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Beginning Brass FAQ

August 17, 2013
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There are many questions I receive from students who are just starting to learn to play, as well as parents of beginning students. Today, I will answer a few of the most common questions.

Q: How old does a student have to be to learn a brass instrument?

A: Compared to instruments like piano, guitar, or violin, all commonly taught to very young students, brass instruments take much more effort to make a sound.  Both the lips and lungs have to be large enough to support sustained notes on a brass instrument.  Also, if a student still has most of his or her baby teeth, it will be a considerable adjustment when permanent teeth start growing in.  In some cases, the pressure of a brass mouthpiece can even affect the angle of those teeth as they are growing in.  This is why most school bands don’t start students until 4th grade (age 9-10) or later.  Most students at this age have enough physical development to play notes, as well as most of their permanent teeth.  I typically tell parents that, if they have most of their permanent teeth, they can begin a brass instrument.  That being said, I have seen students as young as 6 able to support a good tone on the instrument, and some famous players, like Wynton Marsalis and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, started at that age.  If you have a very young student, I recommend signing him or her up for a trial lesson to see if they have the physical and mental maturity to handle the task of learning a brass instrument.

Q: How long should the student’s lesson be?

A: In my studio, I offer 30- and 60-minute lessons.  Some teachers also offer 45-minute lessons, though I personally have not found much benefit in that intermediate time.  30 minutes is plenty for most beginners.  Until they get some practice and experience developing their “chops” (the lip muscles needed to play), they won’t be able to play much longer than that, anyway.

After a couple years, if the student is playing very well and is serious about the instrument, really enjoys playing, or simply wants to know everything they can about the instrument, they should move up to a 60 minute lesson.  That being said, as much as parents and teachers want all their students to be superstars on their instruments, the simple fact is that not every student will put in that level of work.  If they will not put in the extra practice time needed for a 60-minute lesson, but still enjoy the instrument and want to keep learning, they should continue with 30-minute lessons.

Q: How much should the student practice?

A: First, they should practice every day.  A small practice time every day will help them much more than a lot of practice every few days.  For beginners, 15 minutes per day is plenty, until they develop their lip muscles enough to play longer (usually from several weeks to a couple of months).  After that, 30-minute practice sessions are the gold standard for most young students.  That level will allow the student to cover most of what they need for school or for their own recreation.  After a year or two, again when the chops have developed, the top students will play 45 minutes to an hour each day, or longer!  With advanced students, the answer becomes, “as long as they need to;” this article covers that idea in much more detail.

 Q: How long does it take to “get good” at playing?

A: It will take as long as it takes!  Like all musical instruments, the student will get out what they put into it.  With regular practice and guidance, most students can have a good tone within a couple months, and can play most basic music confidently in as quickly as a year.  Of course, “showier” music and more advanced techniques will take longer.  And if the student practices infrequently or not at all, expect the amount of time to increase exponentially, regardless of how good a teacher he or she has!

Q: Where should I buy an instrument?  Is buying a used horn okay?

A: I recommend purchasing (or renting) a horn from a reputable music store.  Some big-box stores sell brass instruments, but those instruments are often hit-or-miss in terms of quality.  If this is for a young beginner and commitment is uncertain, many music stores offer rental programs that will let the student play for a few months with a small down-payment.  The most important thing to look for is a reputable brand.  Bach, Yamaha, King, Conn, and Jupiter are all common, established, high-quality brands for brass.  Used horns are perfectly fine, but make sure you can check them out first.  Look at all the moving parts and make sure they move easily with no hangups, especially the valves.  This is doubly true with trombone: make sure the slide is effortless to move up and down its full length!  If you do not feel comfortable evaluating used horns, and don’t know anyone that is, I recommend seeking a new horn.

If you have a question that I have not answered here, please leave a comment or send me an email and ask!  I am happy to answer any questions regarding lessons and learning brass instruments.

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