Instrument Selection for Middle School and Beyond

Instrument Selection for Middle School and Beyond

Which instrument should I play?

This is a common question we answer throughout the school year, but one which is not very easy to answer. There are many considerations when selecting an instrument. The student’s age, interest,  prior experience, physical size, mouth, orthodontics, and the needs of the program must all be considered.  Check out the following website.

It allows students to explore each of the instruments more in depth.  Because EVERY child is unique, many students gravitate towards different instruments and find that some appeal to them more than others.  Some students are open minded to playing anything which is fine. Barring any physical limitations, most students with good instruction can learn virtually any instrument.  But appeal or interest does play a role in the long term success.  However, most students will develop their appreciation and interest as they gain confidence and experience through class and lessons.

A majority of the Cabin John students have benefited tremendously from receiving some sort of musical instruction at the elementary age.  Our elementary programs offer free instruction beginning in 4th grade.  The instruction is limited and only offered once per week, but it is a great way to be exposed to music reading, group discipline, and the general physical skills necessary for playing in a band or orchestra.  Students who develop a greater interest will often take individual private lessons.  A teacher list can be found at here.

However, the students in elementary school are also limited in size so are often exposed to only the smaller instruments more suited to younger musicians.  As a result, our middle school program greatly relies on the student’s willingness and interest to learn an additional instrument, or simply switching to a larger instrument.  Without this, the middle school groups would simply resemble extra-large elementary ensembles.

Comparing the typical 6th grade class to the 7th and 8th grade, there is a great need to improve the instrument selection each year.  A typically sixth grade band begins with mostly flutes and clarinets, and the orchestra’s starts with mostly violins.  Cabin John 7th and 8th grade performing groups are praised for their mature and often “high school” sound. There is no real secret in attaining this, but it really stems from having a good balance of all the instruments. It can be described as a recipe which has the correct balance of ingredients, resulting in a great taste.  Conversely, a recipe with the wrong ingredients is spoiled.  Therefore, careful instrument selection can open numerous opportunities for your child, and really make a difference for the middle and later the high school music programs.


Consider having your child learn piano at an early age. Piano opens the door for many opportunities in music since it teaches students to count and read notes before they may be able to physically manage a band or string instrument.   With good instruction, students can easily transfer these skills to the many choices offered in the elementary instrumental program.

Consider a string instrument at an early age.  The string rental shops provide reduced sizes of string instruments so students as early as 4 or 5 years old can begin with private string lessons! Taking strings at a very young age  is highly beneficial for playing in the band as well as the orchestra.  It reinforces listening from the start and if continued provides a great foundation for playing in the middle school orchestra program.  Orchestra instruments are very elegant sounding, and are very interchangeable.  A year or two of violin experience can easily turn into the viola, cello, or bass – instruments which are typically in greater demand for the various select youth programs.

Suggest that your child play clarinet instead of a saxophone. Clarinet players enjoy the band equally, and have the option of switching to many other types of instruments after they get more experience. The saxophone is very costly and often is too large for most fourth graders. A middle school band needs at the most four alto sax players, but can easily accommodate up to twenty clarinets!

There are a few instruments like the trombone and cello which can be easily started in elementary school, but because they are slightly larger they are often avoided. Unfortunate in that there is a shortage of players on these instruments and they are two of the most fun and engaging instruments to play in the band and orchestra.  Trombone is also one of the most needed instruments in the high school jazz band and the symphony orchestra.

The trumpet is a good elementary start-up instrument, and easily transfers to french horn, baritone, trombone, and tuba.  And again, the trombone is also a good starting instrument, and is one of the most important instruments in a middle school program.  Despite its size, the trombone transports the easiest on the bus as compared to any other brass instrument (place it upright), and it is the least expensive due to the fact it has only two moving parts!   Unfortunately, it remains the least played brass instrument in the elementary programs.  Keep in mind that students can learn a second instrument at any time in middle school.  Many discover as they grow and mature that they are more suited to another instrument. There are opportunities throughout the school year to change instruments, and summer lessons scholarships are available to students who are interested.

Other Factors

Statistics from the regional youth orchestra and honors groups auditions reveal that of the students who auditioned, those that played the flute and alto saxophone had less than a  10% chance of making one of the honors groups, where as a student playing trumpet, clarinet, violin had a 30% chance. The larger instruments like viola, cello, baritone, and tuba had at least a 50 % chance of qualifying.  Bassoon had an 80% chance and string bass was over 90%  Of course, I have often had parents ask which instruments are most in need at Cabin John.