When a student is in the fifth grade (or fouth grade in private schools), he/she has to choose between band, orchestra, or choir. If they choose band, in the spring, band directors from the middle schools go to the elementary schools and the students try out different mouthpieces to see what seems to fit them best, i.e. can they make a sound easily? Then, depending on instruments they heard in general music class, they must choose their top three. Once the choice has been made and the band director approves it, the next task is getting the instrument and the supplies. The easiest, cheapest route is to rent a school instrument. The extra supplies–valve oil, cork grease, swab, reeds, music book, music stand, etc. must still be acquired through a music store.
But because schools don’t have all the instruments the students need and the budget to repair these instruments is almost non-existent, the parents must get an instrument from somewhere else. This is where it gets “fun.” Most parents rent an instrument from the area music stores, such as Paiges Music or Musicians Repair. The parent fills out the rental agreement, and the delivery man brings the instrument to the school along with the starter kit which contain the extra supplies. But which instrument to rent? What about just buying it outright? What about buying one online or using one they already own? Alas, the parent’s dilemma!
For the beginner, because no one knows how long the student will be staying in band, it’s best to rent a used, beginner instrument from a music store. Even though there may be cosmetic wear and tear, the instrument will be in good condition and playable. And the rental contract will include the store’s responsibility to repair or even replace it if necessary. The short-term goal is to invest the least amount of money into a new project that may not last beyond a year or two in middle school, or if the student decides to quit band in high school. (Aaauuughhh! Make it not so!)
Now let’s talk about getting an instrument from places other than a music store. In three words-DON’T DO IT! Places like Target, Walmart, Amazon, and other big box stores obviously don’t specialize in band instruments exclusively. These instruments are off-brand and made overseas where inferior materials are used such as pot metal and subpar wood. They will break as soon as they are played on a couple of times. Music stores such as Paiges will not repair these instruments because they cannot guarantee the work. Moreover, because they are off-brand, parts such as pads, rods, screws, and keys cannot be replaced. If the instrument has a warranty, it has to be packed up and sent who-knows-where, and there is no time table as to when it will come back. Meanwhile, the student has to wait several weeks or even months without an instrument. Area music stores have on-site repair departments, and delivery men will pick the instrument and leave a loaner so the student has something to play on while the instrument is getting fixed. The average turn-around time for instrument repair is one week. But because the shops are dealing with literally thousands of instruments, it may be longer, depending on what needs to be done. Also, be wary of music stores that specialize in drums, keyboards, and guitars. They will most likely not carry the brand-name instruments that the parent should rent or purchase. And again, repair on these instruments may be difficult to get.
About buying an instrument online, such as Ebay. Yes, the instrument may appear to be a bargain, and it looks good in the picture. But don’t be fooled. Unless you know what you’re looking for in terms of brand, age, and use, you will have no idea what you’re buying. It’s the same situation with pawn shops, garage sales, and ads in the newspaper. You could end up with an inferior horn that is no better or even worse than buying one on Amazon or Ebay. Price can be deceptive, and bottom line: you get what you pay for. Something priced at $100 or $200 means most likely the instrument is a “dog.” You will be wasting your money even if it’s only $50 for that clarinet that has a description of being “refurbished and ready to play.” You, the parent, must understand that musical instruments cost a great deal of money. That is why I recommend renting a used one from a reputable music store for starters. These stores sell and rent name woodwind brands such as Selmer, LeBlanc, Accent, Yamaha, Cannonball, Gemeinhardt, Buffet, and Fox. These are companies that have been in the business for decades, some going back to the 19th century. The quality of their products is well-established. Yes, they cost more but that’s the best way to go. Why buy junk that’s going to be nothing but problems and hassles for the student, the band director and most importantly you, the parent?
If you, the parent really want to find an instrument on Amazon or EBay, you must be in contact with me and be ready to start private lessons. Since I know what’s out there, I will look and try to find a suitable instrument at a fair price. However, there are no guarantees. Moreover, from time to time I have access to instruments that former students and parents are wanting to sell. I had a beginning oboe several years ago that literally passed through five generations of students! And here’s another perk about the private lessons. I teach the beginning student how to properly handle the instrument, and I monitor its condition so it won’t get damaged. WARNING: Pets and little brothers and sisters are a band instrument’s worst enemy!
On to instruments already owned by the parent or family member. The band director will insist that the student show it to him/her to determine if the horn is suitable and playable. A trumpet that Great Grampa Henry played in the Army band during World War II and then put on the top self in a closet for next seventy years is probably not going to be a good instrument for a beginning student. And the flute that Great Aunt Elmira played in high school and went to the Sweet Sixteen finals at the Indiana State Fair Band Contest in 1971, and then passed it on to her niece and then put it away in the garage ever since is not going to work, either. A music store is the proper place to take the instrument to get an appraisal and to see if it’s even worth repairing. Sometimes it is, and all the better for the student. But if you open that case and see mysterious green tarnish on the keys, dead moths fall out, and the case inside smells like a musty old tuxedo, close it and consider making a lamp out of it. Then go to a music store to rent an instrument.
What to do next when the student has been playing awhile. After six months, the music stores may offer a “step up” program where the student can switch to an intermediate level instrument. The thought behind this is as the student progresses and gain experience playing, a slightly more advanced instrument will allow the student to have better tone, intonation, and response, and the instrument has more ergonomically correct keywork. But the catch is that the parent must pay higher rental fees because the instrument is better quality and more expensive. This is all well and good, but my advice is to pass on this offer. The middle school student typically hasn’t played long enough to notice the difference between a beginner and intermediate instrument. He/she is still learning how to get around the instrument, and the music been played in band is so simple that extra keys are not needed yet. The main reason not to pay more rent on an intermediate instrument is that the student will outgrow it, and will need a more advanced or professional instrument down the road. If the student plans to quit music after middle school, the beginning instrument might well be good enough to get by.
So when the student is ready to move on to a better instrument, I have a long conversation with him/her and the parent. Questions need to be raised: Are you, the student, going to be in band in high school? Do you plan to play in a band or orchestra in college? Are you choosing to major or minor in music? Do you want to audition for scholarships? Are you expecting to continue playing after college, such as in a community band, or in a church, or just at home for fun? Do you want to try to break into the professional music world? To the parents I ask, how much are you willing to pay to get the best instrument to meet the student’s future needs and desires? For the student who is taking private lessons and is serious about becoming a top-notch instrumentalist, skipping the intermediate model and going for a professional one is the right way to go. You want to buy an instrument that is better than the student’s present skill level, so he/she can grow into it musically for years to come. I tell parents, you want this next instrument to be the last one you buy for your child. When the kid becomes an adult, he/she can buy his/her own next instrument. The professional instrument may be the one that the student keeps and plays on for the rest of his/her musical life!
Having said that, as the student’s private instructor, I make the extra effort to help him/her and parent find that right instrument. I will meet the student and parent at the music store and help the student try out different instruments and offer advice and suggestions. I am willing to go online on Ebay and search for the right instrument if one is available, or I will call up woodwind companies around the United States to see what they have. I have connections all across the country I know what I’m looking for and I know whether an instrument is a good buy or not. I’ve been doing this for forty years. And I always keep in mind the parent’s budget. It’s just that you, the parent, will to have to spend some money. Buying a musical instrument is a huge financial commitment. That’s how the music world is. I want the student to succeed from the get go on learning how to play a musical instrument, and without the right instrument and equipment, time, money, and effort is wasted for everybody.
Ready to take the plunge?