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June 04, 2006


"The horn, the horn, the lusty horn
Is not a thing to laugh to scorn."

But do not let rilkekind learn it. There are just enough horn players that you can't pick up gigs with ease, yet the number is small enough to foster this 'we are better than everyone else' (well, we are, but that's beside the point) and think that you are actually good enough to make it in the cold cruel world of professional music. It's too big to comfortably carry, though it seems a lot better than a bass or a tuba, so you think that you are set. Ultra conservative, so that you are having to learn how to transpose parts on the fly, a range that is far too large to comfortably master both ends, the whole instrument, because it is a combination of 7 (or 14 or even 21) lengths of tubing, has painful intonation problems that are supposed to be solved by shoving your right hand in the bell. In fact, because it started out as a hand horn and the right hand controlled the pitch, and the valves were added later, it is the only brass instrument that is 'left handed', and if you are as right handed as I am, it's a killer.

I agree with Hilzoy, if I had to do it all over again, it would have been oboe, though the initial learning period is a lot like violin (squeaky, squeaky, squeaky) Small, light, never enough players, always needed, some seriously cool parts (am now listening to Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, and the oboe part on the prelude is just brilliant) The only downsides are an obsessive concern with reeds, and you can't play jazz, but any instrument you can play jazz on is an instrument that has too many players.

I waffle between violin, guitar and tenor saxophone. Right now I'm favoring violin, which seems to combine the best worlds offered by the other two: It has a large relative dynamic range and articulatory flexibility (as with the tenor sax) and plenty of multistop opportunities (as with the guitar). Plus that tonal brilliance that is all the violin's own.

On the reading issue: I started on the guitar, but play all three instruments (with varying degrees of success). Interestingly (to me anyway), I find sightreading far more difficult on the guitar than on the fiddle or sax, even though guitar is my main instrument.

On the choice of instrument: I would say the advantages of starting young on violin are large. Appropriate sizing is available, and there's a much richer pedagogical program for violinists than for either guitar or saxophone. My sense is that if you start on violin it would be relatively easy to learn the guitar or sax later on. The other way around, not so much. (Oy, my aching back.)

On the issue of "impacted" instruments (i.e., those where the supply of players outstrips demand), liberal japonicus' remarks are well taken, but you can always switch to a related instrument later (e.g., violin to viola, saxophone to oboe or bassoon, electric guitar to bass, etc.). Probably not an issue a young, new student has to worry about.

When I was a kid you started with general music (rythme, listening to various instruments, Peter and the Wolf) and recorder, before you decided on an instrument.

My favorite one is the human voice :)

Good point, Q, but I want my kid to kick some serious butt, not get on (say) trumpet and be the only kid to hear the harmony part and get shifted to horn. And then spend his band years playing Sousa off beats. (yeah, reliving one's youth through your children is always trouble, I know)

Actually, I do think that certain instruments 'fit' people. Yo Yo Ma was interviewed and noted that he immediately fell in love with the cello, his sister, who he thought had as much musical talent as he did, never really found an instrument to suit her (I think, I may be misremembering) Of course, this is more than a bit of transference, as I am sure I would have rocketed to the heights of the music world had I only chosen the right instrument. I coulda been a contenda...

I agree with Hilzoy, if I had to do it all over again, it would have been oboe, though the initial learning period is a lot like violin (squeaky, squeaky, squeaky)

I believe during my initial phase my dad described it as "the mating call of a dying duck". Ever-poetic, he was.

Small, light, never enough players, always needed, some seriously cool parts (am now listening to Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, and the oboe part on the prelude is just brilliant)

Yes to all the above, plus everyone has to tune to you (which is awesome when you're 16, irritating shortly thereafter).

[And man, did I love that Tombeau de Couperin part. Never played it in concert, alas, but I played the heck out of it nonetheless.]

The only downsides are an obsessive concern with reeds,

"Obsessive"? Not even the half of it.

Also beware humidity. Just take it from me.

and you can't play jazz, but any instrument you can play jazz on is an instrument that has too many players.

I'd like to defend its honor but yeah, I don't know any good jazzy oboes or, for that matter, any good oboistic jazz, though I'm sure someone will convince me otherwise.

Of course, all this is at some remove since I haven't played the oboe in over ten years now -- it's sitting forlorn in my closet, waiting for me to earn enough money to a) relearn how to make reeds and b) have a quiet space in which to practice* -- but I still love it so :)

* The School of Music, lovely institution though it may be, has all kinds of Byzantine rules regarding who may or may not use the practice rooms. Suffice to say that basically, I can't.

Good point about the value of a good oboist. And it's true that a string trio wishing to play the Mozart flute quartets can at will find a better flutist than whoever. Still oboe seems a little constraining compared to flute or clarinet, and hard, and a little willful.

Serious violinists and (esp?) violists seem to develop joint problems - I knew a young amateur violinist who could do something unspeakable with her elbow tendon as a result of her injury. And I'm a little leary of signing him over to the Suzukiists.

Rilkekind's uncle plays piano and guitar professionally so I assume he'll get good advice on those instruments.

Anyway, advice on starting young children on music gratefully noted.

A couple of years ago, in a fit of temporary(?) insanity, I decided to learn to play the piano. Now, we are talking about someone in his fifties who had no prior musical training whatsoever. Why? Who knows?

Turns out, I love it. I practice constantly and am enthralled not only by the music but by the subtleties of the physical aspects - fingering, etc. The mechanics of pianos are also amazing and fascinating, so altogether it has been a success. (Not to say that anyone would actually enjoy hearing me play).

I don't have more to add about playing music, since, as I mentioned, I don't, alas. (I still blame the fact that dad's taste ran only to liberal folkies, such as the Weavers; Peter, Paul, and Mary; etc.; and musicals; while Mom only heard music as noise until I was in my twenties.)

But there are few things I hate more than moving. Even now that I've (been forced to) adopt(ed) a lifestyle with few goods.

But I do note the virtues of Buddhism here. I've gone from being an excessive pack-rat and obsessive collector to goods-are-not-so-good, and although I've been accumulating a fair number of computer games in recent years, I've come to think that, absent the virtues of collecting extremely rare items held by only a few in the sf world, particularly those from the 1930s and 1940s, paying less attention to physical stuff has something to say for itself, quietly.

It takes up less room, anyway.

Bassoon, especially for building strong arm, back and leg muscles. Like the oboe, though, it requires something/everything in the way of embouchure.

I have a certain fondness for it, it being my first instrument. Never was any good at it, though.

The School of Music, lovely institution though it may be, has all kinds of Byzantine rules regarding who may or may not use the practice rooms. Suffice to say that basically, I can't.

UW Mad, right? I was there during a summer taking Thai, and because I was auditioning for the orchestra in the fall at UO, I took my horn to get my chops back into shape and couldn't get into any practice rooms, but in the evenings, there were various classrooms open and I'd practice in there. (yeah, I'm an idiot, though now I know I can't do it all, but that still doesn't stop me from trying) It was summer, but it's not like music majors have any room to complain when someone is practicing.

Am I losing my reason?

If you or the kidlet have even the slightest inclination to write your own music, learn either piano or guitar--or both. Most other instruments have much tighter limitations in terms of key or range, and both of the above are easy to noodle around on and experiment with, and both are readily and cheaply available just about anywhere if you're strapped for cash.

With piano, in particular, you've opened up a whole world of composition possibilities when you factor in electronic keyboards.

(Full bias disclosure: Jess is a luthier, and I spent the better part of my twenties composing music with a computer and keyboard.)

"any good oboistic jazz, though I'm sure someone will convince me otherwise."

Miles Davis used bass clarinet on Bitches Brew is that close enough? And I think I remember oboe sneaking into some stuff of Paul Winter Consort/Oregon/Codona/ECM crowd. That's before research, my memory ain't what it used to be. Chicago II? King Crimson?

There was a time I loved oboe, but in Boccherini and Cherubini chamber music. I think.

I play nothing.

I abused a violin in my youth. I never caught on, nor did I ever play any instrument. I don't recommend it as a beginning instrument unless your child really wants to do it. It is much more difficult to master, and the initial disappointment can be destructive. Piano would be better in my opinion.

Paul McCandless

And it was likely Albinoni I liked so much.

Non-Classical Oboe

I know some of the people on this list. Lindsay Cooper of Henry Cow, Karl Jenkins of Soft Machine,Lateef,Charlie Mariano,Kirk

Is it frustrating to learn piano not being able to play an octave in one hand?

My wife started piano in first grade. She doesn't remember it being frustrating. She prefers the organ now, but she played piano through highschool, competing sucessfully and enjoying it. She says that children have a difficulty in hearing pitch correctly (in the sense of matching and recogizing when they are off) and concurs that the violin is generally not an appropriate first instrument.

"The horn, the horn, the lusty horn
Is not a thing to laugh to scorn."

A couple of months ago I got my sister to give me her old school horn for my birthday. (She's moved on to string bass.) I played it back then -- never as good as she -- but eventually gave up (performing) music in favor of studying math because music is based on aesthetics which is culturally relative, but math is based on truth which is absolute. Ah, the certainties of youth.

I haven't done much with the horn yet because (also being a singer and actor now) I've been doing this gig (playing Herbie).

Sis is pretty much all classical all the time (as was I back in the day) but now I want to take the horn in a jazz direction, where French horn players are thin on the ground and "horn" with no adjective can be anything from trumpet to sax.

Also in my mind is the idea that improvising on a single-voice instrument might be easier than on a piano, my other instrument.

There are actually a few people who play jazz on horn quite well. This list has Tom Bacon, who is/used to be principal horn with Houston, has a few great cds with a big band and who did a series of master classes when I was an undergrad.

I vainly try to play jazz on my horn, and I've got the Aebersold cds that I play along with, but except for the occasional phrase that pops out totally unexpected, everything else I try is sh*te.

For those who wish to consider the spiritual dimension of this choice - but not too seriously - may I commend Garrison Keillor's "A Young Lutheran's Guide to the Orchestra"? Quite a remarkable composition, performed by the author (with the help of a friendly orchestra) on one of his albums: Lake Wobegon, USA, I think.

dutchmarbel writes:

"When I was a kid you started with general music (rythme, listening to various instruments, Peter and the Wolf) and recorder, before you decided on an instrument."

As somebody who was considering the alto recorder as a favorite instrument, I have to shout "What?" Either that or the viola da gamba, which is *so* much easier than cello. 7-string bass, of course, since that's where all the great baroque solo repetoire is. Tenor viol is handy to learn because it fingers just like a G-lute turned sideways if you want to start strumming.

If you have to play unspeakably modern stuff, piano isn't bad. :)

For the particular problem of starting kids, I think the violin is about the earliest feasible - our 3 1/2 year old tried pretty hard for 3 months on a 1/16th, and was physically capable, just didn't have the focus yet. He didn't have the hand span to play recorder, unless you put him on a Garklein or maybe a sopranino - which is like starting somebody on piccolo who doesn't know how to play flute. Bad idea. Maybe we could have tried piano, but I'm so used to being able to span more than an octave that it feels crazy putting somebody with tiny hands at the keyboard.

If you've got somebody a bit older, piano is great because it makes them learn both (modern) clefs and gets them able to follow multiple lines at once, which in turn sets them up for music theory, composing, consort work, and whatever.

We need to second Peter and the Wolf, though. By age 2 1/2 our first could hum most of the instrumental parts, identify the instruments, and had an invisible friend named Peter.

dutchmarbel goes on to write:

"My favorite one is the human voice :)"

Voice is great, but not for children! OK, you can have childrens' choirs, but the voice teacher my wife and I have been working with recently says you really can't do much until people hit full growth; particularly boys, who have to learn to sing all over again when their voices change (example: me).

rilkefan: about your possibly losing your reason: I think that Henley is considering only two specific arguments against abandoning Taiwan, whereas when you say this: "Wait, you’re standing by your claim? That supporting our allies from attack, having made a several-generation commitment to them, and thus unilaterally weakening or shattering other such commitments, is intervention for the sake of intervention?" -- you're talking as though what's at issue is the act of abandonment itself, not specific justifications for it.

Myself, I think that while there is something wrong with the arguments Henley is criticizing, and that it is in the same neighborhood as what he seems to be saying, his explanation of why he takes what he says to be a gloss on his original is uncharacteristically murky. (I kept thinking: "You think these two things are the same? Why? I mean, I can see that they are at least distantly related, but...") The distant relationship made me more sympathetic to Henley than you were; the non-obviousness of his gloss made me more sympathetic to you than he was. (And it's not as though, in your initial comment, you explained your position at great length either. ;) )

Note: only commenting on someone else's blog here in response to rilkefan's specific question.


Believe the oboe that you remember from the Paul Winter Consort album is from the superb piece "Icarus" written by composer and guitarist Ralph Towner, when he was with the group.

"...from the superb piece "Icarus" written by composer and guitarist Ralph Towner"

Well sure, I link to Paul McCandless above. Towner's great, I have solo and Oregon stuff, but I am actually a huge fan of the late Collin Walcott, and have a lot of Codona and solo albums. Only place I can stand Don Cherry.

The album Icarus is a stone classic, and every piece is great, but my favourite is "Ode to a Fillmore Dressing Room" which starts sad and pensive, breaks to silence, followed by Walcott channeling Alvin Lee on sitar. 2nd best sitar:Move, "Fields of People", Shazam.

I don't play anything - parents had weird attitude about my tendency to sing tunelessly and didn't want to try lessons ... oh, well.

My sister, on the other hand, learned piano and recorder. She's really glad about both. I have two main memories of the early years: 1) hearing "Fur Elise" about nine hundred thousand times for what seemed like two years, which cannot have been impossible, and 2) attending a junior high school band concert in which Sally was playing recorder. A friend of my parents summed up that group's level of playing quite accurately by saying, "It's the only band where they have to announce they're going to play 'The Star-Spangled Banner' because otherwise you won't be able to tell what it is." Anyhow, we lived through the concert, went backstage, told Sal she was wonderful, because that's what family does - only to see her burst into tears of rage. She'd had the pipe cleaner inside the recorder the whole concert and had just been pretending to play, because she couldn't bear the idea of taking the pipe cleaner out in front of everyone.

hilzoy, ta.

I played the flute and was pretty good at it, but it is an instrument with very noticeable limitations unless you James Gallway (and having a gold flute helps with the tone too--but who can afford that?).

My poor concert pianist mother didn't convince any of us to learn the piano, despite the fact we had a well-tuned upright grand sitting in the hallway. I wonder if the lack of piano-learning had to do with the annoying perfectionist "if we can't do it well why bother" problem that everyone in my family had. We were nightly exposed to amazing piano playing from my mother after she put us to bed, so any early tries at learning the instrument seemed to have ridiculous consequences. I have since gotten over the problem (see my spelling and seeming inability to use a question mark in comments), but I really do wish I had bothered with the piano instead of the flute now.

a well-tuned upright grand

We had various upright pianos, but none of them were characterizable as "grand"; I believe they were technically "studio" size. We also had a Knabe parlor grand, which sat directly under my bedroom. I still have Fantaisie Impromptu stuck in my head from the endless practicing of it.

Me, I'm the musically debilitated one of the bunch.

Theremin, yeah, that's the ticket.

Pop singer Alison Goldfrapp uses theremins in many of her songs, and is infamous for her unique, sexually provocative way of playing them during live performances

OK, maybe not.

Omigod, I can't believe Wikipedia has an article on theremin without mentioning Lothar and the Hand People. Ignorant philistines.

I was started on the Piano; if I had enjoyed music at all, it wasn't a bad system to start with. Re: Not being able to span an octave-- I played for about two years before I had to chord with either hand. Prior to that, there was a lot of one note at a time followed by one note per hand play.

Serious geek points, Bob. Impressive.

I started on the piano at five, and quite liked my first teacher, who was really, really good. Alas, she moved away or something, and I then went through three teachers, each of whom ended by refusing to teach me any more. (Teachers tended to love or hate me at that age, depending on how much they expected children to Simply Obey, and how much they liked, or at least could tolerate, mischief and impudence.) At that point, my musical career ended for about a decade. -- Oddly, I can't recall having the sight-reading problem then.

I started the guitar at about twelve, and the flute at fifteen. Here's where the sight-reading problem kicked in, not helped at all by the fact that I memorize things quickly, and thus quickly got to the point at which I didn't need to sight-read a given piece. I gave up on the flute a few years later, in despair.

In some ways I am quite musical; in others not at all. I cannot, for love or money, understand music theory, or remember even the most obvious themes of classical pieces I haven't heard about a million times. Classical music, for me, is like listening to people talk in an unbelievably beautiful foreign language: I know other people who speak it fluently, but I think I never will. But I love it.

I'm much better at anything involving guitars -- though even there, I can hear what sort of chord something is (e.g., diminished 9th), but could not say how to save my life; nor do I know the answers to such questions as: the 9th what? or: what does 'diminished' mean in this context? (This despite having had it all explained several times.)

I wish my first piano teacher had stuck around.

LOL, we seem to have found yet another little culture clash :)

Formal music lessons, teaching an instrument, would not start before 6 or 7 over here. The years before you have lots of 'getting acquainted with music', but only in a general sense unless the child is very strongly motivated. Clapping games, concerts, musicals, try to encourage kids to enjoy music, yes. But formal lessons only start at 6, 7, 8.

My oldest boy is 7, and has recorder lessons at school, to accompagnie the music lessons. But even that is not formal training, just enough lessons for him to play very simple melodies and to make him understand notes and their relationships. If he was really talented (which he is not) I'd buy him a dreamrecorder.

I wouldn't be bothered by the waste of teaching boys to sing before their voice breaks, but my intend is to stimulate their love for music, not to create concert singers. The best way to achieve that IMHO is to enjoy music yourself and let them see that - and give them plenty of opportunity to learn more if they are willing.

My husband was forced to take violin lessons and he loves music - but hasn't taken up a violin after his 14th year because of the associations with 'forced study' and 'hours of homework'.

Re dutchmarbel's last paragraph:

I took 10 years of violin lessons growing up, and as a result I'm a pretty fair pianist now. It was my choice (in 2nd grade) to start the violin, but it pretty quickly became a chore, whereas the piano was all fun (no pressure, my choice of music, etc.). My mom realized one day (I was college age by then) that I had gotten pretty decent at the piano, and she said it was too bad I hadn't taken piano lessons, at which point I explained to her that if I had been taking piano lessons, I'd probably be a much better violinist.

This is a great article from the LATimes (from google's cache) about a piano/cello prodigy. Unfortunately, it's only the first page and the last part of the article discusses some interesting clashes about what the child wants and what his regular teachers want.

Marc Yu is also mentioned in this NYTimes article

Of course, this being the 21st century, Marc has his own website

the LATimes article discusses how his regular teachers think he spends too much time on music and his mother says that he can't keep him away from the piano and cello, and he views it as punishment if she does. I envy him, not because of his musical talent, but because I've always wanted something that would be a consuming passion. But everything I've done has never yielded that white hot kind of committment that I often saw in the best musicians I went to school with.

"But everything I've done has never yielded that white hot kind of committment that I often saw in the best musicians I went to school with."

People always tell me to do what I love.....if only I could figure out what that was.

People always tell me to do what I love.....if only I could figure out what that was.

I tried that, but she got a restraining order.

"I tried that, but she got a restraining order."

I always tell people it isn't stalking until he gets a restraining order.

[Always? You are going to sound like a freak]

[[Hush. Talking to myself will really make me sound like a freak]]

[Oh. Right!]

"Note to rilkefan: in considering which instrument to teach the rilkekind, consider that different instruments require different amounts of time and effort before one reaches a barely tolerable level of proficiency -- where 'barely tolerable' is meant literally: no longer unendurable to the player and the listener."

My little brother learned the bagpipes at school. Now he sounds great. Now.

Actually, pipes are good - never short of a gig. (If you have a biggish garden or local park to practise in, that is.)

Is it frustrating to learn piano not being able to play an octave in one hand?

I started piano at 8 & never noticed this. While you're learning, there are always a bunch of things that are far above your head- playing octaves was just one of those; playing trills was another, which I could *reach* but couldn't *play*. Neither was particularly frustrating, though.
I picked up the guitar and the tinwhistle later, but having the piano as my main instrument meant that I got a much better grounding in music theory than I would've otherwise. It's possible to get the theory as a guitarist, but it's almost necessary as a pianist...
I've always found it much easier to visualize things on a keyboard (as opposed to a fretboard)- Im not sure if that's bc I started on the piano or bc it's inherently easier with a keyboard. Or if the whole visualization process is important to my comprehension bc Im more of a visual thinker than most.

I started souring on the piano late in high school- it wasn't until a few years later that I 'discovered' rag and early blues & started playing seriously again. My teacher was good, but was so focused on the classical path that it hadn't occurred to me that I could explore other things.

Alternatively, I've heard that decent tuba players can easily get scholarships to big football schools- cuts in band at the high school level have created a shortage for some of the marching band positions.

Ok. My idea of learning piano was to start on page one (?) of Bach's Anna Magdalena Notenbüchlein and dive in. The next step was to learn another of the minuets. The next step was to try the first of the two-part inventions. The final step was to retreat to some Bartok exercises and decide I was just a flutist.

But presumably rilkekind will be impatient in his own way.

rilkefan, at last, I can offer a useful tip.

According to my teacher, learning the way you describe tends to cause tension in the hand. An important aspect of technique is to incorporate momentary relaxation while playing. This (like everything else) takes practice and my experience is it's difficult at first.

I would advise against giving a child a Viola da Gamba for many reasons. First - it is not easier than the cello. It tunes in different temperaments that one must know in order to perform certain pieces, there is nothing really cool out for a child to play with his or her friends, many Viola da Gambists tune in A415 (which is a tremendous hassle for a beginner who has not yet grasped the idea of intonation), a viol player has to order pretty much everything he or she needs for the instrument (strings, frets, etc.) because hardly any store sells Viol supplies, and a Viol player is expected to be fluent in many, many clefs. This is a lot of commitment.

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