The myth of beginning band instrument “tests”

Photo, Dyvo

I’ve ranted about this previously, but since we are heading into a new school year, I thought it might be worth covering again and in more detail.

Some beginning band programs kick off the year by allowing prospective students to “try out” the various instruments, ostensibly to determine which instrument they have the most natural aptitude for. I find this ludicrous.

Firstly, no one is born knowing how to play the flute or the trombone or the snare drum. And physiological factors are only important at the most basic level: if a student isn’t strong enough to manage the weight of a tuba, then perhaps the euphonium would be a better starting point for this year, and if she can’t comfortably stretch her fingers far enough to reach all the baritone saxophone’s keys, tenor or alto might be a good alternative. Beyond that, and barring significant physical deformities or significant learning disabilities, any student is physically and mentally capable of playing any instrument he or she wishes. If your child’s future band director is examining your child’s lips or fingers and opining about which instrument he or she is destined to play, they are wasting the time of everyone involved.

Secondly, the first few minutes that a child (or adult) spends with an unfamiliar musical instrument can turn out very differently depending on a large number of factors. When your child spends two minutes trying out a flute and two minutes trying out a trumpet, and is pronounced a budding trumpet virtuoso, is it really because of some genetic predisposition to the trumpet? Or is it that the flute had leaky pads? Or that the band director’s explanation of the flute embouchure wasn’t clear enough? Or that your child accidentally leaned on one of the flute’s trill keys, and the band director failed to spot it? Did your child do better at bassoon than oboe because the bassoon reed was well-balanced and vibrant, while the oboe reed was stuffy and insufficiently soaked? My point is that there are too many potential issues to sort out in a few minutes (perhaps even a few hours—or years), and judging aptitude at that stage is no better than guesswork.

There is one admittedly understandable reason why even band directors who know better might still carry out the charade of the instrument aptitude test, and that is ensemble balance. The band director needs to balance the success of individual students with the success of the group, and the group’s chances for success are better if the instrumentation is well-proportioned: the right number of students on each instrument. I suspect that some shrewd band directors are “testing” students while keeping mental tallies and telling white lies: “Trust me—the horn is your instrument. I can tell already. Yes, I’m sure.”

If you really want to know what instrument your child will be good at, ask them which one they want to play. Motivation is the make-or-break factor for beginning instrumentalists. (I do think that it’s worth introducing your child to the various instruments so that they can choose from all the available options, instead of just the ones whose names they already know.)


23 responses to “The myth of beginning band instrument “tests””

  1. I know a band director who, when he reached his flute quota, would put a piece of tape on the flute somehow to make it impossible to play. When the student failed to make a sound, he’d say “Here, try this clarinet!”

  2. Geoff Allen Avatar
    Geoff Allen

    It is a tricky thing.

    (Our local band program starts with 3rd grade, so that’s the age of starting with my kids here.)

    My oldest son chose clarinet to start out on, switched to saxophone, and now plays drums.

    My 2nd oldest son saw all the keys on the woodwinds and chose trumpet, because the 3 valves looked much less intimidating. He then got very discouraged when he found that he had to select partials with his lips. He is now a stereotypical trumpet player and a music education major.

    My 3rd oldest son started on french horn, correctly figuring that mastering a less-common instrument was the key to success. He switched to euphonium after his first year. He wanted to play tuba, but we told him he had to get bigger than the euphonium first. He now plays tuba, starting college this year. (Math major, but still doing marching band.)

    My daughter, the 4th oldest, thought she should play trumpet, because she could buzz it fairly well. Wising up by this point, I told her she should pick an instrument not because of relative ease as a complete beginner, but because she likes the instrument and likes how it sounds. Without hesitation, she said, “Oh. In that case, I want to play clarinet.”

    She dropped music after 7th grade.

    So I conclude that the moment of choosing the instrument is pretty inconsequential in the overall scheme of things.

    (I could add my own journey here, but I’ve already blathered enough.)

  3. AMEN BRO!
    This sounds like letting the student do the leading: it’s the teacher’s job to guide students in the discovery of these instruments, not the reverse! It’s only after having been guided through all instruments that the average person can decide which is the most enjoyed… I mean apart from people who have strong predilections beforehand.

    To me, this sounds like parents saying “please” when giving an instruction that is supposed to keep a child safe, healthy, happy and/or strong…. parents should not ask permission from their children to protect them or prepare them for the real world, same for educators!

  4. Derek Spitzer Avatar
    Derek Spitzer

    Thank you for your thoughts! I think you have stated your opinions very well!

    As as band teacher of 35 years I have done things both ways; student choice plus aptitude test or just student choice. My GOAL is to help students be SUCCESSFUL. Sometimes that means that a student may have to wait a while to get the exact instrument they want, but they WILL get there. I do not play the games mentioned above with the tests.
    My tests, however, are slightly more objective and less subjective; more like a check list.

    If a student wants to play trombone but can only reach 4th position then I suggest baritone until they grow a bit more. If a student has very full lips and/or have not grown into their teeth yet I would not recommend trumpet or french horn….. I feel clarinet, flute or percussion may be better to start with. If the parents already own an instrument, that’s what they play and then I let the success of the student dictate what they continue with.

    I changed last year to starting students only on flute, clarinet, trumpet and trombone/baritone. I ask them what “sound” they like the most and that helps them more than a test. After they play those instruments for a semester, then we have students try the color instrument (I know, not the best name for it, but very important all the same) and allow switching based on how hard they worked and their success on their original instrument (this does not mean they will be successful with the change!). We go back to the beginning of the book (because the kids like to play songs that they already know) for about 2 weeks and we are up and running.

    We start beginners in 6th grade usually starting around 110 students. Our school is a 6/7 middle school campus. By 7th grade we usually have a very well balanced 70-80 piece band (after some attrition) and will send on a very well balance 60-70 piece band to the 8th grade.

    Thanks, Bret, for all you do!

  5. Sarah Dale Avatar
    Sarah Dale

    I completely and totally agree with you.

    I actually wonder how my life would have been different had a similar type practice didn’t occur at my school. Below you’ll find how the choosing of instruments in my beginner grade 9 class happened.

    I took that class wanting to learn how to play Trumpet (John Williams was my favourite composer before I even knew what music was beyond cool stuff to listen to), but because I had 30 seconds to try it and I couldn’t buzz to save my life I decided to go with Saxophone.

    I wonder what things would be like now had I been sick that day and kept up with Trumpet.

    Anyway … this is how our choosing of instruments went:

    1) Spent some time talking about the instruments and what they sound like.
    2) Then we got to try them. Just the flute head joint, mouthpiece on a trumpet, and then just the mouthpieces for the other brass instruments, and then the barrel and mouthpiece for clarinet, mouthpiece on sax neck for sax.
    3) Then our teacher put the instruments down on the board with lines to fill up, (say 2 altos, 2 tenors, 6 trumpets … bleh bleh bleh). Then our name was pulled out of a hat. We had to come with 3 choices and so if our first choice was available we got it, if not move to our next choices.

    So my choices in order from the “try the instruments day” were ….
    1) Alto Sax, 2) Tenor Sax), 3) Clarinet. I didn’t get alto and no one wanted tenor because it was bigger so I got that.

  6. Hi Bret,

    You’ve got it right! I was a very successful high school band director for almost two decades and used the “what do you see yourself playing…” And it usually worked just fine (the students ultimately got lots of superiors ratings at contest, the bands were always excellent to outstanding, and many of my former students became directors themselves). We even had all students switch to brass or percussion for marching band; you can’t go too far wrong with 24 trombones and 70+ trumpets plus a several of rows of other assorted brass.

    Funny story. I “had” to play clarinet in the 7th grade and was likely not going to get into the HS band I was so bad – mostly unmotivated. Then my mother suggested to the band director that I needed a saxophone. Using an old silver alto, I finished the Vereecken Book 1 in about 5 weeks and my folks bought me a Holton Collegiate. In two more years I had moved to a Martin Tenor and then to a Selmer Paris and National Music Camp at Interlochen where I really thrived.

    The best part of the story is as a doubler (Brett, I do lots of shows and love your Broadway instrumentation stuff) and in several cases now play clarinet well enough to be principal in several semi-pro wind bands.


  7. Randall Royer Avatar
    Randall Royer

    Hello Derek Spitzer!
    Long time!
    I agree with your comments and its amazing what 35+ years in the business will do, uh?!

  8. Loyman Prestenbach Avatar
    Loyman Prestenbach

    I also agree with Derek. It really is a combination of the two that make a successful student. It is almost impossible for a band director to hit the nail on the head every time. I have had misses myself but I have had fewer with Derek’s method, which is what I use.

    I do believe in a balanced ensemble. We actually don’t teach the specific instrument so much as we teach “Band”. If a parent wants a brilliant flute player, hire a flute teacher. I believe it would be harder for a student to be successful if the ensemble was not balanced to foster success. This is the Tom Shine approach (Duncunville High School in Texas). He administered the entire band program of over 800 students and this was the approach that was most successful for all (in a low socioeconomic area of Dallas).

  9. Geoff Allen Avatar
    Geoff Allen

    Since this discussion is continuing, I figured I’d make good on my threat above to tell my own story.

    Band in my elementary school started in 5th grade. I wanted to play saxophone, because I wanted to be Boots Randolph. I signed up and said “saxophone.”

    I went to band class and we clapped rhythms for the first 6 months. (That’s what it felt like, it was probably only a few weeks.) Then we all had to get recorders and learn them. What was with these people? I want to play saxophone, and we’re clapping and playing recorder. I don’t want to play recorder, I want to play saxophone.

    Finally, the time came to get a saxophone. Very specific instructions were given to get a Bundy alto saxophone. I conceded on the alto thing, even though I wanted to play tenor. At least it was a saxophone.

    The man at the music store told me I should start on clarinet, because it’s easy to switch from clarinet to saxophone, but hard to switch from saxophone to clarinet. But I didn’t want to play clarinet. I wanted to play saxophone. I got a saxophone. :-)

    In junior high, I switched to tenor saxophone as soon as it was available.

    In high school, I played both alto and tenor sax, whichever was needed, in concert band and jazz band. Our band director was pretty big on filling out the instrumentation. He offered after school sessions for anyone willing to learn a new instrument. I took up bassoon, and that’s where the doubling started. :-)

    As an adult, I’ve added flute, clarinet, tin whistle, and am willing to dabble in just about any woodwind. (Don’t have an oboe yet. Hmm……)

    Oh, and the music store man was right about clarinet being hard to learn, but I still think I was right about playing the instrument I wanted to play most.

    I still can’t make a tolerable sound on brass instruments. Not that I’ve spent a lot of time on it, but it’s sort of the family joke — “Don’t let Dad get near the trumpet!”

    And, 40 years later, I still don’t sound much like Boots Randolph. :-)

  10. I agree with your point of view. However, looking at lips and/or teeth, as you mentioned is somewhat important when helping a student decide on playing a brass instrument. The student may have an overbite or under bite that in time will require braces. Braces, as you know, can be a demotivating factor to want to continue when the pain from playing a trumpet, horn, and even a trombone or baritone is nearly unbearable. And, to simply say that the student can get a brace guard is not always the answer. The pain can still be nearly unbearable. I’ve witnessed this many, many times in my tenure as a director. I would rather try to discretely convince that student to start on a woodwind, or possibly a percussion instrument then risk a potentially musically gifted student, or really any student, from becoming frustrated, demotivated, and eventually quitting. Also, large lip sizes can have a negative effect on a student trying to play trumpet or horn. I’ve moved struggling students with large lip sizes from trumpet to baritone/euphonium t.c. with a high level of success. So, in my opinion, some aptitude testing etc. is necessary. You want to try to help that child start out on a positive path in learning how to play a musical instrument. Now, having said all of this, the choice of instrument should ultimately be left up to that child. Even if a director has made suggestions to the child and parent regarding what instrument they should start out on.

  11. Linda Granite Avatar
    Linda Granite

    I found this, while making plans for my upcoming demonstrations and try-outs… hoping to find a checklist of sorts. I would like to respectfully disagree with some of your points, but only because I think that it all depends on *how* the test is given and *why* it is given.

    I have been teaching beginners in a public school setting since 1994 and have honed what I do over the years. Currently, I do this with 3 other colleagues, as we visit the 7 elementary schools in my district. We would love to have perfect instrumentation, but our overall philosophy is to get the right instrument in the right child’s hands.

    We want for their parents to be informed about the purchase/rental commitment that they are making. We want for the child to leave that try-out being happy and excited about the instrument they choose. We want to get the child on the instrument that they feel they have the best chance of success at.

    We pre-game the test by demonstrating all the instruments ourselves, playing actual songs that children will be playing in their first year (1 month before the try-out). In that demo, they are asked to complete a checklist in front of them, marking all the instruments that have a sound that they like. That helps to narrow the focus a little… why bother trying baritone and trombone, if the child overwhelmingly prefers the sound of higher instruments? I see no sense in that, and feel it is my duty to guide them toward tonal preference.

    The scenario that you describe is not ideal, I wouldn’t recommend it and I’m not sure how common it is. I know there are people out there who do it that way, but we don’t all do it as such. I make these comments, because I figure some parent along the way might read your blog entry. They might see how qualified you are and assume that their child’s music teacher is making an irresponsible decision to offer a try-out. Maybe, just maybe that teacher isn’t and that could cause some dissonance for the child, the parent and the teacher. Dissonance that certainly wouldn’t help the child get a strong start in band.

    My colleagues and I spend as much time as needed with the child, and if they are not able to follow our explanation, we show them or try another way… and another, until we both get to a place of agreement. We start really young (4th grade) and tuba/bassoon are not on the table; it’s a basic list: ob/fl/cl/sax/tpt/horn/tb/bt/perc, so there aren’t the concerns you mention about larger instruments. Reeds are fully soaked with new water for each child. We use instruments brought by the music store, mostly new or rehabbed before we get them. There is no tally sheet for instrumentation. It’s never perfect, but it’s pretty good and we leave try-outs knowing that every child can at least make a sound on the instrument that they choose.

    Frankly, there isn’t a lot of research out there about the *best* way to do this. There are many opinions. I tend to believe that their really isn’t a right or wrong way to do it, as long as the teacher is doing whatever it takes to get the right instrument in the right child’s hands.

    After the try-out, this all has to be followed up with challenging and engaging learning on behalf of student and teacher… all the playing tests in the world aren’t going to help poor practicing and lackluster teaching.

    In my experience, getting a good start on the right instrument, with continued quality instruction yields a high retention rate, minimal 2nd year instrument-switches and high quality music education.

    1. Kelsey J. Avatar
      Kelsey J.

      Thank you for such a reasonable and well-explained reply to the author of the blog. I’ve been involved with instrument tryouts for about 15 years, and when done well, it’s beneficial for all involved.

  12. Caleb McDaniel Avatar
    Caleb McDaniel

    I partially agree with your perspective, but in the event of a rebuilding program, as I am currently, “testing” is the one of my most successful tools to get the young students excited about being a part of the band program. Also if I allowed every student to begin band with instrument they wanted to play at first glance I would have 25 drummers, 15 saxophones, 5 flutes, and 3 trumpets.

  13. Donna Casey Avatar
    Donna Casey

    I respectully disagree with the first part of your comment. Physical features play a huge role in early success on an instrument. Early success = a student who wants to stay! If a student with tear drop lips want to play flute…no matter how hard they try, they will not succeed. We spend the first few days trying out various mouthpieces and have had very good success in student selection of a band instrument.

    1. Agree to disagree.

  14. Arielle Miller Avatar
    Arielle Miller

    Hi! Elementary school band/strings teacher and percussionist, here. Your fingering chart builder brought me here months ago, but I have enjoyed reading about woodwind pedagogy and technique on your site!

    I do have kids come in to try an instrument after viewing a recruitment demonstration, but not primarily for the reasons mentioned above. I think that most kids want the opportunity to make an informed decision about the instrument they select. Students often pick an instrument because it looks shiny, or because you played “Star Wars” when you demonstrated it, or because that’s what their brother plays, or because it doesn’t seem like it would be too heavy to carry to school.

    If a child says “I really want to play the trumpet, and I’m not interested in anything else,” cool. Sounds good.I will do everything I can to make sure that child has a good experience on that instrument. But my experience has been that most students say, “well, I like the saxophone, and the trombone, and the flute, and I can’t decide.” It’s not an aptitude test so much as an opportunity for the student to explore their options, and they usually leave pumped up about playing their new instrument!

  15. Kelsey J. Avatar
    Kelsey J.

    Bret, you seem to have a wealth of knowledge and performance experience. I’m not sure if your intent was to offend beginning band teachers, but that’s how comes across. I’ve been involved in many of these instrument auditions. Most of them have been done very well and the students, parents, teachers and bands have benefited greatly from the time and effort put into the audition process. It sounds to me like you need to surround yourself with some quality music educators instead of the directors you speak of. I also didn’t notice anywhere that you are or have been a beginner band teacher/specialist. Maybe you should stick to posting blogs pertaining to topics within your specialty. Just a thought. Thank you for your time.

    1. I regret that you felt offended. Thanks for your contribution to the conversation.

  16. Rebecca Young Avatar
    Rebecca Young


    Thanks for you article. My son has been playing
    Piano for 6 years and drums for one. Last night he “failed” the clapping rhythm test to play in
    percussion in 6th grade band. He is heartbroken. His Piano and percussion teachers are livid. I tried
    Talking with the band director but was told to have
    Him “pick another instrument”. He already plays drums and Piano, how many more does he need? Two minutes of interaction with my son and nothing else matters. All my son can say is that he “should have tried harder”. I cannot find any online
    Resources that have studied this testing system, do you know of any?

  17. What I find is that many students have given zero thought to their instrument before walking through the band room door. They know that the band looks fun (or sometimes it’s just that the band director looks funny), maybe they’ve heard the high school or middle school bands play, but they don’t have a predisposition toward a specific instrument. Many of them only know instruments they see in pop groups. If I therefore asked them to pick an instrument on day one, I’d have 40% percussion, 40% saxophone, 15% whatever instrument their mom/dad/aunt/uncle/older sibling played, and 5% an instrument they actually are excited for.

    How is it responsible to ask a student to make a decision that will affect the next 8 years of their life (we start in 5th grade) drawing only from 1 day of experience?

    We spend the first two weeks giving a (slightly) more in-depth look at each instrument available – flute, clarinet, alto sax (sometimes tenor), trumpet (sometimes horn), trombone, baritone (very rarely tuba), percussion. We talk about what I consider to be good personality traits for these instruments (I tell them percussionists must be the most responsible students in the band), the typical roles of the instruments in the band (kind of a bummer how baritone players get to play melody through the first two years but then are relegated to internal parts for 90% of their career), show off the physical horn, and play some quality recordings of each instrument. The students are then able to choose their preferences and are “tested” for their top three.

    The “test” really just consists of a mouthpiece test – flute headjoint, clarinet mouthpiece and barrel joint, trumpet mouthpiece, trombone mouthpiece – and a basic rhythm test for percussion. Based on this information, I make a recommendation from their three preferences.

    If a student says, “I really want to play trumpet,” I let them play trumpet. No questions asked. If they really want to play percussion, even when I tell them how boring it is later in life (I’m a percussionist), then they play percussion. That’s why I have 20 percussionists in a 75-piece high school band, but at least they all want to play. If they show zero initial aptitude for the mouthpiece, I notate that so I know they might require a little extra attention as to not get frustrated.

    If, at the end of all that, a student still doesn’t have a strong preference, I will point them toward something that I think will give them success. Assuming there is more than one “successful” option, I’ll absolutely point them toward the option that will result in a more balanced ensemble down the road. Equal preference between alto sax and trombone? Put that kid down for low brass. Equal preference between percussion and woodwinds? Hand them a clarinet.

    After all, isn’t balanced instrumentation a responsibility of the band director as well? The high school band education works a lot better with a balanced group. Yes, you can switch people around later in their school music career, but some switches are easier to accommodate (percussion switching to clarinet would be difficult). In a lot of ways, it’s easier for the student to stay

    As a postscript here, I’ll also say that I’m pretty liberal about allowing students to switch instruments if I see significant problems after a few weeks or even a few months.

  18. Mr D Root Avatar
    Mr D Root

    As a music teacher, I have had to help beginning students select an instrument. I agree that student motivation is the best indication of which instrument is best for them, but the consideration of instrumentation balance is a significant factor as well. I had to turn down a request for the band to perform at the annual Remembrance Day ceremony because we had no trumpets (this was a school subject selection issue; many who wished to be in the band could not fit it in to their timetables).

  19. Elise Bjordammen Avatar
    Elise Bjordammen

    I have had kids try out instrument mouthpieces for years. Holding a saxophone around their neck, holding a flute out, for example, helps them reflect on what they like and would want to do. It’s interesting, because I never really have to think about balance/quotas. Kids want to choose what they liked best AND what they think they did best on. I feel it is an eye opening experience for them to explore the instruments and actually learn what they will be doing on them. Ultimately for me it’s about getting a good fit from the beginning and although I have had kids switch instruments, it is rare.

  20. It would be nice to see actual data to back up this point. Also, I’m curious how many years Dr. Pimentel has taught and recruited beginning students?

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