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,
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!
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!
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.
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
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
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
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
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 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!
This link will give you some additional ideas to help your child practice.
Have you ever heard of a viola? Do you play viola? Are you tired of always having to explain to people what a viola is, and how it is not just a larger violin? Let’s take a look at the this instrument today – the unsung hero of the orchestra.
Did You Know?
The viola was developed about the same time as the violin –
in the first half of the 1500s, in northern Italy.
Once upon a time (in the 16th and 17th centuries) the viola section consisted of three different kinds of violas. They were different sizes, had different ranges, and played different parts – alto, higher tenor, and lower tenor. By 1750 the lower tenor viola morphed into the cello of today. The higher tenor disappeared from the scene, and the alto tenor became the viola in use today.
Violas use the same four strings that the cellos use – C, G,
D, A. But no, you cannot just put cello strings on a viola.
Unlike violins and cellos, there is no standard size for a full-size viola. Full-size violas can be anywhere from 14 to 17 inches long. Choosing the right size is a matter of the size, strength, and preference of each individual violist.
Stradivarius violas are worth more than Stradivari violins. There were not as many violists as violinists, so not as many violas were made. Fewer great violas = greater value!
What does a viola sound like? How would you describe its sound? People have described the sound as being mellow, rich, dark, intense, melancholy, and chocolatey. And who doesn’t like chocolate! Does that make violas the favorite candy of the orchestra world?
Making the Viola Popular
The poor viola was never as popular as the violin. Part of the reason for that was that there wasn’t much music written for solo viola. Nobody knew how great the instrument could sound on its own! The first known viola sonatas were written in England in 1770 by William Flackton. He thought it was a shame that very little solo music was written for the great sound of the viola, so he wrote some himself.
Two other people who helped to focus the spotlight on the this instrument were Lionel Tertis and William Primrose. Lionel Tertis (1876-1075), known as the “father of viola playing”, was one of the first internationally famous violists. He performed as a soloist and a chamber musician, and he also taught viola. He wrote and arranged several pieces for the instrument. In 1980 the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition was formed in his honor.
William Primrose lived from 1904 to 1982. He started as a violin
soloist, but later switched over to viola. He has been called a 20th
century virtuoso. (That means he was really good!) He also devoted time to
teaching and writing viola technique books. The Primrose International Viola
Competition began in 1979 – the first international music competition for
What’s the Difference between a Viola and a Violin?
In many ways the two instruments are quite similar. But there are some important differences you should know.
Both instruments are held the same way
Violas are larger than violins
They are very similar in the way they look
The strings are different – Violins use G, D, A, E for strings, while violas have C, G, D, A
Both are members of the string family
Range of viola is lower than that of violin
Both are played with a bow
Size of violins is standardized, but not violas
Strings on a viola are thicker than those of a violin
Starring Role for Viola – Supporting Actor
The viola does not usually get the lead role in an orchestra, a string quartet, or any chamber music group. Its main role is as a supporting sound. The viola part may never stand out, but if it were missing, everyone would know! Usually the instrument plays counter-melodies or harmonies. If you are familiar with choir voices, the viola part would be comparable to the alto part. Not usually the melody, but still very important.
Violists are a Step Above
Violists are a special group of people. They are unique! Many people claim that it takes more skill to play viola well than violin. Why would that be?
Violas are larger, so the fingers must spread out more on
the fingerboard when playing. This requires greater technical skill.
The viola is heavier than a violin, so it takes more effort and strength to play the instrument. Even the bow is heavier than a violin bow, so a violist needs more strength in both arms and shoulders. (Daily arm workout, anyone?)
Viola strings are thicker than violin strings. In order to get a great sound, the violist must use more bow speed and more weight on the bow.
Not only that, viola players must know how to read alto
clef! (Superior intelligence required?) How many violinists do you know who can
read both treble clef and alto clef?
There are far fewer violists than there are violinists. Viola players rule! Your importance is underrated. Great demand for great viola players!
Violas are not just super-sized violins. They are unique
instruments that have a special sound and play an important role in any
orchestra or chamber group. No other instrument has a sound compared to
chocolate! Love your viola and love your violist!
If you want to read more about violas, check out these links.