Every band member will have to go through the process of being sorted into different sections at the very beginning of their ensemble music-making journey. Most students will have an instrument in mind before they even know name of the instrument or the sounds they make. And among all the different instruments available in a band, there will always be the popular ones that band directors will not have trouble getting members interested in, and then others which takes some convincing.
Instruments like the trumpet, saxophone and drums are usually all the rage while other instruments are considered humdrum. However, it is impractical to cater to each student’s preferences and impair the balance of the band. Therefore, it is important for band directors to introduce and open the minds of students to every instrument.
While working hard is crucial to success, it is a common misconception that hard work alone is enough to make any instrument suitable for anybody. Unnecessary hard work, especially at the initial stages, takes fun away from the learning process and discourages students from practicing and consequently, improving.
As Douglas Yeo (former bass trombonist from Boston Symphony Orchestra) once said in an interview, ‘If you practice more, you get better. If you get better, it’s more fun. If it’s more fun, you practice more. If you practice more, it gets better! It’s this cycle that continues and keeps going on and on and on.’ Take away the fun, and any passion for performing on any instrument will seep away slowly and surely.
Every person has different physical attributes that make us better suited for some instruments and less so for others, more so for younger students who are still growing. Therefore, it is vital to match students with the right instruments while keeping the balance of the band.
Based on physical characteristics of students, this is a general guide to the different instruments that are available in a wind band setting.
Do not be deceived by the petite size of the flute! It may be the smallest and lightest, but the relatively low resistance of playing the flute requires a higher airflow than any other wind instrument. Due to the high pitch of the flute, fluctuations of intonation become more obvious in comparison to rest of the band.
Unlike other woodwind and brass instruments, the flute does not have a mouthpiece to help direct the air into the instrument, therefore students with thin lips, without teardrop shaped upper lip and extreme overbites are more suitable.
It is not advisable for students to start on the piccolo, most common flute manufacturers offer curved or O-style head-joints and assisted-fingering keys for younger students with shorter arms and fingers.
Although the oboe shares similar parts and fingering with the flute, it is at the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to air resistance. Students with respiratory issues such as severe asthma will not be great candidates to play the oboe due to the high back-pressure. The clear and penetrating voice of the oboe makes any fluctuations of intonation audible. Students with acute overbites or under-bites are not recommended to play the oboe.
The combination of the high back-pressure and firm embouchure required makes it extremely difficult for students to naturally produce a proper sound on the oboe. Also, a quality oboe reed can cost up to the price of a box of ten clarinet reeds, and way easier to damage.
All factors considered, band directors will be in luck to have more than one student to choose from when selecting from a batch of new band members. The oboe chooses the player, not the other way around!
The bassoon is to the oboe what the saxophone is to the clarinet, and the bassoon and oboe make up the double reed section of the band, and they share many of the same challenges. Just like the oboe, students with severe overbite or under-bite will not be good candidates.
The bassoon is a large instrument, and students with smaller hands may have trouble stretching their fingers to reach the keys. Not only are nimble fingers needed like all other woodwind instruments, extremely agile thumbs are a prerequisite to any students starting on the bassoon. The bassoon and the reeds are expensive, so students who are of the blunderous nature should be avoided.
The clarinet is arguably the most common woodwind instrument many began with, and it’s not without reasons. The clarinet breaks down and fits into a compact case, relatively light, and usually comes with more section-mates. (Strength in numbers, right?) The main consideration for the clarinet is the size of the fingertips, as most clarinets, even the most basic models, have open-holed keys that require the player’s fingertips to cover the tone holes.
Dental braces may cause discomfort, but students should be able to get used to it rather quickly. Avoid selecting the clarinet for students with overly thick lower lips. Clarinets with an adjustable thumb-rest and a neck strap ring will greatly benefit younger students who may have problems holding the weight of the clarinet at the correct angle.
While the clarinet may be the most common beginner woodwind instrument, the saxophone is certainly the most popular. Embouchure wise, the saxophone shares many of the challenges of the clarinet. Most students will start on the alto or tenor saxophone and may move up to the baritone when they progress into the main band, and they are always played with a neck strap.
And as long as a good posture is maintained, a neck strap or body harness negates the issue of the weight of the instrument almost completely. As the saxophones are bigger than the flute, oboe or clarinet, getting students to willingly bring their instruments back home may take some convincing.
Trumpeters are often viewed as the ones with the biggest egos, and this stereotype is not uncalled for. (Before you trumpeters gather your pitchforks, let me explain and put it in a nicer way!) The trumpet is the highest brass section in a band and their parts often carry the melody, therefore a higher level of confidence is vital of trumpeters. That being said, students with strong personalities and confidence will thrive being in the trumpet section.
Physically, students with thin and even lips will have an easier time on the trumpet, while a severe under-bite will cause problems. Braces will cause discomfort when freshly installed but should be quick to get used to. Playing the trumpet should not pose too big a challenge to students suffering from mild asthma but may be risky for anybody going through a severe asthmatic episode.
The horn is the alto voiced member in the brass section of the band and is often misconceived as being French, but that is an article for another time. While the horn may not look like a large instrument, but smaller hands may have trouble gripping and reaching the valve levers. This may not be an obvious consideration, but it is important that younger students have torso long enough to accommodate the size of the horn so to eliminate bad posture and habits. It is imperative that students selected to play the horn have a good sense of pitch as parts are commonly written in the higher registers of the horn where the partials are closer and mispitching can be an embouchure slip away.
Often referred to as ‘the long one’, the trombone is more accommodating than it looks. The trombone is one of the few instruments to stand the test of time in terms of design and function. The modern trombone is fundamentally a sackbut (a period trombone) that has grown in bore and bell sizes. Granted, the right arm of the student must be long enough to reach the outer positions of the slide.
However, a trombone with an optional valve will more than make up for the sixth and seventh positions until the student’s arm grows long enough. The lack of valves also means that only students with stronger sense of pitch be selected for the trombone section.
Unlike the trumpet and horn, the trombone plays with very little resistance, and therefore encourages relaxed breaths that may benefit students with moderate asthma. The bigger mouthpiece on the trombone is more accommodating, but severe underbite may cause hindrance in production of a good sound.
Euphonium and trombone mouthpieces are very similar, with the main differences being in cup depth and throat opening. Both trombone and euphonium are tenor voiced instruments playing in the same range. But there’s where the similarities end. Though the euphonium plays with slightly higher backpressure and more resistance compared to the trombone, it still takes a good amount of air to fill up the euphonium. Students with braces will find the larger size of the euphonium mouthpiece more comfortable compared to the smaller mouthpieces of the trumpet and horn.
Quite literally the ‘heavy metal’ in the band, rarely do band directors get students showing any form of enthusiasm about being selected to play the tuba. It is a common misconception that only big boys will be able to handle the unwieldy chunk of metal, and rarely do concert bands have to strap on the tuba for parades these days anyway.
Most manufacturers make at least one fractional-size tuba model catered for younger children, but with the aid of a tuba stand, a young student can reach the mouthpiece of a full-size tuba with relative ease.
However, students may not have arms long enough to reach the fourth valve on a top-action (3+1) tuba, so a front-action tuba is recommended if the fourth valve is insisted upon by the band director. Students selected for playing the tuba requires fuller lips to fill the bigger mouthpiece and larger lung capacity to be able to push enough air through the instrument.
The percussion section includes many different instruments, from the unpitched percussion instruments such as the drums and cymbals, to pitched ones like the timpani and mallet percussion instruments. Students selected for the percussion section should exhibit strong sense of pulse and rhythm, good coordination and motor skills. Students with prior keyboard background will find it easier to get accustomed to the mallet percussion instruments.
Edmund Chang graduated with a Bachelor of Music (Hons) from Royal College of Music right after his Diploma in Music (Performance) at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Edmund picked up the trombone at the tender age of 8 at River Valley Primary School, under the baton of Mr. Yeo Guo Ming and Mr. Lester Lim. Apart from performing, Edmund is also the active band director of Queensway Secondary School. Outside of music, he enjoys the occasional drive about, fish keeping and a good book.