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Buying a New Instrument (pdf version)

Some thoughts by Jonathan Peske

At some point in middle school, many parents consider purchasing an instrument for their student.  I have written down some of my most common advice.  Feel free to contact me with further questions. 

I want you to think about this as if buying a car or other big ticket item.  There are many important factors that must be considered.

1. Don’t make a decision without input from your student.

            I know that sometimes you want it to be a surprise, but without their input, you might not choose the best instrument for them.  Wrap up their old instrument if you need something to put under the tree.  You can also put a picture of an instrument in a birthday card. Your student will be using the instrument and needs to explore the various options with you.

2. Do they need a new instrument?

            There are modifications that can be made in regards to mouthpieces and other equipment that can be much cheaper than a new instrument, but still produce results.  However, a new instrument is a lot of fun and may be needed at various points.

3. Explore whether you need a student, intermediate, or professional model instrument.  (Just like various models of car)

            There are three basic levels: student, intermediate, and professional.  The important thing to understand is what “professional” means.  It does not mean top of the line!  There are instruments that are better than the “professional” horn!  (My clarinet is one step above the Buffet R-13, which is a standard professional instrument.)  The “professional” instrument is one that has been finely engineered to play in tune, have a good sound, respond well, and be a dependable instrument.  Few shortcuts have been taken.  This is an instrument that will last for many, many years of service.  (To use a car analogy, this is the equivalent of a well-equipped Toyota Camry or Honda Accord: well engineered; geared to meet most needs; dependable and long lasting.  There are still BMWs, Ferraris, and Bentleys that are even more expensive than these cars.) 

Expect that a student who wants to be a serious musician will need a professional horn by their junior year of high school. Obviously, not all students will want to pursue music forever, but those who want to make the top wind ensemble in high school and audition for college groups will need an instrument that will not hold them back. I tell you this now so that it will not come as a shock later. 

            A student model horn is a strong, economic choice.  It has a series of compromises built into it that lower the price for those who don’t want to pay for a professional instrument.  It is usually built to less exacting specifications than a professional horn.  It may lack some of the features that are on a professional horn.  It won’t play with as good of a sound and may be out of tune on some notes.  However, it may be less delicate and is sometimes designed to withstand the added stress (beating) that a student might put on it.  It is an instrument that should last for a long time but will eventually be outgrown.  It can then be “handed down” to another student.  (In the car analogy, this is like a base model Toyota Echo or Corolla or a base model Honda Civic.  Its going to get you around, but it won’t be able to do all that a bigger car can do and will lack some of the features and utility of a larger car.  It is still dependable and a mode of transportation.)

Student model instruments are extremely appropriate for middle school students.  Young students often lack the maturity and responsibility to care for an instrument that costs over $1500.  Additionally, many middle school students have not advanced to the point where a student instrument is “holding them back.”

            An intermediate model horn falls somewhere in between.  You should think of it as a dressed-up student model instrument.  Usually, the intermediate model lines are engineered to similar specifications as the student model line, just with some extra keys, or a better metal finish, or a nicer case.  Many of the modifications are cosmetic.  While they are better horns than the student horns, they will eventually reach their limit, just as student horns do.  They will not have the same degree of craftsmanship or usefulness of a professional horn.  (Using the car analogy: it is a nice (but not sport-equipped) Corolla or Civic.  It will look really good and may a little extra power under the hood, but is still going to fall short of what the Camry or Accord can do.)

            Intermediate model horns are very tempting to middle school parents.  They seem like a step up from the instrument he/she has now and they usually look a lot nicer.  Salesmen like to push them so that you buy three instruments along the way, rather than two.  If you have the money and don’t mind spending it, go for it.  They will be better instruments than the student model horns.  However, it will not substitute for a professional horn.  Keep in mind that somewhere down the road, you will still need to get a professional instrument if he/she keeps playing.  If you are saving for that possibility or money is tight, find the best student model instrument you can get.  Whatever you do, make sure you buy a good mouthpiece (extra $50-$100). 

If your student is almost to high school, is very responsible, and you can afford it, you may want a professional horn.  In some situations, it is better to just skip right to that.  However, make sure to keep your student instrument for marching band, where it will be exposed to sun and rain!

4. Do your homework on brands, stores, prices, and instruments.

            Notice that I used Toyota and Honda in my car analogy.  There are some companies that make better products than others.  Just like you wouldn’t buy a car from China or Yugoslavia, you shouldn’t buy an instrument that was made there.  In general, American or Japanese instruments are the best.  (Many of the big American manufacturers are merged with the big European manufacturers.)  You want a brand that has established a reputation over many years of building instruments; not one that just started.  There are many poor quality instruments out there, so caveat emptor (buyer beware)!

Without making an endorsement, here are some brands that I would consider if I were to make a purchase choice:  

Bach, Blessing, Buffet, Conn, Eastman, Gemeinhardt, Getzen, Holton, Leblanc, Loree, Kurzweil, Selmer, Vito, Yamaha, Yanigasawa

Here are a few other brands that are also common and trusted names:

Armstrong, Artley, Antigua, Benge, Besson, Boosey and Hawkes, Buescher, Bundy, Emerson, Fox, Jupiter, King, Keilwerth, Miraphone, Olds, UMI

This is not to say that this is an exclusive list, but I hope it is helpful. 

I suggest shopping around to find the right instrument. You get what you pay for, so it is better to spend a little more now on a better instrument than save some cash now and regret it later.  However, prices on identical instruments vary widely and it may be worthwhile to drive to another store that may be a little further away. 

As you shop around, be sure to compare specific brands and model numbers from store to store.  As you research, don’t just take the salesperson’s word for it.  Consider the level of service and the salesperson’s knowledge of the instrument.  Can he/she explain to you the differences between that model and another model and why they are significant?  Why do they recommend that brand over another?  Some salespeople are very knowledgeable and will have good advice.  Check out what they say against other sources, including data on the internet.  If you are in the store, examine the instrument carefully.  Look carefully at the detail work.  Does it look and feel like a high-quality instrument? 

            A high-quality used instrument can also be a great option.  Follow the same advice listed above.  You will have to shop around more, but you can often find good horns this way.  This is especially true when you are looking for professional instruments.

6. The test drive

When you have found one or several options that fits your budget, then it is time for the test drive.  This is the part your student needs to be involved in.  Reputable music stores will let you play on the instruments, as long as you bring your own mouthpiece (and reed).

Do not buy any instrument unless your student has tried other instruments, played on this one continuously for at least 15 minutes, and is excited about this specific instrument

What comes next is for students to use while trying out the instrument.

 

How to “test drive” an instrument: 

Take along your old instrument and some music with you to the store, along with your mouthpiece, reeds, etc. Go into a practice room with your old instrument and this new one.

Step 1: Kicking the tires

1.      Look at the instrument closely.  How carefully is it put together?  Does it seem to be well made? Is everything aligned perfectly the way it should be? If something doesn’t look right, the instrument probably isn’t that good.

  1. Play a few notes.  How does it feel?  Does it have a good tone? 
  2. Do you like how quickly the instrument responds?  Or do you feel like you have to work to make a sound?
  3. If you like it so far, move to step two.  If you don’t like it, stop!  You don’t have to buy this instrument.  Wait for the one that feels right to you.

 

Step 2: Putting the pedal to the metal

 Play part of a song that is really fast on both your old instrument and this new one.  Is there a difference? The new one should be better. 

  1. Play some notes that are really high.  Is it hard to play them?  Do they sound good?
  2. Play notes that are really low.  Is it hard to play them? Do they sound good?
  3. Borrow a tuner from Mr. Peske or the store.  Use the new instrument and play your tuning note.  Tune the instrument.  Now, play a scale, slowly, and check how closely each note is in tune.  A really well made instrument will have each note come out pretty close to in tune, without you having to make adjustments.  If any notes are really sharp or flat (20 cents or more), you probably do not want that instrument. 
  4. Play a full range chromatic scale very slowly.  Are there any notes that sound funny? 
  5. Compare how your old instrument plays with the new one.  There should be a difference.
  6. No instrument is perfect.  However, if you don’t find too many problems and you really like it, move on to step 3. 

 

Step 3: Closing the deal

  1. Make sure you shop around to see that the price you are paying is fair.  Be careful that you compare the price for the same brand and model of instrument. You can do this homework ahead of time by calling around to different stores.  Its worth it to pay more for the better brand instruments because they will last longer, however, different stores charge different prices for the same brand and model.
  2. Once you have found an instrument you like, you might try others that are the same model.  Sometimes identical model instruments can still be different.
  3. Don’t buy an instrument without playing it first.  If they won’t let you play it, go to a different store or tell Mr. Peske.
  4. If you don’t REALLY like an instrument, don’t buy it!  You don’t need to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on an instrument until you find the one that is “just right.”  You can always think about it and come back later.

 

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