Imagine, if you will, a tall man on a small bike. Like this one, maybe:
Sure, he can ride it, but he's obviously too large for it. The same can be said for musical instruments: the ones kids get in beginning band are made for beginning players. Student model brass instruments are more free-blowing and have less resistance; woodwinds are set up slightly differently and are made with less expensive materials. When students get bigger physically it's very possible that they are "overplaying" their instruments. The instrument no longer responds well due to too much power from the larger, stronger player (think of a very large engine in a Mini Cooper). This is especially true with trumpets and trombones.
But... How much does a new instrument cost? Where should I buy it? Are certain brands better than others? Well:
- A lot
- Locally, if possible
- Absolutely without question
The biggest issue here is obviously expense. I will be blunt and forthright (I know, you're not used to that at all) and say that you really can't find any instrument of quality, with the exception of used name brands, for less than at least $1,000.00. And that doesn't include saxophones or many trombones, both of which will cost you considerably more. The thing to remember, though, is that you are quite literally making a long-term investment - the instrument that I just "replaced" (it's still around and will be forever) was new for me in 1978. The $475 that my folks spent then obviously paid off. (Also - be glad your child doesn't play double bass in orchestra. Just saying... #mortgagethehouse)
My personal recommendation for places to purchase instruments kind of depends on what you're looking for, but Meyer Music is a good place to start. They carry many/most of the brands that are high quality and stand behind them with warranty and repair work, etc. Marshall Music in Grand Rapids is great as well, and both of these stores specialize in school service so they know what students need.
What about online? Well, maybe. I will say that I broke two of my own rules when I bought my new horn: buying online and not trying it before you buy it. I bought a one-of-a-kind discontinued model (what was I thinking??) after seeing it on the factory's Facebook page. I made a phone call and they shipped it that afternoon. No return possible. But:
- I have another instrument that I love from that same manufacturer.
- They are a reputable company and promised to stand behind the product.
- At that level, there are very few poor instruments, though there are indeed some that work better than others for some players.
"They have a really great deal on new flutes at Costco." No, they don't. Seriously. Not there or anywhere else that is a mass-marketer of all things. Amazon included. Reputable manufacturers do not allow their stuff to be sold at places like that. End of discussion*.
Here are some basic thoughts on buying a new instrument:
- Try it before you buy it. If you can't, then don't buy it. This is why online is risky. I could have had a week-long trial on any of their stock instruments, with the option of sending it back and trying a different one. Most reputable sellers will have a similar program - you give them a credit card number and they will ship you something to try. Online auction sites may not have this option.
- BEFORE YOU EVEN TRY IT, check with me. Or Mr. Good. Or Mrs. Bier. Mr. Good and I are brass players; we can tell you a lot about brass, and especially trumpets. Mrs. Bier is our woodwind expert, so questions about those go to her. Any one of us is willing to help out and even go with you and your family to help you try instruments somewhere (Several years ago I spent a day in northern Indiana with a student and his family and tried out about ten trumpets with him).
- Want to get really serious? Try factory direct from the Conn-Selmer plant in Elkhart, IN. Very cool experience and includes a factory tour, etc.
- Buying local is ideal, but there is not always a huge selection. As is the case with many expensive things, there is actually a fairly low mark-up on pro instruments. Because of this and their relatively high price, the local music stores don't always have a dozen in stock.
- Why does this matter? The above-mentioned trumpet player tried out ten of the same model pro instruments. The tenth one was the one that sounded the very best and felt the best to him. The funny thing was that we could all tell right away.
- There are many hand-finished processes in the manufacture of pro-line instruments, and each one is going to play slightly differently than another.
- As with everything else in the world, there are many and various instrument manufacturers. And as with everything else, there are tried and true brands that will deliver virtually every time. My recommendations for brands are
- Flutes: Yamaha, Gemeinhardt, Pearl
- Clarinets: Yamaha, Buffet, Selmer
- Saxophones: Yamaha, Selmer, Cannonball (a good medium horn and a good price)
- Trumpets and trombones: Bach (Selmer), Yamaha, Getzen
(*Almost the end of the discussion... BE VERY WARY of names that sound similar to those listed above - they are cheap knock-offs and cannot be trusted. The names change periodically as well - several years ago SELMAN was selling woodwinds. Not SELMER. Be careful.)
What about buying used? Same basic ideas as new, with the emphasis on trying it before you buy it. There are some Selmer saxophones, for instance, that are reaching legendary status as the Holy Grail of instruments depending on the years they were made. A former student bought a 30+ year-old Selmer Mark VI tenor a few years ago for $2000 (a steal), and sold it after college for closer to $3000. Be wary of things on auction sites; I really like Craigslist, because it's local and you can easily visit the seller and try out the instrument.
One final thought/caution for parents/purchasers: be aware that for pretty much everyone, a brand new, shiny, sweet-smelling instrument is going to "play better" than the one your child currently has. Some student model trumpets come with silver plating. They're still student model trumpets, they just look different. Please do some research before you make the jump into the next level instrument!
Remember, this is a potentially very expensive lifetime investment. Don't run out and buy the first thing you try. And please let me know if you would like any assistance or advice!