Instrumental Music

Figure 1.--Boys playing musical instruments were a common subject for painters. These images provide a great deal of information about both the development of modern instruments and the clothes that boys wore. Frans Hals (Dutch, c. 1580-1666) painted this portrait of "Singing Boys". Notice the cap that the boy in the front is wearing.

Boys practicing their instruments generally dressed informally. Some boys practiced at home, others at school. They sometimes, however, dressed up to have their photograph taken. Many boys studying musical instuments never play in a band or orchestra and thus never had performance costumes. Most will, however, paricipate in recitals. Mothers once insisted that boys wear their very best suits for these recitals. A wide variety of uniforms were selected, some were more popular than others.


Boys have taken clases to learn to play musical instruments from time immemorial. Beginning in the late Victorian era an expanding middle class had the financial ability to afford instumental instruction for their children. Some boys were very interested. Often a doting mother insisted that a boy take piano or other musical instruments. Many boys objected. One Alabama boy who later became a noted U.S. Marine Corps general, ran away from home at age 11 when his mother insisted that he take piano lessons. His dad had to go all the way to Chicaho to being him home. To chart the clothes worn by these boys we have images of European boys playing musical instruments from paintings, mostly beginning in the Renaissance. The number of these paintings, however, are very limited because most painters made a living by painting portraits or other works commisioned by wealthy people. This begun to change with the development of photography. By the 1870s the price of a prortrait had fallen to a level beinging it within the means of most people. Thus we get an increasinging number of images of children with their instruments, usually dressed fot a recital or how they would have dressed for a reciatal. After the turn of the century when snapshots became common we begin to see boys practgicing with their instruments.

Gender Connotations

I'm not sure about the gender conotations associated with instrumental music. I know that by the 17th Century that refined girls were expected to learn the piano, but they did not perform in public. Certainly in the era before the phonograph and radio, the ability to play an instrument must have been highly prised. All of the great composers before the 20th Century were men and they must have played musical instruments at first. I do not know how common it was for boys to be taught to play instruments before the 19th Century.


Motivation on the part of the boys has varied. Some boys from their early childhood have aspired to learn a musical instument. In other cases, doting mothers have insisted on music lessons to inbue their sons with at least a minimal vaneer of culture. Just the words "music lesson" for many conjur up tense if whispered arguments between mothers and sons or even among siblings. It was a constant battle to make sure generations of recalcitrant sons put in the proscribed time with his instrument. Some my brothers and sisters remember confrontations. One boy recalls in the 1920s anticipating the arrival of his piano instructor at his house to share his wonderful talent. He and his sister would each be pushing each other in the general direction of the studio grand: "You go!" "No, I was first last time." "No you go!"


The age at which a child should begin learning a musical instrument has been discussed for some time. Often this meant that, except for a small number of child prodigies, about 10 years of age. A now famed Japnese Music teacher, Shinichi Suzuki, reasoned that a child should be able to learn a musical instrument by four years of age or less. He noted how young children can easily master the intricacies of speech or using chopsticks and concluded that they could also bergin to learn musical instruments. The resulting Suzuki Method revolutionized the teaching of music in Japan, America, and other countries.

Figure 2.--This boy in the late 19th Century, probably the 1890s, wears a sailor suit to be photographed with his violin. The sailor suit was a common choice for boys to wear when photographed with rheir instruments. Notice the buttons on his middy blouse and the little bows on his kneepants.

Clothing Details

There was no costume of course for boys learning musical instruments. Boys simply wore their normal play or school clothes. Thus such images are a good relection of contemporary clothing styles. Mothers insisted, however, that there sons put on their best suits for any recitals or performances. Dress standards in recent years have become more casual, but mothers usually insist on something beyond "t" shirts and jeans. Many of the formal portraits of children with their instruments show the boys in their best suits that they would have worn for recitals and stifly posed. Some mothers wanted more artictically posed photographs of their children. In some cases they wore more informal clothes for these portraits, often charming glimpses of the children and their instruments. The more formal portraits we will archive under recitals as these are probably the clothes that the boys wore to their recitals. Children practice music both at home and at school. Practice clothes at home are a good reflection of ordinary boys' clothing. Images from the early 20th century tend to be informal and relatively uncommon because of the complications of indoor home photography. More recent images are mich more common and reflect the increasingly casual clothing styles. Children also practice their instruments at school, thus photographs there are a good reflection of school attire, including school uniforms. Recital and performance clothing is quite a different matter. Mothers would insist that boys wear there very best clothes for these events. In some cases new outfits would be purchased or at least a new bow. Even in today's more casual times, a boy will often wear a suit or at least a white shirt and tie for his recital. Here we will archive both photographs taken at recitals and formal portraits that HBC believe show the kind of clothes boys wouls have worn to their recitals. Until fairly recently it was difficult for partents to actually photograph their son's performance at a recital.


A wide variety of uniforms were selected, some were more popular than others. HBC has little information on this, but believes that the piano and violin might have been most popular with mothers. Boys may have liked brass instruments. Woodwinds have also been popular. Guitars became very popular in the 1950s, undoubtedly influence by Elvis Presely. The images of boys with their instruments providing inttresting glimses of both fashion and music trends over time. Of course there tend to be substabntial differences i performance and prracte dress. Often performance clothes were a boy's best suit, but in smome cases mother made special costumes for performances. Here we are just beginning to collect images. We have a variety of images archieved on HBC under different topics which we will begin to cross index here. We would be very interested in any memories that HBC readers may have.

Gender Preferences

There are clear gender preferences among children learning to use musical instruments. These prefrences are epecially pronounced among younger children. Young boys have a strong preference for drums, saxaphines, and trunpets. Children trend to become more flexible as to instrument choice when they grow older.


Schools around the world give varying attention to instrumental music in the curriculum. American schools vary widely in the attention given to instrumental music. Many American schools promote music. Here schools vary widely, primarily because of the varying financial condition of school districts around the country. Instrumental music tends to be strongest in American secondary schools. Many schools in particular have marching band programs. We believe that the situation in Canada is similar to that in America. We are not sure if there are differences between English and French speaking schools. Many English schools have instumntal music programs. This tend to be especially true of private schools, but is not limited to them. A factor here is that parents with the financial resoyrces to send their childrn to private schools also hgave the resources to afford music lessons. Parents with professional backgrounds are also more likely to encourage a child's musical development. We do not believe that French state schools commonly offer instrumental instruction. We are less sure about private schools. We have no information on schools in France, Germany, Japan, and other countries.


Recitals are performances by children who are learning musical instruments. After they prsactice for some time, the children give a performance to demonstrate their new skills to famoily and friends. The recitals are organized by the schools the children attend to learn musical instruments. Many children instead of taking lessons at a school as with dancers, take private instruction at home or in the home of a teacher. Usually the children practice for their recistals for some time in advance.


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Created: December 31, 1998
Last updated: 7:17 AM 11/18/2011