3 things to consider for a child’s musical instrument (Parents note #2)

Like any parents, we wish for my child to have many learning experiences during their growing years. One such experience is being able to discover music and pursue a lifelong journey.

The benefits of music in the holistic development of an individual are well known. Beginning with the pre-natal phase where it is shown that listening to music while pregnant has positive affects on fetal brain development, prenatal learning, improving a baby’s sleeping habits after birth, and providing a wonderful utero bonding.

After birth and during the toddler years, the baby Mozart series touts the benefits of listening to such music in the development of the child.

Continuing on to adults, the benefits are evident as an effective means to counter stress to second careers to professional musicians. So knowing all this, I considered this an important parental responsibility to encourage and facilitate making the right decisions on music choices for my child.

So, when my 11 year old showed the papers from school that asked to choose the musical instrument  as he heads to middle school next year, we went into a conscious “decision making” mode instead of taking it lightly.

The first thing we realized was that we had very little information to make a good decision.  Within a few days, we received an email from middle school band director on ‘Instrument Selection Night’ scheduled in a few weeks. This is the night where students get to try out the instruments and make a choice.

frenchhornUpon some further enquiry, I learned that most kids gravitate towards the french horn because it looks the most interesting and end up choosing that. That did not surprise me at all. I was also not surprised to learn that most of the kids that choose the french horn for it’s interesting looks give up on it fairly soon realizing the difficulty in learning to play.

Most common questions by parents

Being the kind of person who was not going to make decisions by choosing the default option that presents itself in any choosing situation, the following questions popped in my mind right away related to choosing a musical instrument for my child for his middle-school band:

  • How can touching and feeling an array of instruments laid out in front of a 11 year old child help make the right decision? 
  • Is there a better way to expose the child to music?
  • Do I let the child make the decision? 
  • Does the child know what is best for him or her?
  • How can a parent best set up their child for success? 

I started researching, taking to other parents, friends and my music teacher. As I gathered insights, a few simple criteria began to become obvious that could help my child making the right decision  on choosing a musical instrument for middle school. Also, it would provide the best chance of success in the music journey.

Choosing the right instrument

The musical instrument is the first impression a child gets of the music. It is a tangle object that the child can touch, feel and play with. For most children, it begins as a musical toy they get as a birthday present. But the graduation to a real instrument is an important step that either happens at school or at home.

Picking a musical instrument that the child decides to play should take into account the following 3 factors:


musicchordsIrrespective of the musical instrument the child ultimately decides to play, learning to read music and understanding the music theory involving chords, scales,etc provides the right foundation. It is similar to learning the alphabets, words and grammar in a language which is the first important step in any further literary pursuits. We are not going into the pros and cons here of ‘playing by ear’ versus ‘reading music’. A solid foundation would be the right enabler to their musical learning process.

I discovered that the piano is the best instrument for “learning to read” music while violin is the best instrument for “learning the sound” of music. The child most likely would not have a full understanding of the “learning to read the music” criteria and therefore would lack an appreciation of it’s importance. As a result, this responsibility naturally falls on the parent to explain the importance and positively influence the consideration of this factor in choosing the musical instrument.


For a person or the child in this case to enjoy the association with the musical instrument he or she has to enjoy the sound that comes out of it. For the child to enjoy the sound, it has to align with their personality. In this case, it is very similar to how the child chooses a toy and continues to play with it for some period after getting the toy. The sound simply has to align with the inner self of the child.

There are distant musical sounds that can be categorized by the family of musical instruments – Brass, Woodwind, String and Percussion.

saxophoneThe Brass family of instruments made of brass or other metals such as the trumpet, trombone, tuba, french horn, cornet, and bugle that make sound when air is blown inside.

clarinetThe Woodwind family is similar to the Brass family in that it makes sound when air is blown inside, such as the flute, piccolo, clarinet, recorder, bassoon, and oboe.

guitarThe Strings family have string such as the violin, guitar, viola, cello, bass, harp, and dulcimer that makes sound when the strings are plucked, struck or bowed.

drumsAnd finally the Percussion family of instruments such as drums, cymbals, triangle, chimes, tam-tam, glockenspiel, timpani, bells, and xylophone make sound when they are hit, shaken, rubbed or scratched.

In terms of personality fit of the person with the musical instrument and the sound, one can assume that someone with an introvert personality might prefer a mellow sound in basswood or strings vs an extrovert preferring a beat type of sound normally found with some strings, percussion and brass family of musical instruments. This is not necessarily a rule as every individual is unique. The key is the child discovers the sound that they really like.

The best way to discover the sound they really like is to then have the child exposed to the different kinds of music and determine what sounds the child naturally gravitates towards. Those parents who play musical instruments themselves have a certain advantage as they can provide the exposure to their child naturally. But for those parents that do not play music, they would have to consciously plan for providing the exposure.

Fortunately, the access to music has become as easy as the click of a button through the online music available through iTunes, music videos on YouTube and movie shows on Netflix and other online services. The other option is attending local music concerts which I believe provides the best experience to not only listen to the music, but also presents an opportunity to meet musicians in person.


The accessibility of the musical instrument to the child is a practical consideration which consists of  2 factors: Physical and Cost.

The physical accessibility consideration includes the size and comfortable factor of playing the instrument. The size is important from the child’s physical build perspective. The comfortable factor becomes important if the the child needs to hold up the instrument for playing  or blowing into the instrument in the case of bass and woodwind instruments.

sorefingersIt is important to realize that all instruments will cause some minor discomfort when beginning to play initially, whether it is the soreness of fingers and arm with the piano keyboard, fingertips with strumming a guitar or mouth and chest with the saxophone or other wind instruments. It is important to remember to NOT factor into the decision since the inconvenience  is temporary and should go away quickly with practice. But if there is a medical condition or such that could be physically limiting for the child, then it should be taken into account.

Cost is a practical accessibility consideration that one should factor in from the point of affordability. The options available are buying new, pre-owned or renting. The cost can range from less than a hundred dollars and can run into thousand of dollars for new musical instruments. Buying pre-owned and renting normally a fraction of the cost of new instruments.

Should I let my child make their own decision?

Yes, absolutely. The child should be the one making the decision of the musical instrument for benefits far beyond the scope of just the music instrument selection process. It is important that the parent not make the decision and hand it to the child.

Music just like sports is a great medium for the child to learn life lessons and success skills such the process of making a decision, owning the decision, understanding consequences, making commitments related to the decision and the concept of exit strategy.

decisionmakerThose parents that make the decision and hand it to the child most certainly get the decision right, but squander a great opportunity to impart some very important life lessons. Parents can help by using the DIEEMA decision framework to organize the options and help the child understand the process of making an informed decision.

fbpostYou can also ask questions to get information to specific questions you may have related to the musical instrument or music and get personalized information to make an informed decision.

The parent’s role is to be engaged and provide support by educating the child and encouraging confident decision making based on information rather than temporary emotions. The parent can do this by explaining consequences of the decision and the choices made, commitments required and the exit criteria.

The consequences are a clear understanding of the “pros and cons” related to the choice made. The commitments are the actions to be undertaken to make the decision a success. The exit criteria establishes the conditions when the activity can be stopped or specifically when and how to quit if one was to make that decision. The exit criteria should be agreed upon and parent and child held accountable.

The topic of quitting is a difficult and often misunderstood topic. When to keep continuing and when to quit is a tough choice. It is beyond the scope of this article and will be addressed separately.

An example of decision making

Let me provide an example. At family vacation on the beach few years back, my son got excited about the water and wanted to join swimming classes. We discussed and agreed to enroll for swimming lessons on a weekly schedule. We also set the exit criteria that once we start lessons, we will continue for 1 year or he be able to swim confidently (swim 10+ laps).

As I had anticipated, a month or so into the lessons, after the initial excitement had passed and being sore and tired from the swim lessons, he did not want to continue anymore. So, when he asked to quit the lessons, we remembered our exit criteria and decided to quit only after we had met the conditions of the exit criteria.

The outcome was, he stopped the lessons only after a year and he became a good swimmer. The interesting thing is he forces me out of the house to go swimming at the local YMCA every week because he loves it and almost beats me in the laps.

The important lessons learned was persistence, to quit the right way and a small step towards building character – the ability to keep taking action on a worthy decision well after the emotion and excitement of making that decision has passed.

Parenting – one big experiment

Back to music, in trying to find the simple answer of choosing the musical instrument, we could have done that in a few minutes conversation and showing up at the instrument selection night to confirm the musical instrument and without giving much thought or effort. But, the 3 factors we discussed above gives the best chance of success for the child learning the music and choosing to pursue a life long association with the music for the reasons we discussed earlier.

As a parent, we realize that parenting is one big experiment where we do not have everything figured out and have the magic right answers for all questions and situations.

If you are parent and have any opinion or additional suggestions on how a parent can help choose the right musical instrument for their child, we welcome your thoughts and suggestions.

Please provide comments below and share with your friends on Facebook and Twitter.

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