How to Choose a Musical Instrument

Posted by Laurie Russell, Executive Director
I typically smile a bit when a parent says to me, "my child wants to the play the drums but I think I'll have them take <insert almost any other instrument here> instead." At that point, I silently thank my own mom and dad for not telling their fifth grade daughter she could not choose the drums for her instrument. Things probably would have turned out very differently for me if they had...I went on to become a professional percussionist, music educator, and arts administrator. Thank you, Mom & Dad!

So what does go into helping your child or yourself (I know you adult learners are out there) choose an instrument? The first thing I typically ask the prospective student is, "what do you want to play?" If it is an instrument that is appropriate for the student in terms of size and physical coordination, then my advice is, "let's try it!" More than half the battle in learning an instrument is actually liking the sound, shape, color, and feel of your instrument. For a parent, if the child is excited about their instrument, then they will want to practice more often. Practicing an instrument on a regular, consistent basis is how we learn to play better.

But what if you or your child have no idea about what instrument to choose? Then my advice is to do a bit of exploration into the world of instruments. Here are some ideas:

  • Listen to music! What sounds appeal to you when you listen to music? Do you like high sounds or low sounds? Do loud sounds excite you? If you enjoy the sound of the instrument you choose, you will be more likely to want to practice it. If you dislike high sounds, for example, but choose to play the piccolo, then you might find yourself wishing you chose the cello instead. A couple of iconic works that introduce listeners to many different band and orchestral instruments are "A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" by Benjamin Britten and "Carnival of the Animals" by Camille Saint-Saens.
  • Go see live music! Take your kids to concerts and performances where they can see someone playing the guitar, the tuba, or singing Broadway tunes. Figure out what excites them about the shape and size of different instruments. Plus, you are supporting the musicians who make their livelihood through performing.
  • Seek out opportunities to try different instruments. Many orchestras or schools hold "meet the instruments" events or "instrument petting zoos." These are great opportunities to see, touch, and even play lots of different instruments. Take your time to explore the options and ask questions of the demonstrators.
  • Be realistic. There are certain instruments that work better with younger beginners, both from a size perspective and coordination development. Did you know that most string instruments (violin, viola, cello, double bass, and guitars) come in smaller sizes? Plus, the recorder and melodica are great entry level options for young students that want to play a wind or brass instrument when they grow a little bigger. And remember, the first instrument you choose does not lock you into that instrument forever. Many of the skills you learn on one instrument will transfer into the study of another instrument.
  • Not everyone has to play the piano. The piano is an awesome instrument and probably one of the most popular choices, but in going back to my first point, if you really want to play the trumpet...
  • Be mindful about the quality of your first instrument. I am a big advocate of instrument rental programs or finding a decent used instrument before investing in a new instrument. Sound quality and ease of playing are important at every level of study, even for beginners. If the instrument does not sound good or is hard to use, the student will struggle. Seek out advice from a professional or a trusted retail shop when shopping for an instrument. Be wary of a shiny new instrument from a big box store that does not specialize in selling musical instruments.

Choosing an instrument for the first time can be a very exciting and fun process. Learning to play an instrument—that you like!—can bring a lifetime of pleasure. Enjoy your musical journey!