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.)