The boy was a third grader, and a small one at that. He wanted to play the saxophone but could not reach around the palm keys of most saxophones, so I found him an older Bundy and we got to work. The girl was only five years old but really wanted to play the flute. This was not so easy. I started her on the recorder, and for a while we tried the fife. I do not know what has become of the saxophonist, but the flutist still studies with me, now a poised sixth grader, and is well into her third year on the flute. There was also a small seventh grader who wanted to play tuba for whom I found a lovely old King baritone horn in the instrument closet of the middle school where I directed band; and I know I am not alone in searching for instruments that will fit earnest little hands. Lately, instrument manufacturers have been coming up with solutions. Here is a survey of the ones I have found, as well as some less traditional solutions. If I have missed any products of interest (as I probably have) I apologize, and would like to know of them for any future articles revisiting this topic.
String teachers have long had half size instruments to work with. There can be some intonation problems, but they at least have something to get the student started. It has not been so easy for us wind people. The first adapted flute I saw was one keyed in Eb, made by Armstrong. I had one several years ago, but they seem not to have caught on, probably because of the need for transposing their music. Then a few years ago a major manufacturer, developed a curved headjoint, like the one on the bass flute, for the soprano. Now most flute manufacturers have these in their catalogs. Most recently Jupiter has gone everyone one better by borrowing the offset finger buttons from the bass and alto flutes as well, and eliminating the foot joint. The result is a smaller, lighter instrument that can be played quite comfortably by a small child. They also make standard flutes with these offset buttons. The choices for the flutists are now extensive.
Clarinets cannot be altered much, however Leblanc has managed to make the tone holes a little smaller on their Vito models. They have also introduced a student model with plateau keys. There are also adjustable thumb rests like those on the Jupiter clarinets. Bay Woodwind Products also has introduced adjustable rests that can be retrofitted. If considerable relief of the thumb and wrist is required there is the Kooiman thumb rest. This requires professional installation, but is highly adjustable and spreads the weight across both joints of the thumb.
Thumb rest cushions can also help the smaller-handed player, as can neck straps. Some manufacturers are providing a hole or perch for a neckstrap hook. Jupiter has one on its adjustable thumb rest, and the French accessory maker BG makes an attachable perch as well as a whole range of straps, both neck and shoulder, including ones that can be used with traditional thumb rests. Neotech also makes a strap specifically for clarinet.
The strap and thumb cushion solution is also available for the oboe, although there is not the same range of products. The straps and harnesses for clarinet will usually work, and I seem to remember seeing and after-market thumb rest with a small ring attached, but I cannot confirm that at this time.
Some bass clarinets, like the student model from Leblanc, have key work that favors smaller hands. There is also the Bay "improved-angle" neck, which makes the instrument a little more compact.
Saxophones cannot be changed too much either. As I mentioned above, sometimes I find that the older Bundys, or the Buescher Tru-Tone/Aristocrat models on which they are based, can help the child who has trouble with the left hand palm keys. Of course, these have to be found on the used market, which can be impractical in many instances. There is now a wide array of harness supports, as an alternative to neck straps, available from several manufacturers. Many of the newer baritone saxophones, particularly the Yamaha and the B&G/Vespro, have the key buttons placed as close together as those on the alto. With a stand designed to support the instrument while being played, it is possible for a small person to play the bigger sax, although it is not likely that they will be able to carry all this home for practice. Hamilton and Koenig & Meyer both make such stands, and there may be others.
Moosman has just introduced a compact bassoon. Boosey & Hawkes has a bassoon with key work designed for small hands. Jupiter offers a standard sized instrument with a plateau C key that has an offset button. This minimizes the stretch in the left hand.
For the high brass there is the obvious, but sometimes overlooked, cornet. With its shorter body it is ideal for children and it tends to play more easily than the trumpet, at least in the beginners range. There are many variations on the design of the cornet from models that are rather trumpet-like in appearance, and therefore longer, to the traditional "shepherd's crook" horns some of which are quite compact. All the major brass instrument manufacturers have these in their catalogs, although the shorter "shepherd's crooks" tend to be more expensive. Two exceptions to this would be Yamaha, who have a "standard model" short coronet, and Jupiter whose only cornet is a "shephard's crook."
The single French horn has long been an option for smaller children, not only for its lighter weight but its simplicity and lower cost. Again, all the major builders have these in their catalogs, and Besson (Boosey & Hawkes) has a pair listed as "3/4 size." Holton makes a "child's French horn" with a 10" bell. These are single horns in both Bb and F, with the Bb being quite compact. At the professional end of its line Holton also makes a standard double horn with an adjustable thumb hook.
Trombones are the least expensive low brass, but they present an obvious problem for the young player, 6th and 7th positions. My first instrument was trombone, and I remember mastering the technique of holding the slide with my finger tips to get to 7th position, and I was not a particularly small child. There are handles that can be clamped onto the slide brace, although these seem to present other problems and have never seemed to be very popular. There do seem to be small, but significant modifications that can be made, however, and Jupiter has recently introduced a "head-start" trombone that features a pistol-type grip and padded, adjustable thumb rest for the left hand and arced tubing where the instrument rests on the shoulder. The arc is intended to assist in getting a good embouchure position and makes it easier to reach the 6th & 7th positions.
Baritone horns, euphoniums and valve trombones solve the slide problem but are, of course, more expensive. United Musical Instruments offer 3/4 size baritone horns. In their King line there is also a model with valves that are reached "from the back of the horn," so that the player does not have to reach around the instrument. Getzen also appears to have a baritone constructed this way. UMI's Conn line continues to offer instruments with the valves facing front, as does Yamaha and perhaps some other manufacturers.
Tubas also come in 3/4 size, and I have read reference to size as well, but have not located any in the catalogs that I have. Tubas come in a dizzying array of sizes and transpositions, and probably deserve an article of their own. They are expensive and there are many things to consider when purchasing one. However, the creative band director or private teacher has a lot to work with here. If for instance one is willing to tackle the transposition issue, a smaller EEb 3/4 size instrument might work for the determined, but not-yet-big-enough player.
Elementary school jazz bands have been using electronic keyboards as a substitute for string bass or bass guitar for some time now and there may be something to think about here in regard to the low voice missing from many elementary ensembles. I myself am of two minds about this. The pragmatist in me says this is a way to get a fuller sound and, perhaps, to involve the child who is taking piano lessons, as well. The long-time wind player in me is a little uncomfortable with the potential dynamic problems as well as some esthetic issues.
Regarding the elementary jazz band, it is worth mentioning the re-introduction of the Danelectro "long-horn" electric bass, which has a short scale, a narrow fingerboard and is quite light in weight for a bass guitar. This instrument could be played easily by many average size elementary school children.
One of the manufacturers raised an issue when I spoke with him in preparing this article. He has found that even though his company offers some of these instruments, there is not much of a demand for them. My feeling is that not enough people have realized that adaptations for their smaller students or children are possible. Be that as it may, the gentleman indicates something that should be kept in mind: it is not likely that these instruments will be found in the average rental program offerings, and for good reason. Rental programs cannot keep their prices down and offer a wide range of instruments at the same time. The teacher and the parents have to be willing to spend some extra time and money to help the small but interested child get started. However, I have little doubt that it would be time and money well spent.
- Paul Combs, School Band and Orchestra, June 1999.
Paul Combs, 1999, 2012