Switching Musical Instruments: Good or Bad Decision for My Young Student?

When my wife and I first got married, we lived in the Indianapolis area. Over a 15-month span, I taught about 35 private drum, piano, and guitar students. Then we moved to Michigan for three years, and now we're back in the Indianapolis area again and have started this "community of musicians making musicians," called Vibe Music Academy.

Naturally, when we knew we were going to move back, I began getting in touch with many of those former students from the area to see if they had any interest in getting started at Vibe as some of our first students. Well, I was quite surprised to learn that - with only a few years passing since I had taught them - many of my former students actually wanted to start up again with a different instrument than they had originally played.

Now, I get that a lot of them were young students when I had taught them before, and they were probably just excited for a fresh start on something new, but it definitely got me thinking (again) about this common question that comes up a lot from parents: Is it a good or bad decision to let a young music student switch instruments?

Pretty huge decision, right? Here's why it's so tricky: the answer completely depends on your student's specific circumstances. So, to help you decide what's best for your young music student, let's consider some of the factors...

How much time has your student spent on their original instrument?

We are least dedicated to something when we have spent the least amount of time with it. This seems like an obvious statement when we're on the outside looking in, but it can understandably be a real challenge for parents when they watch their student start playing an instrument for the first time and it's not the fireworks connection that they wanted it to be.

My story was actually no different; I begged my mom to let me quit altogether for three years before learning how much I actually loved music. If your student has been playing for a few years, has learned the fundamentals, and still wants to switch, then there may be some merit to going for it. But if they've only been playing a couple months, it may just take a little more time before they have that connection with the instrument.

What is the reason for wanting to switch?

Often, students get taken aback by the difficulty of playing an instrument, especially once they've moved beyond the "honeymoon" phase of playing their instrument. There's a "fight through" phase within the learning curve of every instrument (see my blog post about learning curves here), but students don't always realize that, so they think that if they switch to a new instrument, it will be easier. This turns out not to be true, and they find themselves struggling all over again with their new instrument.

However, if their reason is truly because they've discovered a newfound interest in a different instrument that far surpasses their original instrument - and they acknowledged that only two months on any instrument won't make you a rockstar - then go for it! After all, the most important thing is the growth and satisfaction of your student, right?

Is this their first time switching instruments?

If you aren't consciously attentive to it, students can sometimes slip in to a habit of thinking "the brass is greener on the other instrument" (musician pun =) ), which can be a difficult cycle to get out of. Students who switch instruments several times may be simply need a better handle on the first two factors: time on the instrument, or not looking for an "easier" instrument.

Helpful hint: If your student is adamant about switching instruments, try establishing that for the next x-number of months, they have to commit to sticking with this instrument. You might find that time is the remedy for being discontent with the instrument they're on.

Is it the instrument or the music that they want to switch away from?

This is another understandable, easy trap that students and parents alike fall into; a piano student doesn't enjoy or connect with the repertoire their teacher is having them play, so they blame it on the instrument, not the music. Here's a funny idea... have them play music they like! Once they connect with the music they play - and thus, their instrument - they will later be more motivated to play "the Classics" and other requisite repertoire for accomplished musicians.

Have they had many positive experiences on their current instrument?

Here's a hypothetical scenario for you: Two parents buy a basketball for their kid and teach him how to dribble and shoot. Then, for the next two years, they tell him to go practice dribbling and shooting - by himself - for 15 minutes a day. He gets pretty good, but he never plays a game or has any other experiences that make his practice worthwhile. After two years, he tells his parents that basketball isn't his thing and that he wants to try baseball.

See the problem? The boy never really experienced what the sport of basketball has to offer! At Vibe Music Academy, we know that the more ways our students experience music, the deeper they connect with it, and the more often they reach their potential as musicians. That's why our academy offers a multitude of diverse, exciting ways for our students to engage in music. Learn about the experiences we offer to all of our students at Vibe, and sign up for a free lesson!

I hope this post helped you gain valuable insight about navigating this tough decision for your music student. If someone you know could benefit from the information on this post, be sure to share it with them!

- John Gotsis, Owner and Music Instructor at Vibe Music Academy, Hamilton County, Indiana