We need to stop teaching kids to play the trombone. And the oboe. And the French horn.
Particularly the French horn.
With the best of intentions, we’ve taught kids to be helpless cogs in a symphonic machine. Worse, we’ve created a system that pretty much guarantees most adults won’t be able to make music by themselves.
Kids should learn piano and/or guitar.1
Either one will serve them well throughout their lives — and if they want to learn both, hooray! If, after becoming proficient in one, older kids choose to pick up the flute or the drums or the cello, congratulations: you now have a young person with a fundamental understanding of how music works and the curiosity to explore further.
So we’re clear: I have nothing against the other instruments. They just don’t belong in the hands of children, and they shouldn’t be anyone’s first instrument.
What’s wrong with band?
Like most American kids of my generation, my first exposure to band instruments came in grade school. Our music teacher showed us a film strip that went along with a cassette tape. We learned the names and sounds of the major instruments, and were encouraged to pick one — any one, because they’re all equally good.
Which is a lie. If that film strip were honest, it would have included the following points:
- These instruments play a single note at a time, which works great for bands, but is incredibly limiting overall.
- Bands need tubas — but if you pick tuba, you’re never going to have a solo. Ever.
- As a clarinet, you’ll form the backbone of most school bands, but no one will actually be sure what a clarinet sounds like.
- If you’re good but not great, you may be asked to “take one for the team” and switch to an unpopular instrument like tenor sax.
- The French horn is difficult, expensive and sounds terrible at a student’s level of proficiency.
- Ditto oboe. We might as well slaughter geese on stage.
- Violas are just as important as violins, except that no one thinks so at all.
The film strip didn’t say any of this, so I chose clarinet. I started playing in third grade.
Because I’m competitive — and because my parents could afford private lessons, and the hours to drive me to them — I was first chair clarinet in every band: school, district and county. I competed in solo at state.
I was good — but certainly not a prodigy, which made clarinet much easier to give up in high school. I was only sacrificing the time I’d invested, rather than my future career as a clarinet superstar.2
Piano or guitar
Clarinet was actually my second instrument.
I took piano first, which is how I learned to read music and the basics like counting beats and time signatures — another reason I was far ahead when I started clarinet.
I dropped piano in fifth grade because clarinet demanded more of my time (band practice and lessons) and because of simple peer assessment: I was only average at piano, but compared to other fifth graders, I was amazing at clarinet.
The problem is, success at clarinet doesn’t translate to music as a whole. I never learned chord progression, because clarinet plays one note at a time. I forgot how to read bass clef, because clarinet is written in treble. I only knew how to make fairly pretty sounds within a narrow range of musical genres: classical, Woody Allen jazz, and When the Saints Come Marching In.
Compare that to piano.
You can play everything on piano. Every genre, every era, every song written. Sure: Some things are better suited for the piano than others, but it’s the all-purpose instrument. The five years we’ve been working on the Broadway version of Big Fish have been spent singing at a piano. We’ll ultimately have a full orchestra, but all the musical blueprints were made on the keyboard.
The guitar is also fundamental. While you’re unlikely to strum Beethoven, almost every song you’ve ever heard on the radio has its roots in guitar.
What’s more, piano and guitar both allow you to sing as you play. Songs have words. Piano and guitar let you use them.
Piano and guitar have long-term value, but they also have immediate payback. My six-year-old daughter can play Happy Birthday on the piano — and it’s always in tune, without horrible screechy noises. Teach a kid three chords and he can strum most children’s songs on the guitar.
What about violin?
Sure: the violin’s great, and plays an important role in Western music. But should it be a kid’s first instrument? We’ve all seen those little kids with their Suzuki lessons, but I want to see the follow-up: How many of those kids grow up to play violin, or any musical instrument at all as adults?
A kid who learns to play piano or guitar proficiently will be able to play socially for her entire life. Moreover, the piano/guitar kid will have a better sense of chords and polyphonic structure than the kid who only plays violin.
What about drums?
If your kid wants to play drums, let him. For the sake of your neighbors, please soundproof your garage.
Ideally, you’ll convince your son to try piano or guitar as well, but if you can’t, at least hook him up with GarageBand so he can experiment with how percussion fits in with melody.
He probably won’t be a drummer when he grows up, but he might be a DJ, so you haven’t completely failed.
What about marching band?
Part of the reason I dropped clarinet was that I didn’t want to march, so I’m a bad person to defend this American institution. But I’ll try.
Marching band is the closest many high school students will get to a team sport, with a group of individuals working towards a common goal. For them, it’s a crucial bonding social activity, so I don’t want to get rid of it.
If we’re going to save high school marching bands, we’ll eventually have to teach the band instruments. And we can, quickly. Because here’s the secret about marching bands: not only is the music fairly easy, so are the instruments.
In fact, it’s common to switch players between instruments to make up for gaps in a marching band. We break out the mellophones and the marching bells and somehow it all gets done.
Students with a good musical background can pick it up quickly. And they’ll have a good musical background if they spent years on piano or guitar.
Great, so how do you teach every kid piano and/or guitar?
I have no idea.
Look: I get why we have grade school bands. The simple instruments play one note at a time, and require less hands-on instruction by the teacher. We have a publishing industry that creates sheet music so that twenty-five kids can lurch through a patriotic medley. While I think teaching kids trombone is misguided, I have nothing but respect for music teachers sticking it out in times of shrinking budgets and quantitative academic obsession.
I don’t know what twenty-five kids on piano looks like, or sounds like. Ditto for guitar. These instruments just aren’t meant for parallel play. So if we went full piano, the school band concert would probably disappear. (Many parents would be grateful.)
However, if we got rid of grade school and junior high bands and replaced them pianos and guitars, I think the actual learning outcome — the ability to make music — would be much better. And it wouldn’t have to be more expensive; digital keyboards and guitars are cheap.
If we can afford music programs at all, we can afford keyboards and guitars.
In the end, maybe it’s not the school’s responsibility. Parents decide what kind of musical education a child receives, and on this smaller scale, my point is much easier to make:
Skip band and get your kid started on piano or guitar.
Ideally, find a music teacher, relative or other adult to provide instruction. But if you can’t, there are great books and videos to help a non-musical parent get a kid started.
I can’t promise your kid will turn out to be great at piano or guitar — but they don’t have to be. Both instruments are useful at far lower levels of proficiency. Becoming even halfway competent at either one will pay off much more than mastery of the trombone.