Choose the Perfect Instrument for Your Child by analysing Temperament, Physique, Intelligence, Initial Expense and Transport.

There are several instruments available for very young children.  Most little ones start on piano or violin.  However, as all children are different it might be worth considering a few things before coming to a decision.  If you check out your child’s temperament, physique and intelligence it will be easier to choose the right instrument.  You might want to consider ease of transport and the initial expense of the instrument before committing.

The following instruments are all taught in Suzuki studios.

Violin:

Temperament: A well behaved child will get on well.  This is not the instrument for a hyperactive child.  The violin is a  complicated and challenging instrument to learn. A young violinist needs to be able to relate well to adults and to learn to accept help from teachers and parents.  With violinists, I’ve always noticed that there is a lot of competition about who gets to play the top part in a group.

Physique: A child who likes dancing will probably enjoy playing the violin.  The instrument transmits a lot of vibration to the chin and shoulder.  Some children like this, but some hate it.  A good sense of balance as the playing position is a challenge for young children, because the violin is played to the left of the mid line.

Mind Power: Playing the violin is complicated needs a lot of perseverance. Very bright children, who learn easily, are likely to become frustrated by the amount of repetitive practice needed.   Some intelligence and responsiveness is useful.

Initial Expense: There are lots of cheap small instruments on the market.

Transport: Small and light.

Viola:

Temperament: The same as the violin.  However, a violist likes to be in the middle of the group and generally enjoys a more holistic feel for music.

Physique: The same as the violin.  Small violas are no bigger than violins.  Older violists need more physical strength, long fingers and flexible hands to cope with larger instruments.  Children with a lower voice are often drawn to the viola.

Mind Power: The same as the violin.

Initial Expense: There are lots of cheap small violins on the market which can be converted into violas.

Transport: Small and light.

Cello:

Temperament: Some children just fall in love with the cello’s beautiful singing voice.  Like other string players, cellists need to be able to relate well to adults.

Physique: An adequate sense of pitch is useful.  Cellists often come with big hands, long arms and lower voices.  A child with a big chest cavity will enjoy the resonance of the cello.  This instrument requires a certain amount of strength, not only to play but also to carry.

Mind Power: The cello suits a quiet, shy, deeply thinking child.

Initial Expense: A bit more expensive than a beginners violin.

Transport: You will have to be the cello slave till your child gets strong enough.

Double Bass:

Temperament: A supportive child who likes rhythm will enjoy the double bass.  Not many small children are drawn to its low gentle sound.

Physique: It is really helpful for a young bassist has to be physically big and strong.

Mind Power: The double bass does not need huge intelligence.  There is a repertoire of virtuoso music but bass is simpler to play than the cello.

Initial Expense: Somewhat more expensive than a beginners violin.

Transport: Big and heavy.  A child will need a double bass slave for years to come.

Guitar:

Temperament: Children who like gathering and cuddling things close to themselves will enjoy the guitar.

Physique: A child who is well coordinated, with nimble fingers and enjoys arts and crafts should do well.  Playing the guitar will develop a strong and flexible left hand.

Mind Power: Having a good head for numbers helps as does being naturally conscientious and methodical.

Initial Expense: Inexpensive guitars are readily available.

Transport: Children think it is cool to carry their own guitar case.

Harp:

Temperament: Your child will just know that this has got to be his or her instrument.

Physique: A parent will need the strong physique and a big car in order to transport it.  Living in Salt Lake City is an advantage as there are more harp students and teachers in this city than in the entire United States.

Mind Power: Coping 46 strings and 8 pedals needs intelligence, focus and dedication.

Initial Expense: Even a small Celtic harp is expensive.

Transport: Big and heavy and awkward.  A child will need strong and dedicated harp slave for years to come.

Piano:

Temperament: This is not an instrument for social children as playing the piano is quite a solitary activity.  A loner who relates well to adults will do well.

Physique: The piano doesn’t require lots of energy and would suit a quite delicate child.  Anyone who can sit still and who is reasonably good with their hands can learn to play it.  Good eyesight is useful for reading complicated piano music.

Mind Power: A child who does well at school, is good at figuring things and has plenty of mental energy will find it easier to learn.

Initial Expense: Expensive, unless obtained second hand.  Some families make do with an keyboard with weighted keys.

Transport: Don’t.

Organ:

Temperament: Like the piano and harp, this is an instrument for a child who is a bit of a loner.  It would suit a child who needs to feel more powerful but who hasn’t found a way.

Physique: With the pedal extensions used by Suzuki organ teachers, children don’t have to be large, but as they grow it helps to be able to reach several keyboards, stops and a pedalboard.  Good eyesight helps.  The music is complicated to read and has to sit at a distance from the player.  The player will develop excellent coordination and powerful core muscles from balancing on the bench and using all 4 limbs at once.

Mind Power: The same as the piano.

Initial Expense: Some churches will let you practice free.  An electric organ for home practice can be pricy.

Transport: Not unless you are moving a small keyboard.

Flute:

Temperament: Shy, quiet and sociable, not dominant or aggressive.

Physique: The flute needs a lot of air and can make you dizzy after a few minutes of blowing, so it is not an instrument for a delicate child.  Average size lips and teeth are an advantage.  Children who like dancing will enjoy this instrument.

Flutes can be played with a U shaped head joint.  This makes it possible to play with the hands in front of the body instead of stretched out to the right side, ideal for a young child.

Mind Power: The flute suits a wide range of intelligences.

Initial Expense: A bit more expensive than a beginners violin.

Transport: Easy to carry.

Recorder:

Temperament: Quiet children will enjoy the gentle recorder.  Bouncy, spirited individuals will probably be put off and put you off too, with noisy imitations of train whistles and sirens.

Physique: A very good instrument for frail children, including those with breathing difficulties.  There are few technical challenges to playing simple tunes.  The descant recorder is suitable for very small children.  As they grow they can move on to the larger sizes and more virtuoso repertoire which requires and develops very nimble fingers and tongue.

Mind Power: The recorder suits a wide range of intelligences but some children can find that they need more challenges than the recorder can provide.

Initial Expense: The cheapest of the lot.

Transport: A descant recorder can be stuffed into a pocket.

If you want to find out more, read “The Right Instrument For Your Child” by Atarah Ben-Tovim. and Douglas Boyd.

 

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About Sue

Sue Hunt, Suzuki violin and viola teacher, and Suzuki mother, works with parents teachers and children who want to get the most out of their violin lessons.
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8 Responses to Choose the Perfect Instrument for Your Child by analysing Temperament, Physique, Intelligence, Initial Expense and Transport.

  1. Simon says:

    An interesting list! Another thing I think it is important to consider is ‘what could it lead on to…’. Starting on the recorder, for instance, can be a good intro to clarinet or sax later on… and who doesn’t want to play the saxophone!

    We’re teaching all of Y2 recorder at school at the moment. A key phrase I used early on was ‘play as though you are telling a secret’, that seems to go some way towards stopping the deliberate overblowing!

  2. Sue says:

    Yes, Simon. The recorder can provide a lovely introduction to delights of making music.

    I love the idea of telling a secret. The recorder can make a hideous noise when overblown. You may be interested in the Suzuki recorder method, which has an interesting way of teaching kids to blow gently, in that students begin on the bottom note. Beginners have the holes taped shut and work on breathing and tone. As they progress, the holes are gradually untaped. It is impossible to play the lower notes if you blow to hard. Kids also get a lot of practice using the weaker fingers.

  3. Arti says:

    Hi Sue,

    As a mother looking for the right choice of instrument for my daughter, i loved your article. My daughter (6 year old) has learnt the violin for a year and has not shown much love or self drive for it. Also she tires of standing, holding up the instrument etc. So am considering trying the piano or cello for her. Not sure if i would be confusing her in the bargain?
    Is it ok to come back to the violin after trying other instruments?

    • Sue says:

      Hi Arti,

      I’m sure, as a concerned parent, you will find the best instrument for your daughter, if you go for the positive aspects of each one.

      Swapping to the cello was a good move for my son, who used to throw himself on the floor when playing the violin. The cello, a lovely instrument for deep thinking children, requires more physical strength than the violin, but as she is young, this will come with practice. If you choose the piano, reading music will be the challenge – no problem for quick witted children, who well at school.

      Please bear in mind that one of the benefits of learning a musical instrument is learning how to cope with challenges and frustrations. It’s how you help your daughter cope with them, that will do the trick. You certainly won’t confuse her by changing instruments, but you will if you swap backwards and forwards. Make your best choice and stick with it.

      Here are 3 ideas to try on which ever instrument you decide on:
      Playing violin hold games, or posture games with her. (Do one between each practice task) This will help her develop stamina.
      Make a lucky dip so that each practice is different.
      Working on each practice task for a very short time AND keep the practice short. You want to teach her to focus, not to complain and dodge the issue.

  4. klara rosaline says:

    What about high spirited child? What instrument suits him? All instruments on the list are suitable for quiet thoughtful child…

    • Sue says:

      At the time of writing, I was talking about the instruments taught by the Suzuki method. However percussion is an excellent choice for a very high spirited active child as there is plenty of action and noise.

      No matter what instrument you choose, there is no getting away from the fact that practice needs a lot of quiet thoughtfulness and self discipline.

      You can also consider what an learning an instrument will do for your child. If your main objective is for him to learn self discipline, choose an instrument for your child’s physique and intelligence. Find a sympathetic music teacher, who will teach holistically. Support your child in daily practice and approach disciplined focus in gentle stages.

  5. Michelle says:

    As a piano teacher and flute player, and parent of a violinist and cellist who also both play piano, I found this a very interesting and informative list. Thank you for sharing!

    I believe I fit with the pianist’s temperament in that I was quieter and not exceedingly social (I was anti-social either… I just wasn’t a social butterfly), and didn’t mind hours of solitary practice. I took up flute later in life, and enjoy the expressive capabilities of this instrument not available to pianists. With either instrument, I really enjoy ensemble and collaborative playing, whether it is chamber music or accompanying. Having been through a wide range of piano experiences, I believe that piano can suit both those who have a soloist’s drive and flair, and also a collaborative musician’s quieter and more cooperative tendencies; indeed, sometimes it’s easier to play more convincingly and expressively as part of a team than as a soloist. But the learning and practice set-up is very solitary, agreed. Compared to other instruments, piano offers the least amount of eye contact and social connectivity with one’s teacher.

    I think our children might buck the trend on their respective instruments, however. Our little cellist is extremely hyperactive and almost too social – the exact opposite of the “quite, shy, and deeply thinking child” – but enjoys the cello immensely and does quite well at it. He plays very expressively, but doesn’t always like to focus on the finer points of posture and technique. However, in the beginning stages, the cello is a little more forgiving in this regard than the violin, using slightly more gross motor skills than fine motor skills. Cello is the one thing he does that comes closest to “focus” and “applying himself” (apart from Lego, but that is more in the category of “play” and not “work”).

    Our violinist is not naturally competitive, and prefers the social interaction in the middle of the orchestra to aiming for first chair or striving for success in solo pursuits. But she fits the description in other respects – has always been well behaved, responsive to adults, and easy to teach. Now that I think about it, she might enjoy the viola more… hmm…

    Overall, I appreciate having our children learn non-keyboard instruments because of the musically expressive and social opportunities that I didn’t have growing up on the piano. No matter how hard you try, you can’t do vibrato on a piano or change a note’s quality after you play it! And there are very few collaborative or group opportunities for young pianists. You need to reach a minimum of early intermediate level before even playing the simplest of piano duets. Accompanying another instrument is another skill altogether that requires at least late intermediate level.

    One can play the piano very expressively, but this requires a level of technical mastery that only comes from both knowledgeable teaching and a high level of focused, detailed practice. I believe from experience that piano is one of the easiest instruments to play “at all”, but very difficult (i.e. highly technique dependent) to play very well. It could be suitable if you’re not heavily invested in your child becoming a “serious musician” in the future.

    I also believe that stringed/bowed instruments are among the hardest to get started with because of the finicky set-up and technique. However, once some of the basics are there, it affords so much more freedom of expression at an earlier age. But if they are not learned well, there is almost no point to playing beyond a certain stage because they will just sound too bad. :)

    So, if your child is naturally very expressive and musical (this might show up in their singing and dancing around the house), then starting on piano might frustrate this side of them – better to go with a stringed or wind instrument at first. Piano could be good if they are more on the methodical side, and don’t mind developing the technique to be more expressive later on.

    • Sue says:

      Thank you for this thoughtful comment. It’s interesting to hear about your son. My son was also very hyperactive until he started cello lessons with his wonderful Suzuki Cello teacher. Within the space of two minutes, she had him sitting calmly paying attention to her. From that day, I can say that he has never looked back. His cello playing has taught him the art of deep focus which gradually spread to other spheres.

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