The social politics of picking the right instrument for your child.

I’ve played the cello in a couple of orchestras in my time – one was the school orchestra (very boring, nobody could really play so it was all a bit hopeless) and The Ealing Junior Music School Orchestra (much more fun!). The cellists in the orchestra were a mixed bunch. We had one extremely irritating girl who was in the first chair and liked to tell us how we were playing everything wrong. As we progressed backwards through the 8 seats, the cellists became a bit more complacent and disinterested, so perhaps she had a reason to boss everyone around. Cellists are mostly an alright sort. I don’t think I could stereotype a cellist, at least not in the way that I could easily stereotype other instruments of the orchestra: Viola players – always weird, best avoided; trumpet plays – usually the boys that all the girls fancy but very obnoxious due to the loudness of the instrument; harp players – pale girls with long, frizzy hair that are prone to crying a lot.

It’s always interesting finding out how parents pick an instrument for their child. Sometimes, the child gets to pick their own instrument, but in the case of a lot of younger children, I imagine the parent picks the instrument for them based on personal preference or something they learned in their youth. I picked the cello for my daughter, partly because I have a 1/8, 1/2 and 4/4 cello in my possession, so it seemed foolish for these to go to waste. The other reasons being that I can help her with her practice and the cello is also very pleasant to listen to even in the early stages, although if you watched this video of her practising, you may not think so. However, if you have heard a violin played by a youngster, even one who has been playing for 3 or 4 years, you’ll know just how blood-curdlingly awful the sound is. There’s also slightly less competition on this instrument when it comes to orchestral spaces (see, she may only be three but I’m already thinking ahead…) although if you want to be really smart and ensure sucess at music scholarships and Youth Orchestras, then pick the most sought-after orchestral instruments such as the bassoon and yes, the viola (see below)!

Suzuki Cello Group, February 2012

I read a very funny article in The Telegraph, written by a East Dulwich-based journalist, Marianne Kavanagh. Kavanagh delves into the social implications of letting your child learn a certain instrument. Consider the viola – a lesser-played instrument, but the butt of all the orchestra’s jokes. Kavanagh writes: “Look up ‘viola jokes’ on the internet and you’ll see what I mean.” I did. Q: “Why do so many people take an instant dislike to the viola?” A: “It saves time.” Viola players must have very thick skins.”

Kavanagh also says it is imperative to consider the hierarchical structure of the school orchestra when choosing the instrument your child will learn. She suggests: “Rebels will be happiest right at the back where they can muck about with impunity, so consider the trumpet, trombone or tuba.”  

Her description of percussionists is truly fantastic: “Because they have already spent years making neighbours very cross, they also have a devil-may-care insouciance and an air of great enjoyment.”

Here is the article in full, reproduced with permission from Marianne:

Marianne Kavanagh shines a light into the dark corners of school orchestras

Of course you want your child to play a musical instrument. When he first picks up a recorder, your chest swells with pride. But have you really done your research?

There’s a lot of sensible advice out there about matching the instrument to the child – pianos are for introverts, so the argument goes, and no one should swamp a diminutive scrap with a tuba.

But social implications are far more important. Peer pressure is the greatest influence on your child in teenage years. In choosing, say, a violin, your child will from now on be hanging out with violinists. Is this wise?

Think about yourself, too. You’re going to be socialising with the parents of violinists. Study them dispassionately. Do they look like soul mates or the kind of pushy mums who’ll make you furious?

“Without a doubt, different sections of the orchestra have different characters,” says Jonathan Vaughan, director of the National Youth Orchestra, who was a member of the London Symphony Orchestra for many years. “Brass players are like the noisy children at the back of the bus. They’re slightly belligerent – union shop stewards usually come from the brass section – and they’re always last to leave the bar.

“Double bass players are very steady people, probably because it’s the nature of their job in the orchestra – like the tuba and the bassoon – to underpin the harmonies. In one orchestra I know, the wind section is known as ‘the Royal Family’ because the members have a high and mighty view of themselves. Violinists are prima donnas while viola players are the butt of all the jokes. Look up ‘viola jokes’ on the internet and you’ll see what I mean.” I did. Q: “Why do so many people take an instant dislike to the viola?” A: “It saves time.” Viola players must have very thick skins.

Before your child decides on an instrument, consider the hierarchical structure of the school orchestra. Rebels will be happiest right at the back where they can muck about with impunity, so consider the trumpet, trombone or tuba. To cope with close proximity to the conductor, your child will either need to be well-behaved or an extremely good actor, which may explain why first violins always have a pious air of deep concentration. Percussionists are a breed apart, partly because, like pianists, they have to sight-read vertically as well as horizontally, which demands a certain mental dexterity.

Because they have already spent years making neighbours very cross, they also have a devil-may-care insouciance and an air of great enjoyment.

If the woodwind section is high and mighty, bassoonists, according to Daniel Jemison, principal bassoonist with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, have the reputation of being quirky – “eccentric oddballs”, as he puts it. “They’re usually very tall, thin people.” Most flautists are female, so you might want to persuade your son to take up the flute to give him a wide choice of future girlfriends.

If, on the other hand, your priority is a selective secondary school at the age of 11, push him towards what the Guildhall School of Music and Drama calls “rare breeds” – that is, rarely chosen instruments. These include the bassoon, the oboe, the tuba and the unfortunate viola. School orchestras will kill for any of these, which makes the offer of a place much more likely.

Step outside the traditional orchestral instruments and you will no longer figure on the radar of those who know their Bach from their Berlioz. Eyes will glaze over at competitive dinner parties if you mention that your child plays the guitar (electric or otherwise) or the saxophone. Saxophones aren’t posh. This may be because the instrument wasn’t invented until 1850, so its repertoire is relatively limited. On the other hand, the saxophone, like the clarinet, is cool because of its association with jazz. A cellist is flamboyant; a saxophonist doesn’t need to try that hard.

Consider, too, your purse, your back and your sanity. Some instruments cost thousands. Others are so heavy that you’ll be taking your child to school until he’s 18, which will dent his confidence and your patience.

“My six-year-old was desperate to learn the harp,” a friend confided. “I held my breath for months until he decided he wanted to play the piano instead.” But, as you sit like a witch in Macbeth, plotting your child’s musical career, chance encounters may put paid to your plans. As a boy, Brian Thomson, a trumpeter with the Royal Philharmonic, joined the brass band in his village in Scotland and was given a cornet. It sealed his musical fate. “If it had been a pipe band, I’d have ended up playing bagpipes.” Try to influence your child’s choice of instrument. But, if it all goes horribly wrong, put on a brave face. Any instrument is better than no instrument, as many a musically-thwarted adult will tell you. One thing’s for sure: if your child insists on a harp, you’ll need a bigger car.

  • Brass (trumpet, tuba, trombone): the hooligans of the orchestra, who sit at the back making rude noises. Ideal for naughty or noisy children.
  • Woodwind (flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon): for better-behaved children. Clarinets and saxophones are considered cool, so a good choice for recalcitrant boys.
  • Strings (violin, viola, cello, double bass): exponents take themselves very seriously. Viola players are the butt of bad jokes, so need a thick skin.
  • Percussion: you need good neighbours (or some you want to punish).
  • Piano: your child plays alone so you won’t have to meet lots of pushy parents.
  • Guitar: your child will love it but you will be lost at competitive dinner parties.



We will be performing on stage with The Southbank Sinfonia Orchestra on 18 February 2012. Full details are here.

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This entry was posted in Clarinet, Flute, Orchestras, Piano lessons, Saxophone, Second instruments, Stringed Instruments and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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