The Instrument Petting Zoo

Instrument Selection Night, or otherwise affectionately referred to as the Instrument Petting Zoo, was held this week for both of our middle schools in San Carlos. Bret and I run the trombone station, along with a couple of student helpers, and we’ve been doing this together for years. In fact, I think I have been doing this since before my oldest could choose an instrument (and he’s now a Junior in High School). I have to say, that Tuesday afternoon, we had the fastest 4 hours ever.

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From 3-7 pm, we talked to incoming 5th graders, one by one, about trombone. Then we showed them how to play and let them try to get a sound out of it. There wasn’t a single kid that couldn’t get a sound out of the trombone this year. Some years we’ve had kids not be able to get a sound out of it, but not this year. In fact we had a couple of scary talented kids who got screaming high notes and crazy partials right out of the chute! I sent the “crazy high note” kid back to the trumpet station for a redo.ISN Trombones 2IMG_1005ISN Trombones 3

The event runs like a finely tuned machine. Each instrument is set up at its own station with two adults running the station with two kid helpers (or something close to that). At our station we have a long table set up with quite a few mouth pieces, disinfectant, and tons of paper towels… we have two chairs on each side with one trombone. Each of us takes a side and the kids (and parents) queue up and wait for a opening to try out the instruments. Our station runs fairly quickly because they just need to get a sound and different notes out of the trombone. Other stations, like percussion, take a lot more time. My favorite things are the kids’ faces when they first get a note out the instrument – surprise and shock! It’s so hilarious to see on face after face. My other favorite thing is when the kids recognize me as one of their baseball coaches. “Coach Sonya? What are you doing here?” The only thing I could do without is the hovering parents, telling their kids what to do and what to say. Thankfully there weren’t too many of those!

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The parent volunteers and kid volunteers know exactly what they are doing. In fact, at the trombone station, we had the same efficient and “on-it” volunteers as last year who helped clean the mouth pieces in between kids – no need to spread every germ in San Carlos through ~170 kids trying out instruments. The kids have an evaluation sheet on which they gather information from each instrument station. Once they have their top three choices, they can check out and go see the band director.


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This instrument selection process is so much better and humane than what I went through to choose an instrument in the 4th grade. We had to listen to a recording of piano notes and you had to choose weather the note was higher, lower or the same as the first note. Who the hell knows? It was hard to hear that little tape recorder in the cavernous gym/cafeteria/multi-purpose room! In any event, we got a score that basically indicated weather we had any musical talent at all… I remember getting a mediocre score and thinking, “What? You are going to judge musical talent/aptitude on that measly little tape recording of piano notes?” I went on to choose the trombone, not because I had some obvious talent for it based on our ear training score, but because there was my uncle’s trombone at my grandmother’s house and my mom’s flute at our house, both readily available. Well, there was no way in hell I was going to play the “prissy little flute,” so I (wisely) chose the trombone. It turned out to be an instrument well suited to my class clown/instigator personality. And I loved it! I still do!!!

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In this instrument selection night, the kids get to try out any instrument they want for both band and orchestra (we are indeed fortunate enough to fundraise in our town to keep a robust, award winning, music program together and going strong). The kids have to try out a minimum of three instruments before checking out. Some kids have an idea of what they want to play because they are already taking lessons on something (piano, drums, or guitar were the most likely) or they have an older sibling who plays an instrument so they want to play the same thing or something far, far away from that instrument! Once they have tried out instruments, they receive a rating (not a score, but a rating on a scale that focuses on the features of the instruments – could they get a sound, was it easy, or did it take awhile, etc.). I think it is a more humane way to help kids choose a suitable instrument.

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Trombone is one of those instruments that is deceptively easy to start playing and very hard to master. Most kids can get a sound out of the trombone; the lung capacity and tone will come later with practice. Given the nature of the instrument, I also started looking at the suitability of the kids for the instrument – did they have a sense of humor (because the trombone, by it’s nature, practically requires a sense of humor) or did they have a determination to make a sound or were they a little mousy about it. You definitely need a big personality to play trombone or you won’t be heard. Besides, it’s awfully difficult to hide your sound when playing the trombone, so there is no hiding in the back the room, hoping you won’t be noticed!

I love the kids’ enthusiasm at this event. Many of them have never tried any of the instruments and through this event they are introduced to as many instruments as they want. It is a fun way to try them all out! When the kids check out, they get to meet the band directors of both schools and talk to them about their choices. Most kids will get their first choice, but if there are 50 trombones and 4 flutes as first choice (not that that’s a bad thing in my mind, but it doesn’t make for a balanced band!), the band directors will guide them to an appropriate instrument while tying to balance the entire band.

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Last year there were over 200 kids at instrument selection night and this year there were ~170. As an added bonus, at the beginning of the school year, I had the pleasure of teaching the beginning trombone class with the new 5th graders and their excitement and enthusiasm was contagious, especially when we talked about giving your trombone a bath, in the bathtub! Yeah – 20 kids newly minted trombone players. More brass players in the world is a joyous thing. We’ll see how many we get out of this year’s process.

SCSD Directors

I love that our District and community support this process and music program! The band director (in the middle) even shared it at a conference she went to this year – complete with the pictures you see here. I hope more schools adopt this type of event as a way to get kids to try different instruments and get involved with music. Music is such an essential part of any education program. I am so glad I could be a part of it!

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