The best instruments for teaching music to children

Learning to play music is often considered a difficult task, and I believe that a large part of this falls on the instruments themselves. The instruments and approaches traditionally used for teaching music to children stack the odds against the learner. Frequently, instruments like the recorder are used, but while they look simple, they have numerous hidden pitfalls.

Wind instruments are more complex than appearances suggest, as many techniques happen inside the body. This includes breath control for articulation and compensating for errors in pitch. One also has to hold the instrument correctly, which itself is open to mistakes like covering holes using the fingertips. These mistakes may make the instrument painful to hold, may cause player frustration, and will limit their ability.

Also, children often lack a personal connection to these instruments. The recorder rarely features in mainstream music, and children often don't listen to instrumental music. It is frequently taught by non-expert players, who also cannot demonstrate virtuosic performance. Thus, most children have no idea what the recorder can do in skilled hands, and no idea what makes it cool.

The idea with teaching a simpler instrument is to develop an intuition for the basics of music. This principle is solid, although I do believe that it may be applied better. First, it is important to realise that music broadly divides into rhythm, melody, and harmony. Before attempting to teach any complex instrument, I believe it would be useful to develop an intuition for these separately.

Some instruments exist which allow the different parts of music to be learned in isolation. For example, children can be introduced to rhythms using various percussion instruments in a group setting, playing over a teacher or a recording. Using this they can learn some of the rhythmic patterns that are often found in melodies.

Once a few of these rhythms have been learned, the concept of melody can be layered on top, within a similar group setting. In my opinion, the best instrument to do so would be xylophone or a related instrument, as they have stable pitch and require little player technique. Most of the bars can be removed initially so the learner has few notes to consider.

Harmony can also be introduced in an explorative way. My friend Reilly Walker suggested doing so using Boomwhackers, tubes cut to a length to produce a given pitch when tapped. Different children within a group can be given ones of different pitch, and may be asked to play them with other children, forming groups with others that have a pleasing tone to the ear.

It should be noted that in all of these situations, tuition is just as important as instrument choice; simply giving instruments to the children by itself probably won't achieve much. I talk about this more on the page Thoughts on teaching music to children. Throughout the exercises given above, it is possible to point out other details such as timbre, and differences in note attack.

Combining the basics - a case for electronic instruments

As Western instruments are based on the same general ideas, once a child has grasped basics, they can be applied to any instrument. A big problem with acoustic instruments in this setting is that playing them with any competency requires repetitive practice. I consider this to be a road block, as the child must practise technique before they can actually play anything.

In the current world, it is trivial to work around this issue using computers. Tools including MIDI sequencers and SonicPi allow children to experiment with music totally without the need for rote practice. Notes are entered by dragging them within a graphical interface or, in the case of SonicPi, by writing a simple computer program. The computer then takes care of rhythm, intonation, and things like note attack. The learner can experiment with music and immediately see results.

With regard to physical instruments, I believe that electronic instruments offer the best learning platform beyond developing an initial intuition. Electronic instruments can be designed to be error tolerant and may be highly free-form, simulating the behaviour of a traditional instrument or going off in their own direction. This may sidestep the issue that most instruments were designed for adults, and thus have very poor ergonomics for a younger learner with small hands. The instrument can instead custom fit the learner.

One of the problems of playing acoustic instruments is that many things must come together at once, and developing all of these skills takes a long time. This has been handled by ignoring large aspects of technique, such as breath control. Under this situation, the player is practically guaranteed to sound bad, as they are not fully in control of the instrument.

Electronic instruments cleanly solve this problem, as they are able to automate tasks for the player. A keyboard can ignore key velocity, and breath pressure could be ignored in a simulated wind instrument. This allows the child to focus exclusively on developing their fingering technique while still producing a good sound. Later, as they begin to internalise this, pressure sensitivity may be enabled and expressive playing introduced. It is already known that this idea works as Zelda: Ocarina of Time does the first step with its virtual instrument.

The development of skills may also be guided by positive feedback. In fact, many acoustic instruments already do so if a learner knows what to listen for. For instance, the recorder will squeal either if it is overblown or if finger holes are not properly covered. This is a good thing as it tells the learner that they are doing something wrong. A teacher should say, 'If it squeaks, either you are not covering the holes correctly or you are blowing too hard. Check your fingerings or try varying your blowing pressure.'

It is worth considering that many of the instruments considered 'children's instruments' today where not designed for teaching music to children, rather they are technological ancestors of modern instruments. The chalumeau, for instance, is an ancestor of the modern clarinet and was played by serious musicians of the time. Many so called 'children's instruments' seem to have been chosen based on their visual appearance rather than a deep understanding of an instrument's mechanics.

In actuality, the modern instruments tend to be easier to play, as they represent a higher standard of technological development. While key systems can look complex, the actual fingerings are not. Plateau keys, as found on a hole-free Boehm flute, make playing easier. Unlike simpler instruments, it does not matter where the finger rests on the key, and partial hole venting is impossible. This does though mean that pitch slides are impossible.

Closing

It is important to note that children are different and no single instrument or approach will make sense to everyone. As such, I believe that multiple instruments must be used to teach music effectively. I've talked to a number of people who have mentioned that they gave up on music as they 'did not get past the recorder'. This is a questionable viewpoint as there may well be some other instrument that connects with them. Some people will find certain things easier than others.

While I believe that electronic instruments are best, there are some traditional instruments which approach the ends mentioned above. The kazoo is probably the most intuitive instrument for someone who can already sing, as it just modifies the sound of the voice. The xylophone and related instruments, plus keyboard/piano, do so as they place few demands on technique. Melodicas also approach this. Quirky instruments can also spark an interest, such as the canjo. They may help to develop the interest needed to maintain practice.

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