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Why on Earth Would My Child Play the Tuba?

Why on earth would my child play the tuba?

Sitting in the audience of an orchestral concert at Michigan's Interlochen Center for the Arts, the oldest music and arts camp in the country, last month, my conductor husband, Stephen Simon, leaned over to me and whispered, "Why hasn't someone taken some of those larger kids in the violin section aside and suggested that they play the viola?" Indeed, there were approximately 50 violinists in the junior orchestra and only 4 violists!

Orchestras have traditionally had the "unusual" instruments: viola, double bass, French horn, bass clarinet, bassoon and tuba. The normal progression is that a child starts on the violin and then switches to viola; from trumpet to French horn; from cello to double bass; from clarinet to bass clarinet; from baritone horn to tuba. Many parents may be alarmed by the switch. After all, they have invested in lessons and, often, an instrument for their child. In addition, they may feel that their child is not "following through" if he/she changes instruments before the initial choice has been mastered. Other parents just wonder why on earth their child wants to play an instrument that they may never have heard of before.

high school music student practicing his scales on the tuba during a break at band practice

A ​bassoonist recounted the following story to parents and their children following a young people's classical music for kids concert at the Kennedy Center. "I had taken piano lessons but hated to practice. In time, my parents got tired of paying for lessons for which I didn't practice. By junior high, I had been selected for a music and arts magnet school, but I decided that I would definitely not take any music. Then one day the band director called me out of my homeroom and spoke very seriously. 'We have culled the records of every student in the school and we have determined that you are the perfect student to study the bassoon. Will you do this?"' She went home and told her parents. They were understandably hesitant. "You didn't practice the piano. Why do you think that this will be any different?" She felt, however, that she had been "chosen"; she was special, unique; she had to do it. So, after much pleading and promising from her, her parents relented. Thirty years later (and still friends with the now 80-year old band director), she reflected, "I have come to realize that I really was 'the perfect student' because I was tall and had large hands, and I could read music....that was it!" Now she holds one of the top jobs in her field in the country.

​Playing an unusual instrument allows a child to be special.

 Band directors and orchestra directors cherish the child who is willing to take the leap and help them out. Imagine Peter and the Wolf without the hunters' French horns, or Tubby the Tuba without a tuba! No symphony is composed without violas. Most people rarely notice them, but if they were missing, the orchestra would be colorless. And yet, many a school band or orchestra director faces the beginning of the year with no one to play these instruments. The teacher will remember the child whom he/she has led and nurtured on one of them; they will have special times together because the teacher understands that being different requires additional adult appreciation and encouragement. No bassoon player who is thinking of quitting will be relinquished easily by the band/orchestra director.

Nothing that your child has ever learned in music is wasted.

 If you have paid for trumpet lessons, which taught him/her how to read music, count rhythms, play in tune, listen and phrase, be attuned to correct hand and mouth positions, etc., all of this transfers to the French horn. Some of the fingerings are even the same. The trumpet player would proceed rapidly should he/she make the switch from trumpet to viola, since 90% of what he/she has learned would be transferable. So do not feel that your investment in lessons has been a waste. It has set an excellent foundation for a more versatile musician.

The instrument which they have purchased is always a sore spot with parents. The good news is that most instruments are resalable, and if one has invested in something better than a student model, it is possible to recoup almost the entire investment. (If you have a student instrument, an ad in the local newspaper, a sign on the school bulletin board, and putting out the word with the band/orchestra director and the child's teacher, usually sells the instrument fairly quickly. And if you lose $100, think of all the Fisher-Price toys you have given away over the years in comparison!) The other good news is that many schools actually own double basses, bassoons, bass clarinets and tubas. Directors know that they need incentives to get students to take up these instruments and that parents are loath to purchase them in the beginning, so many directors include these instruments in their budgets as requirements in order to make their programs succeed. Should your child come home with the idea of playing an unusual instrument, call the school and find out what they own. If the school does not own the instrument, the band/orchestra director would be very willing to assist you in finding a reasonable rental until you, your child and the teacher are certain that this is going to work.

playing a tuba on the beach during a beautiful sunset

The ultimate question is whether your child wants or needs to be special.

I know a young man who began trumpet in the 5th grade when his school was offering instrument music lessons. He practiced hard and enjoyed the trumpet, but there was another boy who had begun a year earlier with private lessons, his mother recounted, and no matter how hard Bill practiced, it seemed to him that he was destined to always be the 2nd chair trumpet. A clever band director in need of a French horn player took Bill aside and suggested that he might enjoy switching to the French horn. Bill was soon playing first chair French horn and started playing in the local town band as well - the age of 14! He loved playing the French horn, but he also likes being in demand.

Being in demand lasts far beyond the initial leap. College admission departments have lists of instrumentalists that their bands and orchestras need, and students actually get scholarships to play, even if they are not planning to be music majors. Remember, few colleges need more violinists or trumpet players. When no other teacher seems to have the time or interest in discussing life and how things are going with your child, the band/orchestra director will take a moment if he/she sees that their only double bass player is not looking very happy this week......after all, he/she wants to make sure that the problem is Chemistry or Science and not the double bass! Finally, there will be opportunities for the bassoonist to be invited to play with older students when there is no high school bassoon player, or, even with adults because they are in need of the instrument to complete the ensemble.

Final Note:

The unusual instrument brings surprising rewards. Be courageous and encourage your child should they have the interest.

Bonnie Ward Simon

Bonnie Ward Simon, BA, MA, M.Ed, M.Phil.,

President of Maestro Classics

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