What to Expect When Beginning Lessons on Different Instruments – Focus on Brass, Woodwind and Vocal

It has been said that saxophone is the easiest instrument to play…. badly. This, the final post in this series will discuss what to expect when beginning lessons on brass and woodwind instruments and voice. This follows posts discussing; piano and drums; guitar and bass; violin, viola and cello. As always, there are many rewards and some challenges involved in learning to play any musical instrument. The instruments being discussed today all add a dimension that has not yet been discussed which is the control of facial muscles and breath, requiring you to become conscious of what is normally an unconscious process. Like all of the other instruments brass, woodwind and voice also involve learning proper postures and positions for the rest of the body as well.

Let’s focus first on brass and woodwind instruments. Woodwind instruments include the saxophones, clarinet, flute and bassoon among others.  All but the flute are reed instruments.  For reed instruments, sound is produced by blowing through the reed which is a thin strip of material attached to the mouthpiece with a ligature. To produce a sound on the flute you blow over the hole in the mouthpiece in the same way you would blow over the mouth of a bottle. Brass instruments include trumpet, trombone, tuba and French horn to name a few.  Brass instruments produce sound through a metal mouthpiece. The mouthpiece is similar on most brass instruments, usually varying only in size. Sound is produced by placing your lips on the mouthpiece and blowing while vibrating your lips. The larger the mouthpiece, the lower the sound of the instrument. The pitch of the vibration in woodwind and brass instruments is determined by the length of the tube and by manual modifications of the length of the vibrating column of air which is changed by depressing keys, covering holes or in the case of a trombone moving the slide in and out. 

Unlike any of the other instruments previously discussed all of the brass and woodwind instruments require assembly. After assembly and before playing the instruments all require tuning which entails adjusting the length of the instrument by manipulating the mouthpiece or other component of the instrument. Shortening the length will raise the pitch and lengthening it will lower the pitch. The basic concept is consistent with the tuning of the string instruments. Music for woodwind and brass instruments is written in standard notation. All of the saxophones, clarinet, flute and trumpet are written in treble clef while trombone, tuba and bassoon are written in bass clef. These instruments can all be found in classical settings such as orchestras as well as jazz, pop and rock bands.

To play the brass and woodwind instruments students must learn breath control and correct embouchure (the proper use of facial muscles and the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece) as well as all of the other technical aspects of posture and position. In level of difficulty, the easiest to get a sound out of is a brass instrument, followed by the reed instruments and finally the flute. There is of course a distinction between between making a sound and making music. It will take time to learn to coordinate all of the nuances necessary to produce a beautiful tone.  At the first lesson, students may expect to do no more than learn how assemble their instruments, hold them, properly blow air through their mouthpieces, clean, disassemble and store them back in their cases.

The woodwinds and brass are generally appropriate for children who are around eight or nine years old, whose fingers are big enough to cover the holes and whose arms are long enough to reach. With that in mind, the flute is sometimes available with a bent head, which shortens it’s length for young beginners. Most schools have many opportunities for students of all levels to enjoy the fruits of their labor by playing in various bands and ensembles. Adult students can enjoy the playing opportunities afforded by local volunteer bands and orchestras.

Finally, let’s discuss voice lessons. You might have a preconceived notion that the easiest first lesson is a voice lesson. We can all sing on some level at the beginning and at the end of the initial lesson. However, studying voice requires a level of muscular control, training and development that is very difficult for a young student. We have heard over the years that voice lessons can be a bit intimidating as they are very personal in nature. It is generally best to wait for formal vocal training to begin until children who are at least eight or nine years old.

During a voice lesson, you will sing, get feedback on the sounds that you’re making and suggestions on ways to improve those sounds. You will learn techniques to control your breathing and posture, stretch your range, adjust your pitch and project your voice. Voice is the one instrument whose components we can not see. Since your voice is produced by your own anatomy it is important to remember that any constructive criticism is about your singing technique and isn’t directed at you personally.

As you develop your singing voice, your teacher may use images to help you understand how to make the best sounds. The teacher may ask you to notice sensations as you sing, give you something to visualize, or give you something to listen for. All three approaches can work beautifully though you may find that one approach works best for you. If your teacher describes something to you and explains the anatomy of why that worked, you may need to remember what it felt like when you made the best sounds or if you enjoy working with images, you can find a way to visualize the sound. Don’t fret if a teacher wants to explain the technicalities of what is happening physically. You may think that you do not want to know about that in the beginning, but later on, you may come to appreciate having the information.

You will need time to really grasp the concepts taught in voice lessons and hear profound changes in your voice. You will hear some change within the first month, but the big concepts and tough technical exercises may take a while to gel.  As with all instruments, enjoy each lesson with the understanding that you are on a journey that simply can’t be made in one day.



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