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So you want to learn a musical instrument? We advise you what instrument to play, where to buy one, how to get lessons, what it will cost - everything you need to know about instrumental tuition

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Pay the Piper


Finding opportunities to play


Once you have got started and have mastered the bare bones of your instrument (when you have reached Grade 1 standard, say) you need to play with other people. There's a great deal more to playing an instrument than just reading the music and getting the right notes. Things like ensemble (keeping with everyone else), dynamics (louder, softer etc.), balance (not playing louder than everyone else), watching the conductor, being confident when performing in public and so on, are essential parts of being a musician and can only be properly learnt in a band, orchestra or other ensemble.
Don't underestimate the importance of this side of your musical education. The world is all too full of people who have a flute lesson once a week, do their practice in the front room every night, take one exam a year and still never become good musicians because they've only done half the job. They don't have much fun, either.
Playing in an ensemble is very difficult at first, simply because you have to go at everyone else's speed. If you make a mistake or can't read the music fast enough, they won't wait for you. At first, make it your priority to follow the music and know where they've got up to, even if you're not playing any of it. Then try and put in a few of the easy notes - perhaps just the first note of each bar. Take the music home and practise it at your own speed, ask your instrumental teacher to help you, and after three or four rehearsals you'll start to get the hang of it. Don't allow yourself to be disheartened or put off. You don't have to be perfect straight away. Everyone's allowed to make mistakes - babies don't learn to walk without falling over a few times, do they? Besides, you'll be better next week.
Instruments that usually play in orchestras are violins, violas, cellos, double basses, flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, french horns, trumpets, trombones and tubas. All woodwind and brass instruments (and sometimes the double bass too) can find a home in a wind band, while brass bands (obviously) cater for brass instruments only. Sometimes you find string orchestras that use violins, violas, cellos and double basses only. You can also have smaller ensembles catering for just woodwind instruments or just brass instruments. Jazz bands vary a lot depending on the style of jazz they play, but you could look in this direction if you play flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, tuba, double bass, guitar or piano.
The first and most obvious place to look for ensemble opportunities is in your school. Speak to the teacher who is Head of Music or Music Coordinator. Is there a school band or orchestra you could join? If there isn't, are there enough other musicians like yourself to make it worth asking the school to start one?
Your second enquiry should be to your instrumental teacher, who is almost certain to know about local groups outside school and will be able to tell you which would be most suitable for you.
Your third port of call should be the Local Education Authority, which probably has a Music Service - you can find Music Service details and telephone numbers in the British Music Education Yearbook (published by Rhinegold) at your bookshop or public library. Music Services often run Music Schools, maybe on Saturdays, for people like you. And later on they'll have wind bands or orchestras or flute choirs or jazz bands at various levels of difficulty. Ring them up and say "I've been playing the trumpet for a year, my teacher says I'm about Grade 1 standard, so is there a band I can join?"
Of course there are ensembles in many places that are not part of a school or Music Service. Try asking at your local library, local music shop, or the local newspaper - they might be able to point you in the right direction. It would also be worth contacting the local Community Education Department or whoever runs evening classes in your neighbourhood - evening classes are usually for adults only, but even if they can't help you themselves they may know someone else who can. If you have chosen a brass instrument it would be worth contacting the local brass band. They often run "junior" or "cadet" sections specially for young players like you.
As you get better you'll need to play in a more advanced ensemble. By this time you will know what opportunities exist for you, through your school, your teacher or through the group you're already in and the friends you've met there. In many places there are local youth orchestras and bands of a high standard, mostly (but not all) run by the Local Education Authority Music Service. Above that, most English counties have a county youth orchestra (sometimes a wind band too) which is able to play a complete adult repertoire. In fact, no other country in the world has quite so many good opportunities for young musicians, which is one reason why our professional orchestras like the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra or the London Symphony Orchestra are famous around the world, and why British orchestral musicians are prized by foreign orchestras. Most foreign capital cities have only one major professional orchestra. London has at least seven!
Some youth orchestras and bands meet weekly, others only during the school holidays. Obviously weekly is better if you have the choice. The British Music Education Yearbook lists many youth ensembles, including the really posh ones like the National Children's Orchestra and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.
Finally there are, up and down the country, many activities that don't meet regularly - things like "music camps" and "music summer schools". These are hard to find out about, though your teacher may know of one and so might your local Community Education Department or Music Service. Private (that is, independent) schools often play host to such events, so if there is such a school near you it might be worth phoning up to ask.
One last suggestion. Some schools have a rule that if you take instrument lessons in school, you must belong to the school orchestra. We think this is a good and sensible rule. In the first place you need this experience if you are to be a good and complete musician. In the second place, if you have the privilege of good, cheap tuition through the school you have something of a duty to contribute to the musical life of the school in return. If you don't like the school music teacher, well, it's only once a week, and besides you don't expect to enjoy every maths lesson, do you? Why should music be any different? And if you have become quite a good player and find that the standard of the school orchestra is a bit beneath you, remember that you can learn an awful lot by helping others less advanced than you.