About the Instruments We Teach


stringed instrument

Among the earliest stringed instruments with a keyboard in Europe was the dulcimer, a closed, shallow box over which stretched wires were struck with two wooden hammers. The dulcimer led to the development of the clavichord, which also appeared in the 14th century. These were followed by the spinet, virginal, clavecin, gravicembalo, and finally, the harpsichord in the 15th century.

The harpsichord, however, was limited to one, unvarying volume. The artistic desire for more controlled expression led directly to the invention of the piano, on which the artist could alter the loudness and tone with the force of one’s fingers.


The earliest piano, or pianoforte as it was called at the time, was invented by expert harpsichord maker Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731) of Padua about 1698-1700. (Historians are not in total agreement as to the exact date.) Cristofori was able to solve the fundamental mechanical problem of piano design: the hammer must strike the key but not remain in contact with it. This way volume could be controlled and the same note could be hit multiple times in succession. Cristofori’s new instrument was known as the pianoforte because it allowed players to produce notes at different dynamic levels by controlling the inertia with which the hammers hit the strings.


During the late 18th century, piano-making flourished in the Viennese school which included the likes of Johann Andreas Stein and the Viennese makers Nannette Streicher and Anton Walter. Viennese-style pianos featured wood frames, two strings per note, and leather-covered hammers. Some of these pianos came with black natural keys and white accidental keys, the opposite of modern day pianos and keyboards. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed his concertos and sonatas for such instruments.


The piano is at the center of Western musical history in every style of music, from classical to jazz and rock/pop. Well-known pianists in the 20th and 21st century include Ling Ling, Yuja Wang, Elton John, Billy Joel, Art Tatum, Ray Charles, Mary Lou Williams, and Marian McPartland.




You could argue that the voice is man’s first musical instrument! If you can speak, you can sing. Vocalizing / singing has been a part of every culture for hundreds of years, with styles that often reflect the individual language and dialect of the culture from which it springs. Sung text seems to elevate both the singer and the audience in a way that is completely unique.

Singing has been used to tell stories, to worship, to woo, and, we believe, to heal the soul. Singing with a group can reduce loneliness by bringing together like-minded people engaged in the same activity. It can reduce stress and anxiety, boost confidence, and possibly even strengthen the immune system and cardiovascular health.

Bel Canto Academy offers both private and group lessons for children and private lessons for adults.



stringed instrument

The guitar is a plucked stringed musical instrument that probably originated in Spain early in the 16th century, deriving from the guitarra latina, a late-medieval instrument with a waisted body and four strings. The early guitar was narrower and deeper than the modern guitar, with a less pronounced waist. It was closely related to the vihuela, the guitar-shaped instrument played in Spain in place of the lute.

The guitar originally had four courses of strings - three double, the top course single, that ran from a violin-like pegbox to a tension bridge glued to the soundboard, or belly; the bridge thus sustained the direct pull of the strings. In the belly was a circular sound hole, often ornamented with a carved wooden rose. The 16th-century guitar was tuned C–F–A–D′, the tuning of the centre four courses of the lute and of the vihuela.


From the 16th to the 19th century several changes occurred in the instrument. A fifth course of strings was added before 1600; by the late 18th century a sixth course was added. Before 1800 the double courses were replaced by single strings tuned E–A–D–G–B–E′, still the standard tuning.

By the early 19th century, guitars looked very close to the six-stringed instruments of today but were smaller in size. In the mid-1800’s, Antonio de Torres Jurado, a Spanish musician and luthier, began creating the style of guitar that would give rise to all modern guitars. Though in modern times he doesn’t get quite as much credit as he deserves, he is in many ways the grandfather figure in the history of the guitar.

With a broadened body, increased waist curve, thinned belly, and machined head which replaced wooden tuning pegs, his creations became particularly notable thanks to an innovative form of fan bracing and body design, which give classical guitars their distinct voicing and thick, heavy sound. Andres Segovia, another influential Spanish guitarist, took the classic guitar that Torres had created and established it as a concert instrument. He also transcribed early polyphonic music and created complex musical compositions that we now think of as ‘classical’ guitar music.

Meanwhile, European immigrants carried a steel-stringed version of the reshaped Spanish instrument with them to America, where the history of the guitar really started to take shape—and where the flat top, the archtop, and eventually, the modern electric guitar would be created.

Guitar in the United States is generally associated with folk, jazz, and rock music. Influential rock and blues guitarists include Jimi Hendrix, Robert Johnson, and Jimmy Page.




stringed instrument

Perhaps the most well-known string instrument in the orchestra, the violin is also considered one of the most expressive. The instrument evolved from a variety of other stringed instruments, including the lira (9th century Europe), the rabab, an Arabian 2-stringed fiddle, and Spain’s three-stringed rebec. The French vielle, like the rebec, was usually supported on the chest or under the chin and was widely used by troubadours in the 13th to 15th centuries to accompany singing and dancing. Stringed instruments have a long history in folk music, but the violin became more standardized after it went to court.

Most historians agree that today’s violin emerged in the early 16th century in northern Italy, an area which would maintain the violin-making tradition over the coming centuries. Maple and spruce, the two types of wood most favored by violin makers then and since, were readily available in the Lombardy region. The city of Brescia, located at the foot of the Alps, was the earliest to excel in the crafting of violins, but Cremona, home to the world’s most famous luthiers, Giuseppe Guarneri, Antonio Stradivari, and the Amati family, became synonymous with the art of violin making.

Around 1786, François Tourte created the modern bow, standardizing its length and weight. The invention of the chin rest around 1820 made the instrument easier to hold and increased its range of play. The neck and fingerboard were both lengthened and tilted in the 19th century, allowing the violinist to play the highest notes, and the bass bar was made heavier to produce a bigger, more brilliant sound.

Many composers have written for the violin, and it is an instrument that appears in nearly all forms of Western music. Some of the most well-known classical violinists today include Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, Itzhak Perlman, and Hilary Hahn.



stringed instrument

The violoncello or cello is the tenor voice in the string family tuned one octave lower than the viola and one octave higher than the cello bass. Although shaped like a violin, the cello is much larger and is held between the player’s knees. It is said to be the instrument that most resembles the human voice with its deep, rich tone. Like all the members of the violin family, the cello first emerged in Northern Italy in the first half of the 16th century in the workshops of famous instrument makers like Andrea Amati and Gasparo da Salo.


The cello is primarily an orchestral and chamber music instrument, but it is also heard in jazz, folk, rock, and pop music as well. Famous classical cello players include Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline du Pre, Zara Nelsova, Johann Sebastian Paetsch, Mstislav Rostropovich, Janos Starker, and Maurice Gendron, to name just a few. Well-known jazz cello players include Oscar Pettiford, Harry Babasin, Dave Holland, Abdul Wadud, Ron Carter, Oscar Pettiford, and many others. Rock/pop bands that have used the cello include Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, ELO, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Aerosmith.



string instrument

Before the start of the 16th Century, the term “viola” was already in use to describe string instruments that bore similar characteristics of the violin family: the viola da braccio, which was played on the arms, had low ribs, four strings across a curved bridge and a round back; and the viola da gamba, which was played at the legs, had high ribs, five to seven strings across a flatter bridge and a flat back. The first actual visual evidence that we have of the viola is one that is painted into a famous fresco in the Santuario di Saronno's dome near Milan, along with a number of period instruments that fit the criteria for the violin family.


In 1597, a Venetian composer, Giovanni Gabrieli, wrote Sonata pian’e forte, a chamber piece wherein one part was specifically assigned to the viola. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the viola was mainly used in the orchestra and the opera. In the later period of the 17th Century came another form of composition – the Concerto Grosso. It was a form of Baroque concerto that consisted of a small group of solo instruments (called “concertino”) and a string orchestra (called “ripieno”) which included the viola. Famous Concerto Grossi composers included Vivaldi and Corelli.

The first known viola sonatas published in England in 1770 were written by William Flackton, a bookseller, publisher, organist and violist. Mozart wrote an entire Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola in 1775. Joseph Schubert, another violist, penned a Viola Concerto in E-flat Major, which debuted in Dresden around 1800.

The viola is generally considered to have reached something close to its modern form in the 1600s and early 1700s, but experimentation continued into the 20th century. In the 1930s luthier Arthur Richardson and player Lionel Tertis set out to consolidate all the best parts of their favorite viola designs into an instrument that was ideal in every way, including a full tone and a smaller size. The Tertis viola is still highly respected today.

The viola often plays the alto voice in string quartets and symphonic writing. Viola soloistic roles in orchestral music include the symphonic poem Don Quixote by Richard Strauss and the symphony Harold en Italie, by Hector Berlioz. In the earlier part of the 20th century, more composers began to write for the viola, encouraged by the emergence of specialized soloists such as Lionel Tertis and William Primrose. English composers Benjamin Britten, Rebecca Clarke, Ralph Vaughan Williams, among others, wrote chamber and concert works featuring the viola. Paul Hindemith, who was a violist, wrote a substantial amount of music for the instrument, including the concerto Der Schwanendreher. The concerti by Béla Bartók, Carl Stamitz, Georg Philipp Telemann, and William Walton are considered major works in the viola repertoire.

The viola is primarily an orchestral and chamber music instrument, but it is also heard in jazz, folk, rock and pop music as well.

Famous classical viola players include Lionel Tertis, Paul Hindemith, Walter Trampler, Theophile Laforge, Vadim Borisovsky, Maurice Vieux, Lillian Fuchs, William Primrose, Frederick Riddle and Ernst Wallfisch. Well known jazz viola players include Leroy Jenkins, Mat Maneri and Will Taylor.

Rock/pop bands that have used the viola include The Who, The Cure, The Beatles, Van Morrison, and the 10,000 Maniacs. Folk musicians Mary Ramsey, Helen Bell, and Nancy Kerr have used the viola in their work.




woodwind instrument

The flute is the oldest woodwind instrument, dating to 900 B.C. or earlier. The first likely flute was called the "ch-ie" and emerged in China. Early flutes were played in two different positions: vertically, like a recorder, or horizontally, in what was called the transverse position. The transverse flute first arrived in Europe with traders from the Byzantine Empire during the Middle Ages and flowered in Germany, so much so that it became known as the German flute.

During the 1100s and 1200s, the flute was widely used in courtly music and saw use as a military signaling and marching tool. Swiss mercenaries helped popularize it in the 1300s. During the Renaissance, it became fashionable for amateur flute players to practice and play together with what was known as consort music in cultured homes. By 1600, plucked and bowed instruments were combined with flute in mixed consort music.

The late 1600s and 1700s saw solo flute repertoire emerge, giving players music that featured a range extended below the usual high register melodies. It also called for the player to add more individual character to each part. Composers like Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Telemann and Blavet wrote extensively for the solo flute and professional players such as J.J. Quantz began to find success traveling from area to area performing concerts on the baroque flute.


Around 1750, London instrument makers took the baroque flute and added a system of flute keys, while also increasing the taper of its bore. The result was an even stronger lower register and more solid tuning. By the end of the century, the keyed flute was almost universally adopted. Every country had its own style of keyed flute and hosted visiting artists from other countries to show off their repertoire, instrument, and skill. J.G. Tromlitz, a German flautist, was well known at the time as a virtuoso who performed on a keyed flute of his own personal design.


Flute design flourished through the first half of the 19th century, with significant design variations found in Austria, England, America, France and Germany, among others. Theobald Boehm of Bavaria began to attract attention with a key design that used a system of complex interlocked rods to allow accurate, fast fingering in a more natural hand position.

Today's flute is based on Boehm's innovations, with modifications that vary somewhat depending on the instrument maker. The flute is primarily thought of as a classical and jazz instrument, but it has made some notable appearances in pop music as well.


Famous classical flute players include James Galway, Jeanne Baxtresser, and Jean-Pierre Rampal.  Well known jazz flute players include Herbie Mann and Bobbi Humphries.



percussion instrument

Drums consist of a membrane (also known as a skin) stretched over an open-ended cylinder (also known as a shell) and struck with a mallet or stick, or by using the hand or fingers. In jazz, some drummers will use brushes for a smoother, quieter sound. In many traditional cultures, drums have a symbolic function and are used in religious ceremonies. They are often used in music therapy, especially hand drums, because of their tactile nature and ease of use by a wide variety of people.

Along with the voice, the drum is perhaps the oldest instrument known to humans. Drums first appeared as far back as 6000 B.C. Mesopotamian excavations have unearthed small cylindrical drums dated 3000 B.C..


Drums may be played individually, with the player using a single drum or in a set of two or more all played by the one player, such as bongo drums and timpani. A number of different drums together with cymbals form the basic modern drum kit. Several factors determine the sound a drum produces, including the type, shape and construction of the drum shell, the type of drum heads it has, and the tension of these drumheads. Different drum sounds have different uses in music.


Famous drummers include Buddy Rich and Max Roach (jazz), and Phil Collins, Keith Moon, Meg White, and Neil Peart (rock).




woodwind instrument

The oboe is a double reed instrument in the woodwind family.  A double reed instrument uses a type of reed consisting of two pieces of cane that vibrate against each other. The oboe is a unique and beautiful instrument with a history that goes all the way back to ancient Greece. Although the oboe made its orchestral debut in France in 1657, historians believe that the earliest rudimentary oboe-like instruments were first used around 2800 B.C., performing in royal funerals depicted in ancient drawings.  More sophisticated forms of early oboes can be traced to India during the twelfth to the seventh centuries B.C. Although these oboes can be traced back the farthest, the instrument that is believed to be the closest predecessor of the oboe is the medieval shawm. The shawm (developed from the Asian zurna) was made of wood and had a conical shape with a flared bell. It came in several lengths in order to have different pitches and had either a hole to put the double reed in or a bocal (a slightly angled piece of metal covered by cork at the end inserted into the instrument) for the reed to sit on.

As time passed, musicians desired an instrument with a wider range and more control over pitches. During the middle of the 17th century, the first baroque oboe (called hautbois, meaning high-wood) was created in France, where it was used to entertain the French court. Made of boxwood with several holes but only two or three keys, it gained immediate popularity in many countries. During this time, the oboe da caccia (hunting oboe) was also created. This instrument had a curved body and was used in many of Bach's cantatas and masses. The classical period brought on several more changes to the oboe—a narrower body (called the bore) and more keys, giving the instrument a much wider range. From these earlier forms came the modern oboe, which has a range of more than two and a half octaves in the treble range.  The oboe is slightly lower in pitch than the flute and can be thought to occupy the alto register in the woodwind section of the orchestra.

Some well-known oboe players in the 19th and 20th centuries include Felix-Charles Berthelemy, Ralph Gomberg, Leon Goosens, Haakon Stotjin, Eugene Izotov, John Mack, and Alex Klein.



woodwind instrument

The English Horn, or Cor Anglais, is a double reed instrument in the woodwind family approximately one and half times the length of the oboe. A double reed instrument uses a type of reed consisting of two pieces of cane that vibrate against each other.  The English Horn is a transposing instrument pitched in F, a perfect fifth lower than the oboe, which is pitched in C.  What this means is that music for the English Horn is written a perfect fifth higher than the instrument actually sounds. The fingering and playing technique used for the English Horn are essentially the same as that for the oboe and therefore many oboists will also play this instrument as required.


The pear-shaped bell of the English Horn has a more covered tone than the oboe which is often considered more mellow and plaintive. The term cor anglais is French for English horn, but the instrument is neither from England nor related to the various conical-bore brass instruments called "horns", such as the French horn, the natural horn, the post horn, or the tenor horn.

The instrument originated in Silesia about 1720, when a bulb bell was fitted to a curved oboe da caccia-type body by the Weigel family of Breslau. The two-keyed, open-belled, straight tenor oboe, and more particularly the flare-belled oboe da caccia, resembled the horns played by angels in religious images of the Middle Ages. This gave rise in German-speaking central Europe to the Middle High German instrument name engellisches Horn, meaning "angelic horn". Because engellisch also meant English in the vernacular of the time, the "angelic horn" became the "English horn". Gluck and Haydn were among the first composers to write orchestral parts for the instrument in the 1750s, and first English horn concertos were written in the 1770s.

Though primarily featured in classical music, the English Horn has also been played by jazz musicians and is featured in recordings of Broadway and pop songs such as “Send in the Clowns” from Sondheim’s musical A Little Night Music and Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”




woodwind instrument

The clarinet is a relative newcomer among woodwind instruments, said to have been invented by the Nuremberg instrument maker Johann Christoph Denner at the start of the eighteenth century by adding a register key to the earlier chalumeau. Over time, additional keywork and airtight pads were added to improve the tone and playability. In modern times, the most popular clarinet is the B-flat clarinet. However, the clarinet in A, just a semitone lower, is regularly used in orchestral music. The clarinet uses a single reed made from the cane of Arundo donax, a type of grass, or manufactured from synthetic materials.

The name "clarinet" is believed to have derived from various names for trumpet in the Renaissance and Baroque eras such as the clarion. The clarinet has a single-reed mouthpiece, a straight, cylindrical tube with an almost cylindrical bore, and a flared bell. Grenadilla, which is now the most commonly used material for clarinet making, has a higher relative density than boxwood, making it easier to support with the body while performing, thereby allowing for more air volume. When blowing gently it becomes soft and gentle.

The clarinet is a very popular instrument in orchestral, jazz, and big band music. Many works of chamber music have been written for the clarinet, and concertos for the instrument have been written by popular composers such as Mozart, Copland, and Weber. American players Alphonse Picou, Larry Shields, Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds, and Sidney Bechet were all pioneers of the instrument in jazz.  Swing clarinetists such as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Woody Herman led successful big bands and smaller groups from the 1930s onward. Duke Ellington, active from the 1920s to the 1970s, used the clarinet as lead instrument in his compositions.

In addition to the B-flat and A clarinet, the most common instrument in the clarinet family is the bass clarinet, which plays an octave lower than the B-flat clarinet. Most modern bass clarinets are straight-bodied, with a small upturned silver-colored metal bell and curved metal neck. Early examples varied in shape, some having a doubled body making them look similar to bassoons. The bass clarinet is fairly heavy and is supported either with a neck strap or an adjustable peg attached to its body.



woodwind instrument

The bassoon is the principal bass instrument of the woodwind section of the orchestra known for its warm tone and its distinctive shape consisting of a long tube that looks as if it has been folded in two. It is a double reed instrument, which means it uses a type of reed consisting of two pieces of cane that vibrate against each other. In the bassoon the reed is attached to a curved metal mouthpiece called a “crook” or “bocal” which is joined to the main part of the instrument. The bassoon plays music written in the bass and tenor clefs, and occasionally the treble clef. Its size (about four feet long!) and weight necessitates using a neckstrap in addition to a seatstrap.


It is said that the bassoon derived from the dulcian, which is another double reed woodwind instrument from the 1500’s. It is commonly believed that the inventor of the bassoon was Martin Hotteterre, who created the first bassoon in the 1650s in four sections (wing joint, boot, bass joint, and bass). In the Baroque period the bassoon became popular as an instrument to play the bass line. Composers like Antonio Vivaldi and Mozart wrote concertos for the instrument. In the 1800’s the bassoon was refined for use in concert halls and for greater playability. In the first half of the 19th century, German military bandmaster Carl Almenräder began efforts to improve the instrument. He increased the number of keys and made other innovations such as improving the part of the instrument where the tube bends back on itself, known as the “U-tube.” This made the instrument’s pitch easier to control, and at the same time increased its volume. The fruits of these efforts via musical instrument maker Johann Adam Heckel, who worked with Almenräder, have now come to be known as the German or Heckel bassoon.

The bassoon is used in a variety of music styles including classical, jazz, and modern and popular music. In some pieces with a large orchestra a contrabassoon is used, which plays an octave lower than a bassoon.



woodwind instrument

Although most saxophones are made of brass, it is a member of the woodwind family because the sound is produced by an oscillating reed. The instrument was invented by Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax, who patented it in 1846. Saxophones have been produced in a variety of series distinguished by transpositions within instrument sets and tuning standards. The modern saxophones consist of instruments in the B-flat through E-flat series, with the widest use of the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones. The soprano saxophone consists of a straight conical tube with a flared bell, contrasting with the lower-pitched alto, tenor and baritone saxophones which have the familiar curved shape in the throat of the bell directing it forward. Because all saxophones use the same key arrangement and fingering to produce a given notated pitch, it is not difficult for a competent player to switch among the various sizes when the music has been suitably transposed.


In the 1840s and 1850s, the saxophone was used in small classical ensembles as well as in French and British military bands. The use of the instrument declined dramatically in the latter half of the 19th century in Europe just as it was gaining popularity in the United States thanks to the efforts of Patrick Gilmore, leader of the 22nd Regiment Band. After recruitment of Edward Lefebre to the band, it soon featured a soprano-alto-tenor-saxophone section which also performed as a quartet. The saxophone’s use in vaudeville and ragtime bands around the turn of the 20th century laid the foundation for the instrument’s prominence in dance halls and eventually jazz. The Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, formed in 1923, featured arrangements to back up improvisation, bringing the first elements of jazz to the large dance band format. Show bands with saxophone sections became a staple of television talk shows (such as the Tonight Show that featured bands led by Doc Severinsen and Branford Marsalis) and Las Vegas stage shows.

As Chicago style jazz evolved from New Orleans jazz in the 1920s, one of its defining features was the addition of saxophones to the ensemble. The small Chicago ensembles offered more improvisational freedom than did the New Orleans or large band formats, fostering the innovations of saxophonists Jimmy Dorsey (alto), Frankie Trumbauer (c-melody), Bud Freeman (tenor) and Stump Evans (baritone). Dorsey and Trumbauer became important influences on tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who in turn had great influence on later jazz saxophonists. But the greatest influence of the saxophone on jazz was to occur a few years later when alto saxophonist Charlie Parker became an icon of the bebop revolution. The small-group format of bebop and post-bebop jazz ensembles gained ascendancy in the 1940s as musicians used the harmonic and melodic freedom pioneered by Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell in extended jazz solos. Saxophonists such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Sam Rivers, and Pharoah Sanders defined the forefront of creative exploration with the avant-garde movement of the 1960s. The saxophone remains prominent in jazz, soul, and funk bands today.