Consider size for right musical fit

Parents should consider small or big fingers, a lot or a little desire and bulk of an instrument, music instructors say

Parents should consider small or big fingers, a lot or a little desire and bulk of an instrument, music instructors say

August 19, 2005|by KRISTIN WILSON

When 4 1/2-year-old Abigail Duvall said she wanted to play the violin, her mother's natural response was: "You're too little."

But Abigail persisted and after a call to the Cumberland Valley School of Music in Chambersburg, Pa., she was outfitted with a tiny violin, a one-sixteenth size instrument.

Abigail, now 5, has been playing the violin for eight months, says her mother, Anne Duvall, of Greencastle, Pa.

"She loves it," Duvall says. "She can hardly wait to go to her lessons."

Abigail is just one of countless children who have learned that size matters when it comes to learning to play a musical instrument.

In some cases, instruments can be adjusted to fit young fingers, but children often times must grow into the musical instrument of their choice.


There's a reason most band and orchestra programs start in fourth and fifth grades, explains Anne Munro, coordinator for the preparatory division in the music department of Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

"Very young children can play (the violin) because they come in small sizes," she says. But "usually children don't start a band instrument until fourth or fifth grade because that's a good time for them physically."

Most public schools in the Tri-State area have instrumental music programs that offer lessons and group instruction to children starting in grades four through six. Some teachers say children do not have to be physically suited to play an instrument well, but there are things both kids and parents should keep in mind when choosing an instrument.

Try it out

Kids should try a bunch of instrument types to see what they like and what comes naturally before committing to one, says Paula Hepfer, program director for the Cumberland Valley School of Music. Potential music students might see from just holding an instrument if it feels right in their hands.

"If a kid can get a sound out of an instrument right off the bat, that's a good sign," says Rob Hovermale, coordinator of visual and performing arts for Washington County Public Schools.

Some school music programs hold events where students can pick up and try both band and orchestra instruments. In some school districts, the music teachers make presentations so that students can hear what each instrument sounds like. Music teachers say kids should take part in such an event if they are considering an instrument.

"Some (students) will immediately say, 'I don't think that's the right instrument for me,'" says Craig Lee, band director for Charles Town Middle School in Charles Town, W.Va.

Encourage enthusiasm

There used to be tests to help determine what instrument a child might be better suited to play.

"What we found is that desire is the most important thing," Hovermale says. Success in a music program "really comes down to (a student's) desire to play that instrument."

A child might grow into it

If a student really wants to play the trombone, but, at age 11, their arms are just too short to produce all the notes, they might grow into it, Hovermale says.

When children start instruments in fourth or fifth grade, it is common to start with one of the "big six," Lee says. Flute, clarinet, alto sax, trumpet, trombone and percussion are the most common band instruments for students to start on.

"Learning an instrument, the majority of it is learning to read the music," he says. "Once they get a year of instruction under their belt, (it's easier) to put another horn in their hand."

A common switch is trumpet to French horn or clarinet to saxophone, Lee says. Both the trumpet and clarinet are generally easier to learn and smaller in scale, making the instruments friendlier to young musicians.

Body can help or hinder

Some physical traits make it easier for kids to pick up certain instruments. While music teachers say it is rare that a student physically cannot play an instrument, some kids might have natural inclinations.

Long fingers make it easier to play the piano and stringed instruments like the violin, cello, bass and guitar.

When it comes to playing the clarinet, "an overbite is actually a good thing," Lee says. If a child has very small or skinny fingers, they might lean toward a valved or "keyed" instrument like the trumpet or saxophone, since small fingers can have trouble covering the holes of a clarinet.

Thinner lips tend to make it easier to play the trumpet, and coordination skills are needed to be a good percussionist.

Mind the braces

If kids expect to wear braces for many years through middle and high school, they might consider it when picking an instrument. Braces can pose a tricky obstacle for some woodwind and brass instrument players.

Kids can adjust their embouchure (the position of their mouth), so that the lips are not cut by braces. In some cases, music students switch instruments when they get braces.

If Lee has a student who is having trouble playing the trumpet because braces are in the way, he switches them to the baritone, which has a bigger mouth piece.

Look for opportunity

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