I’ve had this conversation numerous times in the last few weeks. Students are looking at taking up a second or third instrument. Sometimes it’s at the suggestion of the parent, and sometimes it’s influence from other places. Regardless, there are a number of things to consider before adding in another instrument.
- What other activities is the student involved in? List them out, even on paper. Go through the schedule for each day to make sure you haven’t missed anything. List all Tutors, clubs, sports, after school or co curricular activities, music lessons and homework time. Include everything that happens on the weekends too, including family time or religious commitments. For each instrument, make sure to add 20-60min of practice time each day, depending on the student’s level and goals.
- How much time in a week does the student have to “just be a kid”? Companies are complaining that their employees lack the ability to think creatively and “out of the box”. One of those reasons is that those people who are just joining the workforce had less “unstructured” time as a child…. less time to develop imagination, less time to learn to entertain themselves, less time to “just be a kid”. These days, I recommend that my families make sure to schedule that time in too.
- Why do you want/need an additional instrument? If it is for university purposes, a second or third instrument doesn’t often help a student enter university, unless it is for a specific programme. Universities today are wanting well rounded students – a balance of sport, arts, academics and community service. If it is for a school ensemble, there can be huge benefits to that, if the student has balance in the rest of their life.
- Is the new instrument in the same instrument family as the instrument already being worked on? If so, the transition is easier as many skills just transfer over, for example, Violin to Cello. If not, there will be a new set of skills to learn, as in the transition from Piano to Clarinet. The principles of western music are the same for any instrument. All instruments read the same notation, usually in either treble or bass clef.
- Will the student be continuing on the current instrument or switching to a new one? It is not a good idea for a student to “bounce” from instrument to instrument, except in certain circumstances. When they only learn the rudiments of an instrument before switching to another one, they do not become proficient at anything, and any skills learnt are quickly forgotten.
To sum up, it’s all about balance. If a student really wants to take up an additional instrument, they may need to give up another activity to maintain the balance in their life. This is a serious conversation that needs to be had with both parents and the students involved. Playing an instrument should never be the sole decision of either party, rather it is something that needs to be discussed and negotiated. The parent will need to support the student through the frustrations of learning an instrument, remind them (constantly) to practice and source out the appropriate ensemble or teacher. The student has to go through the physical discomfort that comes with learning an instrument, and all of the (potentially) boring practice time. If they don’t enjoy it, there will be many battles fought between parent and student.
Recently, I’ve been having conversations with parents about choosing their child’s first or second instrument. Choosing a first instrument is a difficult task, and big responsibility. Some instruments are unsuitable for children due to the fact that the child is not physically developed enough to play it. Other instruments are unsuitable because of the space that you live in. There is also the interests of the child to take into account as well. As they are the ones actually doing the lessons and practicing, it’s only fair to see what their desires are.
A few steps before the instrument is chosen:
Take your child to see 2-3 different live concerts, where they can see and hear the instruments being played.
Have a few different discussions with your child on different days / weeks… What instruments are they interested in? Why do they like / not like the instrument? Is it the sound? Do they like the high pitch or low pitch instruments?
Visit the store and take a look at the instruments. Some stores will let you try an instrument.
If your child is interested in a woodwind or brass instrument, get a teacher who specialises in beginners to look at your child and see what instruments would physically suit them. For example, a child with severely crooked teeth will have more difficulty playing a brass instrument. A child with hyper extended fingers will have more difficulty playing a woodwind instrument. Please note that I’ve said “more difficulty” not “impossible” or “should not play”. If a child has a passion for that instrument, they can work hard and overcome the difficulties. I know of a boy who loved trombone and really wanted to play it. He had only 1 arm though, so that made it more difficult. He still pursued it and was a great high school player.
If your child needs braces, have them put on a few weeks BEFORE they start learning to play their instrument. Once the braces are put on the child needs to “re-learn” how to play the instrument, as the muscles and teeth are in different spots. It is a very frustrating experience for a child who has already been playing for several months or years to have to go back to the beginning and start over.
Choose an instrument that is the correct size for your child. For example, the average age for a child to start piano is 7 years old. This is because the hand is just large enough to begin training at that age. A child starting a woodwind or brass instrument is often 11 or 12 years old. Again, this has to do with the physical size of the instrument. Most of these instruments do not come in smaller sizes. A young child (less than 7 years old) could start off on a string instrument, as they make them in smaller sizes, suited to a young child’s stature. Choosing the correct size of instrument to begin with will prevent painful injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome from developing later on.
Finally, always make sure that your child is taught by a teacher who is well educated in the instrument they have chosen and the latest child friendly teaching methods for that instrument.
Ultimately, this needs to be your child’s decision, as they are the ones who have to put in the practice time. Beginning an instrument at age 6 or 7 years old is a great time to start that responsibility. This way, by the time they are approaching age 11 or 12 and might want to join the school beginning concert band, they are far enough along in their primary instrument, that adding an additional instrument could be considered.