I am an experienced music teacher and I enjoy helping students become the best musician they can be.
I spent 29 years of my life teaching instrumental music to elementary and middle school students. As you might expect, during that time, I had many students who became quite good musicians, many more who did an average job, and some who struggled with the instrument from day one.
For those who struggled to learn their chosen instrument, there were a variety of reasons for the struggle. For most it was simply a matter of not practicing enough. But for others, the reason was that the child was not matched with an instrument that he or she could be successful on. This article is a guide for parents to help them pick the proper instrument for their child. Ideally, music teachers would like to have every student be successful in their musical endeavors, helping to build a lifelong love of music and playing music as they learn. We know that in the real world that is not going to happen, but we can take steps to make each child as successful as possible.
When I taught beginning band students, I was also the classroom music teacher at the school where I worked, so I began to steer kids towards certain instruments several months or more before our annual parents night, where they would come with their parents and meet with representatives of the local music store to obtain an instrument. I wasn't always able to convince a student to play the instrument that I thought he or she would be best on, but I tried. Over the years I have been appalled at the number of band directors who let students choose an instrument without the director's input, creating a situation at times where the student was set up for failure from the beginning.
Herding Kids to an Instrument
Most band directors will tell you that the popularity of the various instruments changes from year to year. There was a time when I had three trumpets in an 80 piece band (way too few), and other times when I had as many as 18 (a little on the heavy side) in the same size ensemble. When it comes time for elementary students to make a decision about participation in band group dynamics is an important factor. Band directors know that if they want larger numbers on a certain instrument, get a popular kid to play it and others will flock to it. Also, because kids realize that (in many school systems) they will be pulled out of class for small group instrumental instruction, they will choose the same instrument as their best friends, since that will allow them to come to band together.
Band directors would love to have bands with perfect instrumentation, but here's how many times in my 29 years I achieved that: 0. Still, it's awkward to have a band that is really overloaded on some instruments and very weak on others, so I always tried to match kids to instruments where 1) they had the best chance of being successful (this is most important), and 2) they could most help out the group as a whole. I found that what one of my music professors in college once told me was absolutely true: kids love to feel as if they are helping out, and if you try to steer a student to a particular instrument that you think he or she would do well on they will often respond positively if you present your recommendation to them in terms of "we could really use some good players on this instrument" or " you would really be helping out the band if you would consider playing ________."
As I said above, the major consideration when trying to steer students to particular instruments is to make sure you are pointing them towards an instrument where they stand a good possibility of success. It is certainly ok to let them play the instrument of their choice so long as they are physically capable of succeeding on that instrument. For the remainder of this article, I am going to share some of the desirable and undesirable physical characteristics for players of each of the major band instruments.
Keys to Success: Matching Students and Instruments
It is my firm belief that part of the band director's job is to try to place each student on an instrument where there is a high probability of success. During my career there were times that a student and/or parent would have his or her heart set on a certain instrument, and I never insisted that a student play the instrument that I recommended, but if a student was interested in an instrument that I believed he or she would struggle with, I would tell them so, and why.
While your child's band director should be the final authority on this, here are some things to keep in mind when it comes to matching children and band instruments. Following are the instruments that are typically offered to beginning band students, with some remarks about the physical characteristics that usually indicate the potential for success on each.
Reasonably straight teeth, longer and somewhat thinner fingers, thin to medium lips. Flute players do not usually have many problems with playing while wearing braces, which is a consideration for many as their child enters middle school. Because of the way the lips are placed on the flute (called the "embouchure") students are usually more successful if their lips are thinner.
The main consideration for the clarinet is the length and width of the student's fingers. Clarinets are an "open holed" instrument, meaning that the student has to cover and seal the key holes with his or her fingers. Wider fingers are better, and usually fingers that are not overly long are better. Like the flute, this instrument also causes few problems with braces.
While there are several types of saxophone in the band, most beginners start with the alto sax, mainly because the others are too large for most fourth or fifth graders to handle. As a saxophone player for over 40 years now, I can tell you that the sax is one of the easiest instruments to play, and one of the hardest to play well. It is naturally out of tune, requiring the player to make constant adjustments in order to make it sound good. Sax players need to have enough size to handle the instrument, as it is one of the larger instruments given to beginners. Over the years I did not have too many students who were too small for the sax, but there were a few. Of course most students would grow enough that their size is not an issue by the time they are in sixth or seventh grade, but since most band students start in fourth or fifth grade it could be a problem at the start. The only other consideration with saxophone is to make sure the student doesn't have exceptionally small hands, as they need to be able to put their hands around a fairly large instrument and at the same time avoid contact with a number of keys on the side of it.
I had a fair number of students over the years who looked at the trumpet and said "I want to play that. It only has three keys, so it should be easy." I always had the same answer for them about the trumpet as well as the other brass instruments: Only having three keys doesn't make it easier to play; it makes it harder.
Notes are produced on brass instruments by a combination of lip tension and key combination (keys on brass instruments are referred to as "valves"). So a student has to manipulate those valves while tightening and loosening his or her lips to produce the notes.
Despite various remedies to help students deal with playing brass instruments while wearing braces, none are tremendously effective because brass instruments require the lips to be stretched flat across the teeth, which can cause discomfort. There should be little if any pressure from the mouthpiece on the lips, but many, perhaps even most students who are early in their playing careers will press the mouthpiece against the lips, causing discomfort. Still, after an adjustment period, most students with braces will have no trouble playing the trumpet.
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This instrument can be somewhat awkward to hold, and I have had some students over the years who were not large enough to hold it correctly. The main issue is braces. The French Horn has the smallest mouthpiece with the narrowest rim of all the brass instruments, and, like the trumpet it will be uncomfortable to play if the student puts too much pressure on the lips while playing. Some band directors prefer to start potential French Horn players on the trumpet because they believe it is easier for a beginner to learn on, then switch them at a later time. I never did that, for one main reason: the valves on the French Horn are manipulated with the left hand, where trumpet valves are manipulated with the right hand. Why take a student in his/her second or third year of playing and force them to adapt to a different instrument that requires a totally different playing style?
A slide takes the place of valves. Trombone players should have longer arms, due to the need to extend the slide to reach sixth and seventh positions. The good news is that most authors of band instruction books understand their audience, and do not write any pieces that require seventh position in their first year band books. After a year or so of playing, most students have grown enough that reaching seventh position is no longer an issue. The larger mouthpiece of the trombone makes crooked teeth and braces less of a problem as well, as there is less pressure on the lips.
Also called the Euphonium, although technically they are two different instruments. Its mouthpiece is similar to the trombone's, but it has valves like the trumpet. It is a larger instrument, so the main consideration is the size of the student and whether he/she is able to comfortably hold it.
You will notice that I say "percussion" and not "drums." I know that many band directors would disagree with me, but I have always believed that students who want to play drums should be percussionists, meaning that they know how to play all the instruments in the percussion section. Watch a symphony orchestra. They do not have one player stationed at a snare drum, another at a bass drum, yet another at a xylophone, and so on. The members of the percussion section will move around and play whatever is called for in the piece the orchestra is playing.
The biggest requirement for percussionists from my point of view is an excellent sense of rhythm. Over the years some of the worst players at counting rhythms in my bands were in the percussion section! This is also the one instrument where I always limited the numbers. Most band pieces do not require more than 3 or 4 percussion players, yet the typical middle school band may have as many as 10 or more! There are few good options for handling a percussion section of that size. Probably the best is to have the entire section play on every piece, but have them cover their drums with a rubber "practice pad." If you do not believe the old saying "idle hands are the devil's playground" just watch a middle school percussion section in action sometime!
There are a few other instruments I did not cover here, mainly because they are not always typical beginning band instruments: tuba is usually too big for most beginners, and many band directors will start potential tuba players on the baritone horn, but have them read tuba music. The oboe can be rather daunting to a beginner, and it is quite expensive. I used to field regular requests about the piccolo. I always had to explain that the piccolo is not a full time instrument, but rather it is played by a flute player when called for in the music. Some students seemed to think that it would be easier to play because it is smaller, but in fact it is harder to play than a flute due to its size.
One of the biggest headaches to band directors, students, and parents alike is caused by parents who try to save money by purchasing poor quality instruments. They may be cheaper in the beginning, but not in the long run! Musical instruments are one of those things where you truly get what you pay for. I strongly advise against buying an instrument somewhere like Sam's Club, BJ's or the like, as they never in my experience have any good quality instruments for sale. You can occasionally find good instruments on eBay, but you have to know what you are looking for. Your safest bet is to go to a local music store and get your instrument. You will pay more, but in the long run your child will be happier, the instrument will last longer and need fewer repairs, and it will be easier to play.
TUBA vs SAX on July 08, 2020:
HI,I wanted to know which instrument would be better to play for 6th grade because I'm having trouble deciding but I really need to choose soon for my school band.Cause I like both instruments the tuba and sax but i just cant choose between them.
Rohit003 on November 23, 2019:
Thanks mrsaxde. It is the super best article for your 29 years of teaching experience. Really a student needs to read the success impressive history. The all music instruments like flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, french horn, etc need to more eand more study and practice.
Vyggf on May 13, 2019:
emoji movie fan on May 11, 2018:
you should watch the emoji movie
wrightjosh on December 13, 2017:
i play in a high school band but i moved and they want e to continue playing quad's but i want to try something different and i was in DCI which was fun but i want to be more rounded in band so i can fill in where needed
Don't know what to play? on November 04, 2017:
My son does not now what instrument to play? Any suggestions?
Flute Player on September 19, 2017:
I play t
Amanda on August 24, 2017:
My daughter is in 6th grade where band or chorus is mandatory for 6/7th grades....she has to choose between the following instruments: flute, clarinet, saxophone,trumpet,trombone, euphonium, percussion (snare and orchestra bells). She is 5ft, 85/90lbs size wise...she can play the piano-she has never had lessons, but has an ear for music like my Father (he played guitar & piano by ear) and her Dad..she can play fur elise & some others on the piano, with all that being said which instrument would you recommend being a good fit for her? We choose tonight! Thanks for any advice!
Kristen on June 04, 2017:
Our son currently plays the alto sax (fourth grade, first year). He has expressed interest in the tenor sax, however, I think he just wants to explore. We would like him to play an instrument that is versatile and sought after for a variety of music genres. We are looking into purchasing an instrument, and would like him to stick with ONE! Any suggestions?
Trina on June 03, 2017:
Great article! My son enters Jr high next year, and has shown an interest in the percussion section.
Jocelyn on January 16, 2017:
My seven year daughter wants to join band next year. She's got her adult teeth coming in and is going to need braces for her top teth. She wants to play the flute. What do you suggest for her?
Caleb on December 27, 2016:
I am a trumpet player and would like to be switched to French horn when they do tryouts for it after break. Are there any tips you can give me?
mrsaxde (author) from Southern Delaware on December 15, 2016:
Brooklyn, each instrument has its challenges. As a saxophone player myself I can tell you that the saxophone is one of the easiest to produce a sound on for a beginner, but one of the hardest to play well. Whether they find an instrument easier or harder to play will depend a great deal on the individual student.
Sue, if your granddaughter is extremely small I would not recommend the French Horn, for one reason. She may have a difficult time holding it properly. And you're right, the case is quite bulky! If she has started on the trumpet and is doing reasonably well and enjoys it I would stick with that.
Sue Geiger on December 15, 2016:
Wondering if my granddaughter should be switched from trumpet to French horn. She is 12 and very petite. I read it was a hard instrument to play and carry around.
Brooklyn on December 14, 2016:
What is one of the easyest interments to play in your opinion?
Hannah on October 05, 2016:
Ok thanks for the advice!
mrsaxde on October 05, 2016:
Hannah, I'm not exactly sure what you mean by "better." The French Horn has a mouthpiece with a very thin rim and students with fuller lips may have more difficulty playing it than the other brass instruments. A student with braces may also find it somewhat uncomfortable to play both French Horn and trumpet because of the pressure on the braces. But I had plenty of students over the years with braces who had no issues with playing either instrument. French Horns are more expensive than trumpets, which is a consideration for some parents, and in my opinion they are more difficult to play.
Hannah on October 04, 2016:
Is the French Horn better than the Trumpet?
Debberoo on September 07, 2016:
Thanks so much this was very useful!
mrsaxde (author) from Southern Delaware on February 14, 2016:
You're right Anna, there's no tuba there. I should have mentioned it...that was a bit of an oversight. The reason for that oversight? Most band directors don't usually start elementary students on tuba because it is just too big for most of them. What I did when a kid wanted to play the tuba was to give them tuba music and a baritone horn. When they were big enough to handle a tuba, then they would move over to the tuba.
anna on February 14, 2016:
you forgot the tuba
Christy on August 29, 2015:
Your article was very helpful! Thank you!
Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on May 22, 2012:
I've always wondered how directors sorted this all out-- especially with beginning students.
My younger son came into Jr High with the peculiar talent of being able to play a bugle call through a loosely clenched hand. The band director heard him and said "You're a French Horn!" He stayed with it-- even into college, and occasionally in a community group. -- so I guess the director was right, even though he was one of the smallest kids in the band.
I enjoyed reading your article.