The woodwind instrument family makes up a large portion of instruments found in ensembles and orchestras around the world. From flutes, clarinets, oboes and bassoons for classic applications to the sweet jazzy tone from the saxophone, woodwind instruments are a great way to start your journey down your musical path.
With so much variation, how can one choose one out of the variety of instruments available? Well, it depends on a few personal factors:
- Hand Size
- Age and Skill Level
- Concentration, Dedication & Amount of Necessary Practice
If you’re a parent looking for a student instrument for your child, like a saxophone or clarinet, this will pertain to you in your search for a beginner instrument. If you’re an expert looking for a new instrument, this will also pertain to you.
We go into detail below on the best woodwind instruments based on your needs, so just keep on reading!
- 1 Things To Consider When Choosing A Woodwind Instrument
- 2 The Different Types of Woodwind Instruments
- 3 Doubling Up On Woodwind Instruments
- 4 Conclusion
Things To Consider When Choosing A Woodwind Instrument
Hand Size & Player Size
Before any decision on what would sound cool to you, the most important thing to take into account, obviously, is player size. An instrument that is just too big won’t be comfortable for a smaller player, as will a small instrument for a larger player. This should be the first step you consider when picking out a woodwind instrument for the first time, or considering a new woodwind instrument.
Beginning woodwind players start on basic instruments, such as:
- Alto Saxophone
For many early schools and middle schools, these are the basic recommendations for students, and for good reason: they are the cheaper bunch of beginner woodwind instruments and are versatile in allowing for development into more advanced playstyles. However, you must consider that these are great for beginners in the early teens, but some considerations may come into play when looking at the bigger picture.
A great example for the sake of this topic is player size and hand size. A younger player starting may have difficulty handling a beginner clarinet if their hands are too small; this discomfort can completely hinder their progress than if they had just chosen a different instrument to begin with. This is a common reason for squeaking and airy notes: the student is having a hard time covering the tone holes entirely. For this student, alternatives such as the alto saxophone or the flute may be more manageable due to the covered tone holes.
Along with hand size is the other important factor in this topic, which is instrument size.
Ask yourself: “Will I/my child be comfortable standing, or sitting, for a period of time with this instrument?”
A great example of this was back in my middle school band, where the flutists would exercise good posture by keeping their flutes horizontally aligned to the floor. Bad posture can create a number of problems, including:
- Diminished Airflow
- Poor Sound Quality
- Pain (this one depends on the instrument: “no pain, no gain!” does not apply here!)
- Motivation Dwindling
By making sure you or your child is comfortable playing for great lengths on an instrument that is comfortable to play and manageable, you set yourself up for success in the beginning stages. Of course, perfect practice makes perfect, but if you’re uncomfortable with your instrument, you’ll be less inclined to practice in the first place.
Age, Teeth, and Skill Level
This is also an important factor when deciding on the perfect woodwind instrument:
“Are you a beginner with no knowledge of music at all even if you tried your darndest, or are you an exquisite musician flamboyantly capable of mastering even the toughest instrument?”
While this shows two very different levels of expertise, this is the second factor that comes into play when choosing an instrument: age, and skill level.
If you’re looking for your child, make sure that they have their front adult teeth in. With missing baby teeth, you’ll have an awkward time learning the ropes, but if your adult teeth haven’t come in at all, it’s likely you’ll have major setbacks and hurdles to jump through. This is because your front adult teeth are the source for the back pressure put on the mouthpiece; without these extremely important teeth, it will be nearly impossible to play a traditional wooden mouthpiece, and difficult to form and support the necessary embouchure of all woodwind instruments, no matter the mouthpiece.
Braces suck, and while it makes it much more difficult to play and practice, other musicians have done it and there are methods to overcome this necessary medical procedure.
Through toughing out some discomfort, specialized mouth guards and waxes, you can ease this discomfort and minimize the problems associated with teeth.
As for skill level, this carries hundreds of variables that you must consider. To save you time reading and me time writing, let’s narrow down these variables into simpler topics so that you can have a general understanding of what this entails:
- Prior Music Theory Knowledge
- Prior Experience With Woodwinds
- Prior Fingering Experience With Other Instruments
A person who played trumpet for years that suddenly decides to pick up the alto saxophone will have a much harder time than someone who played clarinet for years and does the same. I did this in high school, and no longer play the saxophone (although I dabble with my trumpet still). This principle also applies to those with prior experience playing woodwinds wanting to start on a more difficult, advanced instrument. We go into this below.
Concentration, Dedication & Amount of Necessary Practice
At a very young age, kids nowadays are bombarded with new information, whether it comes from their history teacher or their music teacher. This information overload can cause problems with concentration for these kids, especially when they juggle school, sports, music, and other activities.
Starting you or your child on a woodwind instrument that is basic enough to learn without too much accommodation is tricky, as the embouchure can be tricky for some students and you’ll be learning all the fingerings while learning music theory at the same time. Commonly, violin and piano are the first instruments that many people learn due to the concentration they take compared to first learning a woodwind. With woodwinds, it is suggested that the child know how to read first before continuing (reading music is a whole other language aside from English, so having grasp on that is extremely important).
Practice is important too, as it creates a backbone to develop off of. Practicing at least a half an hour a day is a minimum instilled by my variety of music teachers, and I mean a bare minimum: when I did trumpet lessons, I was practicing for almost 4 hours/day! (Talk about blown chops!). Basic woodwinds (flutes, clarinets, saxophones) do not take nearly as much concentration, dedication, or finesse as, say, the oboe, or the basson. Such instruments are vastly more complicated than should be for a beginner, and as such should be learned after a few years practicing another less complicated instrument.
Beginner (or Preliminary) Woodwind Instruments
Especially at a young age, most kids may not be ready to start on a real instrument, and that is okay! If you’re child isn’t quite ready, don’t be afraid of turning them off!
Learning piano is a fundamental skill if you want to learn music theory at a young age; it isn’t necessary to have piano experience to know music theory, but it is much more explainable to a younger person. It teaches the basics of treble and bass clef, used by almost all instruments in the orchestra, it teaches rhythms and notes and the differences between notes, and helps develop hand-eye coordination, especially if they get to a point where they can read music and play without looking!
String instruments, such as violin, also teach these basics (some string instruments play in what is known as alto clef, a specialty clef for these instruments only). Violin is great for matching pitches and if they have an interest in stringed instruments, it will create the necessary chalices on the hands for this group of instrument.
Note: While woodwind instruments have more structured fingerings than string instruments such as the violin, woodwind players must pay attention to their intonation and pitch at all times. Nothing is worse than a flute/piccolo soli that results in a series of mismatched notes and cringy faces. 🙂
The Different Types of Woodwind Instruments
At this point in the article, I’m sure you have a basic grasp of a woodwind instrument. Here, we list the different types, and their differences between each other.
Ahh, the good ol’ recorder. Playing Hot Cross Buns on this thing sounded like Satan himself rose from the band room and conducted the symphony!
I kid, but for many kids, this will be the first thing they play. Most elementary school music programs require a recorder course, and it can pay off for those looking to get into music. Coming in as the cheapest and easiest woodwind instrument to play, this is a fantastic choice for the curious kiddo looking to make some jams.
The recorder is made of plastic, inexpensive, light, and only have a few finger holes. They are easy to make sound through, and are versatile even with the limitations (and ungodly sound! Gahh!)
This thing will not sound good, no matter how hard you try to imagine it. However, breathe control and keeping time come from learning this instrument, and should be an experience your child (or even you!) should have.
This is a very common beginner instrument, and for good reason: light, shiny, and not too expensive (at least for a beginner model flute.) Don’t let these simple feature fool you however, as the flute is pretty difficult to learn, as are most instruments. Don’t let this dissuade you, but be aware. Essentially, playing flute is like blowing over the top of a bottle, at all times, in time with the band. You must sit straight up, and keep good posture. Younger musicians may have a hard time holding it horizontally, or reaching some keys, but curved-head flutes exist for this very reason. They make it easier to manage for the aspiring flute beginner. All in all, looking into the sound and techniques behind each woodwind must happen before truly deciding on you, or your child’s, instrument.
Now we’re getting into the meat: the clarinet. This is a very common beginner woodwind instrument, and the first on the list to include a reed: a wooden splint placed on a ceramic or plastic mouthpiece that is vibrated through the mouth. This is why it is important to have adult front teeth when learning the clarinet.
Air control is essential, as well as is forming a proper embouchure early on. This prevents air leaks out the mouth, and proper form allows for a proper vibration, giving the clear distinct tone you want and not the airy tone you don’t. Unlike a flute, the reeds are breakable (made of wood, and are thin!) and thus will incur an additional expense beyond other instruments.
Balance and posture are especially important in the clarinet, and a correct bell angle combined with these important factors will result in easier playing and better sound without tension or pain (remember: “no pain, no gain” does not apply here!).
Luckily for the aspiring clarinetist, there are a variety of lightweight bells, neck straps, and thumb rests that will make it easier to play and customize your instrument at the same time.
Younger students may have a hard time playing clarinet due to small hands not being able to cover and seal some of the ring keys. Starting on a flute or saxophone may be a better option for these students, but weigh each option individually before deciding.
The hippest of the hip, jazzed up players know that the saxophone is a sexy music machine capable of concocting even the most alluring tune.
For beginners and students, you’ll likely start out on an alto saxophone, due to the cheaper price for these models and the easier training than others. (In case you were wondering, the saxophone has 4 types: soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone.)
The saxophone is very similar to the clarinet in a variety of ways, including the reed embouchure. It is slightly larger on the saxophone, but is required for this type of instrument. It is the heaviest of beginner woodwind instruments, and accommodating this problem with a neck strap is the only way to go if you want to ensure a comfortable time playing this instrument.
For beginners, all the above apply.
This part is for the experienced musicians.
The oboe and the bassoon both use a double-reed mouthpiece, and are considered more advanced woodwind instruments.
Instead of the single reed like the clarinet or the saxophone, these instruments use a double reed: two thing pieces of precisely-shaped cane that vibrate and make sound when blown into properly. Learning how to form the embouchure for these instruments and shaping the cane are too difficult for younger students to grasp, and as such are not recommended for beginners.
When talking expenses, these instruments are more expensive to maintain, the reeds are more pricey, and they are more delicate and temperamental than the recommended beginner instruments reeds. The oboe is held similarly to the clarinet, but has marginal differences that make a huge sound difference. For example, you have to hold the instrument “out” to make an embouchure on an oboe, and younger students will have a much harder time doing this.
The bassoon is very large, heavy, and must also be held at the proper position to create the proper sound. Chair straps and hand rests are available for this monster woodwind instrument, but if you’re small or just getting into music, the bassoon is not recommended for beginners. Maintaining posture, embouchure, and relaxed hand positions is key to playing the bassoon.
Doubling Up On Woodwind Instruments
It is not uncommon for many woodwind players to double up. Flutes and piccolos, for example, are an extremely common doubling to due the similar embouchure and fingerings. More advanced orchestras often have doubled parts for their experienced musicians, and you’ll see this in orchestras, plays, and other musical performances.
As a trumpet player, I had to learn flugelhorn, cornet, and piccolo trumpet as well. These doublings help me succeed as a player and further my music repertoire.
Saxophonists, with the proper training, could potentially learn all 4 saxophones and quadruple up, or even learn clarinet! (clarinetists: this one pertains to you). Or, the bass clarinet is another option. Jazz musicians often learn a variety of these woodwinds, especially the tenor, alto, and soprano saxophones.
These are only examples of doublings, but when done properly, a musician that knows and specializes with a handful of different instruments can be an extremely powerful player with much opportunity and skill.
Before buying a new instrument, if you are an existing musician, try renting one from a local music shop. You’ll get a feel for how they work.
The woodwind family of instruments comes in all sizes, shapes, colors, and even embouchures! Finding recordings online of famous jazz musicians or even orchestral players can help determine what sound you want to be known for; even better, go to the local coffee shop on open mic night. Talk to the players, get their experiences, and their advice.
No matter what you do, a path in music has a vast array of benefits and can greatly improve your life. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced musician, there is a woodwind for you. So go out there, find yourself a woodwind, and start playing!