In the book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, young Harry, upon learning he is a wizard, is taken to Ollivander's Shop to purchase his magic wand. After trying several without luck, one wand suddenly responds to his touch. "Curious indeed how these things happen," Mr. Ollivander tells Harry. "The wand chooses the wizard, remember...I think we must expect great things from you, Mr. Potter."
I believe the same to be true when it comes to choosing an instrument. When a child is paired with the instrument that responds best to her, it jumpstarts her learning and puts her on a personal path toward success. This is why all my prospective students are given an instrument fitting, so that they, too, can find an instrument that is fitted just for them.
This past month, I hosted three nights of instrument fitting appointments, seeing about 100 students each night. As I was chatting with parents, I heard over and over how much they appreciated the opportunity and how wonderful it was for their children to get to experience holding and producing sounds on the various instruments before making a choice. Several parents had stories to tell about their own experiences as children with starting an instrument.
I wanted to play trumpet, but the band director said, 'You have long arms, you are playing trombone."
I had my heart set on playing flute, but was told that they had too many flutes already and that I would play baritone. I had never even seen a baritone.
My parents had a saxophone at home and so that was what I had to play.
In all of these situations, no one gave the student an opportunity to hold and create sounds on the instrument first, or even stopped to consider the child's preference. Selections were made based on what was convenient for the director or the parent--not really the best way to guarantee that a child would be excited about learning an instrument or want to stick with it.
We've all worked with young people who struggled to create even the most basic sounds on their instrument. Often, this is through no fault of their own, but simply the result of an incorrect placement. But, imagine for a moment that each child in your band or orchestra played an instrument that was well-suited to his or her physical characteristics. How much better would your ensemble sound? How much happier would your students be? How many more young people would stick with their instruments through middle and high school and become supporters of music education into adulthood?
Success on an instrument can be influenced by many factors. By spending time with prospective students, the director can determine which instruments best suit each student by:
Evaluating any potential embouchure issues related to the physical characteristics of the lips, teeth and jaw
Checking for any issues with coordination or the size of hands, fingers, arms or body that might influence success
Comparing the student’s sound on a variety of instruments to determine which are a good fit
This process is not about excluding a child from a particular instrument. It’s about determining which instruments seem to work best for each student— and letting the student and their parent see this as well.
While many schools will do "mouthpiece testing" with prospective students, I like to spend a little extra time and make the experience more thorough. I also hold these appointments after school, so parents can be a part of the process.
At a wind instrument fitting, students should be able to:
Form a very basic embouchure after instruction and guidance
Sustain a tone on the mouthpiece/ small instrument for 3-5 counts after instruction and practice
Create sounds on the full instrument
Hold the instrument by themselves
When fitting strings, students should be able to:
Hold the instrument by themselves
Create sounds on open strings with the bow
Place fingers of the left hand on finger tape after being shown
Finger and pluck strings together
Bow and finger together
Through this process, student, director and parent can see which instruments respond best to the student and which are awkward and uncomfortable. Then, together, an informed decision can be made about instrument placement for the student--one that considers the child's preferences, the best fit, and finally, the instrumentation needs of the ensemble.
Getting kids excited about beginning their journey in band or orchestra starts with a positive first exposure to the instrument that the student is going to play. Make that happen by taking the time to fit each of your students to an instrument and your band or orchestra will sound like magic!