The musical instrument selection at Best Buy has grown yet again and this time, it’s expanded into the band instrument realm. A selection of entry-level Brass and Woodwind instruments have arrived for the budding musician in you or your family.
Besides learning to play an instrument, being a member of a band or orchestra is a fantastic way to boost self-esteem and learn how to work well in a group. A band is a true team effort – the quality of the music being played is a direct result of each individual doing their part and working well with everyone else.
Learning to play your instrument is a lot of work, but the rewards can be immeasurable. Excelling at an instrument isn’t just the work and discipline. A child’s future musical success begins by choosing an instrument that appeals to and suits him or her.
If you’re looking to get a new instrument for your kids entering a school music program, your music teacher is probably going to be the best judge of what’s going to work with your child. Keep in mind, they’re going to be balancing a lot of different—and sometimes competing—forces in making the best choice for your child:
- Perceived “cool” and “uncool” instruments: It changes year-to-year, but there’s always a few instruments in the band that seem to get the “cool” spotlight. When I was going through school, it was the saxophone. I got the clarinet.
- Physical Impediments: Sometimes, an instrument can be too big/too small, too unwieldy/too delicate for the budding musician. Those are the obvious physical barriers that might present themselves. More subtle physical characteristics may be things like jaw structure, lip size and mouth shape, that may steer you towards an instrument.
- Predisposition to the sound of the instrument: If you can’t really stand the sound of a particular instrument when played well, then, you’re definitely not going to like it when you’re learning it. Take a listen to as many instruments as you can, played by more experienced players, and find one that has a sound that appeals to you.
- First sounds: Music teachers will have first-time students try a representative array of instruments, few from each family. After some key technique tips and trial and error attempts, the student and teacher should have a good idea which instrument type and family seems more natural.
Let’s get into a bit more detail in each of the instrument categories.
Woodwind instruments are not all necessarily made of wood, but they do require “wind” in the form of airflow from your mouth. There are two sub-types of instruments in the woodwind category: flutes and reed instruments. Wind instruments are essentially lengths of tube with holes. When you cover consecutive holes from the end closest to mouthpiece to the other, you are essentially lengthening the tube and creating lower notes. The opposite is also true.
Flute: If you can make a sound by blowing across a bottle opening, then with practice, you can make a sound with a flute. In a band setting, the flute is primarily a melodic instrument, but also serves supporting rhythmic and harmonic roles as well.
The flute is the smallest of the beginner instruments and can trace its roots way back in history. It may be small, but it’s one of the easiest sounds to pick out in a full orchestra or band.
Music instructors will be looking at lip shape – particularly upper lips that have a “frown” and no “tear drop” shape in the middle. Having braces will not be an impediment to playing a flute, but an extreme overbite might impede making good sounds. People with larger or less agile fingers might find it difficult to play this instrument. Controlling one’s breathing technique is going to be the biggest challenge in learning the flute – both focusing the breath stream and avoiding hyperventilating (like I frequently did) in the beginning stages!
Clarinet: Of all the “core” woodwind instruments, the clarinet is probably the most versatile. It has a large range (almost three useable octaves) and can be extremely dexterous. It uses a single reed affixed to a mouthpiece to make its sound.
The original meaning of the word “clarinet” is thought to have come from Italian (clarinetto) meaning “little trumpet”. A “clarino” is an Italian word for a valveless trumpet. The clarinet has a rich, wood sound that can fit in as a melodic, rhythmic and harmonic element in a band or orchestra.
The clarinet is played with the mouthpiece tip in the mouth and held at a downward angle away from the body. The mouth and lip muscles will get a good workout playing the clarinet as they will all be required to create a solid seal around the mouthpiece while the lungs are pushing air through a small gap between the reed and mouthpiece. Expect a lot of squeaks and sore jaws in the beginning as the student learns the correct balance between too much and too little pressure on the mouthpiece!
Saxophone: The sax is probably considered the “coolest” of the woodwind instruments because of it’s connection to jazz and earlier rock and roll. It comes in a few different varieties, but most students start playing the sax on the Alto or Tenor variety. Similar to the Clarinet, the Sax uses a single reed affixed to a mouthpiece to make its sound.
Adolphe Sax invented the sax in 1841 as a cross between a brass instrument and woodwind instrument. His original intent was to have something that the military could use that was loud AND expressive. It worked quite well in this capacity, but really took off when it was incorporated into early swing and jazz genres. The cool thing about sax is that no matter which kind you play (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone, Bass), you’ll be reading music in the treble clef AND only have to learn fingering once.
All saxophones, except for the Soprano Sax, use a neck strap to help support the instrument. The tendency will be to slouch over when playing, but if the student can adopt a more upright sitting habit early on, then things should go smoothly down the road. Be prepared for lots of squeaks and loud sounds as the student learns how to control his mouth muscles and dynamics.
A little known fact is that not all brass instruments are made of brass or even metal for that matter (didgeridoo and alphorn for example). Brass instruments are classified as a group because of the method by which sound is produced. Notes are produced by creating tension in your lips and “buzzing” them in a mouthpiece. The instrument acts as an amplifier or resonator as the air inside the tube vibrates in sympathy to the lip vibrations in the mouthpiece.
The common misconception is that brass instruments are easier to play because of their apparent lack of “keys” when compared to woodwinds. Unfortunately, the opposite is usually more true.
Trumpet: The trumpet is, by far, the easiest instrument to be heard in a band or orchestra. It can produce a wide variety of tones and can be quite versatile. It can be a very loud instrument – evidence by the fact that trumpet sections in professional orchestras typically have need for only one player per part.
The trumpet has a long history and can trace its ancestry roots back to 1500 BCE to the days of the Pharaoh King Tutankhamun. As with all brass instruments, the valves that we see on trumpets did not appear until the late classical and early romantic period (early 1800’s). Until then, trumpets were quite limited to the pitches that they could produce.
The biggest hurdle to choosing trumpet or any brass instrument, will be orthodontics. In order to produce a good sound on a brass instrument, the lips need to be stretched flat across the teeth and braces DO cause discomfort. That being said, students can find adjustments with orthodontics to be able to play well. The trumpet usually gets highlighted and melodic parts to play, so students who pick this instrument should be ready to have the spotlight on them.
Horn: The Horn has a very unique, mellow sound, but can also be very brash if needed. The Horn has the largest useable range of all the brass instruments – up to four octaves. It’s distinctive sound comes from the shape of its mouthpiece (conical versus cup in other brass instruments), the flared bell at the end and the fact that it’s tubing bore is more conical than straight – ⅔ cone and ⅓ straight (other brass instruments have the reverse ratio). It typically does not get the melodic parts in a band or orchestra setting.
The Horn is often referred to as the French Horn, but that is incorrect as the instrument’s origins began in Germany – used to call hounds to hunt by sounding like a human voice, but carrying much further. Since 1971, the International Horn Society has been pushing to have the instrument be simply referred to as the “Horn”.
The Horn can be a challenging instrument to play in the beginning. As with the trumpet, orthodontics might be troublesome for players. A slight overbite won’t present many problems, but an underbite will definitely hinder a young player. Having a good ear and the ability to match sung or heard notes will definitely help with the Horn. When considering the Horn keep in mind that the valves are manipulated by the left hand rather than the right (as is the case on other brass instruments).
Trombone: The Trombone has a full, warm sound but, like the french horn, it can be played in quite a raucous manner if needed. The obvious unique feature of the trombone is the use of a slide instead of valves to change pitches. The trombone won’t have many melodic opportunities in band or orchestra, but will be called upon to provide rhythmic, harmonic and dramatic support quite a bit. Trombones in jazz or swing are given more melodic leeway.
The Trombone can trace its roots back to the 15th century when a smaller ancestor called a Sackbut was introduced. The name Trombone has Italian origins meaning “large trumpet”.
The instrument uses a larger, cupped mouthpiece, so orthodontics are not usually an issue with the Trombone. The main hurdle will be the use of the slide rather than valves or keys to play notes. Long arms and an ear for matching pitch are obvious desirable qualities for budding Trombone players – but there are accommodations that music educators make so that limitations of growing bodies don’t hinder learning.
Euphonium, Baritone and Alto Horn: These instruments are big and produce some nice, full, lower sounds that fill out a room. I won’t lie to you, these are not instruments that will typically be the focus at a band recital, nor will they get the melody very often. The lower brass instruments provide a much-needed foundation for a band and they do it very well. Except for perhaps the Bassoon in the Woodwind category, the Brass are the bread and butter bass instruments in a band.
The Alto Horn is not a common instrument in orchestras, but can be found in larger brass sections. The range of the Alto Horn is smaller, but similar to a (French) Horn. It does not have a very distinct sound and is typically used as a harmonic and rhythmic instrument.
The Euphonium and Baritone are quite similar and are sometimes used a stepping stones to their larger cousin: the Tuba. Both play the same range and sound an octave above a Tuba. The main difference lies in the fact that the Baritone has a more conical bore than the Euphonium resulting in a more mellow sound.
The main consideration for picking these instruments is their size. While smaller people can successfully play these instruments, they are big and heavy. Big full lips and a large
lung capacity are definitely an advantage. A long torso (upper body) helps a student reach the mouthpiece of the tuba while resting the bottom of the tuba on the edge of their chair or across their thighs.
Being a part of music ensembles has been some of the best memories for me. It’s an experience that I promote to anyone and everyone with no reservations. It’s hard work learning a new instrument – practicing, learning from mistakes, rehearsals. Those sacrifices seem small when performing music for an audience. It’s a great feeling sharing the language of music as a group.
A big part of getting there is choosing an instrument that fits you. As I mentioned earlier in the post, your music instructor will be the best person to help you chose, but I’ve tried to give you a broad-brush view of what he or she will be looking for as well as some insight into the Brass and Woodwind instruments that Best Buy carries.
Good luck and have fun learning your new instrument! I’d love to hear your stories playing band instruments and being part of an ensemble. Take a couple of minutes to share your thoughts in the comments section below.