Fantastic Double Reeds and where to find them…

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​Here is the fantastic new Double Reed Band playing at the latest EJMS concert. Does anyone else know of any other Double Reed ensembles for young students rehearsing on a weekly basis? They are certainly a fantastic ensemble!

Heavy Brass

Aren’t they fantastic? Long shining rows of trombones, tubas or French horns. So why are people not playing then? They are the powerhouse of the orchestra. Nothing feels better than coming in on a fortissimo brass entry in a piece of Tchaikovsky.

We are doing sterling work here at EJMS to promote these instruments, with Great success. But There is still more to do. So if you fancy a go at one of these, come along to a Saturday morning and asked me for a trial.

Instruments 3. Woodwind – Recorders and Flutes

So, on to the woodwind.

Not so long ago, woodwind instruments only really came in their ‘proper’ size – and children needed to be big and string enough to cope with them.

But, in the last ten years, there have been a large number of ‘junior’ woodwind instruments released on to the market which are suitable and comfortable for younger children to play and enjoy the incredible range of tone and colour available on the woodwind family.

First of all though, let me hype up the humble recorder. This is a fantastic instrument for a young child to start on. It’s light, cheap, comfortable to play, possible to make real progress quickly and you can play along with your friends. I teach a lot of large groups recorder lessons to age 6-7s and they love running along to their lessons!

Recorders come in lots of different sizes.

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These are bass, tenor, treble (sometimes called alto), descant (sometimes called soprano), sopranino and the extremely diddy garklein. Looks confusing? Don’t worry. When you’re aged 5 or above, you can start to play the descant (or soprano) recorder. All you need are fingers that are fat enough to cover the holes and enough concentration to see you through a 15 minute session. You learn to read treble clef and learn a fingering system that will make it easy to transfer to any of the other high woodwind instruments. A great way to find your way into the woodwind family.

An easy move from the recorder is to the flute. It is based upon the same fingering system as the recorder and also uses the treble clef. It’s harder to make a sound than the recorder – you have to work hard to get the trick of blowing across the hole to get a sound (exactly like blowing across the top of a bottle).

(If you want the technical bit – the recorder and the flute both produce a sound in the same way. Fast moving air hits against a sharp edge – the fipple – which causes the air to split into two streams and start to vibrate. This vibration produces the sound. In the recorder the sharp edge is hidden inside the mouthpiece and you never see it. With the flute the sharp edge is the far edge of the hole. Aim is the air at that edge and you get a sound!)

Flutes can get quite heavy because they need to be held up horizontally with your arms quite a long way from your body. This can be quite tiring if you are young. The answer to this is a curved head flute.

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By curving the head joint back on itself, it means that a young child’s arms are much closer to their body and the whole thing is much more comfortable to play.

There is now also one step further available with ‘simplified’ flutes. These are curved head flutes that also have a lots of unnecessary key work removed so they are much lighter than normal flutes. EJMS owns several Magilanck flutes of this variety which are very popular with the 7-year-olds.

Both the flute and recorder are great starter instruments for younger children. Unlike many other blowing instruments these are not at all affected by the lack or regrowing of front teeth.

So recorder from age 5 and flute from around age 6-7. But, read on, because there are more fantastic instruments available in the woodwind family.

Instrument sizes demystified 2. Strings

String instruments are very popular. They make up a large percentage of an orchestra so there is always lots of opportunities to join in.

In order of size: violin, viola, cello and double bass. And they all come in mini sizes suitable for very small children.

The two instruments that are most suited to very small children (from around age 5) are the violin and cello. These come in eighth size, quarter size, half size, three-quarter size and full size. (Violins can go even smaller; tenth, sixteenth and I’ve even seen a thirty-second, but it’s a bit unusual to need these.) Small children will be ‘sized’ by the teacher, who will look at physical factors such as the length of their arm and the stretch between their fingers in order to fit them to the correct instrument.

As a general rule, go for smaller rather than larger: it’s much easier for a child to cope with a violin that is too small for them rather than struggle with a bigger heavier instrument that makes their arm tired.

When you do get sized by a teacher, stick to that size. Don’t be seduced by a music shop salesman into getting a bigger instrument because it will last longer – in reality it will sit in a cupboard for a few years until your child gets big enough to use it!

At EJMS we have a Tardis of a cupboard that houses over 100 violins and cellos of varying sizes. We try to have all sizes available so we can have exactly the right size to hire to you for your child. It’s important to get this right. They all have the correct sized bow to match each instrument as well – we have several lengths of wide plastic drainage pipe holding all the different sizes of bows.

On to the viola. This instrument tends to be started a little later than the violin (at around age 7), simply because it is a little bit bigger (even in the small sizes) than a violin. But, if you have a very young child that wants to have a go, then we’ll find a viola small enough! The major factor for children choosing the viola rather than the violin is that they like the sound of it better – much lower and richer.

And then there is the Big Daddy, the double bass. These are big, REALLY big. Very few professional players use a full size double bass, most play on some form of three-quarters, unless they happen to be 6 feet 4 with enormous hands! (Transport can be an issue too, but check out the @EJMS_Ealing Twitter feed for a photo of Polly fitting one into a Mini!)

But, we do have a double basses in a range of sizes available for hire at EJMS, including an eighth size which is suitable to start at the age of 8-or-so, as long as you’ve grown a bit by then!

I hope this has been a useful start. On to the world of woodwind next…

Instrument sizes demystified 1. Introduction

How old does my child need to be to play the french horn? (Or bassoon, oboe, double bass, drum kit – substitute any instrument you like.)

I get asked this question a lot. And I mean A LOT! And no wonder, because it’s a really important question. You don’t want to start a child on an instrument that is going to be too big and cumbersome. Nothing worse than a child who won’t practise because it’s too uncomfortable to play!

So, over the next few posts I’ll give you a quick guide. Just remember that children as well as instruments come in different sizes, so any age ranges are very approximate. And you will be the best person to know when your child is old enough for their concentration to survive to the end if a 15 or 30 minute instrumental lesson…

Ensembles away…

Walking around EJMS this morning I was really struck by the huge variety of music-making that takes place. Standing in the foyer of the Performance Centre I could hear the Adult Chorale from the Chapel, the Elementary Strings from the Main Hall, the Junior Percussion from Old Drama, a singing lesson from somewhere in the RE block, 2 drum kit lessons and a guitar lesson from A corridor and some random glimpses of bassoon, trumpet and clarinet lessons wafting from somewhere above my head. Whilst all this was going on I looked through the window of A03 to see 20-or-so 8-year-olds diligently writing G major treble clef scales on their music whiteboards, apparently oblivious to all going on around them. (Thanks, Twyford School – good soundproofing on the doors!)
And it was still only 9am!

It makes it clear to me what it’s all about. Playing music isn’t just one thing that you do in your life, it’s loads of different things. The experiences of playing in an orchestra, or singing in a choir, or playing chamber music, or jamming in a rock guitar group, or improvising in a big band are all so different that it’s like having 15 hobbies instead of just one.

Roll on more ensembles, that’s what I say. Anyone up for a Bagpipe and Fife Band?

EJMS 20th Anniversary

We are gearing up for our grand end of term concert at St Barnabas Church, Ealing on Saturday 6th July. An extra special one this year, because we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of EJMS being rescued from the chopping block by a group of very committed EJMS parents.

Watch out for the Grand Finale of the concert. In a never-before-attempted experiment I’m going to put five EJMS ensembles together on the stage and attempt a mass performance. We don’t have the time or space to rehearse it together beforehand – so wish me luck!

Spring Term Concerts

Congratulations to all the performers in the end-of-term Spring Concerts – even though they took place in a snowstorm. There were some really stand out performances.

I never fail to be impressed by the standard of our small chamber ensembles. I know I keep banging on about this – but the best way to learn how to be a brilliant musician is to play in a small group with other people – where you have to listen, adapt, copy, complement and generally take note of what everyone else is doing.

As for the large ensembles – wow! 1812 Overture eh, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Now hand me my skis…

Exam Deadline this Saturday

It’s that time of term again and the ABRSM and Trinity exam deadlines are looming. If you’ve been given an exam entry form by your teacher please make sure it gets handed in at the front desk this weekend.

If you’re doing an exam this term, I’d be really keen for you to come and play at solo at the St Stephen’s Recital on Saturday 7th November. It’s a really good chance to showcase one of your pieces just before your exam. Please come and sign up for the concert in my blue book on the front desk.

Getting ready for the first day of term

Just getting everything ready for the first day of term. So far my hallway contains: 1 tuba, 2 trombones, 14 folders of various orchestral and wind band music, a box of abandoned instrument bits that I rescued from the cupboard to sort out over the holiday, a pile of paperwork for Polly, a bigger pile of paperwork for Janine and my wheelie box full of everything I need to run a choir and  two wind bands this term. My problem is this – none of the kids want to come in really early with me, so I’ve now got to get the whole lot into the 2-seater Mazda…

Anybody good at packing?