19 October 2011

Choosing the Right Musical Instrument for a Child

Something of an industry has grown up around the linking of musical instruments to certain personality types.  Parents, keen to find the most suitable instrument for their child, can turn to a whole army of consultants, specialist companies and trained counsellors who, through psychological profiling and aptitude tests, come up with the ideal child/instrument pairing.  I’m absolutely convinced they are doing the right thing.

Ever since I hit on the idea of presenting a research paper on the drinking habits of different instrumentalists – all trombonists quaff real ale by the yard, all cellists sip white wine, all harpsichordists imbibe champagne, that sort of thing – and discovered, much to my surprise, that there was a very definite linkage between lifestyle (in this case, preferred alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage) and the instrument played, I have been convinced that certain personality types are most suited to certain instruments.  I wish I could remember the details of my researches now, but after I successfully presented the paper at a symposium I went off and celebrated (all musicologists gulp red wine by the demijohn) and left my paper behind in the bar.  Those were the days of typewritten papers, and unless you went through the messy business of inserting a carbon paper every time you started to type, no copy was ever made.  My researches are even now, presumably, rotting away in a south Wales landfill. 

I have followed with great interest a series run in the newsletter of a Singapore music school about pairing instruments with young children, not least because the time is rapidly approaching when my daughter will need to start lessons and I, as yet, have no firm idea which instrument it will be. There is no question in my mind that she will learn an instrument - the educative and psychological benefits of learning an instrument are undeniable – but nothing on earth is going to allow me to let her start until she has reached her fifth birthday; she’s three-and-a-half now.  As an examiner I’ve seen too often the disastrous, often catastrophic results of children who have been pushed into learning an instrument at too young an age.  But the time is rapidly approaching when an instrument has to be bought and a teacher found.  And as that time draws ever nearer, so my blind faith in the specialists begins to waver.

When she was a baby and lay on her back her tiny hands waving in the air and her feet pumping up and down, I saw in her a potential harpist.  I liked the idea, not least because I used to play the harp myself and would dearly love to have one in the house again.  I can’t see my wife allowing me to spend such vast sums on an instrument purely for my own pleasure, but if it’s something the daughter needs for her development, then no expense will be spared.  Not long ago, I went with my wife and daughter into that fantastic emporium known as Synwin Music in Singapore’s Marina Square.  While there I sat her at the harp and got her to get the feel of the thing.  She was terrified.  The nice Mr Synwin tried out various sized violins on her, but her attention was taken up by a small cello.  My wife was thrilled.  She’s always adored the cello and has long wanted to learn it; how nice it would be for mother and daughter to learn side by side. 

I was not so sure.  I recall an early experience as a music examiner when a young adolescent girl came into to do her grade 4 cello, sat down facing me, hiked up her skirt, stuck the cello between her legs and began to play.  When she first moved the cello aside to arrange the music on her stand I noticed that she appeared to be wearing no knickers, and at each subsequent page-turning occasion, I became more convinced that a wardrobe malfunction had occurred in the stress of early morning examination preparations.  I could hardly stop the exam and ask if she was wearing any knickers – even with a female accompanist present, it’s not the sort of thing that creates the right impression of the examiner’s motives – but the issue did rather monopolise my attention and I found it difficult to concentrate on  assessing her cello playing.  Relating it to a colleague some time later, it was suggested that she might even have done it deliberately to distract my attention from her musical performance, and ever since then I’ve been nervous of young girls playing the cello.  No, my daughter isn’t going down that path, no matter what the speiclaists advise.

Recently, however, my daughter has rather taken matters into her own hands and is persistent in her demands to possess a violin.  We can’t take her to her favourite ice cream shop in the Esplanade any more because right opposite is Gramercy’s violin shop and she is forever wandering in there demanding we buy her a fiddle.  I suspect that her determination to play the violin will outweigh any learned and scholarly advice from a professional consultant on child/musical instrument relationships, but even if the consultant tells us the violin is for her, I will have my reservations.

The thing is, while I am not planning to become an oppressively protective father, I am beginning to realise that there is one element missing from the equations drawn up by those who advise parents on instrument choice for their children.  If my daughter takes to the violin, how will I know when she turns up at the breakfast table one morning with a roll-neck sweater covering an unsightly bruise on the left side of her neck, that her claims for it to have been the result of assiduous practice the night before are true; won’t I suspect it to be the result of intimate and passionate encounters with an undesirable male suitor’s mouth?  I can’t risk that.
True, there is something very sensual about the way you cuddle a harp as you play it, but as the father of a prospective adolescent girl, I like the idea that when some pawing youth reaches out to hold her hand in the darkness of a cinema back row (or wherever it is the young go these days to grope each other), he will immediately be repelled by the calloused claw which greets his exploring fingers.  Harpists quickly develop a strength and hardness in their fingertips which quickly dispels any hope of gentle caresses from besotted admirers. 

Now that’s as compelling a reason as any for my daughter to learn the harp, and no amount of psychological profiling or aptitude testing can outweigh the benefits of fatherly peace-of-mind it brings.


  1. Now I wonder what you'd thought if only you had a son, Dr. Rochester. Hope you are having a good time in South Africa. (at this point, i am thinking any place other than YSTCM and singapore would be just fine.)

  2. Aha! Now there's a good point. I wonder? I'd hate him to learn he organ as it consigns you to a life of ridicule and contempt from your fellow musicians, while if he took to the drums I'd forever suspect him of being a drop-out (well, all the percussionists I know seem to inhabit a different planet from the rest of us). I know that, in later life, if he wanted to study music seriously, I'd have no hesitation in sending him to YST. Everywhere has its drawbacks but, in my limtied experience, YST has fewer than most. Keep your chin up (as my father always tells me when things get bleak) and look for the funny side of life; there's always something to laugh at, even if it's just your tutors!

  3. I unhesitatingly recommend that your three and a half year old daughter takes up the bagpipes as her instrument of choice.

    It'll develop a superb set of lungs, wonderful breath control - and will keeep potential boyfriends at a very long arm's length. Resist with all the authgority you can muster any attempt of hers to twist your arm into allowing her to learn the violin. Excruciating when being learnt and scarely any better when mastered (an argument that could equally be levelled at the bagpipes, I accept, but bagpipes are far scarier and so of greater use in detracting lascivious youths). Pete

  4. Not such a perfect solution as it first seems, Pete. Can I risk her attracting hairy-kneed Scottish nationalists?

  5. Hi Marc! Depends which sex the hairy knees belong to! Unfortunately the wearing of a sporran isn't of much help in solving this dilemma! All things have their drawbacks, I suppose. I rather fear you may have to resort to the organ; plenty of solitary practice - and Dad on hand to help with left hand and pedals!! Hope you're having a good time in SA. Pete

  6. The important thing about making music is that you make your music with other people as soon and as often as you can.art pro vla ii review