In my last blog, we discussed first introducing our children to the different timbres of instruments and observing their responses to the sounds. I shared the challenges Elise and I had traveling with her cello. I also posed the following questions that I have asked myself as a parent:
Was cello the best choice of instrument for Elise? Does it matter what instrument you study? Are there physical characteristics that make one instrument a better fit than others? Are you drawn to certain instruments more than others? Should everyone study piano? What if your child ended up being assigned their second choice of instrument in band? Have they missed their calling in life?
I think the answer is somewhere in between… Other than piano, I played flute through graduate school. I really wanted to play a string instrument, but growing up in Malaysia, that was not even an option. When I finally did learn violin as a Suzuki mom, I found that I could not stand the scratching noise of the strings so close to my ears.
While all four of my children love playing the piano, my eldest is also a violinist, my second a cellist; my son asked for trumpet, but eventually chose choir over band; my youngest is a violinist and chose to add clarinet in junior high band. To be honest, some of the instrumental decisions were by parental preference, some by necessity, others for practical reasons, and some “just because it’s something you need for life.” Regardless of how initially enamored with the instrument your child may seem, the fact remains that it is not “normal” for them to love the discipline of practice. There is still some parental “muscle” involved at some point.
Some things to consider when choosing an instrument are your own capacities as a music parent. Are you able to drive for weekly private lessons for each child? Do you have a good school band or orchestra program and would it be easier to plug in to that? Are you going to be willing to provide the home support needed for a successful music experience? Music study is not a hit and miss activity. Regardless of instrument, children need their parents to be their greatest cheerleaders and also the ones that provide consistent home structure for success. Consistency enables success, and success releases motivation.
Instrument fit can come from two different perspectives: Does my child have a natural bent in a certain area? Or, does my child need to reinforce and strengthen areas of weakness. Either reason can be totally valid as grounds for instrument selection. I have done both.
Does it look like your child is going to be petite or tall? My cellist daughter has long arms, larger hands and is 5 ft 9 inches tall. She loves the lower and richer timbres. Cello would not be as natural a fit for my 5 ft 2 inch violinist daughter.
Do they have a lot of natural “air”? Do they need to strengthen their breathing and speaking coordination? From two opposite “need” perspectives, a wind or brass instrument might be a terrific fit. Is it important for them to be with their peers? Do you want them to have a portable instrument? Then, choose a band or orchestral instrument. But realize that you may have to do the extra drive for Youth Symphony if school does not provide an orchestra. And if you get a harp or double bass, you will be committing to always having a larger vehicle. The same goes for cello (plus extra airfare for a seat if you fly United!).
Is your child very kinetic and naturally coordinated? Or, does your child need reinforcement with coordination and brain processing activities? If so, piano would be a great choice. The piano tends to be a good fit for all – the “ultimate” instrument for everyman/woman. The very fact that the piano’s sound is orchestral and “complete” in itself, not needing another instrument to complete it, makes it very satisfying for anyone to play. It does not screech, it does not squeak, it does not rattle (unless you drop a toy bear in to the strings), and the sound is deceptively easy to produce.
All my children enjoy playing the piano, even with three of them having another instrument as their primary choice. Learning to play the piano is therapeutic for the left and right brain circuitry. Since it requires reading the treble and bass clefs and equal hand coordination (not to mention use of the feet for the pedals), it also makes it easier for someone who plays the piano to learn other instruments later. For example, piano study is necessary in order to play percussion. One of my former piano students is now a successful professional drummer. Therefore, the piano is the perfect starting point for instrument study. If you are going to “mandate” an instrument, make it the piano. It is great for your strengths and your weaknesses. If your kid is begging to play trombone, start them on piano for a couple of years, then head off to trombone study.
Parents will tend to first gravitate toward instruments and sounds for personal reasons. I tried string instruments for my children because as a pianist, I was always envious of the portability of most of the string instruments. I rented the instrument for the first 6 months to be sure that they were not adverse to the peculiarities of the instrument. After that, we were on board for the ride. However, I made sure all of them knew the piano.
I hope this conversation gives you confidence in the decisions you make with your own children. Or, if you have always wanted to study an instrument yourself, I hope it helps you make a decision for yourself.
So, back to my first question: was cello the best instrument for my daughter? Well, two airports, two states, and 7 hours later, we ended up boarding a different flight after purchasing an extra seat for the cello. Elise was in 7th heaven to finally have “Sebastian” safely next to her. So I guess while the cello is not the best fit for traveling light, it was a great choice for Elise. It brings everyone joy (except when traveling). We have put in the hard work and now she reaps the benefits.
In the final tally, whichever instrument you or your child chooses, the most important factor is creating a consistent home learning environment and cheering them through the times of “resistance.” That’s what my friend, Leila Viss, terms as having “grit.”