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Which Instrument is Easiest to Play?


Which Instrument is Easiest to Play?

Ed Dumas

I have taught more beginning band students than I can count, seriously. After doing so many of them, I found they were quite enjoyable to work with. Beginners get the greatest thrill from simple little improvements, and the joy on their faces was such a treat to see. These beginners, though, always seemed to ask the same questions when they were just starting in the band program. The most common one would surely be, “Which instrument is the easiest to play?”

That question always kind of made me shudder on the inside. There almost always seemed to me to be a meaning behind the question which was, “I don’t want to work too hard at this.” With that suggestion, I would point out that learning to play any musical instrument takes work. It does not need to be all- consuming all day long every day, but it does need to be consistent. Then we would discuss appropriate amounts of practice time for beginners, which is along the lines of 20-30 minutes per day with about 5 days per week.

Some students would surely miss the point of what I was saying, and then begin to ask if flute/clarinet/sax/trumpet/trombone was hard to play (take your pick). So, I would give them this explanation. “Every instrument is hard to play in its own way. Every instrument is easy to play in its own way. They are just different.” Here is a more detailed explanation, and feel free to use this if you choose.

The flute has the hardest startup in the entire band. The first 2 to 3 months can be unbearable for flute players, and I have seen too many flute players in tears just because they are SO frustrated that they cannot make the instrument do what they want it to do and what they feel they should be able to do. Flute players, in the beginning, need to have great patience and to make a decision to stick through the tough times until a few months go by. Then, and only then, will they get a more realistic picture of what it is like to play the flute.

The reason for such unbearable stress on beginning flute players is because of having to learn all the things that everyone else is learning, such as note-names, counting, phrases, and so on, AND they have to do it with 9 digits right off the bat!

At this point, I usually have to explain the difference between fingers and thumbs, and that together they are called digits. Very few beginners are ready for this stress that flute provides, but I promise them and mean it, that the stress WILL go away soon. Patience here is important!

For flute players in the beginning it is a good idea to also teach them some strategies for handling stress. When they feel like they are going to do something rash, like tossing the flute out the window, they must know how to handle this. They could set the flute down, take a break, have a snack, or watch a show, and then come back to it later. A fresh start gives them the best chance to get it right.

Clarinet has the easiest start in the band. That is because they are using primarily a thumb and three fingers of one hand in the beginning. Even though it is in the left hand, it is still far less stressful than the flute. But, does that make clarinet easy? I doubt you could find a professional clarinet player that would agree with that!

Clarinet players get a similar stress level as flute players as soon as you start asking the clarinet players to go over the break. This usually comes anywhere from the second semester to the second year or so. This is the time when clarinet players need to pull some patience and persistence out of their trick bag, for they are going to feel just as stressed as the flute players did in the first few months. Like flutes, this is the point where some clarinet players drop out, so they need to understand where their patience needs to kick in. The question I have often asked students wanting to begin band is “Where would you prefer to have the stress, now, or six months later? Just understand, there WILL be stress at times!”

Sax I view as more like making bumpy progress. It seems to have bumps along the way, but the bumps are not so big like flute or clarinet which can throw students right out of the program. Sax stress bumps for beginners will come on things like tonguing in the beginning. Young sax players sometimes don’t get the feel of the reed on the tongue because either they shy away from that feeling, or they have positioned the mouthpiece in such a way that the tongue cannot find the reed tip. This often happens when sax players slouch and allow the mouthpiece to drop

down in their mouth making the reed unavailable. Sometimes it takes some work to get sax players to change the big stuff to make the little stuff work.

Another bump for sax players, in the beginning, is often playing in the upper octave. There can be a host of problems that lead to this, such as octave key problems, soft reed, dead reed, mouthpiece positioned incorrectly, and on and on. Solving these kinds of issues is a matter of patience and perseverance, with a dose of knowledge from the band teacher.

Another common problem I have experienced with sax players is that of sitting with their head tilted to the side, and therefore not learning to read the music as well as others because it is sideways to their vision! I have taken the time to explain to sax players that the mouthpiece should not be rotated to be aligned with the sax, as this will put their head slanted when playing. Instead, they should rotate the mouthpiece to keep the reed parallel to the floor, and therefore their head upright.

All of the kinds of problems encountered on sax are not stressful like flute stress, but being that there are a number of them, they can build up. Others to watch for are honking on the instrument due to bad mouthpiece position (too deep), the upper register being very flat (reed too soft), octave leaps are jumpy, difficulty controlling the air (especially when ending a pitch), and so on. Sax players will need patience and persistence to overcome so many little bumps.

Trumpet players have a steady go of it more than any other player in the band. The startup usually goes reasonably well and the progress usually continues at a consistent pace. But, the trouble for trumpet is that it is always a lot of hard work to play. Beginning flute players are renowned for saying that trumpet is easy because it only has three valves. They just don’t understand that having only three valves is what makes it hard. What trumpet players cannot do with keys like flutes and clarinets they must do with their abdominal muscles. It is kind of akin to learning to paint the Mona Lisa with your toes!

Therefore, there always seems to be a moderate level of stress around learning trumpet, and it never goes away. Even when you become a great player, you will

still have to work at it with consistent practice just to maintain what you have built up in skill. This consistent hard work is why trumpet players are often referred to as “The Workhorses of the Band!”

Trombone players have two significant challenges in the beginning. The first is the different set of note names that they must learn because of having to play bass clef. Self-starters are required for this as these people will need to push themselves willingly without having someone else constantly drive them to learn the note names. The other challenge for trombone players is that of having to learn the slide, which is a gross motor movement instead of a fine motor movement. This again will require self-starters, so please refer back a few sentences!

Once beginning trombone players have gained some momentum with bass clef notation and managing the slide, the trombone becomes a fun instrument to play. But, beginners should understand that at this point it is more like trumpet needing constant attention to keep the skill maintained. Trombone players have the same gross motor abdominal muscle demands as trumpet coupled with the gross motor arm movements of the slide. In that way, the trombone has a tough startup similar to flute but not quite as frustrating, followed by a constant demand like a trumpet. Trombone players, then, should also be workhorses as well as self-starters to get the most success.

So, going back to the original question, “All band instruments are hard to play and all band instruments are easy to play, in their own way. They are just different. Which way do you want to have the work? Just expect that it will take work, and THAT is what makes learning a musical instrument so much fun!” At this point, I would usually get into a discussion about how hard work is fun, but that is for another post!



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