.

Example: Your child wants to play trombone but can’t reach to the far positions. Start with a baritone (bass clef). Note reading will be the same as it will for trombone. Sound production is very similar. Then, when his arms are longer, a switch to trombone will not be difficult at all. Same idea with tuba (baritone), bass clarinet (clarinet), baritone saxophone (tenor sax), etc. Ask the music teacher at school for compromise suggestions.

Which musical instrument does the group need? (Or, does the school band really need 27 trumpets?)

If 20 kids sign up to learn violin, and only 2 want to play viola, which instrument has the potential for greater (faster) advancement? The competition is almost always less in the viola section! Same idea for flute and oboe. For every 15-20 kids who want to play the flute, there is probably only 1 or 2 asking to play the oboe. Again, talk to the music director at school for more suggestions. Maybe he/she has some incentive to offer for kids willing to play the less popular instruments!

What if your child really wants to play an instrument but isn’t ready for the traditional band or orchestra program at school?

In this case, you have a couple options. One would be to start your child on his instrument privately, with a teacher outside the school. Usually this is primarily an option for string instruments. If you (parent) are willing to invest the time (and it will take a lot of your time) and resources, children as young as 3 or 4 can successfully start on violin.

The other option is to have your child start with piano (keyboard) lessons. Again, children often start piano lessons at early ages with great success. Those children who do start music lessons on piano have a great advantage when it comes to starting other instruments later in school. They already know how to read notes and rhythms so they can concentrate more on learning good tone production, fingerings, etc.

You might also like to read our blog about whether or not your child should take music lessons. Check it out here.

So, what instrument will your child be learning this fall? Let me know in the comments!

And check back next week for our Beginner Music Lesson Survival Guide for Parents!

5 Questions to help your child decide which musical instrument to play.

Practice Like a Pro

Learn how to practice like a pro! Doing well at anything requires practice. Lots of practice! There are no shortcuts! Practice takes time, lots of time. It can be boring. Practice is not usually fun. But learning how to effectively practice is one of the most important things you can learn as a musician! Let me give you some ideas on how to make the most of your practice time.

Best Tips for Effective Practicing

Plan to Practice

Make a plan to practice. Just as you write tasks, assignments, appointments in your planner, do not forget to include your music practice in your daily plans. If you tell yourself that you will practice when you finish everything else, most likely you will not get to the practicing. Choose the time and place to practice that works best for you. My last year in college, because of the way my class and work schedules worked out, my slotted/assigned piano practice time was from 10 p.m. to midnight. Was it ideal? Probably not, but it worked for me. Fortunately for everyone else, the piano I was using was in a separate building, far away from where anyone was trying to sleep!

Always Take Time to Warm Up

No matter when you decide to practice, always take time to warm up. Proper warm up is SO important! This will help you in so many ways. It will prepare you for the practice session, it will get your muscles involved ready to work, and warming up will help you begin to focus on practicing. Warming up is never a waste of time! Work on long tones for tone quality, pitch control and embouchure endurance. Do slow, and then faster scale patterns. Do some physical stretching to prepare your body for the practice session. Always do warm ups!

Be Intentional

Have a plan for each practice session. What are you hoping to accomplish? Be specific. Don’t just hope to play through the first movement of the sonata without any mistakes. Have a plan. “I am going to work on the correct dynamics of the first sonata movement. I think I am missing some crescendos.” The more specific your plan is, the better you will be able to accomplish your goals.

Be Efficient

Your practice time is limited. Use it efficiently! Don’t let your mind wander while you are trying to practice. You won’t know whether you played something correctly or not! Stay focused. Concentrate on what you are playing and how you are playing it. Listen while you play. Do you like what you hear? Why not? What can you do to make it better? Be your own critic and solve the problems you hear. I used to have a teacher who would tell me (repeatedly!) that if my mind was not engaged with what I was playing, I was wasting my time. Who has time to waste in the practice room?

Isolate the Problems

The purpose of practicing is to solve problems. Don’t spend all your time playing a piece from beginning to end repeatedly. Most likely, you can play most of the piece well. Find out where you are having problems, mark them, and focus on correcting the specific problems. Let’s say that in measure 22 you have problems playing an arpeggio section. Don’t play through measure 23 and then go back to the beginning. Take just measure 22 (where the problem is) and work on solving the problem. Play it through very slowly, but correctly. Do it several times that way, then take it just a tiny bit faster. Gradually increase the tempo until you can play it correctly several times at the correct speed. Then play measures 21-23. Does the problem section sound better? Then try playing measures 17-25. When you can do that correctly (several times), then you can think about going back to the beginning of the piece. Don’t waste your time repeatedly playing what you can already play well, focus on the problem parts!

Mark Your Music

There is no rule against marking your music. Smart musicians will mark their music to help them remember what to do, or what not to do. Markings can point out sections that need more practice, accidentals you miss too often, key changes, time signature changes, etc. You may not want to mark all this on your original copy of the music. (For competitions or auditions this would not be a good plan!) Make a copy of the music and mark all over it. Use different colors, use erasable highlighters. Use colored pencils. Whatever works for you. As you are playing through a piece, mark the problem spots so you know what needs special attention. (And so you won’t forget where the problem areas are!) Markings will draw your attention to certain things that you might forget about. You can mark where the melody line is. Mark your dynamic changes. Highlight where different voices enter. (Bach fugues?) Marking your music is a tool to make you a better musician.

Practice Slowly

I had a professor tell me once (or more than once!) that if I could not play the piece/passage correctly slowly, I would never be able to play it correctly up to tempo. He was right. When we play everything up to tempo all the time we learn to sort of gloss over the problem and hope no one notices. When we play through the passage slowly, we hear all the mistakes and unevenness that need to be corrected. So learn to practice slowly, find the problems, solve them, then work your way gradually back to the correct tempo. Slow practice is SO important!!!

Practice until You Cannot Play the Piece Incorrectly

When we practice, we are training muscles to respond correctly so the music is played correctly. We need to practice until our muscles automatically know what to do next – without conscious thought being involved. Our fingers/hands need to know what to do so our mind can focus on making the music flow from the finger/hand response. And that requires much practice! Concentrated, focused practice. Practice until the passage is played correctly every time, not just once in a while. Play a game with yourself – commit to practicing a section until you can play it correctly ten times in a row. If you mess up on time #8 then you have to start over at #1 again. If it takes an hour to accomplish that challenge, then take an hour. But when you finish, you will be able to say that you really accomplished something in that practice session.

Strategies for Solving Problems

Listen to Find the Problems

You must listen while you play in order to find the sections that need extra attention. You can not put your brain in neutral and just mindlessly play through a piece and expect to improve. You must focus and listen. Find where the problems are. Train your mind to listen critically to find things that need attention. Don’t rely on your teacher to find all your problems for you. Be your own critic. It might help to occasionally record yourself, then follow your music while listening to the recording. Mark all the things you hear that are not correct, or that don’t sound quite right to you. Then you know what to go back and work on.

Mark the Problem

One you listen and find a problem passage, mark it! Most likely you will not remember where every problem section is, and then you will waste time trying to find it again. Mark your music when you hear something wrong so you will remember what you need to come back to.

Analyze What is Wrong or What is Causing the Problem

When you begin to work on a problem passage, first, think about what is wrong with it. Are you playing wrong notes? Missing an accidental? Is the rhythm wrong? Is the passage uneven? Are the dynamics wrong? Before you start to practice the passage, you need to know what you are trying to correct.

Isolate

Isolate the problem. Don’t work on two pages if the problem area is only two measures long. Concentrate on solving the problem in just those two measures. When you are confident you can repeatedly play those two measures correctly, then work those two measures back into the context of the piece. Start two measures before the problem and play for a couple measures after the problem. When you can do that well and up to tempo, add in a few more measures.

Practice to Solve the Problem

Remember your focus – what are you trying to correct? Solve the problem! Maybe you need to experiment with different fingering to make the passage easier to play. Maybe you need to mark that missed accidental in some bright color so you can’t possibly miss it again! Keep your mind focused on what you are trying to accomplish. Don’t give up and quit before you finish.

Learn how to practice efficiently and effectively! This is probably one of the most important things you can learn as a musician. The sooner you learn effective practice techniques, the sooner you will become a better musician! So go out and Practice Like a Pro!

Happy Practicing!

This link will give you some additional ideas to help your child practice.

And if your child does not want to practice, here are some ideas that might help.

Buying New Strings – What You Need to Know

Buying new strings for your violin (or viola, or cello)? There are several things you need to know before you press “buy.” Some of them you probably never even thought of before. I’ve had string players in my home for over 20 years, and still had to ask several questions before our last string purchase. There are so many options! How do you figure out exactly which strings to buy? And how do you know when to get new strings? Let me help you figure this out.

When Is It Time for New Strings?

First Big Question – When is it time to get new strings? How do you know? Guess what – there is no easy answer! Strings do not come with expiration dates. They don’t turn colors when they need to be replaced. The answer is somewhat subjective. Obviously, if a string breaks it must be replaced. But what about the ones that don’t break?

If the end of the string is starting to fray or unravel, it is probably time for new strings. It is probably time for new strings if you are having to work harder than usual to get the sound you want. If your strings are unresponsive, or dull-sounding, you probably should get new strings. Having a hard time getting your strings to stay in tune? That might also be a sign that it is time for new strings.

The more you play, the more frequently you need to replace your strings. For an advanced player, someone practicing several hours a day, strings probably need to be replaced every 3-6 months.

Buying New Strings – What You Need to Know

What do you need to know before placing an order for new strings? A Lot! Not only do you have to know the correct instrument and size, and which strings, but you have to know what type of end you need on the string, gauge, brand, core, tension, full set or not, etc. Let’s take a look at each of these.

What Instrument, What Size, What String?

First, you must specify your instrument, the size of your instrument, and the string you want. Be sure you choose the strings for your instrument – violin, viola, cello. OK – this seems basic, but you don’t want to be careless and make a mistake and order the wrong strings!

Then, what size instrument do you have? Full size? ½ size? And if you are playing viola, full-size doesn’t one size. There are several sizes of full-size viola. Know the correct length of your viola. (Viola length is determined by the actual length of the body of the instrument, not including the fingerboard. Most full-size violas are between 15.5 and 16.5 inches.)

And then, if you are not ordering a full set of strings, be sure you order the correct string.

Full Set of Strings or Individual Strings?

Which brings us to the next question. Do you need a full set of strings (all four), or are you just replacing one string? Do you want the same brand of strings for all four strings, or are you planning to mix brands? Know that you can buy a full set of strings, or you can purchase strings individually. For younger players, you will probably be well served by just buying full sets of strings.

More advanced players may like the sound of different strings for different ranges and may choose to buy strings individually. How do you make that decision? Ask your string teacher for suggestions and advice. Some online stores will list sound descriptions of the different strings they sell to help you choose what you want. (dark, mellow, bright, etc.)

How Do the Strings Attach to your Instrument?

You need to know how your strings attach to the tailpiece of your instrument. Do they have a loop at the end, or a ball at the end? And sometimes strings come with a tie knot. Tie knot ends attach the same way that ball ends strings do – the knot replaces the ball. And some strings now are sold with removeable balls – you can use it with the ball or remove the ball and have a loop end.

If you don’t know which end you need, ask your teacher or orchestra director. If any of your strings have fine tuners, strings with ball ends work well for tuners with two prongs, and strings with loop ends work better for tuners with one prong.

Cores and Wrappings

The next two things you need to think about are cores and wrappings. Strings are made with one of three core materials: gut, synthetic (composite) or steel. Each core material affects both the sound of the string and its responsiveness.

Gut core strings offer a full, rich, complex tone. Steel core strings are often very bright-sounding, and they tend to produce a more “metallic” sound.  Synthetic core strings are similar in sound to the gut core strings but are more resistant to temperature and humidity changes. They hold their pitch a bit better than the gut core strings.

Often these strings are wrapped or plated with a different material – like aluminum, silver, gold, or titanium. How to choose? Each material will affect the response and tension of the string. Also, some may react with an individual’s body chemistry differently.

Gauge and Tension

Finally, you must decide on gauge and tension. Most student violinists (violists, cellists) will be fine with medium gauge and medium tension. Gauge measures the thickness of the string. While most will want medium gauge strings, the other options are thinner (or “weich” or “dolce”) and thicker (or “starck” or “forte”).

Tension refers more to how hard you must press on the string, or how pliable the string is. Unless you have a specific reason for “lighter” or “heavier” most people use a medium tension.

Where to Buy and How Much Will Strings Cost?

You have figured out all the details you need for buying your new strings. Now, where will you buy them, and how much will they cost? Start with your local music store – see if they have what you need. If you are buying basic student strings, your local store should have them, especially if they service or provide school instruments. And if you break a string the day before your performance, your local store could be a godsend.

If you are looking for more advanced strings, or more specialized strings, you may have to order them online. I have personally purchased strings from Shar Music (sharmusic.com) and from Southwest Strings (swstrings.com). Both have a great selection of strings available. (And no, I don’t have any connection with either store.)

How much will they cost? As you search, you will find that the cost can vary a lot, based on the strings you want and the instrument you play. A full set of student violin strings will be between $15 and $20 while a full set of better quality strings for violin could be $150 or more. A full set of student cello strings is about $50, while a set of higher quality cello strings could cost over $250.

Put the Strings on the Instrument – No Easy Task!

Have you ever put strings on your instrument before? If not, it’s best to have your teacher help you with this. It’s not as easy as it looks. It is too easy to break a new string when putting it on, if you don’t know what you’re doing. (Been there, done that.) But the #1 most important rule when replacing strings – only do ONE string at a time!!!!! Otherwise, you risk have the bridge fall out

More Resources

You might want to check out these other resources for more information about buying strings.

This is a great article explaining the different kinds of strings, gauges, tensions, etc. Read here.

Here is another article about choosing and buying strings.

This article explains the process of changing strings.

Here are some other sources I used for my research. Read here, here, and here.