Learning a musical instrument should be exciting and fun, and beginning students can get both from woodwind instruments. This family of instruments has options ranging from large to small and from the highest-sounding (piccolo, flute, clarinet) to the lowest (from saxophone to contrabassoon). Woodwinds can be relatively easy for beginners, with a low upfront cost. Those unsure which woodwind instrument to start with should consider how they vary in size, price, and breathing techniques needed.
Three easy and popular woodwind instruments for beginners are flute, clarinet, and alto saxophone because of their size, weight, and complexity. Learning any of these requires a degree of concentration best suited to students at least 10 years old, when they can learn to read music without difficulty.
This guide will walk you through these three woodwind instruments and some information on getting started with them.
The flute is a popular choice for beginner music students and offers numerous opportunities to play in a school band or, eventually, in a professional orchestral ensemble. Students learn to make a sound on the flute by blowing air across the opening of the mouthpiece.
Mastering this breathing technique and developing good playing posture can help strengthen a player’s lung capacity, which is another benefit of learning many woodwinds. Here are some details on this instrument:
The Flute’s Pitch
A standard concert flute is considered one of the highest-pitched instruments in the woodwind family and is pitched in middle C with a range of three octaves.
Breathing Techniques to Learn
Beginner students will use either the diaphragmatic breathing method, which teaches them to exhale longer and harder, or circular breathing, where you breathe through your nose and blow air out of your mouth. Younger children waiting for adult teeth or who have braces might need to make adjustments, which a music teacher should be able to help with.
Difficulty to Learn
The flute is lightweight and easy for most students to handle, but smaller children may struggle to hold the instrument horizontally or have difficulty reaching some of the keys. Younger children might benefit from a curved-head flute, which makes it easier to reach all the keys.
How Long Before I Can Play a Tune?
Anyone who has ever made a tune by blowing across a bottle opening can do the same with a flute. Making actual music, though, takes practice, and any beginner will have an easier time if they enroll in music lessons. Students learn fingering, articulation (timing), dynamics (volume), and breathing techniques to produce beautiful music. A beginner will find it takes around six months to learn the basics.
Student models range in price from $50 to $100; good-quality intermediate student instruments cost from $200 to $300; and professional instruments can range from $500 to $2,500 (or upward).
The flute is an excellent choice for a beginner because of its versatility, portability, and affordability. Young players tend to gravitate toward this instrument because of its small size and the cheerful quality of its high-pitched notes.
There are many instruments to choose from, and young students might wonder whether the curved-head flute is right for them. It’s advisable to consult with a music professional to pick an instrument that your student will embrace with enthusiasm and joy.
The clarinet has a single-reed mouthpiece, and players make music by blowing through it to make the reed vibrate. The clarinet has a straight, cylindrical tube with a flared bell at its end, and it produces sound across three different registers: the chalumeau (low), clarion (medium), and altissimo (high). Here’s more about the clarinet:
The Clarinet’s Pitch
Clarinets have the broadest musical range of any woodwind instrument, covering four octaves (from a low E on the most common B♭ clarinet up to a high G). The clarinet has more tone holes than even the recorder, so it can play some pretty high and low notes.
Breathing Techniques Required
Players will need to practice diaphragmatic breathing, because you get better sound from a clarinet when you blow harder. Getting your breathing and posture right is vital for young players, particularly those in a band that requires you to play standing up or walking.
Difficulty to Learn
Clarinet fingerings are slightly more challenging than the flute and similar to the saxophone. Don’t be concerned if you initially produce some squeaky sounds. Your music teacher can help you develop your embouchure (which is how your lips and mouth are held while playing) so you seal the mouthpiece properly to produce better sound. Within three to six months, you should be able to play at a basic level. Clarinet reeds need replacing every six months or so.
Clarinets are priced from $100 to $200 for a low-end student model; from $300 to $500 for an intermediate instrument; and from $1,000 to $2,000 for a professional-quality instrument.
The clarinet is a popular choice for beginners, with many different types to choose from, but most students start with the B♭ clarinet. Your music teacher can help you find the perfect clarinet for your size, which will help you develop good posture and playing techniques from the outset. The clarinet’s impressive musical range makes it well-suited for different musical genres, from the school band to a classical orchestra.
Saxophones are best known in jazz bands and are well-suited for beginners. Saxophones produce sound in a similar way to the clarinet, by blowing through the mouthpiece to vibrate the reed. Saxophone reeds usually need replacing every few weeks. Here’s what you need to know about this fun instrument:
The Saxophone’s Pitch
Saxophones come in three varieties: alto, tenor, and baritone. Younger students usually start with alto saxophones, which cover a range of four octaves from (D♭ below middle C to concert A♭5). That means they can comfortably play a range of musical styles, such as popular music, concert band music, chamber music, jazz, and swing.
Playing saxophone requires that you learn diaphragmatic breathing in a similar way to flute and clarinet.
Difficulty to Learn
The saxophone is among the heaviest of the woodwind instruments, but a strap helps players hold the instrument comfortably. Good posture while playing is important, but the fingerings are relatively easy to learn. Producing sound is not too difficult, but it takes time and practice to become proficient.
Basic student models cost from $100 to $200; a good-quality student alto sax costs around $1,500; and a professional instrument can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $4,000 and upward.
Saxophones are a great beginner instrument, and they offer a smooth playing experience across a wide variety of musical styles. Students who can learn to focus on their breathing and posture should enjoy playing either of these three wonderful woodwinds.
Start Your Woodwind Musical Journey
Learning a woodwind instrument can be an exciting musical journey that leads to a lifelong love and appreciation of music. Sloan School of Music has passionate and skilled teachers that can make that journey more rewarding and enjoyable.