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Thomas J. West Music

Live webcam private music lessons, music education articles, compositions, clinician services, reviews

Buying a Musical Instrument

How to Purchase an Intermediate Level Musical Instrument

I am often asked for guidance when a parent has reached the end of their child's musical instrument rental period and is considering making an investment in an intermediate or professional model. In most cases, a student reaching the end of elementary school all the way up to underclassmen years in high school may be considering stepping up to the purchase of a higher quality musical instrument. Common questions that students, parents, and even my own friends ask me about stepping up to a more advanced instrument include:
Do I need to buy a better instrument, or can I just keep renting?

Buying an intermediate instrument is a financial investment similar to purchasing an automobile. The considerations are similar as well. When buying a car, one first considers if simply using public transportation will be more cost-effective based on where you need to travel on a daily basis. Renting or purchasing an instrument is similar. The first question should be "What is my son's/daughter's commitment level to their band or orchestra program?" Are they planning to continue playing after high school? Are they planning to audition for honors band? In my case, my parents leased to own a Buffet E-11 intermediate model clarinet when I was a sophomore in high school. That instrument lasted me through the rest of high school and my entire undergraduate career.
How do I know what make/model instrument to buy?

The most direct way to get an answer to this questions is to ask your band/orchestra director for suggesitons. Depending upon their own background, they may not have a good answer for you. I recommend researching reputable brands on the Woodwind and Brasswind website. Woodwind and Brasswind is the largest musical instrument retailer in the world. They carry the most widely purchased and reputable brands, and like Amazon, their site features customer reviews and the ability to sort the list by best-sellers, price, etc. Because of their size, Woodwind and Brasswind's prices are generally the most competitive, so you can take those prices to your local music retailer to see if they will match or beat them. Your local music retailer will also be able to help you select a good make and model.
Can I buy an instrument online?

Sticking with my analogy, would you buy a car online? Making an investment this large is a buyer-beware situation. Purchasing a fantastic make/model instrument from eBay or Craig's List for a deep discount brings with it the risks associated with it - there is no way for you to vouch for the seller's integrity nor their aility to assess the condition of the instrument. Also, your student will want to play test the instrument before purchasing, just as you would test drive a car. Students should play the instrument and check for the following:

  • tone quality, especially in the extreme registers (low, high notes)
  • key action (all keys should take an equal effort to depress)
  • articulation (should be able to tongue/bow notes evenly in all registers)
  • intonation (especially for wind instruments - take a tuner and test the instrument)

Above all, the student should absolutely love the instrument before you buy it. If they are an intermediate to adavanced performer, stepping up to a better instrument should feel and sound great. Keep in mind also that the mouthpiece for wind players and the bow for string players can also have a dramatic effect on their results. If you are stepping up to a higher quality instrument, you should also step up to a better mouthpiece/bow.

What about those instruments I can get at Wal-Mart and Toys 'R' Us?

The instruments found at Wal-Mart are typically made in China, extremely affordable, and will fall into disrepair within a year of purchase. A quality instrument should last decades. They are also typically inferior in quality, so their performance capability is about the same or worse than a student model instrument. Toys 'R' Us carries the First Act line of instruments. These instruments are of higher quality than the Chinese imports, but they suffer from a lack of confidence from the general music retail industry. Many music retail shops will refuse to repair any of these instruments. I have done a more extensive review of the First Act instruments in a previous review.

There Is No Substitue for Quality

The biggest downside for most parents in this process is that intermediate and professional model instruments are costly. They also require more maintenance and care on the part of the student than their "throw it in the case and go" beginner instrument. When a student reaches a level of proficiency that requres better equipment, however, there is no sustitute for a quality instrument paired with a quality mouthpiece or bow. Playing on better equipment makes the proficient performer's job easier, increases their achievement, and is just more fun. If you have further questions about purchasing an instrument feel free to contact me for some additional information.

This article (c) 2013 Thomas J. West. All content on ThomasJWestMusic dot com is licensed under a Creative Contributions Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License. Please contact the author before publishing on or off-line.

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All blog entries and featured articles on ThomasJWestMusic dot com is licensed under a Creative Contributions Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License

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All feature articles and blog entries are opinions based on Mr. West's personal experiences as a music educator, composer, adjudicator, and clinician. His comments do not reflect positions of the Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School or the Center for Performing and Fine Arts in any way. Mr. West endeavors to express all opinions with the highest degrees of impeccability and integrity.

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