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Making the Right Choice: Tips on Buying an Instrument

buying a musical instrument at a music store

​Even the non-musical family will face the question, "Should my child play a musical instrument?" Schools have long felt that band and orchestra programs provide intellectually broadening and socially enriching skills. All kids begin on a level playing field,  just like beginning to read or learning to play soccer, and a new set of kids rise to the top as they discover they truly enjoy playing music with other young people. Practicing is always hard; it is difficult to find another half hour in the day, and the instrument is a tireless master, quickly revealing that you haven't found the time or put in the effort. Nevertheless, over the years, band and orchestra programs continue to light the fire under young people as they discover another way to express themselves.

In the beginning, the school may provide the lessons and offer direction in renting an instrument.

Many parents, however, soon find that their child wants to take up an instrument before the school program begins, or continue beyond the first year of the school's program. Now they must thread their way through the maze of buying an instrument. It is very much like purchasing a house or a car. Most of us do not know a lot about plumbing or carburetors.​

The most important general advice:

  • Be certain that you have the guidance of your child's music teacher, or a respected professional, whom you trust (this includes them trying the instrument before you purchase it).  

  • Never purchase an instrument that you or your child don't like because, for example, the store will deduct the rental cost if you purchase a student instrument.  A violinist once commented that a great instrument makes you want to replay everything you have ever played. When you take the step from renting to purchase, it should be to purchase an instrument that excites your child. It's like welcoming a new child or puppy to your home.

a child happy with her new violin

" ...purchase an instrument that excites your child. It's like welcoming a new child or puppy to your home."

Where to go and what to expect

Where to go. Ask your child's teacher. Be prepared to spend $300-$400 for 1/8th size Suzuki, or several hundred thousand dollars on the cello for his/her debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Many shops have a "trade-up" policy, which means that they will take back the outgrown instrument for a trade and deduct your original purchase price from the cost of the new instrument. You need an experienced and reputable dealer, do not buy on eBay! (Here's an excellent article about selecting a good student violin).

Professionals hunt for the right instrument for years

​If you are making a major investment ($1,500 and up), a good violin shop will let you take the instrument home, play it, and have your teacher play it, all with the option of returning it. This is not surprising when you remember that the greatest string instruments have been played on for centuries; they are not the new ones just out of the box!

If your child is a string instrument player, in time you will have to think about not only the cost of the instrument, but also the added expense of purchasing a bow. As a child reaches the age of 11 or 12, he or she may have to think about a "better bow". Making bows is an art unto itself, and a $1,500 price tag on a good bow is not uncommon. One reputable string instrument dealer said, "we let young people try out several bows in differing price ranges without stating the price. If they can't tell the difference between the $500 and the $1,500 bow, they are not ready for the $1,500 bow."

All violins come with hard cases. Cellos can have hard or soft cases, but for a child, a hard case is a necessity.

a vioin

​"We let young people try out several bows in differing price ranges without stating the price. If they can't tell the difference between the $500 and the $1,500 bow, they aren't ready for the $1,500 bow."

The best news about band instruments is that the student models can be rented inexpensively.

A student flute or trumpet​ can be rented for the school year for about $100 (plus a deposit). But a rented instrument is somewhat like a "rented" dog; there just may not be a lot of commitment on either the part of the parent or the child. There will be bad days when your child does not want to practice; owning the instrument means that it won't go away quickly!

You should always try several instruments, as even student instruments can be quite different. Listen to their sounds, how easily they play the highest and lowest notes. If you have a private teacher and, as a parent, feel that this is the instrument that your child is going to play from now until 9th grade, you should ask your teacher if he/she is willing to accompany you to make the selection, or, possibly, stop by the music store and select several instruments from which your child may choose.

In discussing a clarinet with a professional clarinetist and master teacher, he commented that it is IMPERATIVE that the teacher participate in the purchasing of an instrument for the student. A plastic model can be purchased for $300 to $800 and good student wooden models for $700 to $800. LeBlanc, Buffet, Selmer, and Yamaha are all good companies, but they produce many different models, meaning levels of quality. He commented that you could spend $2,000 and get a terrible instrument, or $800 and find a fine used instrument. "Cost does not necessarily denote quality," he added. Some teachers are even given commissions from a local music store for every instrument that one of their students purchases! Beware of the teacher who just sends you out to store X to buy instrument Y. If a teacher is unwilling to participate in this very important decision, you must question his or her commitment to teaching your child.

picking out a trumpet

A student trumpet costs approximately $350. A top of the line Bach Stradivarius B-flat trumpet costs about $2,000. Custom-made instruments begin at about $2,500; a man in Chicago is now making super-custom trumpets costing in the range of $10,000. Compared to the piano or the violin, this is a real bargain. A student instrument is comparable to the cost (both for rental and purchase) of a flute.

​​"Cost does not necessarily denote quality... Some teachers are even given commissions from a local music store for every instrument that one of their students purchases! Beware of the teacher who just sends you out to store X to buy instrument Y."

children playing the flute and saxophone

As brass instruments get larger, the prices get higher. Student trombones are about $375. A tuba begins at $2,000, but the good news is that schools usually own these instruments and are willing to loan them to students who want to play the tuba, sousaphone, etc.

French horns are tricky, because the first thing the salesman will ask is, "Single or double?", and you will be left standing there saying, "I beg your pardon???" Students used to begin on the single F French horn, and then after about two years of lessons move to the double (F/B-flat) horn. This does not mean that the double horn plays in two keys, but rather that the extra tubing, which is engaged with the B-flat key, separates the high notes of the overtone series. Very complicated, but what it does mean for instrument-buying parents is that many professionals will recommend purchasing a good double French horn (which will keep its re-sale value) for $1,800 to $2,000 and simply use the F portion of the horn until the teacher decides that the student is ready to start using the B-flat part of the instrument. French horns cost about twice as much to rent as flutes and trumpets, but the $800 cost of a student instrument may make a one year rental advisable while you and your child decide whether the $1,800 investment should be made. Again, take your teacher along, or arrange with the dealer to be permitted to take the instrument to your teacher for testing. This is a big decision.

Saxophones, the most popular band instrument of the 1990's, is surprisingly expensive to rent for the school year: $300. (I suspect this is due to both demand and band directors who cannot create an ensemble of 75 saxophones, two trumpets, three flutes, and one clarinet!)

Oboes and bassoons, being more esoteric, usually have teachers who are readily willing to help in the selection of an instrument. The child who chooses one of these instruments is generally fairly serious. In time, reed-making tools will need to be purchased.

Shopping for an instrument should be exciting and fun.

​Used instruments are often wonderful buys. Just be certain that you have a 24-hour option to return it if your teacher feels that it is not the right instrument for your child. Good instruments always have good re-sale value. A good instrument is much more fun (and much easier) to play than a poor one. Finally, instruments are more like pets than like soccer want your child to have a lasting relationship with them.

Bonnie Ward Simon

Bonnie Ward Simon, BA, MA, M.Ed, M.Phil.,

President of Maestro Classics

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