Where to buy your child’s new school band instrument

"SP 15/365 "Lisa Simpson"" by ::pascal:: is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

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

"Project 365 #312: 081118 Sax Appeal" by comedy_nose is licensed under CC BY

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.

FAQ: Ligatures

"My New Ligature" by Jordan Hoskins is licensed under CC BY-ND

These are questions I am often asked about clarinet or saxophone ligatures, by blog readers or by my students.

  • Is there a ligature that can accomplish _____ for me? If you are looking for something to hold the reed onto the mouthpiece, then yes. If you are hoping to achieve something loftier, then probably not.
  • Should I get one of the rigid (usually metal) kinds, or one of the soft (usually some leather-ish synthetic) kinds? The very cheapest options are usually metal, and they generally work fine. If they are of especially low quality, they might break quickly, or scratch your mouthpiece or dig into your reed. The soft ones are a little more expensive, but have the advantages of (a) better gripping an oddly-shaped mouthpiece or reed and (b) surviving being stepped on.
  • What about a fancy one, with jewelry metals or cryogenic treatment or inset “tone jewels” or some other expensive gimmick? Won’t those make me sound better? This is extremely doubtful. There’s a possibility that you will sound a little different inside your own head, and that might make you play a little differently. Or that platinum plating (or just having spent a lot of money) will increase your confidence. But it’s very  questionable that the ligature has some inherent sound quality that your audience can hear, unless you plan to hit it with a drumstick. Remember that in some parts of the world, top orchestral clarinetists use shoelaces. (I heard a story of one of these clarinetists being asked what kind of shoelace he used. His response: “Black.”) If you are deeply invested in the idea that a ligature needs to be fancy or expensive, Michael Lowenstern has a video you might find enlightening.
  • But doesn’t a ligature affect the reed’s vibrations? The vibrate-y part of the reed is the thinner part, away from the ligature.
  • Should I use the kind with one or two screws? What about those ones with no screws? Any number of screws is fine, as long as it holds the reed on the mouthpiece.
  • Should I get the kind where the screws go on top of the mouthpiece or underneath? I really cannot emphasize enough the unimportance of the screw situation.
  • How tight should my ligature be? Tight enough to hold the reed securely in place.
  • How far back or forward should I put the ligature? You could try some different positions and see if one feels better to you. Some mouthpieces have a line on them to suggest where the ligature should go. You are not obligated to follow this guideline, but if you are having difficulty deciding where your ligature should go then I suggest using this as a starting point.

If you would like to purchase something that will improve your tone quality or your articulation or whatever, I recommend getting some recordings of very fine clarinetists and some lessons with an excellent teacher. Enjoy!

Things beginning band directors say to clarinet sections

photo, byronv2
  • “Firm up those embouchures!” An efficient embouchure is relaxed, not tight (nor “firm” nor any other euphemism) and allows the reed to vibrate easily for a beautiful, seemingly effortless sound.
  • “You’re flat!” This is very, very often a voicing issue. It’s not helpful in the long run try to fix it with biting (or “lipping up”), overly resistant reeds, or needless equipment purchases.
  • “Next year, I’m making you all move up a reed strength.” Stiffer reeds won’t make you play better any more than larger shoes make you better at basketball. Use what fits
  • “You all need to switch to a ________ mouthpiece.” Sweeping gear recommendations aren’t useful. Often they are based on outdated or incomplete information, plus mouthpiece purchases in the beginner stage are often pricey lateral moves. Mouthpieces aren’t always made consistently, either, and having a student switch blindly to a bad specimen (even of a highly-regarded model) may actually make things worse. Generally, stock mouthpieces are fine for beginners, and advancing players would be wise to consult with a private teacher who can work with them individually on upgrades. And the finest professional clarinet sections in the world play on non-homogenous equipment and blend beautifully—having everybody play the same thing isn’t the key to matching tone or pitch.
  • “Get ready, because next month you’re going to learn how to cross the break, and it’s going to be hard.” Crossing the break is only as hard as you make it. If you are teaching good tone production and finger technique, crossing the break is a non-event, not even worth mentioning.
  • “Keep those chins flat and pointed.” “Wow, your chin sounds amazing,” said nobody. Focus on the real issue: forming a relaxed embouchure within the space of an open jaw, backed up with good voicing and breath support. You will know it’s working because of good response, characteristic tone, and stable intonation, not because everybody’s chins look a certain way.

Focus on the important and too-often-overlooked fundamentals for success in your clarinet section.

Buying more instruments, or making do with what you have

I get asked every so often whether it’s a good idea for a woodwind doubler to try to have a fairly “complete” set of instruments, or whether it’s better to make do with a few and make substitutions as needed. For example, do you need a B-flat clarinet and an A clarinet, or can you just transpose? Is it worth it to buy an English horn for sporadic use, or can you cover the part on saxophone?

The answers, of course, depend on your goals. It’s hard to predict for sure which instruments will end up being useful or financially worthwhile. And a new instrument isn’t always something you can just hurry and buy when a gig offer demands it. 

If your aim is to maximize your income, and some substitutions are acceptable at your gigs, then you should buy as few instruments as you can get away with. Prioritize the ones that are most likely to pay for themselves in terms of new gigs within the shortest time frame.

If it makes you happy to have a larger collection of instruments, and you can afford to make it happen, then there’s nothing wrong with that, either. For many of us music straddles the line between profession and hobby, and being a woodwind doubler isn’t necessarily any more expensive a hobby than boating or fine woodworking or international travel. If you can count the purchase as a business expense as well, then all the better.

Follow the instrument acquisition strategy that best suits your financial situation and personal goals.

Q&A: Instrument purchases

photo, Write From Karen

Here are some of the questions readers sent me in celebration of this blog’s 10-year anniversary. I have edited, combined, and otherwise adapted some of them but hopefully there are answers here for those of you who were kind enough to inquire.

What starting models do you recommend as an entry point for each woodwind?

Hi! What brand of clarinet would you recommend for an intermediate high school clarinetist who plans on majoring in music education?

I suspect that you’re both looking for specific brand recommendations, which I mostly avoid doing on the blog, for reasons I’ve highlighted previously (tl;dr: equipment recommendations tend to outlive their usefulness—people cling to them while the market changes around them). Sorry. What I’ll do instead is offer some general advice that applies to beginners, college music majors, woodwind doublers, everybody.

If you’re buying an instrument on a budget, because you’re a beginner, or because you’re a doubler picking up a secondary instrument: buy the highest-quality student-model instrument you can afford. Get good, current, targeted advice from your private teacher (contact/hire one before you buy your instrument!).

If you’re in, or about to be in, college: consult with your professor. Period. Head off to college with the instrument you already have, and let your professor guide you through the process of buying what you need.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s what most woodwind players need to get through their complete formal musical training: a good beginner instrument, and then an instrument suitable for college-level study. “Step-up” or intermediate instruments generally aren’t worth it—they cost most of what a college-suitable instrument costs, but don’t play much better than a good beginner instrument. If your budget is bigger than necessary for a student-level instrument but not big enough for a college-appropriate one, buy a good student model and save up the rest for the next purchase.

For clarinetists, saxophonists, and oboists, often the college-level instrument is a true professional model, and you won’t ever need anything fancier. Professional level flutists and bassoonists may have more of a need(?) for a nicer instrument beyond their undergraduate degrees, and these can sometimes be in the price range between a new car and a new house.

How do I deal with the cost of buying all of these woodwind instruments for college?

If you’re thinking of studying multiple woodwind instruments as a college undergraduate, firstly I recommend that you think that through carefully, and get in touch with the music faculty at the school(s) you are considering. I think for most undergraduate students (including my past self), it makes sense to major in just one instrument, for reasons I’ve addressed previously, and at many schools high-level undergraduate study of multiple woodwinds is impossible or impractical. I think that for most aspiring doublers, graduate school is a better place to dig deeply into it.

To address your question, though: college-suitable woodwind instruments are expensive, but almost certainly less expensive than tuition or room and board at an American university or maybe even a few semesters’ worth of textbooks. If you’re college-bound in the USA, a pro-level clarinet or oboe is probably the least of your financial woes.

If you’re planning to pay your way through school with scholarships, then that might not be money you’re able to access for things like instrument purchases. Depending on your personal financial values, it may be worthwhile to get student loans to cover the cost of a new instrument, and pay them off at relatively low interest after you graduate.

Depending on the instrument and the school, you may be able to borrow or rent a suitable school-owned instrument while you make arrangements to purchase your own.


Thanks for the questions! Good luck with your instrument purchases.

More 10-year anniversary Q&A

Hercules stand clip modification

I made a small modification to my Hercules instrument stands so I could clip them onto my instrument cases for easier carrying.

The stands all have this same yellow sort of teddy-bear-head piece on the bottom:

Remove the nut from the center of the bear’s forehead:

I bought a handful of these. They are almost the right thing for the job:

…but they don’t quite fit: the holes are too small. The metal seemed fairly soft and not too thick, so I managed to open up the holes a bit with a handheld drill and a 1/4″ wood-drilling bit. It would probably be safer and more precise to use a drill press and a proper metal-drilling bit.

Or, even better, can anyone recommend a premade part with two 1/4″ (65mm) holes about 1″ (3cm) apart, no thicker than about 1/16″ (1mm), preferably without sharp corners?

Anyway, with the holes slightly enlarged, put the part in place and replace the nut.

Add a small carabiner.

Done:

This worked well on all my Hercules stands, with a minor modification for the bassoon/bass clarinet stand. The “forehead” bolt was too short to get the nut back on with the extra piece in place, so I installed it off-center. It works fine.

I’d be curious to hear about your favorite equipment modifications in the comments.

Be suspicious of instrument bling

photo, Ayaaa

If you are considering buying the newest, hottest instrument, accessory, gadget, etc., it’s worth asking yourself a few questions:

  • Is this item made out of materials that are usually used for fine jewelry or the dashboards of luxury cars?
  • How likely is it that the most visually-attractive materials also happen to have the ideal acoustical qualities? Is there really a good reason to believe that this particular material sounds better than other materials that happen to be less pretty and less expensive? Is there some reason to believe this couldn’t be made from practical and low-cost materials like steel or aluminum or oak or birch, or any of the incredible and endlessly varied synthetic materials?
  • Does the item come in a variety of materials at a variety of price points, with the most expensive materials being pushed as the best-sounding?
  • Does the marketing pitch sound like it might really be describing how the material looks, rather than sounds? “The brilliance of silver,” “the smooth dark sound of grenadilla,” “the rich sound of our proprietary gold alloy,” “the complex character of our highly-figured maple.”

You should use the instruments that work best for you. If precious metals and fragrant exotic woods make you happy and you can afford them, then you should have them. But be careful not to get caught up in a sales pitch that is more about bling than about real benefits.

Endorsement deals

photo, Sebastien Wiertz

First, let’s be clear about this: in an endorsement deal, the artist endorses the product or brand. The product or brand doesn’t endorse the artist. If an artist claims to be “endorsed by” a company, that is incorrect word usage.

An endorsement deal means that an artist agrees to be publicly associated with a product or brand, presumably because the company thinks that will encourage more people to purchase their products. In return, the artist generally receives some kind of compensation, which often takes the shape of free or discounted products. The contract might specify some requirements for the artist to fulfill, such as having their name and image used in advertising, appearing at the company’s publicity events, or plugging products on social media. Continue reading “Endorsement deals”

Buy intonation, not tone

How exciting to try out new instruments (or mouthpieces or headjoints or barrels or…) and to find one that really has a great sound! It’s a rite of passage for the young woodwind player, trying out a parade of shiny new possibilities, surrounded by parents, a private teacher, friends, and a salesperson with dollar signs in their eyes. “That one has such beautiful tone!” everybody will sigh.

I suggest that you do not buy that one.

photo, themusicgrove

“Good” tone is a fluid, fleeting thing. That clarinet might have better tone than a half-dozen of the same model because its pads currently leak less than the others. That mouthpiece might sound like a winner because the reed you brought with you happens to mate with it better at the moment.

And your tone will shift as you adapt to your purchases. That new piece of gear might make you sound like somebody else right now, but as you get accustomed to it you’ll start to sound like you again. (Don’t like sounding like you? Develop your tone concept.)

Rather than splitting hairs about tone, break out a chromatic tuner, or, better, a drone, and pick out the one that is easiest to play in tune. Bring along a teacher or professional colleague who has high-level proficiency on the instrument, and have them listen and watch the tuner while you play, then play while you listen and watch the tuner. (This is especially crucial if you are a student-level player!)

An instrument or accessory with great tone but poor pitch will be a constant exhausting struggle to play in tune, and its problems are harder to fix in the repair shop. Gear with rock-solid pitch will do a fair amount of the work for you, and “its” tone (your tone) will improve with practice, listening, and some TLC from a good technician. Shop with your priorities in order, and you will get an instrument that will serve you well for many years.