Which Instrument Should My Child Learn?

Music is a lifelong gift: And your choice of instrument has a big impact on whether your child feels inspired – or indifferent. Here are some tips to guide your decision-making.

Alongside being a parent, playing music is one of the biggest pleasures in my life. Naturally, I’m keen for my daughter to learn an instrument when she reaches the right age (among many other aspirations, as I wrote here). But which instrument should it be? How should parents decide? Here’s my opinion:

Don’t

  • Bring gender into it: For some reason, parents of girls are often drawn towards the flute, violin and clarinet – and consider them to be “girly instruments”. That is ridiculous.
  • Bring psychoanalysis into it: This insane article matches instruments to your child’s temperament. Apparently, most instruments are best suited to loners and social outcasts (The harp? Seriously?).
  • Choose the recorder: It sounds bad.

 Do

  • Seek recommendations for teachers that your child will find cool: Good teachers will find playful ways to make learning fun and varied – not just endless scales memorised to avoid a teacher’s stern disapproval.
  • Choose an instrument that your child finds cool: Take advantage of introductory sessions offered by schools or music schools. These allow kids to try a range of instruments and see which feels right.
  • Read my top three choices below: Not satisfied with telling you what your kids should read (see this piece), I’m now telling you which instrument they should play…

1: Piano

The piano is the ultimate gateway instrument – it allows easy transitions between genres and enables your child to change her or his repertoire to mimic any new hero or reflect their changing taste. Huge amounts of classical music is built around the piano, but so is a great deal of blues, rock ‘n’ roll, pop, rock, electro, and my personal favourite – jazz (notice how prominently the piano features in my top three moments of genius in jazz).

Playing the piano combines both the need to understand chords and melodic functions, as well as the need to read, produce and feel a melody. No other instrument requires the musician to play these two elements simultaneously – which also means the piano is much more fun to play on your own than a melody instrument (like the saxophone). As a result, the piano offers unique opportunities for playfulness and experimentation: Adding a seventh to a chord here, playing a melody a semitone higher there. This makes the piano the best instrument to select when beginning a lifelong journey into music.

2: Drums

Another brilliantly versatile instrument – and one that is constantly in demand. Dozens of rock groups at my school failed to last longer than a couple of months because they couldn’t find a drummer. The jazz jam sessions I attend are always delighted if they can find even one safe pair of hands and feet to sit behind the kit. The world wants more drummers — and needs more drummers!

Learning to play the drums is a fantastic way to master rhythm, which is the foundation of all music. A solid sense of rhythm is not just a passport to different genres – it is a ticket to travel the world, from Latin grooves through to African beats, reggae, rumba or rock. It also opens up possibilities to mix rhythms from completely different traditions, explore unusual combinations of style, and provide a beating heart that keeps everybody together during collaboration.

3: Trombone

This may seem an unusual choice, but that’s what makes it a fantastic instrument for any child to learn! Over recent decades, the trombone has suffered a decline in popularity and is now a rare sight (and sound), with jazz big bands often struggling to find enough musicians to fill the four seats needed for a traditional setup – and many struggling to find even one.

It’s a great instrument to learn because the musician is not afforded the luxury of being able to press keys to dictate which note is played (like on a piano or saxophone). Instead, they are required to develop a strong sense of pitch and an excellent feel for the distances between notes – in terms of sound, as well as in terms of the distance that the musician extends her or his arm to achieve each note. This knowledge is the key to successful improvisation (read my piece about improvising) and makes trombone players fantastic musicians to jam with. Above all, the trombone is fun: It delivers a joyful sound, and has a uniquely playful mechanism. And mini versions exist, specifically designed for children to play comfortably…

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