Review: ClariMate digital clarinet mute by Buffet-Crampon

Bottom line: the ClariMate is an interesting gadget with potential for various uses, but it’s a little rough around the edges. Consider buying one now as a tech toy if you’re an early-adopter type, or wait for a new-and-improved iteration if you need something that just works.

I recently got my hands on the “ClariMate,” a new electronic device from the venerable Buffet-Crampon, clarinet maker of choice for most Boehm-system players worldwide. “Play anywhere, anytime,” its marketing materials proclaim, “the gateway to silent practice and digital music.” It’s a surprising and intriguing offering from a company more associated with tradition and history than innovation.

Players of electric keyboards and guitars have long had the option of using headphones, and Yamaha’s “Silent Brass” digital practice mutes were introduced in the 1990s. But woodwinds are much more complicated to silence, since sound waves don’t just emanate from the instrument’s end—they come from the instruments’ many toneholes. Enterprising folks have marketed a number of questionable solutions, ranging from pieces of foam stuffed inside the instrument to molded containers that completely encase it.

Buffet is betting on a more sophisticated approach. The ClariMate plugs into your clarinet’s barrel on one end and accepts your mouthpiece on the other, and does some electronic trickery in between. Buffet’s sales pitch is that you can play on your own clarinet silently, without substantially changing the instrument’s feel and with a convincing clarinet sound in your earphones. Does it fulfill this promise?

Yes, kind of. But it’s a new technology with a lot of real-world variables to deal with, and it’s marketed to some of the most sensitive and finicky customers there are: musicians.

So, at a current price of $425 USD, as much as a handmade mouthpiece, is it worth it? Let’s take a closer look.

What’s in the ClariMate box

  • The ClariMate unit, a black plastic thing with buttons and lights. The tube part adds about 1½” (38mm) of length to your clarinet. The perpendicular part with the buttons is about 2″×2½” (51mm×64mm). The unit weighs about 1½ oz (45g).
  • A nice black nylon carrying case, about 6″×6″×3″ (15cm×15cm×7.5cm).
  • Two “active reeds,” like plastic clarinet reeds with some additional attached mechanism that fits inside your mouthpiece
  • Some spare O-rings for the ClariMate’s tenon, where it connects to your barrel
  • A few rubbery plugs that can be inserted into the end of the flexible tube, for customizing the blowing resistance to your liking
  • A fabric-jacketed USB cable, for charging the ClariMate and for connecting to a computer
  • A flexible tube that connects to the ClariMate and dangles inside the clarinet
ClariMate and accessories
ClariMate device in closeup
ClariMate installed on clarinet

What the ClariMate sounds like

There are a couple of questions to address here: what does the ClariMate sound like in your earphones, and what does it sound like to someone else in the room?

The ClariMate does effectively silence your clarinet (almost), since the “active reed” assembly does not vibrate. Instead, the ClariMate detects what pitch your clarinet would be producing, based on the fingering you’re using, and replaces that with an electronic clarinet sound in your earphones.

The electronic clarinet sound is a garden-variety synthesized clarinet, like the one from your electric keyboard or music notation software. You wouldn’t mistake it for a real instrument, but it’s recognizable as a clarinet. A contact at Buffet tells me an improved, acoustically-modeled sound is already in the works for a future software release (which will be installable on already-purchased ClariMates).

Here’s a short demonstration. I play two excerpts from the Rose 32 Etudes, first on “real” clarinet and then with the ClariMate (with the Windows app). The final part of the video shows the sound in the room (which is virtually silent).

The ClariMate unit does produce a very quiet but audible hum (Buffet calls it the “chirp”), which changes as you open and close toneholes. Here’s an up-close recording of what it sounds like. I’ve got the microphone right at the bell, and I’m playing some notes down to low E. The thumps are the pads closing, and should give you an idea of how much I boosted the recording volume.

In reality the chirp is quiet enough to be masked by typical room sounds like air conditioning.

Connections

The ClariMate can be used in “standalone” mode, in which you just plug in some wired earphones (not included) and play. It can also connect to computer apps via USB cable or smartphone/tablet apps via Bluetooth for additional features.

It can’t be used with Bluetooth earphones due to latency, a delay between when you play the note and when you would hear it in the earphones. The technological issue here is real and probably currently unavoidable at this price point, but it’s a shame to see this device hit the market just when many people are discarding their wired earphones and living in their Bluetooth ones.

The ClariMate website suggests the USB mode can be used for MIDI, but the user manual doesn’t provide any information about this, and Windows did not detect my ClariMate as a MIDI device. A Buffet representative confirms that although this functionality is mentioned on the website, MIDI features are “not publicly available yet.”

Operating the ClariMate unit

The ClariMate has four buttons and four LED lights. Two of the buttons operate as simple volume-up and volume-down buttons, but you have to use an app to get any visual feedback on how much of the available volume you’re using.

There’s also a power button for starting the unit in standalone mode, or you can turn the power on while holding any of the other three buttons to start in USB, Bluetooth, or reed calibration mode. I find this a little fussy and non-intuitive; you have to read the manual to figure out how to turn the device on correctly. (Although I will allow that a clarinetist ought to be able to handle pressing more than one button at a time.)

Playing the ClariMate

Playing a clarinet with the ClariMate feels pretty natural to my embouchure. The non-vibration of the reed, which feels shiny-smooth but otherwise pretty reed-like, is different but not difficult to deal with.

The latency of the note tracking is slight and mostly manageable, but noticeable to an experienced clarinetist.

A contact at Buffet explained that the ClariMate requires a fair amount of finger precision, maybe even more than actually playing the clarinet, in order to correctly recognize the pitches you want. This was a purposeful choice, as the ClariMate team wanted to make sure the device was useful as a practice aid, and not something that would allow you to develop bad playing habits. I found the ClariMate mostly identified my intended pitches without difficulty.

Failure to detect the intended notes can be due to imprecise finger placement, or due to differences between your clarinet and barrel and those used in developing the ClariMate (apparently a Buffet E11). This can be fixed by “training” the ClariMate to recognize your individual instrument’s quirks. My Buffet Festival B-flat mostly worked pretty well without any training for playing simple things, but I did do a full training regimen, which took about 5 minutes, to get the device to respond well to faster passages and short staccato notes. The training consists of the app showing you a sequence of notes, which you play on your instrument.

You can adjust the ClariMate’s breath sensor “threshold” to match your accustomed reed response (in other words, will the ClariMate start playing with the slightest breath, or will there be a bit of cushion to blow against?).

The “active reed” has a simple non-electronic device that sits inside the mouthpiece to detect pressure on the reed. As I understand it, this pressure is supposed to affect pitch, but I was unable to get the reed properly calibrated, so I wasn’t able to test this. I got an error message from the apps over and over during the calibration process. A Buffet representative kindly walked me through several potential solutions, including trying ligatures other than the one I usually use, but we were unable to solve the problem.

I’m not convinced that mapping volume to breath pressure and pitch to reed pressure accurately reflects real clarinet playing. Intentional adjustments to pitch on the clarinet are best accomplished with voicing rather than changing the pressure on the reed. Pressure on the reed is, however, tied to volume in “real” clarinet playing, and breath support should generally remain constant. In this way, the tone-production aspects of the ClariMate may not be a direct match to real-world clarinet playing, though they will be familiar to players of electronic wind controllers.

The extra length and weight added to the instrument by installing the ClariMate is not bothersome. It’s not much more than the difference between playing a B-flat clarinet and an A clarinet.

Use cases

Buffet’s primary push for the ClariMate seems to be as a device for practicing silently. After fully “training” the device to recognize notes on my instrument, the note tracking is probably good enough for most practice applications, but still has a just-noticeable lag that would be problematic for artist-level playing.

And, of course, the tone production aspects of practicing (tone, intonation, response) are lost or substantially changed when using the ClariMate. This may limit its usefulness to developing players.

Buffet’s marketing materials also suggest the device can be used for digital music-making. It does at least theoretically provide a way for a clarinetist to control MIDI devices or other electronics using their own instrument, pending future software releases.

A Buffet representative described their conception of the ClariMate-plus-clarinet as wind controller as a “Reversible Hybrid Instrument (RHI).” I do think the addition of electronics to a woodwind instrument suggests some future possibilities for digitally-augmented performance, perhaps blending electronic sounds with live instrument sounds. But this isn’t possible with the ClariMate, which prevents the clarinet from producing its natural sound.

And if you want to play a wind-controlled synthesizer, then I still think the best way is to make the effort and learn to play a purpose-built one, my favorite being the Akai EWI series. Some other instrument makers (Roland, Yamaha) have introduced digital saxophone-style instruments, which are easy for saxophonists to play out of the box but which fully embrace the problematic aspects of saxophones, like palm keys and pinky rollers.

Digital saxophones at least have the ability to expand their tessitura with relatively intuitive solutions like additional octave keys, but this would be more complicated on the clarinet (whose registers aren’t an octave apart). The ClariMate brings to the table the possibility for clarinetists to play an electronic instrument without learning new fingerings or significantly new tone production techniques, but, like the digital saxophones, brings the limitations of an “acoustic” instrument into the digital world.

The apps are able to provide some real-time visualization of aspects of your playing, such as breath pressure and reed pressure, and there is potential for these, used judiciously, to become useful diagnostic or pedagogical tools.

Reliability

My ClariMate worked upon first opening the box, but I quickly ran into some issues that made the device inoperable. With assistance from Buffet’s support staff, I was able to resolve these. An ongoing problem is that I am unable to complete the reed calibration process, getting a persistent error message in the apps. That means I can’t alter pitch by applying pressure to the reed.

I experimented with the Windows and Android apps. There are also apps for Apple devices. (As a Linux user, I’m experiencing the familiar disappointment that my preferred platform isn’t supported.) The apps feel buggy and unreliable—I find myself often restarting them and the device to try to solve various technical issues. My conversations with Buffet suggest that they are hopeful about frequent and significant software improvements, including updated firmware that you install on the device itself to improve its future functionality. (Long-term software development will no doubt depend on the financial success of the ClariMate project.)

It’s worth bearing in mind that this is in some ways a whole new class of device, so some birthing pains are to be expected. If you enjoy tinkering with the newest gadgets and have the patience or tech savvy to work around some bugs while waiting hopefully for software updates, then I think the ClariMate is usable. If you are a more reluctant tech user, it may be wise to wait for the ClariMate’s software and/or hardware to mature more fully.

How the ClariMate works

I’m not a scientist or engineer, but here’s what I can gather:

The ClariMate uses an air pressure sensor to detect how hard you’re blowing, and translates that into volume (or silence if it detects you aren’t blowing).

The reed bite sensor works by way of a small mirror, a light, and a light sensor. The light shines on the mirror (part of the “active reed” assembly) and reflects back to the sensor. Biting on the reed moves the mirror and affects how much light is reflected.

The ClariMate unit produces a quiet hum (the “chirp”) inside the bore of the instrument. Opening and closing toneholes affects the pitch of the chirp. A microphone detects the pitch of the chirp, compares it to a stored database of pitches, and plays back the corresponding note from the electronic clarinet sound.

As a side note, the pitch of the chirp isn’t necessarily the same as the pitch of the note that is produced in the earphones. You can hear it change, and the device can match that pitch to the intended note, but you can’t necessarily hear the tune you’re playing just from the chirp.

Also, the ClariMate doesn’t directly detect your fingerings—for example, it can’t tell if you are playing low E with the left or right hand pinky. But it can recognize some alternate fingerings that produce detectably different chirp pitches.

The flexible tube allows for drainage of condensation, and also directs your breath out the instrument’s bell rather than letting it linger inside the instrument’s bore, where it would affect bore temperature and interfere with the ClariMate’s pitch detection.

Additional observations

The name “ClariMate” is cute but fails to describe the product in a useful way. I imagine “ClariMute” must also have been discussed, but another product with that name already exists. Here’s how the packaging justifies the name:

The box reads: 
Mute: Play silently
Acoustic: Hear your instrument digitally
Technology: Use your clarinet for digital projects
Easy-to-use: Switch from acoustic to digital and back again

I have heard rumors that the ClariMate has been in development for 10 years. If that’s true, it’s odd that the release of the product feels like it was kind of rushed. There are some rough edges on the technology, and also on the product release. The demonstration video on the product website failed to actually demonstrate the product being used. It didn’t include any audio of the instrument’s sound in the earphones or in the room, the two things that I wanted and expected to hear in a media clip. (I’ve hopefully helped rectify that with this review.)

I was provided by Buffet-Crampon with a ClariMate unit at no charge, with the possibility but not the promise of a review. I have done my best to keep my review unbiased. I use some other Buffet products but have no official relationship with the brand.

What kind of ligature should I get?

I’m on record as believing that clarinet and saxophone ligatures make little if any actual difference in how you sound. You’re welcome to disagree, but you might want to watch Michael Lowenstern’s video about it first.

So, assuming the ligature has little direct influence on sound, what is the best kind to buy?

Consider the humble fabric-type ligature:

Fabric-type clarinet and saxophone ligatures

They can be made of fabric or various other flexible materials. Fake-leather materials are popular.

Here are their advantages over most other ligatures:

  • Generally inexpensive, although there are pricier versions available if paying more makes you feel better
  • Relatively easy to fit to even unusual mouthpieces and reeds, since they are flexible
  • Durable: I still have and use one I bought in high school
  • Not easily damaged: can be dropped, stepped on, or otherwise battered with little if any ill effect
  • Won’t dig into or otherwise damage reeds or mouthpieces
  • More expensive than an actual shoelace, but quicker and easier to install
  • Ambidextrous: many of the popular inexpensive ones can be switched for left- or right-handed screw tightening
  • Usually just one screw to tighten, so 50% less tightening/loosening time than the many other kinds of ligatures that have two screws
  • Available: no waiting lists or custom-building, easily purchaseable from just about any brick-and-mortar or online band-instrument retailer

I have a number of fancy and expensive ligatures that various teachers required I buy over the years of my education, including some plated in actual gold. They don’t outperform my fabric-type ones in any meaningful way. You may still see them in my performance videos, etc., as I am still trying to get my money’s worth out of them. When they break or wear out, I’ll replace them cheaply and easily with good reliable fabric ones.

Get a good, reliable, no-nonsense ligature to hold your reed in place, and happy practicing!

Why doesn’t my new mouthpiece work?

a person s hand holding saxophone mouthpiece

So you bought a new mouthpiece! How exciting. But wait—it’s not playing as well as you hoped. Maybe it squeaks, or some (or all) notes don’t come out very well, or the tuning is weird. Let’s consider some possible reasons why:

  • First, it’s always a good idea to review the fundamentals of tone production: breath support, voicing, and embouchure. Those things probably didn’t really change when you got a new mouthpiece, but maybe the old one was more forgiving of some weaknesses in your technique, and the new one is revealing those issues.
  • A new mouthpiece is likely to require a different reed than the old mouthpiece. Try some harder or softer reeds and see if your results change. In general, a mouthpiece with a larger tip opening tends to like a softer reed, and a smaller opening works better with a harder reed. But it’s more complicated than that, and the only way to really know which strength, cut, brand, etc. will work best is to try them out. (Some mouthpiece makers do suggest reeds that go well with their mouthpieces, but your results may vary.)
  • Also: even if your new mouthpiece is compatible with the reeds you have been buying, ones that you previously used on the old mouthpiece may have kind of molded to the old mouthpiece. Try some fresh ones.
  • Not all mouthpieces are created equal, even mouthpieces of the same brand and model. This can be due to hand-finishing or other manufacturing variables. It’s possible that the one you got isn’t as good as the one that your friend or teacher or favorite professional player uses. If possible, it’s worth trying several before you pick one. And especially with older or used mouthpieces, they can warp or otherwise change shape in small ways, and that can change their playing characteristics and ability to mate well with a reed.
  • Let’s consider one more hard truth: if you bought a mouthpiece never having played on it (or at least one like it) before, you may have picked something that just isn’t going a good match for you. It’s easy to get caught up in the promises in advertising copy or on product websites, or to assume that your favorite player’s mouthpiece will be suited to your equipment and playing style. Some mouthpieces are made for extreme or unusual reed choices, embouchures, or playing situations, but most players benefit from a relatively middle-of-the-road mouthpiece. And, of course, some mouthpieces just aren’t as good as advertised at all. Your best bet might be to return or sell the new mouthpiece, and invest instead in lessons with a good teacher who can either guide you in a better-informed purchase, or help you get the results you want out of a mouthpiece you already have.

A good rule of thumb is that a mouthpiece can’t give you skills, talent, or creativity. It can only remove, or add, obstacles to tone production. Pick a mouthpiece that makes it easier for you to do what you do, and get some help from a qualified teacher if needed. Good luck!

Pitfalls of giving musical instruments as gifts

gift box decorated with ribbon bow for present

Giving someone a musical instrument as a surprise is a generous and thoughtful idea. But getting it right can be tricky. Here are some things to consider:

  • For serious musicians, like a student studying with a private teacher, a college music major, or someone who does any kind of (semi-)professional playing, an instrument is a very personal choice. Even if you know what brand and model they have been eyeing, they will probably want to try several, since they all play a little differently. If they are a student, their teacher should also have significant input on any instrument purchase.
  • Nice instruments are expensive, and serious musicians invest in them as something they will use every day and possibly use to make a living. Certain instruments can cost as much as a very fancy car! So, if your budget doesn’t stretch quite that far, it might make more sense to make a contribution toward an eventual purchase.

For beginners or more casual hobbyist musicians, their preferences might not be as specific or costly. But if you don’t have some expertise in musical instruments (more than Internet research can provide!) there are still dangers.

  • The very inexpensive “instruments” sold in big-box stores or online megastores are sometimes not really playable instruments but more like realistic-looking toys, despite what they say on the box or website.
  • Used instruments from classified ads or pawn shops may be in unplayable condition, in ways that aren’t obvious to an untrained eye, even an eye that is otherwise good with mechanical things, furniture pieces, etc.
  • If your idea is for a youngster to join up with, say, a school band program, that program might have some guidelines or requirements about what instruments are appropriate.
  • Information you might find on the internet isn’t a substitute for advice from a good private teacher, and music store employees may have motives besides helping you find the best possible instrument at the best possible deal.

If you are thinking about giving an instrument as a gift, consider these alternatives:

  • Buy a young recipient some lessons with a reputable teacher, and have that teacher work with you on eventually upgrading to a nicer instrument.
  • Ask the recipient what smaller-ticket, lower-stakes items they might need, like a new instrument case, strap, stand, etc.
  • Contribute toward (or fund outright!) a future purchase of an instrument to be selected by the recipient. A college-aged student might be gradually paying off the nice instrument they already have, and might really appreciate having it paid off in part or full.

Happy gift-giving!

What is my old instrument worth?

close up shot of a flute

If you have an old musical instrument and are wondering about its value, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Prepare yourself for the very strong possibility that it has little or no monetary value. The vast majority of musical instruments don’t increase in value over time.
  • For most instruments there’s not a reliable “blue book” kind of value. The monetary value is what you can get someone to pay for it.
  • You can check an auction site like eBay to see what people are paying for instruments like yours. (Search for auction listings that actually sold.)
  • Note that sometimes brand and model names get reused over time, and your instrument that has a similar name to an expensive one might not really be the same thing.
  • Condition is very, very important. In the extremely rare case that you have a model that has some significant value, that value usually drops a lot if the instrument isn’t in playing condition. High-level players will usually want to try the instrument before buying, and if it’s not playable then they can’t make sure it’s worth the price.
  • Note that an instrument’s condition may require more than a visual inspection—just because it’s shiny and not visibly damaged doesn’t mean it’s ready to play.
  • Donating an instrument to a school, etc. might be possible if the instrument is of decent quality and in playable condition. If it’s going to require a few hundred dollars’ worth of repair before a student can play it, it may not be worth it to your school’s band program. In other words, if you can’t sell it, it probably doesn’t have value as a donation, either.

An instrument that can’t be sold or donated for playing might be destined for the garbage. (They often can’t be easily recycled.) If you’re determined to find a new life for it, a local theater might want it as a prop, a thrift shop might accept it as a decorative item, or an instrument repair shop might throw it on their scrap pile to scavenge for parts.

Fox bassoon crutch modification

I use an inexpensive Fox plastic crutch on my bassoon. The shaft has always been a little too short for my preference, and I wasn’t interested in paying for a custom-made one, so I decided to attempt removing and replacing the shaft. I’m sharing this information here in case anyone else wants to do the same.

I wasn’t sure if the stock shaft was glued or molded into the plastic or if I would be able to remove it without destroying the crutch. But a little heat, slowly applied to the shaft not too close to the plastic, did the trick and the shaft pulled right out. (It’s hot! I used pliers.) The plastic inside the hole was slightly mangled, so I reamed it out a little with a drill bit.

I replaced the shaft with some brass that I had on hand. 3/16″ turned out to be too thick to fit into the bracket on my bassoon, but 5/32″ (just under 4mm) worked. The stock shaft seems to be somewhere in between. I cut the brass a bit too long with a Dremel cutting wheel, so I could gradually trim it down until it was just right.

I cut some shallow notches into one end to imitate the stock shaft, hopefully giving the glue something more to hold onto. My 5-minute epoxy had hardened, so I substituted some gel-type cyanoacrylate (“super”) glue.

After a little trimming I found the length I wanted. (I use my crutch in this position, which I think is less-common, but gives me the “ball” of the crutch right in the palm of my hand which feels good for balance.)

With my minimal skill set and tools, plus a little trial and error, this was a manageable and successful project.

Should I buy something new?

shopping business money pay

Changing your instrument, mouthpiece, headjoint, reeds, etc. on a frequent basis isn’t productive, but sticking with the same equipment forever isn’t a virtue either. Here are some questions to ask yourself (or a trusted teacher or colleague) when you start feeling the itch to spend money on shiny new things:

  • Does this new equipment make it easier or more comfortable to do what I do? Or am I hoping it will magically endow me with abilities I didn’t have before?
  • Does this materially improve some concrete aspect of my playing, like intonation, response, dynamic range or finger movement? Is it an improvement that is more subjective, fleeting, or malleable, like tone quality? (Tone quality isn’t nothing when purchasing woodwind gear, but it’s not everything, either.)
  • Does this really change how I sound? Does it change how it feels to play, physically? Does it change how it feels to play, emotionally? (All of these can be valid reasons to change, but it’s worth sorting out what’s really changing.)
  • Is this new equipment appealing in some way that is more about appearance or cachet than playability? Is that worth the investment to me? Would I be sacrificing some playability for bling factor?
  • How did I come to desire this particular item? Was I influenced by advertising, celebrity endorsements, a commissioned salesperson, an internet stranger, or someone/something else that might have motivations separate from my success? Was I happy with my current setup before I learned of this product’s existence?

If you’re currently a student, be sure to check in with your teacher before any new gear purchase!

Should I buy a “step-up” instrument?

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.

Where to buy your child’s new school band instrument

There are pros and cons to the places you might shop for a band instrument. Here’s what you need to know, bad news first:

  • Big-box stores (Walmart, Costco, etc.): these may already be your favorite places for one-stop back-to-school shopping, but a musical instrument probably shouldn’t be on your list here. The “instruments” they sell are generally of such low quality that in-the-know musicians joke that they are “instrument-shaped objects.” They are unlikely to play well (and maybe won’t play at all!) as purchased. And many instrument repair shops will refuse to fix them, since they are made with such inferior materials that they will break under the normal strains of routine repair and maintenance. One piece of good news: these stores usually have robust return policies.
  • Online megastores (Amazon, etc.): these can be a mixed bag quality-wise. There are some good instruments being sold by third-party music retailers, but mostly “instrument-shaped objects.” Even if you have some idea of what brand and model you want, it’s difficult for megastores to adequately screen out knockoffs. And even genuine, reputable instruments that have lots of positive reviews are a risk: if it gets jostled too much in shipping, it may need a few hundred dollars’ worth of repair. Your best case scenario at that point is paying what it costs (a lot!) to ship a saxophone back for a refund.
  • Online garage sales or auction sites (eBay, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace): here you can sometimes find low prices on used instruments of reputable brand, but condition is a major concern. An instrument in poor condition is very frustrating to play, and can make a beginner feel like a failure (and want to quit). Even if you are mechanically-minded, there can be serious playability issues that can’t be identified visually. By the time the school band director or private teacher points out that the instrument has serious flaws, the sale is usually final.
  • Local music stores: there is some good news here, but you should still be cautious. The sales staff are likely to have some idea what the band director will and won’t find acceptable, and may accept returns or exchanges within a reasonable window. They may also be able (and anxious) to sell you a maintenance plan, which will cover routine repairs. (These plans can sometimes be a decent deal for a beginner-level instrument. But be aware of the store’s incentives: the less time they spend servicing your instrument, the more profitable the repair plan is for them.) Be aware of upselling, too: I have had particular problems with things like accessory kits. Some stores may also want to convince you that, say, a wooden clarinet will sound better than a plastic one. This really isn’t worth it at the beginner level, and is sometimes a step down, like buying a car with engine problems and expensive leather seats, instead of a reliable one with vinyl.

For the best results, consult closely with the school band director, or, even better, with a reputable private teacher who is going to give your child lessons. (Band directors are good at lots of things, but yours may not be a specialist on that particular instrument.) They will have a good sense of what brands and models to look for, and where to buy them for good condition, quality, and price. A private teacher may be able to play-test the instrument for you, to make sure it’s a good one and already in playable shape.

Having taught private lessons for several decades, it’s always a relief when the parent of a prospective student reaches out to me before buying an instrument. It’s not an intuitive way of doing things, but it can save a lot of disappointment and extra expense. The teacher won’t think it’s strange.

As with most worthwhile pursuits, you do usually get what you pay for. But if you’re able to provide your child with a quality musical instrument in good condition, it can be a hobby or even a career that brings a great deal of satisfaction and growth. (But for now, maybe stop by the big-box store and get some bulk earplugs for you!)

The difference between “student” and “professional” instruments

Visit a music store or an instrument maker’s website and you will frequently see band instruments sorted into categories like “student,” “intermediate/step-up,” and “professional.” It’s important to understand that these distinctions are not bound to any specific criteria, and not policed by any governing body. The labels have a lot to do with target market, and not much to do with the instruments’ actual playing characteristics.

For example, I often have prospective college music majors proudly show me their “professional” clarinets, a specific model that a local retailer labels as such even though very few professional players would find the instrument to their liking. These students will, in most cases, have to purchase another, more expensive instrument to meet the demands of college-level playing.

On the other hand, some of my college students have instruments that are positioned by the maker as lesser than the maker’s more premium line, but which are popular and well-regarded among professional musicians.

“Student” instruments are rarely better for students, mostly just less expensive—made more cheaply or with fewer features. In most cases, if money were no object, I think it would be an advantage for a beginner to start on a high-quality (“professional”) instrument. Sometimes “student” instruments are designed to be more comfortable for smaller players, which of course doesn’t necessarily correspond to quality requirements.

Labeling instruments as “intermediate” or “step-up” is another exercise in creative writing. In my experience, these are rarely worth it—they tend to cost nearly as much as “professional” instruments but play only slightly better than “student” ones.

There are a very few other designations that have specific meanings. For example, the term “full conservatory” for oboes is widely accepted as meaning the instrument has certain required keys and mechanisms on it. However, an oboe maker or retailer can label any oboe as “full conservatory” without any formal consequence. (My nearest retailer does this exact thing.) Many makers sell “modified conservatory” oboes, which has no specific meaning—it’s just aimed at people who can’t afford “full conservatory” but like to believe they have gotten some version thereof.

If you are a student (including a college student) or are purchasing an instrument for one, you should ideally do so with significant input from your teacher. And if you are a professional, you should prioritize carefully which features and qualities are most important, regardless of labels.