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Tuba or flute? Picking the right instrument for your child

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
updated 11:46 AM EDT, Mon September 9, 2013
Justin Timberlake may be best known for his masterful singing and dancing, but he also plays the guitar and piano. Click through to see other stars who started playing music when they were kids. Justin Timberlake may be best known for his masterful singing and dancing, but he also plays the guitar and piano. Click through to see other stars who started playing music when they were kids.
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Performers who started playing music young
Performers who started playing music young
Performers who started playing music young
Performers who started playing music young
Performers who started playing music young
Performers who started playing music young
Performers who started playing music young
Performers who started playing music young
Performers who started playing music young
Performers who started playing music young
Performers who started playing music young
Performers who started playing music young
Performers who started playing music young
Performers who started playing music young
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Music educators use body type and personality to determine best instrument for a child
  • Experts look at how outgoing a child is, lip size, height to make best match
  • Best advice for parents is to first let the child decide what he or she wants to play
  • Researchers say music training turns kids into more effective learners

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She's a mom of two girls and lives in Manhattan. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Most parents are probably so focused on just getting our kids to play an instrument that we don't give much thought to the question: "What's the right instrument for my child?"

Quite honestly, on the list of things I'm supposed to keep in mind as a parent, I never knew such a question existed. Until now.

Ron Chenoweth is the band and orchestra division manager for Ken Stanton Music, a Georgia-based music education company with nearly 100 teachers providing more than 1,000 lessons every week.

Part of Chenoweth's job includes managing a team that regularly goes into schools to help band directors determine what instrument each student should play. Two things he and his colleagues are always looking at are body type and personality.

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If a child likes to be the star of the show, Chenoweth might steer the child to the flute because flutists tend to stand in front of the band.

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"I look for the kid that's smiley, happy, sometimes talkative, rather than just very, very quiet," said Chenoweth, who has been with Ken Stanton Music for 16 years. "They usually are asking questions and they'll say, 'Well, I want to do this because ... ' and so they're telling you their story."

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Other instruments for extroverts, Chenoweth says, are the saxophone and trumpet.

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"They tend to be lead instruments, whether a jazz band or a show band. They play that higher melodic part, and these kids tend to be almost uncontrollable at some point," he said with a laugh. "But they just are very outgoing. You don't really see the quiet ones go that way."

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How body type factors in

Physical characteristics can determine the best instrument for a child too. Take the bassoon, for example, which isn't ideal for small kids.

"The bassoon, when assembled, is almost 6 feet tall, and the spread of the finger holes is ridiculous," he said.

Someone with very small lips might be better suited for the trumpet or French horn, while someone with larger lips might have trouble playing those instruments, according to Chenoweth.

"The cup size of a trumpet or a French horn would be too small, and they wouldn't actually be able to produce a good sound," said Chenoweth, who played the French horn in his high school and college marching bands and has been involved in music education ever since.

"And then sometimes you're surprised. ... Somebody you thought 'Oh, they'll never get the sound out of this trumpet,' and away they go."

I asked Chenoweth what personality and physical attributes might lead to success with other instruments:

Oboe: An important trait for mastering this "very intricate" instrument is "above average intelligence," according to Chenoweth.

Tuba: An excellent choice for students with larger lips, he said.

Trombone: The player's front teeth should be even. "You want a nice bite that shouldn't be in need of orthodontia," he said.

Violin: Kids can start playing as early as 2 to 3 years old. "I think because they have varying sizes, it makes them rather universal," said Chenoweth, who started playing the clarinet in the fourth grade.

Piano: Long fingers or large hands are desirable, and so is being a good thinker. "Physically they're going to need good dexterity with their hands," said Chenoweth. "You would probably look for a propensity to something analytical, somebody who might show a little bit of inquisitiveness."

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Let them play what they want to play

Even before you start assessing whether an instrument matches your child's personality, or if they have the right body type for success, you should let your child be the guide, Chenoweth says.

"My first thing is you have to get them onto an instrument that they first are interested in because if there's little interest in playing it, there will be the same amount of success -- very little," he added.

Try not to push them to play what you played, said Chenoweth. "Private lessons at home with the parent are not necessarily going to be successful," he said with a laugh.

And always try to be supportive, even when it just might not be music to your ears.

"We all know that the sounds are not going to be great," said Chenoweth, but parents should try to stay positive. That means avoiding comments such as, " 'Oh here we go. Here's something new to try for three months and then you're going to give it up. Are you ever going to pick something that you're going to stick with?' "

The importance of music education in schools

Why music matters

Dr. Nina Kraus, professor of communication sciences, neurobiology, and physiology, and the director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University, has been studying the impact of music training on a child's cognitive development for almost a decade. Her extensive research has been published in more than 200 journals and media publications.

Defining a musician as someone who plays music twice a week for 20 minutes, she and her team compare how the brains of musicians and non-musicians respond to sound and the impact music playing has on the musician's attention, language, memory and reading abilities.

"The same biological ingredients that are important for reading are those that are strengthened through playing a musical instrument," said Kraus. "The ability to categorize sounds, to pull out important sounds from background noise, to respond consistently to the sounds in one's environment ... these are all ingredients that are important for learning, for auditory learning, for reading, (and) for listening in classrooms."

Her findings, she said, have a clear message for policymakers and parents.

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"It's not just about your child becoming a violinist," said Kraus, a mother of three whose children all played an instrument growing up. "It's about setting up your child to be a more effective learner for all kinds of things."

And the benefits continue even after a child stops playing, says Kraus.

"The brain continues to profit long after the music lessons have stopped," she said. (To visualize Kraus' extensive research and comprehensive findings, check out her slideshow.)

If my girls weren't already signed up for music lessons this fall (we're starting with piano!), I'd be signing them up today.

Follow Kelly Wallace on Twitter and like CNN Living on Facebook.

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