Summer is full of pool time, camping, beaches, and other family times. But it seems every year, summer break gets shorter and shorter. Soon it will be time for pencils, notebooks, calculators and other bits students require from their new school teachers. One such item for your new sixth or seventh grade band student is an instrument and get ready parents, because once your child has signed up for a band program, you signed up too!
Where does a parent start on their quest for an instrument for their beginning band student?
You have options.
First, I would suggest strongly you get a good quality name brand. Not all instruments are equal and pricing should reflect this. Often, cheap instruments are just that, cheap. They do not hold up well, can be made from lower quality materials, are difficult to repair, and don’t play well. Your band student’s first instrument does not need to be new, nor does it need to be at the professional level, but it does need to be reliable, repairable, and durable.
Reliable means the instrument will work when you need it to work. If your clarinet’s keys are constantly bending, or corks are frequently falling off, and you never know if the instrument will leave you hanging at a show or a concert, it’s probably not a good instrument for a student.
Some off-brand instruments are very hard to impossible to find parts. If parts are available, sometimes it can take weeks or even months to get them. Repair techs can only do so much with these instruments and while they wait to find parts, your student is sitting in a band room with no instrument to play. That would be like a student in a reading class with a book of empty pages.
Some repair shops will work on off-brand instruments, but will not warranty the completed work. If the instrument stops working in the parking lot, just after you picked it up, it’s a whole new repair and a whole new repair bill.
This has potential NOT to be a good experience for parents or students, so again, where to start?
The best option is to go to your local music store and rent an instrument. Most music stores that advertise band rentals will carry name brand quality instruments on their shelves so no guess work is needed. This can be expensive, however, there are many rental programs to choose from that are very affordable and advantageous. Some stores will offer new instruments and have options for second or third year rentals at a lower price. Rental instruments that were returned and in good shape both mechanically and cosmetically are cleaned up and put out again at a fraction of the original cost.
Most stores will have a repair service and warranty built into the instrument rental fee. Their repair shops may be in house or they may work with an independent contractor. Either way, your payment should cover repairs. Some rentals fees will also cover the instrument if it becomes lost or stolen. If your student decides band isn’t for them, you can turn the instrument in and not owe anything more than the few months of rental. This way the parent does not get stuck with an instrument no one is playing.
The second option is buying used instruments from local resources like Craigslist, pawnshops, yard sales or flea markets. There are some good deals from these sources if the parent knows what to look for, however, there are some situations where the instrument is not all it seems. It is not uncommon for people to buy a used instrument and think they are getting a real deal only to find out the instrument doesn't work and get stuck with a huge repair bill. For brasses, the valves and slides should be freely moving, not frozen in place, and there should be at least one mouthpiece with intact plating. Woodwinds can be trickier because of the pads. If the pads are torn, crushed into the key cups, extremely dirty, puffed out like marshmallows, missing altogether or appear bug-eaten, chances are the woodwind will need a complete repad or overhaul which can be an expensive job. The keys should move freely and the joints should fit together without wobbling. Get a qualified repair technician to assess the instrument before purchasing if you can. This can save a lot of time, effort and money.
Internet purchases are a third option and a popular one but again, there are situations where the instrument may or may not be a bargain. Ebay has hundreds of deals and many of them are great but you really need to know what to look for and what you’re buying. A new $39.95 professional clarinet does not exist and many people are disappointed by those bargain buys. Used instruments may or may not fit the description of the seller. Feedback and ratings are important so pay attention to how many of those stars appear on the listing. There still may be a repair bill.
There are some big box stores that will carry band instruments seasonally. I do not recommend you get an instrument from the same store you can buy motor oil and toilet paper in bulk. These are usually off-brand and there is no service backup. If the instrument breaks, the only option is usually to go buy another one.
When in doubt, you can always contact your local repair technician for advice. I don’t know of a single tech who would not help someone who is looking for a good quality instrument for their child. We are a friendly group of people with a passion for music and music education. We tend to get a bit geeky at times, but many of us are performing musicians so we understand what is expected of an instrument. Best of luck!