Product Review: First Act Discovery Instruments

FirstActTrio.jpgAs I've mentioned many times here, I'm a big fan not just of kids music, but also of making music with kids. As in, families making music together. Not in any Partridge Family-like way, but just adults and kids singing and playing together.

We've got a basket of instruments we keep in our living room that we pull out a lot, along with the ukelele and (occasionally) my violin. I might be the only one in the family with any significant musical training, but even if we're just marching around the house in a musical parade, it's important to me that my kids see music-making as something they can do at any point in their lives. I could care less if they ever get paid for making music, but it would be nice if, assuming they become parents at some point, they don't feel at all self-conscious about singing songs and rockin' the egg shaker with their kids.

Having said all that, that basket of instruments we have is really dependent on rhythm instruments -- egg shakers, sticks, bells. So when First Act asked if I was interested in having our family test out some of their First Act Discovery line of instruments, I was ready...
Now, before I begin talking about the specific instruments, I should note that the one instrument I was tempted to review that I declined was the drum set. My wife tolerates a lot of music, but that was asking too much.

FirstActBongos.jpgSo instead we got some bongos. These bongos (FB-125) run about $17-$18 depending on where you shop, and they're solidly constructed.

They're also kind of boring. In the month or so we've had these instruments, the kids used them rarely. Maybe it's because we have some many rhythm instruments, maybe it's because the other new instruments were more instruments, but they just don't have much pizzazz. Drums with mallets produce much louder sounds, which tends to have a bigger appeal to my kids than the mellow, almost muted tone of these kid-sized bongos.

So, these bongos are fine, I just think that unless you're deliberately looking for a "softer" drum, there are others that will probably interest your kids more.

FirstActGuitar.jpgLike, for example, this 30" student acoustic guitar (FG-130; available for $30-$35). Now, although it's designed for kids, I think it's for slightly older kids, as it seemed a little big for Miss Mary Mack, who's 7 and fairly tall for her age. But Little Boy Blue at 3 years old loves the thing. Clearly he's not learning to become the next Andres Segovia or Yngwie Malsteen anytime soon. But he's become comfortable with the idea of playing an instrument which plays different notes, not just a rhythm instrument with (maybe) a couple of barely different tones. And hey, who doesn't like making like the Beatles and playing the opening strum to "Hard Day's Night"? (While it feels small to me as an adult, it's not so small that I couldn't play the thing for demonstration purposes if I knew how or cared to.)

As for the guitar itself, it's a well-made $30 guitar. Which means it's good enough to see if your kids are willing to devote the time to learning the guitar. Should your kids actually get serious enough to take lessons on an ongoing basis, it's likely you'll want to upgrade the instrument. The strings are fairly low to the thin neck, so it's easy to play, and tuning is fairly simple. It's got a nice, warm tone.

If there's a downside, it's that the instructions that accompany the guitar are fairly minimal. There's a page on tuning, some chord cards, an extra couple strings, and that's it. It could probably use at least a page or two more on how to hold the guitar and strum it.

But for $30, it's a decent instrument for exploring.

FirstActAccordion.jpgFinally, we got a real live accordion (FA-107; $20-$25). Let me tell you, this was by far the biggest surprise and the biggest hit. While Little Boy Blue obsessed over the guitar, Miss Mary Mack was completely taken by the accordion, so much so she learned how to play "Mary Had a Little Lamb" for a talent show with just a week or so of occasional playing.

That's right, that's Miss Mary Mack herself playing the accordion. She's probably got a ways to go before she's joining John Linnell on stage, but I think that's pretty decent. Unlike the guitar, the accordion comes with somewhat more detailed instructions that include some songs. It really is something you can take out of the package and with a little bit of practice, sound like you know what you're doing. The accordion itself feels pretty solid. My only comment would be that the package says it's for ages 4 and up, and while Little Boy Blue (at age 3) occasionally noodles around with it, I'd be surprised if too many 4-year-olds have the patience or fine motor skills and coordination necessary to do any more than noodle around with it.

In sum, all three instruments are worthwhile, though I most enthusiastically recommend the accordion for both quality and value. If all you have are some egg shakers and other rhythm instruments in your family's collection, adding a guitar or accordion such as these from First Act to your collection might be just the thing to liven up your musical play.