Which instrument is right?

Age, cost, commitment are all things to consider By Danielle Braff

Chicago Parent file photo Finding theright instrument for your child is not as complicated as it may appear. Talk to your child. Often, they hear one instrument rising above the others.

One child sees the piano in the living room and decides she must play. Another bangs on pots and pans in the kitchen and believes he is a drummer. Those early signs of musicianship, however, may have little impact on the instrument the child ultimately chooses.

Investing in your child's musical future is daunting. Chicago Parent asked Chicago-area instrument experts for hints and facts to guide parents in helping their children choose an instrument to study. We asked for suggestions about the age a child should begin the instrument and costs, including the instrument's price as well as lessons, strings, reeds and valve oil.

Parents should know any musician getting started will need to buy a stand, a metronome and sheet music. The instruments will require regular maintenance. Also, instruments can be rented rather than bought. Most music stores offer rent-to-own programs and allow you a four-to-six-month grace period before you even have to decide on buying. "Terms and deals vary from store to store, but you can expect to pay $15-$25 a month for most strings, woodwinds and brass," says Doug Cannon, owner of Austin Music, located at 6815 W. North Ave. in Oak Park. "More expensive instruments, like the oboe, sax and french horn will run about $40 a month." Harp rental can run anywhere from $40 to $200 a month. Piano rental is a little trickier if you add delivery costs to monthly payments. Call your local piano store to find out specifics. We also asked local experts to recommend a fall-back instrument if your child is too young to start on the instrument he or she wants.

Strings Violin Age: 2. Cost: $400 to millions. Lessons: $15 per half-hour. Previous instrument: none. Added costs: $100 a year to replace strings. Extra tips: "Probably very few 2-year-olds come up with the idea to play the violin on their own, unless motivated by an older sibling," says Blair Milton, Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinist and violin instructor at Northwestern University. "But there are countless studies that show that brain development is greatly enhanced, cognitive memory and study skills are improved and, of course, the ability to concentrate." But all of that is in the main story, see page 33.

Viola Age: 4. Cost range: $600 to millions. Lessons: $15 per half-hour. Added costs: $100 a year to replace strings. Previous instrument: violin. Extra tips: "Unlike the piano-on which it's possible for a beginner to make a reasonably good sound almost immediately-string instruments take upwards to a year before things begin to sound decent," says Richard Young, Northern Illinois University viola teacher and violist with the Vermeer String Quartet. "But if the beginning violist and his or her parents have the patience to endure that first year or so, the reward can be very special indeed."

Cello Age: 3, but 6 or 7 is more common. Cost range: $300 to millions. Lessons: $15 per half-hour. Previous instrument: The piano teaches children how to read the treble and bass clefs-helpful when they are ready to begin the cello. Added costs: $100 a year to replace strings. Travel costs-even a child-sized cello is large and bulky, so if the child is traveling each day to school, he or she may need to be driven. Extra tips: The sound of the cello appeals because it covers "the complete range of the human voice from the deepest bass to the highest soprano," says Jonathan Pegis, Chicago Symphony Orchestra cellist and cello teacher at Northwestern. "The word most often used to describe the sound of the cello is mellow, and I think this is also part of the appeal."

Bass Age: 7. Cost range: $900 to $100,000. Lessons: $25 per hour. Previous instrument: The cello may be started first but it is not necessary. Added costs: $50-$100 for strings each year-bass strings do not break as often as others. Travel costs-this is a big instrument. So, like the cello players, your bass player may need to be driven. Extra tips: It's not a spotlight instrument but it is fundamental, says Rob Kassinger, bass instructor at DePaul University. "Of all the string instruments, the bass is most suited to many different musical genres: classical, jazz, rock."

Woodwinds Flute Age: 8, earlier under Suzuki method. Cost range: $400 to $30,000. Lessons: $20 per half-hour. Previous instrument: Piano lessons will help younger children develop skills in reading music, rhythm, pitch recognition and musicality. Added costs: none. Extra tips: "Flute is a fun instrument and not terribly difficult to learn," says Kimberly Sopata, a private flute teacher in Evanston.

Oboe Age: 8. Cost range: $1,500 to $5,500. Some oboes are made out of lighter wood, such as violet or rosewood, making them more expensive, but lighter and easier for a child to hold. Lessons: $15 to $30 per half-hour. Previous instrument: The recorder can be started at age 3. It is in the same clef and has similar fingering. Children also learn the air support techniques key to oboe playing. Added costs: reeds and reed supplies. Beginner oboists should buy their reeds from their teacher or from a music store for about $10-$15 per reed. The reed will last from a few hours to a few weeks depending on how much the child practices and how well he or she cares for the reeds. More advanced players can make their own reeds. A package of basic reed-making materials costs about $100 and should be replenished regularly. Extra tips: "The oboe is the right instrument for children who value their independence and originality," says Alex Klein, Chicago Symphony principal oboist and oboe teacher at DePaul. "There are few oboists in band, meaning your child will be exposed to solos at an earlier age than those kids who chose the clarinet or the flute." Also, Klein adds, "The oboe sound is haunting, unique and has a color rarely matched by other wind instruments."

Clarinet Age: 9-10, depending on the child's size. There are clarinets designed for smaller, younger children. Cost range: $250 for child-size. Regular size costs $400 to $2,000. Lessons: $10 to $25 per half-hour. Previous instrument: A baroque recorder is suggested to teach basic finger coordination. Added costs: Reeds cost about $10 a month. Extra tips: "The clarinet is used in orchestras, bands and jazz-it's the most versatile woodwind instrument," says Gregory Barrett, Chicago Sinfonietta clarinetist and clarinet teacher at Northern.

Bassoon Age: 12. Cost range: $4,500 to $25,000. Lessons: $45 per 45 minutes. Previous instrument: less demanding wind instruments, such as clarinet or flute. Added costs: Bassoon reeds cost about $16 and will last anywhere from one minute to three months depending on how carefully protected they are. Reed-making equipment will be used by more advanced students, about $100 for a beginner package. Extra tips: "Bassoonists never get lost in the crowd," says William Kaplan, bassoon professor and coordinator of undergraduate music studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "If you are competent, you'll always be in demand in school and in amateur orchestras and bands. And if you're still playing when you go to college and you're still competent, you can expect financial aid in exchange for playing."

Saxophone Age: 7. Cost range: $600 to $5,000. Lessons: $15 per half-hour. Previous instrument: The piano teaches children the basics about reading music and counting rhythms. Added costs: Saxophone reeds need to be replaced frequently and prices start at $2 each. Extra tips: "It's versatile- it's used in all situations from rock to jazz to symphonic," says Jerry DiMuzio, who has recorded thousands of saxophone jingles for television and radio. "It's a very popular instrument."

Brass Trumpet Age: 10, or once the child's permanent teeth are in and the child can properly support the weight of the instrument. Cost range: $600 to $1,500. Lessons: $12-$20 per half-hour. Previous instrument: cornet, not necessary. Added costs: $20 for cleaning kit. Extra tips: "The trumpet is powerful enough to cut through a 100-piece orchestra and sensitive enough to play the most delicate of phrases," says Matthew Lee, trumpet teacher at DePaul. "It is also the soprano voice of the brass section; it often is given the melody and is a lot easier to get on an airplane than a tuba,"

Trombone Age: 10 or when their arms are long enough. Cost range: $500 to $1,500. Lessons: $25 per half-hour. Previous instrument: the trumpet or the baritone trombone because it is easier to physically handle. Added costs: $5 for slide oil and tuning slide grease and $15 to $40 for a mute, which will be needed eventually. Extra tips: "Concert bands, jazz bands, orchestras, Broadway musicals, brass quintets, trombone quartets and sublime trombone choirs are some of the opportunities that trombonists can enjoy," says Paul Bauer, trombone instructor and director of the school of music at Northern. "It is one of the most versatile of all instruments, with the widest dynamic range of any wind instrument."

French horn Age: 9. Cost range: $2,000 to $10,000. Lessons: $40 per hour. Added costs: $5 for valve oil every couple of months. Previous instrument: Children should start on the trumpet because it is easier to manage. Extra tips: "French horn is a great instrument because in an orchestra setting, you really get to play a lot more than the other brass instruments," says Ian Ward, Lyric Opera hornist. "It has a soft sound and a large range, so we play whenever the woodwinds and the brass are playing."

Tuba Age: elementary school if they are big enough to hold the instrument. Cost range: $1,500 to $15,000. Lessons: $25 per half-hour. Previous instrument: Children can start at 9 if they can handle the weight and size. Otherwise they can begin with the euphonium. Added costs: transportation costs. Extra tips: "It's got a beautiful sound and it's an important instrument in ensembles. But it's harder to get a job because there are fewer opportunities," says Charles Schuchat, member of the Asbury Brass Quintet and tuba professor at Northern.

Percussion Drums Age: 6. Cost range: Educational packs of percussive instruments that include snare drum sticks, timpani or bell mallets and a stick bag are about $50. Complete drum sets can cost several hundred to a couple thousand dollars. Mallet instruments (vibraphone, xylophone, marimba and bells) add up to thousands of dollars, but most schools already have the basic instruments. Lessons: $15 to $25 per half-hour. Previous instrument: piano. Added costs: There are many percussion instruments that children will eventually want and need, which can become expensive. Extra tips: "It's a lot of fun but it's more work than most people think," says Edward Harrison, Lyric Opera principal timpanist and director of percussion studies at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. Although it may look like a percussionist is simply banging away at a drum, they need to be rhythmically precise while maintaining a steady sound.

Piano Age: Children should begin the piano after they start reading, usually in the first or second grade. Cost range: If you look through the classified advertisements, a used piano can be found for as little as the muscle needed to move it. Stores also sell used pianos for a variety of prices-depending on the size and condition. New pianos range from $10,000 to $50,000. Previous instrument: none. Lessons: $15 for a group lesson or $40 per hour for private. Added costs: none. Extra tips: "The piano is a great choice for a first instrument because it is easy to make music and to produce a good tone," says Mary Beth Molenaar, director of the music academy at Northwestern. "When you play the piano, you play melody as well as harmony. You have the whole choir under your fingers."

Harp Age: 3. Cost range: $400 to $20,000. Lessons: $35 per hour. Previous instrument: none. Added costs: Once the child becomes advanced, it is necessary to buy a "harp mobile" to transport the instrument. However, many schools and performance halls have permanent harps, so the child will not need to worry until he or she is semiprofessional. Extra strings will cost about $500 per year. Extra tips: "In the United States, there are 50 orchestral harp jobs and there are three in Chicago. It's extremely difficult to get a job, but harps are also needed at weddings and freelance," says Elizabeth Cifani, harpist with the Lyric Opera and harp teacher at Northwestern University.



Danielle Braff is a writer in Chicago.


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