Are kids really giving up on winds?

A poll of 1,000 UK children has found that just one per cent name the oboe, French horn, cor anglais, bassoon or contrabassoon as instruments they would like to play.

The Royal Albert Hall, which commissioned the study, blames the declines on Youtube-watching passivity, earning itself a Telegraph headline.

Are we bothered?

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  • What stands out to me is that the instruments in question are expensive, and rarely seen outside the classical orchestra.

    They’re also difficult to play well (and yes, I know that all instruments are difficult).

  • And people question why a principal oboe could/should be paid a lot more than a principal flute. Supply and demand. Supply and demand.

  • This has been the case for well over a decade, and certainly for long before that.

    Firstly, no-one chooses cor anglais or contrabassoon as a first instrument: they’re generally taken up once one is already learning oboe or bassoon.

    Secondly, these instruments are particularly expensive, and also fragile; oboes and bassoons also require reed-making skills. Schools do not have them in their storecupboards; parents can not buy them cheaply on a “let’s give it a try” basis when their 8-year old kid shows a tentative interest in music. Cheap, tough, playable flutes, clarinets, saxes, trumpets and string instruments are however very readily available – and school music-making understandably favours them.

    Thirdly, they’re all instruments that have a limited ensemble usefulness for a beginner musician, outside of classical ensembles. Not much chance of playing jazz, pop or big band rep on an oboe or bassoon; no-one wants a French horn in brass band or concert band. Very few primary-age kids start out with a single-minded determination to be a classical musician; they want to take part in a fun group activity.

    I dealt with the “endangered” status of these instruments yearly when recruiting for a youth orchestra. They’ve always been scarce, and will continue to be so until (at the very least) cheap, tough student instruments are widely available. But there have always been sufficient, in the end. This is not a new problem. But it’s not an insoluble one.

    • Your 2nd point is what I tell every parent I meet about the bassoon.

      My youth orchestra growing up actually had a program called “Endangered Instruments”, which subsidized professional coaching in schools, which is how I found my primary bassoon teacher. I had no idea what I was getting into, despite having uncles who played double-reed instruments; the bassoon was one of the few choices left when I started in 6th grade band class. If someone told me how much a good instrument cost I probably wouldn’t have bothered – and I was lucky enough to have parents able to afford it. Not all of my peers were as fortunate.

      • So true. Now I remember it, we never once recruited a young contrabassoonist with their own instrument – and these were committed, Conservatoire-level players. We borrowed one for them from the local school music service. But very few individuals – particularly students – who are not very serious about playing that instrument professionally are going to be in a position to find or borrow (as someone says further down this discussion) the cost of a new car to buy their own contra.

  • I remember one year when the Seattle Youth Symphony organization held its annual tryouts (3 orchestras, and everyone had to audition every year), they got the usual 60+ flute applicants for 18 spots (don’t know why they had 6 flutes in each orchestra, unless it was to collect fees). For the 9 oboe openings, they had a total of FOUR applicants. And that included college students, since the organization had an age limit of 21.

    This was in 1980 or ’81. I don’t remember a problem with bassoon applicants; maybe it existed but not on the same scale.

    Earlier than that, let’s see this would have been 1975 or ’76, when I was in 5th grade and one of many little flute players in my school band/ orchestra, the conductor recruited me and another boy (a sax player as I recall) to play bassoon since our instruments were overpopulated and there was nobody playing the bassoon. I enjoyed it, for awhile.

    As for anyone playing English horn or contra at an early age (i.e. before high school), the idea is fairly ridiculous. Little kids don’t normally have the “oomph” to play those instruments yet, let alone the musical knowledge to know what they are and be interested in them.

    • In the late 90s SYSO had no problem filling six oboe and six bassoon seats, all competent (IMHO) high schoolers. Apparently the Endangered Instruments program had the desired effect.

  • That’s the UK, what about China? I bet there are a lot of Chinese oboe players, because the oboe is very much like the traditional Chinese suona, and because in the Chinese system, the teachers determine who plays what, not the students, it’s like the Chinese sports machine, one is made a gymnast or a ping pong player at an early age, whether you want to or not.

    Anyway, top American orchestra string sections are easily 50% Asian, it’s just a matter of time before the woodwind sections are similarly composed.

    • Relatively few wind players in Mainland China, where there still seems to be a prestige hierarchy: the most talented are directed toward piano or violin, next toward cello, etc. (understandable, given the prominence of some Chinese pianists and violinists, and Wang Jian [not to mention Yo-Yo Ma] while other than Liang Wang, it’s hard to think of an internationally prominent [to even musically sophisticated parents of potential music students] Chinese wind player). There’s the additional problem of finding decent instruments: while there’s a highly developed and high quality student-string-instrument industry, the wind and brass areas have a lot of catching up to do. Interesting to see the countries of origin of members of the (excellent) Asian Youth Orchestra each summer, as a guide.

      • AYO 2018 – Woodwinds (19): Hong Kong 6, Japan 5, Taiwan 4, (Mainland) China 2, Malaysia 1, Thailand 1. Brass (14): Hong Kong 6, Thailand 3, (Mainland) China 2, Japan 2, Korea 1. Strings (60): Taiwan 23, (Mainland) China 16, Hong Kong 4, Japan 4, Korea 3, Malaysia 3, Philippines 3, Singapore 2, Macau 1, Thailand 1. Q.E.D. (Of course, if to you “Chinese” and “Asian” mean the same thing this will have been meaningless.)

  • OK, we’re really talking oboe, bassoon, and horn here; English horn and contrabassoon are derivative instruments at that age.

    Yet for any orchestral openings, you’ll still get a boatload of qualified oboists and bassoonists auditioning. And I’ve never noticed a dearth of horn players.

  • One percent would be about right for how often those are needed in the music world.

    Any child who knows what a contrabassoon is probably a serious fan.

    • Whenever I take my contra to the “petting zoo” one orchestra offers for youngsters, you’d be amazed how popular I am – they all want to play it: it sounds so cooooool! And when a parent asks how much it would cost and I tell them you could buy a new Ford Mustang for less, they instantly steer the kid to trumpet, drum, violin…

  • Ironically, this very afternoon as I walked through Rittenhouse Square, I encountered a trio of bassoon playing young teens (about 15 years old on average.) I assume they were part of Curtis’ summer institute program, and/or Philadelphia Youth Orchestra members. They were fabulous – too bad there’s no way to post a video clip.

  • There are some band directors afraid to start students on horn, oboe and bassoon because of cost and in a class that all instruments are taught they don’t fit in well (the rage is built around clarinets and trumpets/trombones) which is an awful range to start the horn and double reeds in. (also in the case of bassoon most 10-12-year-olds aren’t big enough to handle it yet) So they are typically not instruments that students start on but are moved to. (trumpets with a foggy sound to horn, your better flute and saxophone players that have good grades and brains in their heads for double reeds)

    • That’s not a fatal practice. I would wager that most of the successful double reed players moved to it after starting on some other woodwind.

      • And not just woodwinds one of the bassoonists in the Lyric Opera of Chicago orchestra started on trombone. As a teacher, I am not afraid to start oboes and horns, but bassoon because of all the fingerings etc. does frighten me a little bit because I want to try to avoid having the students pick up bad habits.

  • I play bassoon, but it’s not only that they aren’t popular, but most schools don’t have them. When I started band in 6th grade, there was the largest amount of bassoons that wanted to play than ever, and the number was 5. They only had 3 bassoons, and 2 of them were the 8th graders. We ended up having to borrow bassoons from 3 other schools. I do want to learn contra bassoon, but my high school doesn’t have them, and I obviously can’t afford my own.

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