Why sax appeal has strings attached

Posted by Rocio Banyuls on Saturday, August 31, 2019

I had lots of fun reading the article below by Marianne Kavanagh (The telegraph) arguing about the right choice of instrument for a child, its social implications and, of course, the old debate about the right instrument depending on the character (and even sometimes the looks) or a child.

Adding to the argument, would it be nicer if we gave children the right exposure the the biggest range of instruments possible (listening, seeing and trying) and let them make the right decision coming from their heart?



12:01AM BST 12 May 2007

Marianne Kavanagh shines a light into the dark corners of school orchestras

Of course you want your child to play a musical instrument. When he first picks up a recorder, your chest swells with pride. But have you really done your research?

There's a lot of sensible advice out there about matching the instrument to the child - pianos are for introverts, so the argument goes, and no one should swamp a diminutive scrap with a tuba.

But social implications are far more important. Peer pressure is the greatest influence on your child in teenage years. In choosing, say, a violin, your child will from now on be hanging out with violinists. Is this wise?

Think about yourself, too. You're going to be socialising with the parents of violinists. Study them dispassionately. Do they look like soul mates or the kind of pushy mums who'll make you furious?

"Without a doubt, different sections of the orchestra have different characters," says Jonathan Vaughan, director of the National Youth Orchestra, who was a member of the London Symphony Orchestra for many years. "Brass players are like the noisy children at the back of the bus. They're slightly belligerent - union shop stewards usually come from the brass section - and they're always last to leave the bar.

"Double bass players are very steady people, probably because it's the nature of their job in the orchestra - like the tuba and the bassoon - to underpin the harmonies. In one orchestra I know, the wind section is known as 'the Royal Family' because the members have a high and mighty view of themselves. Violinists are prima donnas while viola players are the butt of all the jokes. Look up 'viola jokes' on the internet and you'll see what I mean." I did. Q: "Why do so many people take an instant dislike to the viola?" A: "It saves time." Viola players must have very thick skins.

Before your child decides on an instrument, consider the hierarchical structure of the school orchestra. Rebels will be happiest right at the back where they can muck about with impunity, so consider the trumpet, trombone or tuba. To cope with close proximity to the conductor, your child will either need to be well-behaved or an extremely good actor, which may explain why first violins always have a pious air of deep concentration. Percussionists are a breed apart, partly because, like pianists, they have to sight-read vertically as well as horizontally, which demands a certain mental dexterity. 

Because they have already spent years making neighbours very cross, they also have a devil-may-care insouciance and an air of great enjoyment.

If the woodwind section is high and mighty, bassoonists, according to Daniel Jemison, principal bassoonist with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, have the reputation of being quirky - "eccentric oddballs", as he puts it. "They're usually very tall, thin people." Most flautists are female, so you might want to persuade your son to take up the flute to give him a wide choice of future girlfriends.

If, on the other hand, your priority is a selective secondary school at the age of 11, push him towards what the Guildhall School of Music and Drama calls "rare breeds" - that is, rarely chosen instruments. These include the bassoon, the oboe, the tuba and the unfortunate viola. School orchestras will kill for any of these, which makes the offer of a place much more likely.

Step outside the traditional orchestral instruments and you will no longer figure on the radar of those who know their Bach from their Berlioz. Eyes will glaze over at competitive dinner parties if you mention that your child plays the guitar (electric or otherwise) or the saxophone. Saxophones aren't posh. This may be because the instrument wasn't invented until 1850, so its repertoire is relatively limited. On the other hand, the saxophone, like the clarinet, is cool because of its association with jazz. A cellist is flamboyant; a saxophonist doesn't need to try that hard.

Consider, too, your purse, your back and your sanity. Some instruments cost thousands. Others are so heavy that you'll be taking your child to school until he's 18, which will dent his confidence and your patience.

"My six-year-old was desperate to learn the harp," a friend confided. "I held my breath for months until he decided he wanted to play the piano instead." But, as you sit like a witch in Macbeth, plotting your child's musical career, chance encounters may put paid to your plans. As a boy, Brian Thomson, a trumpeter with the Royal Philharmonic, joined the brass band in his village in Scotland and was given a cornet. It sealed his musical fate. "If it had been a pipe band, I'd have ended up playing bagpipes." Try to influence your child's choice of instrument. But, if it all goes horribly wrong, put on a brave face. Any instrument is better than no instrument, as many a musically-thwarted adult will tell you. One thing's for sure: if your child insists on a harp, you'll need a bigger car.

Tags: "choosing the right instrument" "music education" violin guitar piano