The Instrumental Petting Zoo: Tips and Tricks

Photo Credit Rachel

This is the conclusion of a mini series on the Instrumental Petting Zoo.  In previous posts, I shared the concept of the petting zoo, how to select and find instruments, and tips for dealing with spit and cleanliness.  At the end of Jana Gruss’s presentation, she called up several volunteers to demonstrate how to teach the kids to play the various instruments. I thought I would conclude this mini series by sharing some of her ideas.

It is important to remember that the main goal of the petting zoo is to expose the children to the various instruments and help them pick the sound and feel that they like best.  To that end, it is very important that the kids are able to make decent sounds as quickly as possible.  Too many failures will cause them to become easily frustrated.  Jana also recommends using silly phrases and terms to describe how to hold or play the instruments.  This keeps the event light-hearted and makes it a fun experience for the children.  I have included some of these expressions below.


When demonstrating the strings, have the children start by holding the instrument and plucking the string lightly with the right hand.  This will help them get a feel for how to hold the instrument and get them making sounds right away.

When teaching the kids how to hold the bow, she has them “make a bunny” by pinching their thumb and middle two fingers together around the bow and using the pinky and pointer fingers as the “ears”.  Then she tells the kids that it is a “sad bunny” and has them bring the “ears” down to balance the bow.

Photo Credit Penn State


Jana starts by having the kids make a “kissing face” and try playing the mouthpiece separate.  She models the sound and shape of the lips first, then once they can make a sound she attaches the mouthpiece to the instrument and teaches them a few of the simplest fingerings.


When demonstrating the clarinet, Jana also recommends having the children try the mouthpiece separate.  She has them make a “gopher face” by tucking their bottom lip over their teeth and curling their top lip up.  Then they “bight” down on the mouthpiece and bring their top lip back down.  Once they can make a sound, she attaches the mouthpiece backward to the clarinet and plays while they blow.

The flute is one of the hardest woodwind instruments to teach the kids, and Jana often personally supervises this instrument to help prevent kids from getting discouraged.  She has them try the mouthpiece separately and teaches them to form the correct mouth shape by saying “we”, “mmmm”, “pooh”.  Once they can make a sound, she has them blow into the flute while she plays the fingerings for them.

Jana also keeps a few double reeds with her to demonstrate the difference to the kids between that and the single reed, but she does not let them play it as they are so expensive and difficult to make a sound out of.

No matter what size your zoo, the instrumental petting zoo is an important tool that can be used to expose children to the world of musical instruments.  Even if a full petting zoo is not possible, it would be wonderful to bring instruments and instrumentalists into the classroom as often as possible to demonstrate their instruments and potentially let the children try them.  This is not a waste of time, but rather an investment in our childrens’ future.  As John Sykes said:

In every successful business…there is one budget line that never gets cut. It’s called ‘Product Development’ – and it’s the key to any company’s future growth. Music education is critical to the product development of this nation’s most important resource – our children.
– John Sykes — President, VH1

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