By James Boldin
Recently I had the opportunity to assist some local middle school band directors in the process of instrument selection for an incoming class of sixth-graders. This was my first such event, and I must say that it was incredibly well organized, despite the large number of parents and students in attendance. The way the process worked was as follows. Parents brought their rising sixth-graders to the school’s band room, where demonstration areas were set up for each of the woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments. Students could then tour the various instruments, trying as many or as few as they liked. Numerous educators were stationed at each area to assist the students in choosing an instrument. As we coached each student through the bare essentials necessary to produce a sound on a brass instrument (just breath and buzz, right?), we were also supposed to assess as best as possible what their potential was on that instrument. Based on this brief tryout, along with their scores on a basic aural skills test given earlier, we then put together our best recommendation as to which instrument each student should choose. We of course worked together with the students and parents to arrive at a choice with which all parties – student, parents, and band director – could be satisfied. The entire thing was a tremendous learning experience for me, and I made sure to talk with the band directors well before the event to share ideas on what traits would be most beneficial to young horn players. Although there are certainly many more things which could be added, the following list (in no particular order) represents some of the items we ranked as most important.
- An Interest in the Horn: As I showed each instrument to the students, I paid close attention to their reactions, as this may have been the first time they had even seen these instruments up close. It was quite interesting to watch their eyes light up in response to a particular instrument, and of course I was looking especially for those who seemed to be drawn to the horn. Philip Farkas talked about “the love for the horn,” and I think it is this initial attraction and subsequent devotion to the instrument which makes it so special.
- Listening Test Score: This was an important issue for the band directors, as they set a minimum required score for those students interested in playing the horn. The ability to match pitches is incredibly important for beginning horn players, although the skill can definitely be learned quickly by an eager and devoted student. At this particular event there weren’t any students interested in the horn who scored below the minimum.
- Determination/Work Ethic: This is another one which should be considered very carefully, as the horn can be more difficult to get results on at first. Even for talented, dedicated students, there will be frustrations throughout their careers as horn players, requiring determination and a willingness to work in order to succeed. I often asked the students if they considered themselves hard workers, a question which they seemed to answer very honestly most of the time.
- Grades: I wouldn’t say that students need to have straight A’s to play the horn, but if they are already struggling in school they may find it challenging to put in the necessary practice time to progress on the instrument. Likewise, if there are severe behavior issues the horn may not be the best choice for a beginner
One other issue I tried to make clear to both the students and the parents was that their decision was not set in stone. There are numerous professional players out there who started on an instrument other than the horn, and it is not unusual for students to switch instruments either in middle or high school. I could tell that what the students perceived as a decision of great importance sometimes made it difficult for them to make their final choice. In those cases I reassured them that they weren’t signing up to play the instrument forever, and they could definitely switch instruments if they were unhappy with their initial choice – depending of course on the recommendation of their band directors and the needs of the ensemble. If you have other thoughts on characteristics you generally look for in beginning horn players, I’d love to hear them – feel free to comment below.
James Boldin is an Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, and currently holds the Dr. William R. Hammond Professorship in Liberal Arts. At ULM he teaches applied horn and music history courses, and performs with Black Bayou Brass.