Parent's Guide to Music Lessons
Choosing an Instrument

It's important to choose an instrument that your student will be inspired to play regularly. As with any activity, a student's dedication is closely related to how much he or she likes it. However there are some practical things to take into consideration. For example, the cost of renting/buying an instrument, what age to start, etc.?


Stringed instruments are made in a variety of sizes to accommodate different ages and sizes of the student. Violins and cellos can come as small as 1/32 or 1/16th of their standard full size! This allows young students to start on stringed instruments as early as four or five years old. String instruments will periodically require replacement strings and occasional maintenance or repairs. Some instrument rental companies cover these costs as part of the rental agreement. In general, students rent or lease string instruments as beginning and intermediate players. When a student reaches a later intermediate or advanced stage in their playing, teachers may advise purchasing an advanced instrument. 

Violin, viola, cello, and bass students have the opportunity to participate in their school orchestra programs, chamber music programs, the Great Falls Youth Symphony, district and/or state Montana High School Association Festivals, and potentially other music festivals or workshops held locally, regionally, and beyond.


The violin is a great instrument to begin studying at any age, even as young as 3-4 years old! Violin study can be a solid foundation for your child, as it promotes careful listening, creative expression, coordination, playful learning, discipline and goal-setting from the very beginning. Like many sports, beginning the violin as young as possible will give the student a special opportunity for success in their musical future. However, the joys of playing violin can be very rewarding to any student, at any age.

The violin is the heart of the orchestra. It plays mostly a melodic role. It represents most closely the human voice. It can play a variety of styles. It is like an extension of one's arms allowing the molding of a musical phrase like a dance.

—Mary Papoulis, concertmaster, Great Falls Symphony

What I love about playing the violin is the incredible variety of music and styles suited for the instrument. From beautiful melodies to funky tunes, classical, jazz, pop and fiddle - the violin can do it all. There is always something new to learn and explore.

—Megan Karls, principal violin, Great Falls Symphony

Paginini Carpice No. 24, Hilary Hahn

Bruch Violin Concerto in G Minor, Rachel Barton Pine


It's never too late to start playing music and the viola is a great instrument for any age! However, because of its larger size, it is often easier for very young students (4 to 7-or 8-year olds) to start on the violin. Once your student grows into a 5/8 or 3/4 size violin, the switch to viola can be easily made by re-stringing it with a C string.

The viola is the secret superhero of the orchestra! It's a bit larger than the violin, so its rich, mellow tone fills the gap between the violin and the cello, and gives life to the orchestra's harmonies. Then, every once in a while, the viola sings out with the most beautiful melodies.

—Alyssa Roggow, principal viola, Great Falls Symphony

Campagnoli Caprice No. 26, Masumi Per Rostad

Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia for Violin and Viola

Brahms Sonata no.2, op.120, Tabea Zimmermann


Students can begin cello at age 9-10 or around grades 4-5 

The cello can play any role you ask of it: Superhero, clown, and everything in between. It sings like no other instrument, and when you play it, it's like having a big friendly dog in your arms.

—Thad Suits, principal cello, Great Falls Symphony

Saint-Saens 'The Swan', Steven Isserlis & Dudley Moore

Karl Davidoff "At the Fountain,"
Erica Piccotti & Monica Cattarossi

Carl Nielsen Scherzo from Quartet No. 1,
Cascade Quartet


There are a wide variety of instruments in the "winds" family. In the orchestra the main wind instruments are flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoon. Some orchestra repertoire includes saxophone although it is rare. Wind instruments are not made in partial sizes as string instruments are, so the recommended starting age depends on the instrument. Clarinet, oboe, and bassoon players also need to purchase reeds. 

Wind players may join their school band program, school orchestra program (if a full symphony orchestra ensemble is offered), chamber music programs, the Great Falls Youth Symphony, district and/or state Montana Music Educators Association Festivals, and potentially other music festivals or workshops held locally, regionally, and beyond. Like string players, beginner and intermediate wind students rent instruments and may consider purchasing one when they reach a later stage in playing. 


Students can start learning to play the oboe at age 9 (or older).

Like cinnamon and spices in your favorite dish, the oboe has a particular and distinct sound-flavor that allows it to be heard above all other instruments in the orchestra!  The oboe tunes the orchestra before each symphony concert.  It also has its fair share of solos, especially when the music calls for a beautiful melody.

—Lauren Blackerby, principal oboe, Great Falls Symphony

Strauss Oboe Concerto in D major, Albrecht Mayer

Ravel, Le tombeau de Couperin
(oboe solo with orchestra)

Just for fun: an oboe duet with a puppy!


Between 5th and 6th grade are great times to start flute, but you can start as early as the 1st grade. There are flutes made for younger players so it would be advisable to consult with the teacher about this before committing to lessons. 


Some flute players also take up piccolo: a smaller, higher-pitched version of a flute.

The flute is magical to play and has a wide variety of roles in any ensemble. It can blend its sound with other instruments, add warmth or mystery to a certain musical passage, and rock-out using cool, funky sounds! It can portray many characters and emotions that words cannot sufficiently describe.

—Norman Gonzales, principal flute, Great Falls Symphony


For the majority of students, it's helpful to start playing horn after a year of playing trumpet (likely in sixth grade). This gives the students a chance to learn the basics of playing a brass instrument and to hear pitches and intervals before transitioning, increasing the likelihood that the student will be successful and reducing certain frustrations. If a student has previous musical experience or is highly motivated and willing to take private lessons when they first begin horn, then a year on a different instrument may not be necessary.

The horn has a very wide range of dynamics, range, and tone colors, making it a very versatile instrument. The range of the notes on the horn are similar to different vocal registers, and great horn players often emulate the human voice with their sound. Playing the instrument requires developing a careful ear, since many notes can be played with the same fingerings and there are many notes with the same fingerings that are close together. In orchestra, horn players are frequently paired with both brass and woodwind groups, meaning they have many opportunities to play and are asked for many different types of sounds.

—Madeleine Folkerts, principal horn, Great Falls Symphony

Mozart Horn Concerto No. 2, Dennis Brain

Strauss "Ein Heldenleben" (horn section solo)


Any age can be appropriate to start on clarinet, though typically students start between 9 and 11 years of age. It’s a great transition instrument from recorder!

The clarinet, a single-reed instrument, plays a prominent role in both classical music and jazz. It’s a member of the woodwind family, close relatives including the saxophone, bassoon, oboe, and flute. In band and orchestra, it’s a middle-high voice in the ensemble, bridging the gap between the sounds of the low reeds (bassoon, bass clarinet) and the upper winds (oboe, flute). The sound is sweet and pure, though it can be manipulated to fit a variety of different musical styles!

—Christopher Mothersole, principal clarinet, Great Falls Symphony

An introduction to the clarinet!

Mozart Clarinet Concerto, Martin Fröst

Artie Shaw Concerto for Clarinet, Martin Fröst


Starting bassoon: Younger is always better as long as a student's hands and arms are big enough for the bassoon. Sixth grade is usually the younger limit but students can start bassoon even in high school.

The bassoon is a woodwind instrument in the double reed family that typically plays music written in the bass and tenor clefs, and occasionally the treble. Appearing in its modern form in the 19th century, the bassoon figures prominently in orchestral, concert band, and chamber music literature. The bassoon is a non-transposing instrument known for its distinctive tone colour, wide range, variety of character and agility. Listeners often compare its warm, dark, reedy timbre to that of a male baritone voice. Someone who plays the bassoon is called a bassoonist.


"The Bassoon in the Orchestra," Lori Wike

Weber Concerto for Bassoon, Op. 75, Michaela Špačková

Super Mario Bassoon Quartet, Oberlin Bassoon Quartet

Gene Koshinski "Get It!"