Helping Your Child Pick an Instrument for Band

Selecting an instrument is an important step in a child’s musical journey and takes forethought before making the jump. The variety of musical instruments from which to choose runs the gamut from brass and woodwinds, to strings, percussion and rhythm section instruments. Both band and orchestra are a great introduction to music for kids with so many instruments for kids to choose from.

While mastery will take years if not lifetimes, most of the instruments in band and orchestra are great beginner instruments for any child. Whether your child is choosing an instrument for band, orchestra, or personal development, there are a lot of great choices and no wrong answer.

What instruments do you play in the school band?

Girl playing fluteElementary school band instruments and middle school band instruments are generally composed of the woodwind family, brass family, and percussion family of instruments. The woodwind family is made up of flute, clarinet, alto saxophone and tenor saxophone. Occasionally, oboe and bassoon will make an appearance, though finding competent players at those ages is unusual. The brass family consists of trumpet and flugelhorn, trombone, baritone/euphonium, french horn, and tuba. The percussion instruments included are typically snare drum, cymbals, and mallet instruments like xylophone and tympani.

Marching band instruments typically include the aforementioned groups of instruments in addition to a few others previously unmentioned. Besides the usual woodwinds and brass instruments, marching bands will find marching tubas, sousaphones, and mellophones. The percussion family will have a deeper set of percussion instruments specifically designed for portability like marching snare drums, marching bass drums, marching cymbals.

What is the most important instrument in a school band?

While some musicians may consider their instrument the most important or most powerful, the truth is, they are all critical components to the band! Each has a unique sound and timbre which contributes to an over sound.

Band directors probably understand that the most important instrument is the one that there are not enough participants on. Dynamics is a very important factor in school band participation. Often there may be situations with too few saxophones, trumpets, or drummers, and other times there can be too many which can distort the sound of the ensemble unfavorably.

It’s rare to have perfect instrumentation and balance in a school ensemble. The instrument sections in the band that will stand out the most are those groups that are likely loaded too heavily. A theme that often resonates with band directors is that, when given the choice, friends tend to choose to play the same instrument. This can often lead to imbalanced instrument sections. Band leaders may prefer kids take up an instrument where they have a higher probability of success or where they can contribute the most to the ensemble.

There should be multiple performers at each of the instruments. To that end, there will be a considerable amount of woodwind players, brass players, and percussion players. In orchestra, the body of the group is mostly composed of strings like violins, violas, cellos, and basses.

Percussion is often overlooked in band, but plays an important role for both the overall sound and time keeping. In marching band, the percussion groups are often highlighted and given feature presentations because of their role. There are even competitions solely focused on band percussion as well.

How do you choose an instrument for a band?

There are quite a few considerations to think about when deciding what instrument to play.

  1. Size
  2. Configuration
  3. Sound
  4. Genre
  5. Cost

1. Size of the instrument

There are several reasons why size may be a critical factor in your decision. What kind of portability are you looking for? Do you want to be able to put your instrument in your book bag? Is it too big to fit in a bag or too heavy for one person to carry at all? Does it require more than one person to move, or multiple cases to carry around?

Some instruments require the performer to hold the instrument without support like flutes, trumpets, and trombones, and some instruments can rest on your lap like French Horn. A child’s arms can get very tired holding small instruments like a piccolo, as their muscles build up stamina to support the new posture. Others can hang from your neck, like saxophones, and clarinets, and some rest on the floor like the piano or tympani. Violins and violas allow the instrument to rest on your shoulder but require a significant amount of strength to hold it as well. And while basses rest on the floor, the instrument itself is often bigger than most children!

2. Configuration of the instrument

Students should consider how the instrument is put together before choosing what makes most sense for them. Are there valves or keys to press, strings, bows, or reeds to use? Will it require blowing, plucking, bowing, or banging?

Instruments that require air passage like brass or woodwinds may require someone with greater stamina or power to execute the necessary technical elements to play. Strings will require strength in the shoulders to support holding the instrument while executing performance techniques. Drums and percussion instruments generally rest on the floor and can be struck with sticks or mallets. In short, consider the type of physical adaptation needed in order to play the instrument of choice.

3. Sound of the instrument

Some students will naturally gravitate towards a particular instrument because of its timbre. Brass can be powerful and guttural, whereas woodwinds tend to be more soft and sultry. Strings offer an elegance of sounds, whereas percussion is more abrasive. Listen to several wind and brass instruments and see what sound you prefer. With time and plenty of practice, you can rapidly develop into a really good musician! Choosing an instrument with a sound you like is very important since you’ll be practicing it often!

The register can also influence your choice of which instrument is best for band. Instruments in the lower register tend to be much bigger and bulkier like tuba, trombone, euphonium and bass drum. The smaller instruments like flute, clarinet, and trumpet tend to play in a higher register. Consider what kind of role you wish to have in the ensemble. Those who wish to play more melodic figures should pick a higher sounding instrument. Those who wish to play more harmonies and supportive, accompaniment parts should pick a lower sounding instrument.

4. Instruments in different genres

What kind of music do you like to listen to? This may be a deciding factor when choosing. If you love classical music, try strings, oboes or bassoons. Their roles are critical in a classical ensemble, but are not typically seen much in more contemporary band settings.

Do you love jazz? Saxophones and trumpets are extremely popular in the world of jazz, along with rhythm section instruments like bass and drums. If big band music is an interest, consider the other woodwinds like flutes, clarinets, or deeper brass like trombones.

5. Overall cost and budget

Some instruments are definitely more expensive than others. Instruments will also need regular maintenance and upkeep. Many woodwind instruments require new reeds on a regular basis. And brass instruments require valve oil regularly. The cost of the instrument itself is very important, but hidden costs of maintenance should be considered as well.

Schools will often provide instruments like bassoons and tubas, for example, and allow students to take home when needed. However, students will generally be required to obtain their own brass and woodwind instruments. Costs can be rather expensive and cost prohibitive for most, so renting is a very good option. Also, if taking private music lessons, it’s important to have your own instrument in order to practice in your time outside the lessons.

What musical instrument should a child start with?

As most musicians and band directors would probably agree, all instruments can be the hardest. While some may have advantages at the beginning, the work required to put in to master the instrument will take lifetimes, regardless of which you choose.

Young musician playing a trumpet.

Both brass and woodwinds will take some time to produce quality sounds and get a clean, pure tone. Building the embouchure takes time but is well worth the effort. Strings will require excellent coordination and development of bowing techniques, referred to as arco, to produce the intended sound. While not easy, the instruments do not require the same kind of lung capacity and stamina as brass and woodwind instruments.

Drums and percussion are very accessible instruments that, while not difficult to get sounds from, require an excellent sense of time and rhythm. Instruments in the percussion family still have tone and timbre but are far easier to get an initial sound. However, having a strong sense of rhythm is crucial to making sure you’re positively integrating into the ensemble.

In the end, finding an instrument that fits your size, shape, physical needs, and appeal will ultimately help you make the right choice. What’s easiest may not always be what’s best. Some children need a challenge or prefer to work on an instrument that has nuanced complexities. And some simply wish to join their friends. Forbes Music works with incredibly talented band and orchestra teachers who can help choose what’s right for you, and help you develop the skills to succeed in band!