I've always been enthusiastic about new technologies in musical instruments and their applications for students. When videos for the new Yamaha Venova™ began appearing on YouTube™ in Japan, the first thing I thought was, "Can I take this instrument and teach little kids to play?"
I am a clarinet and saxophone teacher/performer, youth orchestra director and long-time K-12 ensemble music educator, and one of the greatest challenges that I face is that I often get students in the K-3 grade range who are interested in playing clarinet or saxophone but are far too small to hold and play the standard-sized instruments. I experimented with some of the different scaled-down plastic children's instruments available on the market but was always disappointed with the complexity and tone quality.
The Venova has finally reached general availability in the United States, and I was delighted to recently see it in my local music store. The Venova is billed as a "casual wind instrument" and its role in the music marketplace as being akin to the ukulele, which lots of folks find more accessible and portable than the guitar. I think this is a spot-on characterization.
I now own two Venovas and spent some time learning to play them and experimenting with clarinet and saxophone techniques. While I found the included soprano saxophone mouthpiece — essentially the stock Yamaha 4C model — effective to use, I wasn't quite as happy with the response of the synthetic reed provided with it. Since then I have used a Legere Signature Soprano Saxophone reed in strength 3.0 and believe that this is the exact "sweet spot" for a player with an established embouchure. With a beginner, I would try the 2.0 and 2.5 strength versions.
Game Changer for Young Students
The size, weight, and general simplicity make the Venova much easier to work with for a K-3 student. My 5-year-old son tried it out and was able to achieve a characteristic sound on the very first try. The low cost of the instrument — around $100 — also makes it much more accessible. Anyone who has tried a $100 clarinet or a $200 saxophone knows that those barely qualify as real instruments, yet the Venova is a fully chromatic instrument with a very impressive, complex tone quality that belies its size and appearance.
Most importantly, compared to a recorder, the Venova's soprano saxophone mouthpiece, reed and ligature allow a young child to develop the appropriate musculature for a future clarinet or saxophone embouchure. The setup lends control to the tone and voicing on the instrument that a recorder simply does not have, and the smaller size of the mouthpiece is more appropriate for younger children with smaller mouths for which a standard clarinet or alto saxophone mouthpiece are far too large to deal with.
As music director of a youth orchestra, I have the privilege of working with 150+ talented young musicians every season. More recently, through the efforts of my wife, Chika, and our friend and colleague, Jenny Visick, we have launched a string program that offers instrumental instruction to violin and viola players as young as 3 and 4 years old. We are now looking at introductory woodwind classes using the Venova, and plan to launch a K-3 beginning woodwinds course shortly. I will soon be writing/arranging custom arrangements for Venova solo and ensembles in preparation for our class launch.
The Venova NAMM Experience
I attended the 2018 NAMM Show in February as a guest artist and spent time at the Yamaha Venova exhibit, where I had the pleasure of playing a variety of repertoire from Bach, Gershwin and John Williams for attendees. The most significant thing about my experience during my three days there was the genuine shock and smiles that came from people once they heard the Venova's true potential. My overall impression was that the expressive qualities of the Venova went far beyond their expectations, at a cost that makes a fully chromatic woodwind instrument extremely accessible.
Click here for more information about the Yamaha Venova.