Purchasing anUpgrade Instrument
This information is geared toward parents with little to no musical knowledge who find themselves in need of a new instrument for their developing child musician. The purpose is to prevent purchases which may prove to be costly later and, in fact, damaging to the student’s progress. Here are some steps interspersed with some questions frequently encountered.
- Consult your child’s band director or private instructor.
Your child’s teachers want the student to have the best instrument possible AND get you the best ‘bang for the buck’. You are trying to invest not only in a quality instrument, but more importantly your child’s musical progress. The latter can be limited or halted by an ill-advised purchase. To that end, your child’s teachers can be of great benefit in helping guide you toward quality brands and ‘reputable vendors’, which is a term we’ll expand on later.
FAQ #1: Why can’t I simply purchase from an online source like Ebay or Craigslist? The deals look GREAT!!
Yep. You’re right, they do. But remember: “If a deal looks too good to be true…” You know the rest. The instruments you see online are usually manufactured by exploited labor using cheap materials with little to no craftsmanship involved (leading to terrible intonation, an inability to blend with other like instruments, and low durability). Local instrument repair companies will not even accept such instruments because replacement parts are unavailable, and sometimes even the simplest but necessary repair exceeds the cost of the instrument. The instrument is in the hands of a child, so chances are it’s going to be dinged up at some point. For so many of these poor-quality brands, that means the instrument is now trash and you’re back to where you started.
In addition, there is often no provision to try the instrument first before finalizing a purchase. Would you purchase a car without kicking the tires? Don’t do it for instruments either.
Some more established online stores have a return policy that will allow you time to test the instrument or have it looked over by a professional or a technician. That can be helpful, but only if it is a quality brand of instrument to begin with (refer to brand list later on in the article).Be sure you’re familiar with the return policy if you choose to go this route.
- Establish parameters.
Questions must first be asked that will focus the search:
- Intermediate, or professional model instrument? Parents have to be honest with themselves about how committed their children are to playing. Will this horn only be used through high school? Will this be the horn that takes them through college and beyond? To be honest, for many instruments there is no difference between Beginner and Intermediate models save for a few cosmetic improvements, such as silver plating. Some true intermediate improvements include a clarinet body made of wood rather than plastic, or a solid silver headjoint for a flute. The big changes happen in the leap to professional horns; with those changes come a substantial cost increase as well. Sometimes, a pro-level instrument can cost thousands of dollars more than a beginner model of the same variety. At the same time, the higher quality instruments can create the opportunity for great musical growth for the conscientious student.
- What’s our budget? As you examine your finances, you might find that a reputable vendor has various plans ranging from renting through rent-to-own, to payment plans that often come with 0% financing for a period of time. Figure out what fits best, and realize that you will usually pay less than the price that you see in print.
- What do we do with the older instrument? Keep it if the student plans on performing with marching band or needs a school rehearsal instrument. The new horn can stay at home for practicing, but should be brought to school for the last few rehearsals and the performance. If there is no further use for the old horn, consider selling it within your school district’s music program or donating it to organizations that provide instruments for the disadvantaged. Even reparably damaged instruments are accepted in order to be reconditioned and distributed.
- Does the vendor have their own repair department? Many music stores have added band instruments to their inventories without having the ability to service them. They will sometimes sell poor quality instruments, or charge the customer more to farm out the repairs to another company (the one you probably should have gone to in the first place). We’ll use the term reputable vendor to mean those with their own repair departments.
- The Search
A reputable vendor can provide you with sample horns from a variety of quality brands for evaluation through play-testing. A specialist in that instrument is a very helpful in assessing instruments; usually if not a private teacher, most school districts have someone on their music faculty who can assess the horn. Where possible (when it’s not a surprise for a birthday, the holidays, etc.), have the student play in the presence of an instructor to see which sounds/feels the best. Be prepared for the instructor to recommend a horn that the student will have to ‘grow into’, one that will invite encourage growth in technical abilities for true mastery.
- We picked an instrument. Now what?
Now it’s time to do some research. What is the cheapest price you find online for that instrument? Woodwind and Brasswind ( or Casio Interstate Music are among two of the competitive sites to research low prices. If a vendor has stayed with you this long, they want to close the deal, so usually that company will match if not beat the price you find online. There are frequently great sales before the holidays where you’ll find your selected instrument selling for hundreds off its retail price. Ask about service plans as well; young students in particular may need a few repairs as they learn to care for their new instruments, and a service plan covering those repairs may be a wise investment. You know your child, so you be the judge.
Occasionally you may run across a good deal on a “B-Stock” horn, which may be a slightly used or slightly blemished instrument (flawed lacquer, discolored or slightly scratched finish, rental return, etc.) that still plays wonderfully. Used horns can be a great find as long as they have been professionally serviced, and you can ask the vendor about them. In fact, a quality brand USED horn is a better purchase than a NEW horn from a questionable brand any day.
Be patient. If you are not impressed with the vendor so far, call some of the other local vendors with make, model number, and that best price and see if they’ll beat it or throw in a service plan or a care kit at no charge. Getting the companies bidding against each other only helps your bottom line. Nota Bene: some instruments, particularly saxophones of higher quality, will need to be ‘set up’ for the student. Certain adjustments of keys may need to be made to better fit the hands. A private teacher may be able to make these adjustments, but the reputable vendor surely will.
FAQ #2: How do I know what brands are bad?
Although several outstanding instruments are produced in all three countries, most of the offensive brands above are produced in China (majority), Vietnam, and Taiwan. Many will have attractive case designs or the instruments come with cosmetically pleasing touches (such as different color finishes). The instruments, however, are very poor. No matter how much your child says they want a red this or a blue that, do not waste your money.
Good Intermediate brands to consider:
Flutes- Yamaha or Gemeinhardt
Clarinets- Noblet, Buffet, Selmer, or Yamaha
Saxophones- Yamaha, Selmer
Trumpet, Horn, Trombone, Euphonium, Tuba- Yamaha, King, Conn, Bach, Holton, Getzen
Were this a Professional list, it would include many more brands.
No matter what brand, there are things to look for in each instrument:
Flutes- Open Hole (“French” model) with hole plugs and an Inline G. The more silver in a flute, the better the tone and response, so at least a silver-plated instrument, NOT nickel-plated. If you can swing it, a solid silver headjoint makes a big difference, if not a solid silver body and foot as well. The option of a B-foot really isn’t useful at the intermediate level, so avoid the upsell.
Clarinets- Real granadilla wood body. Not ‘resin’ or composition’, which are euphemisms for ‘plastic’.
Saxophones- Higher quality metal construction, blued steel springs, better intonation.
Trumpets- Silver plating gives a more brilliant tone. Better intonation.
Horns- A double horn is appropriate for an advanced middle school or high school player. It is a four-valvedformat that allows for better accuracy and intonation.
Trombones- An F-attachment (look for a rotary valve and extra tubing on the bell section) is a desirable addition to a trombone, allowing possibilities of facility and range not found in a regular trombone. Intermediate trombones can also have larger bore sizes that accommodate stronger airstreams as players mature physically.
Euphoniums- Similar to the F-attachment on a trombone, a fourth valve on a euphonium allows for greater facility, intonation, and increased range in the lower register.
Conclusion: As with any other purchase, a little research goes a long way. This purchase, however, can show short- and long-term benefits in your child’s progress if they are diligent about practice and care for the instrument.