Buying a new instrument

February 21, 2010

I went saxophone shopping with a student yesterday. We picked out a nice instrument that suits his playing style and personal tastes, meets my requirements, and ought to serve him well for years to come. Here are a few thoughts on picking out a new horn.

  • Do your research ahead of time. We made phone calls to several music stores in the region, and found out what instruments were available to try. We both familiarized ourselves with the various bells and whistles (so to speak) of the different models, and had some idea of the differences between the instruments the stores had in stock. This became important as we were evaluating a saxophone that seemed to be almost the right fit for the student—luckily we knew that model came from the factory with two different necks. We asked for the other neck, and sure enough, the horn turned out to be a winner.
  • Bring a trusted set of ears. If you are a student, try begging or bribing your teacher to go shopping with you (they want you to have the best instrument you can afford!). Remember that what you hear when you play the horn is different from what a listener hears. When I picked out an oboe a few years ago, I found two specimens of the same model that seemed equally good to me. My oboe teacher listened to me play both, and immediately picked out “the one.” He could hear something out front that was escaping me back behind the reed.
  • Put the instrument through its paces. How does it respond, feel, sound, and tune at fortissimo? At pianissimo? High notes? Low notes? Articulated notes? Check the pitch, stability, response, and tone of every single note, including alternate fingerings. Use your own familiar mouthpiece(s) and reeds. Spend a significant amount of time playing a new horn before you even think about buying it. My student and I each played some of our current classical repertoire and some jazz stuff before making a judgment on the instruments.
  • Prioritize realistically. Remember that your tone will be a little different on an unfamiliar instrument, but that your individual sound will come through more as you gain comfort with the instrument. Intonation, however, is built into the horn for good. Get an instrument that will let you play in tune without unnecessary gymnastics.
  • Don’t forget the old reliable. Bring your old instrument along for periodic reality checks, even if you know it has significant shortcomings. I was impressed enough with one of the instruments I tried yesterday that I briefly considered what would have been a rash and probably unwise purchase. I put the mouthpiece back on my own alto and realized that I am better off with what I’ve got.

Happy shopping!

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