Reasons to choose an instrument

August 15, 2015

School is starting soon, and some kids will be picking out the instrument that they will play in the school band. If you know someone in this situation and they are interested in a woodwind instrument—flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, or saxophone—here are some factors that might come under consideration.

photo, Herald Post
photo, Herald Post

Bad reasons to choose an instrument

  • Gender. Some outdated attitudes and pedagogical materials suggest, for example, that the flute is particularly suited to girls.
  • Facial anatomy. Some outdated or ill-informed ideas exist, for example, that certain sizes or shapes of lips are better suited to certain instruments. For woodwinds, this is not an actual issue, except perhaps in cases of significantly unusual morphology.
  • Physical size or hand/finger size. This is not a significant issue for middle school or larger kids with any of the typical beginning band woodwinds, unless they are very significantly smaller than average, or perhaps significantly larger than an average adult.
  • Blowing “strength” or “lung capacity.” Anyone with normal respiratory function has the “strength” and “capacity” to play any of the woodwinds.
  • Success in “aptitude” testing. Some educators like to give some kind of test or trial to see which instruments individual students will be good at. These tests are, at best, mildly entertaining experiments in beginners’ luck.
  • Previous experience. For someone who is switching to a new instrument (or adding one), there is generally no reason to be concerned about any specific combination of instruments, and perceived similarities are not necessarily an advantage.

A sad-but-true reason to choose an instrument

  • Expense. Unfortunately, woodwind instruments can be expensive to purchase, equip, and maintain, and some of them more so than others. It’s wise to be aware of the costs up front. (Generally speaking, beginner-model woodwinds go from least to most expensive in this order, assuming equivalent quality: flute or clarinet, saxophone, oboe, bassoon.)

The best reason to choose an instrument

  • Motivation. A beginner’s interest in playing a certain instrument is the best predictor of enjoyment and success, and, whenever possible, should be the primary deciding factor.

Good luck!

Comments

  1. Anna

    I had an excellent reason for choosing bassoon: I figured it would be easy to get into orchestras on it. Good choice, teenage self. Good choice.

    Reply

  2. JoAnne Hillyer

    Short, simple and absolutely correct! Thank you!

    Reply

  3. Sarah Stockton

    My only caveat regarding facial anatomy would be those students with a tear-drop or cupid’s bow in their upper lip. While you CAN learn to play the flute with this anatomy (by forming an asymmetrical embouchure), it is far more difficult, and not for the faint of heart. It’s also something not likely to be addressed successfully by the average band teacher. I know because I am one—there just isn’t enough time in the day to differentiate that much, unfortunately, and it’s a rare student who is self-motivated and thoughtful enough to do it alone. It’s also rare to have an experienced flutist as a band director who can offer the right advice to get a student with this anatomy started on the right track. I don’t think college woodwind courses address it, and people are generally taught that an asymmetrical flute embouchure is bad. As a private instructor, I’ve attempted to rescue a few kids with cupid’s bows. They usually try to get around them by tucking their lower jaws way back and blowing down into the flute, creating a very airy sound with no hope for an upper register. They come to me for lessons once their band teacher wants them to play above an E-flat, and they can’t do it. I do what I can to teach them to form a new embouchure off to the side, but unless a kid is extremely determined and responsive to feedback, it’s really frustrating, and a reed instrument is definitely a better choice.

    Reply

    • Bret Pimentel (Your host)

      Thanks for this perspective. My experience is that many college woodwind methods courses do address the so-called “Cupid’s bow,” and in fact overemphasize it to the point that well-meaning band directors are turning determined students away from the flute without giving them a chance to succeed. (In the rare cases where the problem really is extreme enough to cause a genuine problem, it’s especially vital to get a private teacher involved.)

      I think this page can be instructive to band directors and others who may tend toward being overly concerned about lip shape and beginning flutists.

      Reply

  4. Gloria Whitchurch

    I have a grand daughter who will go into the ‘testing’ band class next year, which is really to see if they can offer something interesting to this girl. She wants to play the guitar in band, meaning, mouth not busy! She is not interested at all in anything that requires blowing or lips. Where can I find a good list of all of the choices: not just the typical choices? I noticed at a Christmas performance of the school band, that they did have an immense variation of instruments and a great, great teacher..(it seemed to me). Any info or links much appreciated, thanks, Gloria

    Reply

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