Take it away: “Would you consider an ‘Endangered’ instrument?”

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Our partners at Take it Away have published this interesting article about instruments that are often labelled ‘minority/endangered instruments’, despite being unique and essential members of the orchestra. They interview MIA Member Windblowers for an insight into the barriers to buying these instruments, and the changing market…

There’s many factors to consider when choosing a musical instrument to learn, and if the instrument is for a child certain practical details like cost and size often come into play. This means that instruments such as the oboe, bassoon, euphonium and double bass tend to be considerably less popular than others – so much so that they’ve often been labelled ‘minority/endangered instruments’ and have been the subject of various campaigns to ‘save’ them.

The recognition of certain instruments as ‘endangered’ is not new.  A £1m campaign was launched in 2003 by charity Youth Music to increase playing of the bassoon, double bass, French horn, oboe, trombone and euphonium.  Around 1,200 instruments were provided at discounts to stave off a potential crisis among orchestras.  These instruments can cost thousands, so any scheme that would help remove that financial barrier was welcome.

More recently, a campaign called Save the Bassoon was launched in 2015 by Bram van Sambeek to raise awareness of the bassoon and encourage more people to take it up, using the “endangered species” model employed by the World Wide Fund for Nature.

These campaigns certainly spark curiosity.  We spoke to Elaine Flegg at Windblowers music shop in Nottingham to find out a little more about what these instruments are like, what the main barriers are to learning them and why they’re worth a go. Here’s what we learned:

The initial barriers are often physical

Windblowers has the largest selection of sheet music and wind instruments in the Midlands.  The most popular instruments they sell are the saxophone, flute and clarinet, with the least popular being the tuba, French horn and the bassoon: “They are not necessarily more difficult [to learn] nor is there less music, although there are probably not as many ‘cool tunes’ for the tuba and bassoon to play as with the popular instruments. They are big and expensive and can be difficult for smaller children to handle.”

The least popular instruments can also be the most popular

As any musician or music teacher will tell you, the best way to make quick progress on your instrument is to practice, practice, practice. And if you can, start playing with others.  If you play an unpopular instrument, you’ll often find more opportunities to do this than you might think. “These instruments are always in demand from a playing point of view,” says Elaine. “As there are fewer players, there are more playing opportunities in bands and orchestras. More playing means quicker progress.”

There is still a demand, but the market is changing

“Sales have remained reasonably stable across the board. The decline in music education has had a negative impact on the ‘beginner’ market in recent years, but we are seeing many advancing players up-grading existing instruments. Also, a rise in adult beginners and people returning to playing after years away from it.”

The future: support from authorities is crucial

There are several initiatives being run by music education hubs around the country to encourage minority instrument take-up, but like so many areas of music education, it often depends where you live.

Leicestershire Music Hub’s scheme is a brilliant example of what can be achieved with concentrated effort. They had a number of instruments available which were not being used, so they launched a campaign in 2014 to encourage interest. With help from a professional bassoonist, they put a promotional video together, and in the space of a year the number of bassoonists receiving tuition rose from a handful to over 50.  They are expanding this approach to the oboe, trombone, French horn and double bass. Berkshire Maestros has been running a bassoon program since 2008, and invested in mini bassoons as well as full size ones, to help children start at the same time as any other wind instrument – rather than wait until they are bigger.
Other hubs running campaigns include Buckinghamshire Music TrustCumbria Music Service (Oboe, bassoon, cello) Newham Music (French horn) Cornwall Music Hub (bassoon, double bass, French horn, oboe, euphonium amongst others),

Get inspired!

Inspiration to learn a musical instrument sometimes comes from knowing a bit more about it or hearing it played on a song you like. Although the oboe and bassoon feature rarely in popular music, they have popped up in more places that you may think.

Take it Away have published some insights into these instruments along with some facts that may surprise you: https://takeitaway.org.uk/endangered-instruments/ if you’re a retailer selling these ‘endangered instruments’, this may be a good guide to share with your customers to get them interested!