Should I buy a “step-up” instrument?

"New Instruments" by Phil Roeder is licensed under CC BY

Should you buy a “step-up” or “intermediate model” woodwind instrument? In most cases, I think the answer is no.

For flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, or saxophone, I think the wisest course, if you can afford it, is usually to start with a high-quality, best-in-class student-model instrument. The advantages of this are:

  • Lower price range (though maybe in the upper part of that range)
  • High-quality student instruments are easier to play than low-quality ones, giving beginners an advantage and a positive experience
  • Quality student instruments can, in some cases, be used all the way through high school band
  • Quality student instruments retain their value better, so you may be able to recoup some of your investment if the instrument falls into disuse or you replace it with a more advanced model

At some point, the option may be suggested, by an educator or a salesperson, to “step up” to an intermediate model. My experience with these is generally:

  • The price range is not much lower than professional-quality instruments
  • The quality not much better than good student instruments
  • Sometimes they have some cosmetic differences that make them seem more “professional” or luxurious but which do not give any real advantage to the player

So, in most cases my advice is to skip the step-up instrument. Instead consider investing in some private lessons with a good teacher. These will bring much greater benefits.

And if you intend to audition for college scholarships, participate in competitions, or otherwise play at a high level, the private teacher is a crucial resource when you are ready to buy a professional model. These are instruments suitable for the demands of college music programs and at least semi-professional playing situations. Because they are expensive, it’s worth choosing one very carefully, and a good teacher can help you figure out what you need, connect with a reputable dealer, and get the best price.

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