One day last week, I calmly listened as a woman told me how her son had come to “choose” the clarinet as his instrument. I didn’t let on that I felt a bit stunned. The boy’s music teacher at school had lined up all the kids and told them which instrument they were physically suited for. This boy had been told he had a “clarinet mouth.”
This sounds a bit like Harold Hill in The Music Man (“you have the perfect little finger for the Eb flugelhorn!”). Of course, it’s nothing new. I remember a woman who said she was told she’d never be able to play violin because her little finger wasn’t made right. Somewhat in the same vein, I had a fiddle student whose classical teacher kept trying to switch her to viola because she was “too big” for the violin. (Through fiddle music, this girl continued playing violin and later majored in music in college.)
How should people choose an instrument? How should school music teachers distribute instruments? Let us know your observations by adding a comment at the end of this article.
Someone told me once that the instrument chooses the player, rather than the other way around. However it happens, it’s hard to imagine a good choice being made without some hands-on exposure to the instruments. With this in mind, I’ve set up a summer day camp for kids to hear and try all the instruments. It’s called “Meet the Instruments.”
My inspiration was a class I took one summer at National Music Camp in Interlochen MI, when I was 12. We had three days of instruction on each family of instruments, after which we selected two instruments to focus on, and finally settled on one for a final week of special learning. Although I already played violin and piano, I loved trying everything, and selected first oboe and baritone, and finally baritone, to spend more time on. I even played baritone in my school band the next year.
This idea doesn’t have to be done over eight weeks at a summer camp. It could be a single day workshop at schools, or a semester-long offering at a community music school, bringing various teachers together to help introduce kids to music in a hands-on fashion.
In our case, we’re trying it over the course of a week. Good musicians will play and teach rudiments of all the instrument families, giving kids aged 8-12 a chance to hear good players and put their hands on the instruments for themselves and see what tickles their fancy. A science teacher will give workshops on acoustics and instrument making. A dance teacher will show them fun games and ways to move to the music of various instruments. A local company is providing all the instruments, and the week’s tuition includes one month’s rental on the instrument of the student’s choice.
Feeling the excitement and musicianship of good players, hearing the quality of sound, feeling the vibrations and sizes of different instruments, all makes it easy and exciting for kids to choose an instrument to try.
Otherwise, they’re left to choose arbitrarily or based on the needs of a school, and may only find out if they made the right choice after first investing money and time in an instrument and lessons. If it doesn’t happen to work right, some may well throw the baby out with the bathwater by deciding that they don’t like music, or that they are “untalented”.
But maybe they just needed to give their instrument a chance to choose them.