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!)