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, overall suitability, and the needs of the program must all be considered.  

Let’s start with interest and appeal.  Check out the following website.  Here you can explore each of the instruments more in depth.  Because EVERY child is unique (barring peer influence), they often gravitate towards unique choices. Most often it's something they enjoy hearing and sometimes its a physical attribute.  Past experiences play a role as well.  Compile a list of your favorite 3 and then begin to narrow it down.  

Suitability is a big factor.  Each student must manage the size and the technical requirements, like the size of the keys, reach, weight etc.  Some instruments are simply too popular so it limits opportunity  WIth some discussion and trial,  another choice can be discovered that yields a lot of enjoyment and success.  Some students are very open minded and in most cases barring physical limitations, with good instruction they can learn almost instrument.  But appeal or interest does play a role in the long term success.  Students who enjoy their instrument are more likely to continue into high school and beyond.  As they progress,  their appreciation and interest will also grow alongside their confidence and experience.

Start Young!

Just like learning a language,  beginning music instruction at an early age is the most beneficial.   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 and the instructor will help guide each student on suitable starting instrument.  Although the instruction is limited and only offered once per week, 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.

However, the students in elementary school are also limited in size, so they 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.

Our advanced  ensembles are widely recognized 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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

What's in Demand……...Perhaps a College Scholarship?

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%   Choosing one of the instruments in greater demands will also yield more opportunity in the school groups, middle school and beyond.    Same is true for scholarship opportunities  College scholarships are certainly available for any  instrument for those highly qualified,  but more students have been awarded a scholarship to play play french horn, trombone, bassoon, baritone, tuba, and string bass then any other.