Which instrument to “start” on

Every so often I am told by a band director or parent that a child wishes to play a certain woodwind instrument, and then I am asked which instrument the student should “start” on, instead of the one they have apparently already chosen.

I don’t see a good reason, at least within the woodwind group, for a beginner to start on a different instrument family than the one they ultimately wish to play. There may be wisdom in some cases in requiring a beginner to start with a “main” family member: a student who really wants to play the piccolo, for example, will find their opportunities limited if they do not have a strong foundation in the flute—they will be of less usefulness to a school band program, and, should they continue to more advanced studies, may find the piccolo’s repertoire and pedagogical resources comparatively limited. I also think the piccolo is inherently a bit more difficult to play, although that in itself is not sufficient reason to deter a strongly-motivated student; however, for some students a more difficult instrument might be frustrating enough to bring their musical pursuits to a premature end. I likewise generally recommend that oboists start with the oboe rather than the English horn, clarinetists start on the B-flat instrument rather than a “harmony” clarinet, bassoonists leave the contrabassoon until later, and saxophonists start on the alto, or maybe the tenor.

Photo, Herald Post
Photo, Herald Post

But I also sometimes run into an attitude that, for example, an aspiring saxophonist really should start on the clarinet. This, I believe, comes from an outdated school of thought that considers the saxophone a “color” instrument in the clarinet family, and concludes that you should start with the “main” instrument, the clarinet, in the same way that you would start with the flute and later add the piccolo. (It may even stem from a more outdated idea that the saxophone is vulgar or a novelty, while the clarinet is respectable.) But surely the saxophone has by now earned full membership in the wind band and has a sufficiently rich solo and chamber repertoire that it need not be seen merely as the clarinet’s half-sibling.

I encounter a similar approach to the double reeds, in which a beginner is made to start with something “easier” or cheaper or more common, like the clarinet, and is later permitted or required to switch to the oboe or the bassoon. If the cost of starting a beginner on a double-reeded instrument is prohibitive (and in some cases it may well be) then I suppose a less-costly instrument is better than nothing. And parents or band directors may have other reasons to delay putting an oboe or bassoon in a beginner’s hands: to make sure the student can be trusted with good instrument care before issuing them an expensive bassoon, for example. And I know that some band directors feel underqualified to teach the double reeds (join the club), and may wish to postpone for reasons rooted in that insecurity.

But as far as I am concerned there is no sound pedagogical reason to start a student on one instrument and then move them to another. If a student wants to be an oboist, the best hope for their success is to get an oboe into their hands as soon as possible (and, preferably, connect them with an excellent private teacher).

Still, some parents or educators, insisting that the “switch” is a foregone conclusion, press me on which instrument is the best pre-switch instrument for the student to learn. In my opinion, it makes no difference whatsoever. I think there is more harm than advantage in trying to choose a “similar” instrument; a flutist switching to saxophone can learn the embouchure from scratch, while a clarinetist switching to saxophone may find it more difficult to shed clarinet habits. Ditto for “similar” fingering systems.

Encourage your beginners to play, within reason, what interests them most.


8 responses to “Which instrument to “start” on”

  1. Syd Polk Avatar
    Syd Polk

    I started on saxophone. When I needed to add clarinet, it was a struggle to get enough embouchure strength, as I either have a naturally loose embouchure, or I learned it from playing saxophone.

    Most of the good doublers I know started on clarinet, no matter what instruments they ended up playing.

    I dislike Bb clarinet enough where I don’t regret starting on saxophone, but it seems to me that it is easier to learn saxophone embouchure after playing clarinet than vice-versa.

  2. Geoff Allen Avatar
    Geoff Allen


    I started in 5th grade. I wanted to play tenor saxophone. (I wanted to be Boots Randolph, to be exact. :-) ) I was at least allowed to play saxophone, though I was instructed to start on alto. (Looking back, that’s probably a good idea. A tenor is huge for a kid that age.)

    At the music store, the salesman tried to talk me into starting on clarinet. His reasoning was that clarinetists can pick up saxophone easily but saxophonists struggle with clarinet.

    I stood my ground. I wanted to play saxophone! I wanted to be Boots Randolph!

    30 years later, as an adult, I did take up clarinet, and I certainly did find it to be challenging (much more so than flute or bassoon had been), but it was still the right choice to start on saxophone. I got there in the end. :-)

  3. Richard Bobo Avatar
    Richard Bobo

    Looking at the issue from the point of view of a single student, the benefits of starting on a different instrument seem dubious at best. I suspect, however, that this mindset has more to do with insuring a reasonable band instrumentation and making the best use of limited band resources than anything else.

    When I was in beginning band they started kids on flute, clarinet or saxophone. By high school, the result was reasonable flute and clarinet sections and 14 alto saxes (only one of which actually practiced or cared). Not long after my class graduated they switched to only starting woodwind players on flute or clarinet and having them audition for saxophone, oboe and bassoon after proving their seriousness on flute or (most commonly) clarinet. Now, sax sections are leaner and “meaner” and the ever-present glut of non-caring, non-practicing kids get stuck on third clarinet (or even more questionably, bass clarinet) where they are thought to do less damage. I am not defending this; simply clarifying what I believe to ultimately be the true reason.

    For oboe and bassoon (not to mention lower saxes and clarinet), most schools in this area provide instruments. This makes it somewhat important to insure that the students who get these few instruments be serious and are likely to stick with the program. Otherwise, 4 valuable oboes may sit unused because the first four kids to sign up for oboe ended up flaking out.

    Lastly, for bassoon it is very often an issue of size. If we limited our future bassoonists to only those that had had early growth spurts I do believe we’d doing them a disservice. Now to convince middle school band programs to purchase some tenoroons!

    However, as a bassoon instructor I often get asked this question and this is my answer: “Any musician can become a bassoonist given the interest and practice. I started on trombone. One of my fastest learning beginning bassoonists started on trumpet. However, if you want to know which transition generally presents the fewest problems then my answer is flute. I’ve found that teaching a flute player (who has already developed a relaxed, open embouchure with a very slight overbite) to deal with a reed is faster and more natural than teaching a clarinet player to unlearn half of everything they’ve learned regarding embouchure.”

  4. George Bernard Shaw Avatar
    George Bernard Shaw

    If as directors we let the kids play whatever we want we would have bands that not even parents would want to listen to. I once substitute taught a band that that had 12 flutes, 3 clarinets, 20 saxophones, 15 trumpets, 1 horn, 1 trombone and 20 drummers (not percussionists, most couldn’t play mallets). The band also had 2 dynamics loud and blast. Unfortunately I forgot my earplugs that day.

  5. K.C. Chai Avatar
    K.C. Chai

    I agree that for bassoon, size of hand is the most important determining factor. As most kids do not have sufficient hand size until 7th or 8th grade, that’s when most programs start bassoonists. I think that’s reasonable, as all who play bassoon know that generally you want the smart kids who can function independently from their friends to be on bassoon. I began on flute, which I played for two years, switched to saxophone for one semester, then began bassoon. I also skipped a grade when going from flute to sax (entering marching band that fall —oops) but I loved bassoon and sax and continue to play each. I think beginning instruments should be chosen due to interest of the child so long as size is not a preventative factor. As stated above, with the desire to work hard on an alternative instrument, one can become good at anything, whether he/she starts on that instrument or not.

  6. One thing I always tell my parents of students wanting to learn an instrument is whatever the student wants to play, try to allow them the chance to play that particular instrument, for they will be more inclined to stick with it in the long run. If a student gets discouraged from music AND they were on an instrument they didn’t want to play originally, they are pretty much a lost cause. If a student gets discouraged, but they are on an instrument they chose, they are more likely to stick with it a little longer because it’s an instrument they like.

    I’ve got a sax (now flute) student who’s band director tried to make him start on clarinet, but he really didn’t want to play the clarinet. He was told that he had to get lessons on sax before starting with the band. So I started him, and then he went a good 3/4 of the semester not playing more than 3 or 4 different notes. He was thoroughly frustrated, but he stuck with it because he liked the saxophone. If he’d been forced to play clarinet, he probably would have quit.

  7. David Root Avatar
    David Root

    In my first long-term teaching assignment,the teacher whom I would be replacing advised me to start beginners on the clarinet, then switch them to the saxophone. She based this on poor pedagogy she had been taught, that “the saxophone is the easiest instrument to play poorly”. Having started on the sax myself, I knew this to be nonsense. (In reality, her decision seemed more to stem from availability: there were dozens of clarinets, compared to only eight saxes.
    The students I started on saxes did quite well, and quickly developed enough nuance to not overblow the sax.

  8. Todd Ramsey Avatar
    Todd Ramsey

    I get the reasoning behind starting on other instruments. My secondary school didn’t have football, so there was no marching band per se. One was in “Band” which was the concert band that also marched in parades. Marching bassoons isn’t unheard of but I think it would be difficult as hell and probably not the best for our climate. Unfortunately we always ended up with more flutes we needed, and rarely an oboe, bassoon or French horn. Our director had always hoped there would be ambitious volunteers who would make a switch. It happened occasionally. There was probably little interest as anyone who took one of those instruments would be by themselves, no safety in numbers. Regardless, those instruments seem to be the least sexy out of most of the standard wind band.

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