Buying An Instrument

  • BUYING AN INSTRUMENT
    (OVER THE INTERNET OR  ELSEWHERE)

    One of the most frequent questions posed to me (usually by parents whose son or daughter is about to begin instrument instruction) is this: "I saw (fill in instrument here) for sale on the Internet/eBay/Craig's List, and it is much cheaper than the one being offered by (fill in name of local dealer here).  It sounds like a great deal, so why shouldn't I buy it?"

    Simple answer: as the old saying goes, "if it is too good to be true, it probably is."  Beyond that the answer has many, many factors that need to be explored to understand the true issues of buying an instrument.  Yes, this is a long document but in the paragraphs that follow, we will do just that.

    Before we go any further, it is important to understand that neither Mr. B nor the school district have any financial interest in any music dealer ANYWHERE nor do we receive any compensation from any music dealer ANYWHERE.  So with the legal formalities out of the way, let's get to some specifics you need to know to make an informed and intelligent decision. 

    THE BIG THREE

    There are three main factors to consider when buying an instrument, whether it is for a beginner or the seasoned pro.  Those factors are price, playability, and durability.  Let's look at each one in turn. 

    Price - this is the factor that commands the most attention, especially now that the economy has all of us watching our income and expenses very carefully.  It is also the easiest factor to use when comparing "Instrument A" with "Instrument B."    All other factors being equal, a more expensive instrument should be superior to a less expensive one, and all manufacturers of instruments know this.  Many things that used to be manufactured here in the US are now made overseas and instruments are no exception, so this is one way instrument makers have cut costs.  The primary reason cited is the cost of labor; lower wage scales and no need to provide pensions or health care benefits make overseas operations a financially savvy business move.  Another reason for the movement of manufacturing out of our country is to avoid incurring costs for environmentally responsible operations - in other words the cost of complying with pollution control in the US is substantially higher than in many other countries, especially (as of this writing) on the Asian continent.  The last component we will look at here is materials; there are good materials, better materials, and then superior materials from which one can build an instrument.  If an instrument manufacturer is not very fussy about things such as the quality of the alloys they use, the molecular structure of the plastics, or the age and humidity content of the wood, they can build an instrument for less money.  

    Durability - this quality is somewhat harder to judge, especially if the buyer is new to buying a musical instrument.  Durability simply is the factor that says how long an instrument ought to hold up under normal usage.   In general, instruments for beginners SHOULD be very durable since they will be in the  hands of [initially] inexperienced players. Brass instruments and saxophones should be built with a good thickness of metal and sufficient braces solidly soldered to those parts of the instrument that could be stressed. Clarinets are most often made of dense plastic that approaches the characteristics of a wood instrument. Flutes should be made of nickel or nickel/silver alloy. Keys for clarinets, saxes and flutes should be forged instead of stamped from sheet stock.  All other factors being equal, a more durable instrument lasts longer than its less-durable counterparts.  

    Playability - simply means how well does the instrument play and respond to what the player wants it to do.  Playability can be a quality that is impossible for the parent or beginner to judge, so it is tempting to take the seller's word for it.   Experienced players and professionals know that playability should be the #1 criteria for selecting an instrument. While a pro can take a bad instrument and make it sound good, a bad instrument in the hands of a beginner will most likely take the fun out of playing and the student will get frustrated and quit in short order.  An instrument with good playability should have fairly even intonation (tuning) characteristics, be easy to blow, create a good tone and be capable of a great dynamic range without distorting the tone.  

    WHAT TO DO??

    When shopping for an instrument, whether it is the first one for a 4th-grader, or simply the next in a long succession of instruments for the professional, the primary factor for choosing one over another should NOT be PRICE.  Repeat - it should NOT be PRICE.  

    Playability should be the #1 criterion for choosing an instrument.  A cheap instrument that does not play well will be nothing but misery for the player, no matter how much you've saved.  A beginner needs an instrument that responds well so they sound good with what little technique they have in the opening months of instruction.  A pro needs an instrument that responds to every little nuance he or she injects in their playing, so that they are playing with the best tone and intonation at all dynamic levels and furthermore the mechanics of the instrument (valves, keys, slides, etc.) do not slow down or otherwise interfere with the performers efforts.  

    It stands to reason then, that a professional wants the ultimate in playability; durability is a bit less of an issue.  After all, if a pro does not know how to properly handle and maintain an instrument, who does?   A beginner needs playability, too, but the beginner's instrument really does have to be more durable than the instrument for the pro.   Now sometimes things done to make an instrument more durable exact a cost in playability.   In cases such as these manufacturers know that improvements in one area may compromise the other area; trade-offs such as these go on in all manufactured goods.  The manufacturer, if they do their homework in the design phase and use top quality materials, can keep those compromises to a minimum.  

    O.K.   NOW WHAT??

    The goal for the buyer, then, is to get the best possible instrument in the price range they can afford.  Now I can hear you saying, "Wait a minute!!  Didn't you say that price should not be the primary factor?"  Yes, I did say that, however all of us have some kind of price limit, don't we?  The point is don't buy the cheapest instrument on the market and expect it to perform and last like a top-quality, hand-made professional model.  That kind of instrument simply does not exist. 

    STEP-UP OR PROFESSIONAL MODEL INSTRUMENTS

     For the pro or the advanced student, this usually means going to a reputable dealer who has a substantial inventory of instruments that the buyer can test.  Take your favorite mouthpiece, some music, a music stand and maybe a tuner.  Plan to spend the day, or at least the better part of the day.  Ask to try all of the instruments they have in your price range being careful to put each of them through the same tests.  Is the instrument substantial but yet comfortable to hold?  Does it blow easily?  Does it respond well to attacks at all dynamic levels?  Does it play relatively well in tune with itself up and down the whole range?  Put each instrument though its paces on scales (including the chromatic) and arpeggios, and then run through some passages in solo material, such as District band audition pieces.  In a pinch, band or orchestra music can be used.  

    You will see very quickly that different instruments feel and play different.  Even instruments of the same brand and model - and nearly consecutive serial numbers - will feel and play differently.   Often you will be able to eliminate several brands/models right away.  The time-consuming part is when you come down to those two or three instruments that are so close that you need to spend more time with each in order to pick the one that is best for YOU.

    BEGINNER INSTRUMENTS

    For the beginner or inexperienced adult buyer, the best strategy is to get as much advice as you can.  Enlist the help of a school music teacher, a private teacher or a knowledgeable acquaintance to assist you and maybe even try out instruments - this is especially helpful if you buy a used instrument from a private party (a GOOD source of good, used instruments!). You will find that dealers often give you little or no choice of brand and model if you utilize their "rent to own" programs.  If the dealer is reputable and has been in business for a long time they have a vested interest in providing you with a good instrument at a competitive price (notice I didn't say "cheap").  The manufacturers they represent have a similar interest in keeping you happy, so they have invested considerable time, research, and development into making playable and durable instruments.  

    Perhaps the MOST important instrument you can ask a dealer or retailer is "Will you service this instrument if it needs maintenance or repair?" and then listen VERY carefully to the answer.  A reputable dealer will have their own repair department staffed with experienced repair technicians  and maintain an inventory of repair equipment and replacement parts.  If the seller says "You can get this fixed anywhere."  be VERY wary.  I guess this is the time to talk about those new instruments you see for sale at bargain-basement prices. 

    BUT THIS INSTRUMENT IS ONLY A FRACTION OF THE COST OF "XYZ" BRAND!!

    New instruments offered for sale at unbelievably cheap prices often look great and play well right out of the case.  Here are some of the problems - inferior metals, woods or plastics, second-rate or even shoddy assembly, and non-standard dimensions of critical components such as hinge-rod diameters, thread pitch, etc. 

    Materials - Much of the metal used in bargain-basement instruments is recycled (from where else, the good, old U. S. of A.) so the manufacturer saves lots of money but has less control over the ratios of the different metals in the alloys.  Some makers use potmetal for keys, water valves, and other components; potmetal cannot be repaired by anyone.  Plastics used in instrument construction are polymers with a very dense molecular structure so that it mimics real wood.  Inferior plastics used in instruments will be less dense and possibly more brittle, therefore prone to breaking more easily.   Wood destined for quality musical instruments (especially woodwind & string instruments) is carefully harvested from trees with straight and very dense grain, then aged for up to ten years before it is made into an instrument.  Some manufacturers cut corners (and costs) by using woods that LOOK like the wood that is normally used but is 1) less stable in changing temperature and humidity and 2) is not aged or dried long enough.  Such wood is less dense and prone to cracking.  Since the wood is less stable repairs are difficult or even impossible. 


    Assembly - In days gone by, instrument makers relied on skilled craftsmen to assemble instruments; these craftsmen worked their way up in the company by learning their trade starting with the easiest and least critical assemblies and progressing to the most sensitive procedures such as valve lapping, ribbon soldering, play testing and final adjusting.  The very nature of this method demanded the craftsman to learn and progress over a long period of time, generally 10 years or more.   Overseas manufacturers typically have employed non-skilled laborers who do only one job or perhaps utilize robotics in place of skilled eyes and ears.  

    Non-Standard Measurements - There are two basic systems for measuring dimensions in industrialized nations - English and metric.  Although all manufacturers use one or the other, the actual dimensions of the screws, hinge rods, and the like are up to the maker.  Long-established manufacturers use dimensions and measurements that have been developed over extensive periods of design and manufacturing.  Less reputable manufacturers have been known to purchase, at huge discounts, leftover or discontinued materials, parts and supplies. Once those have been used for a production run, the manufacturer is again in the market for cheap materials, parts or supplies that nobody else wants. In other cases these same manufacturers experiment with non-standard dimensions and thread pitches and write that expense off as "research and development."  Either way the result is very inconsistent sizes of anything even from one run of a model to another.  Repair shops here in the U. S. do not have access to parts and supplies such as these, so repairs can be very difficult - and EXPENSIVE - if they are possible at all. 

    Again, the most powerful question you can ask the dealer or retailer is "Will you repair or service this instrument after the sale?"   "Big box" retailers or discount chains cannot and WILL NOT do instrument repairs!!  Their specialty is buying huge quantities of instruments and passing the "discounts" on to you - PERIOD.  

    The bottom line is don't be fooled by the glitz or the flashiness.  Usually what I tell parents who want to buy such an instrument is this - "If you can afford to take the cash you would spend on this instrument and just throw it in the garbage, then by all means go ahead with the purchase.  Just know that, like a Las Vegas casino, the odds are stacked against you."


    WHAT ABOUT THE INTERNET?

    Yes, I said we'd talk about that.  Buying an instrument sight unseen is risky, even for the most knowledgeable instrumentalist.  Certain name brand instruments and models within a brand have fine reputations; for example, Bach Stradivarius trumpets built in Mt. Vernon NY are highly desirable, even though the Bach trumpets made after manufacturing moved out of New York are good instruments, too.  If the seller is an individual he/she should be able to answer your detailed questions about the age of the instrument, who played it and for how long, the condition of the instrument (finish, any denting or corrosion, valve, key or slide action) and why they are selling it.  A dealer or retailer selling on line should be able to give you information on warranty and return/restocking policies.  

    Perhaps the biggest downside of Internet shopping is the inability to do side-by-side comparisons like you can when you go to a dealer.  Some on-line retailers will send you multiple instruments to try out, but now you are faced with the need to pay for shipping costs for  the instruments you don't want.  Even if you make a purchase of a single instrument in good faith and then you decide to send an instrument back you will be responsible for shipping costs.  In both cases you will also need to insure the instruments during shipping - yet another cost.   Be aware that on-line retailers are also in the habit of charging restocking fees upwards of 10-15% of the value of the instrument if you decide to return it.  And finally, wiith Internet purchases, you lack the ability to go back to the seller for service or repairs.  If you have access to a quality local repair shop, this is not an issue.  

    ALRIGHT, YOU MADE YOUR POINT.  WHERE SHOULD I BUY AN INSTRUMENT??

    Locally, there are two reputable dealers for band and orchestra instruments.  The school district regularly works with both of them as do I and many of my colleagues who are not only music teachers but seasoned performers as well.    A few words about each, and then we'll look at some alternatives. 

    Zeswitz School Music Services - Southern Lehigh was the first school district with whom Zeswitz established a rent-to-own program back in the 1950's.  They were the principal vendor for student instruments from then until about 2010.  They are located on the west side of Reading (Exeter Township) at 5550 Perkiomen Pike.   They can be reached at 1-800-622-2837 or on the web at www.zeswitzmusicpa.com  In addition, a Zeswitz representative calls on each of our four elementary schools once a week. 

    Nazareth Music Center - NMC is located at 162 S. Main St. in Nazareth; about 18 miles from Center Valley.  NMC is currently our principal vendor for instruments AND is the closest music dealer that carries a substantial inventory of quality instruments in all price ranges AND does the best repairs in the Lehigh Valley.  They are the only dealer that repairs my personal instruments or those of my wife (her specialty is woodwinds).  They can be reached at 610-759-3072 or on the web at www.nazarethmusic.com   Nazareth also has a representative that travels to our school on a weekly basis.  

    Alternatives?  Yes, there are some.  There are several fine music stores in New York City such as Sam Ash, Manny's, Woodwind & Brasswind, or Giardinelli's.  In most cases you will find the prices to be discounted as much as 40% off of list price (more on that in a minute) however you do have the added expense of travel to and from NYC, not to mention a sales tax rate steeper than that of Pennsylvania.   At one time some of these stores would offer to ship the instrument to you rather than "cash & carry."  This would eliminate the sales tax; I do not know if this service is still offered. 

    In the other direction is Chuck Levin's Washington Music Center in Silver Spring, MD.  Like the NYC stores, Chuck Levin's offers instruments for sale at substantial savings off of list price.  All of these retailers offer repair services but a 2-3 hour ride is a LONG way to go for a repair.  

    Are there good instruments for sale in the classified ads?  Sure there are.  When responding to the ad be sure to stipulate that any sale is contingent on being able to play the instrument.  That gives you the opportunity to spend time with the instrument like you would at a dealer.   Yard sales & flea markets?  Decent instruments rarely will be found at either. See the discussion below on "Brands to Look For/Avoid."


    LIST PRICE?

    Like the "sticker price" on new cars, the manufacturer's suggested list price for an instrument is polite fiction.  It is a rare dealer that will use the list price as the selling price; both the manufacturer and dealer know that charging list price would quickly put them out of business.  The price you are likely to be quoted will be a "discount" off of the list price (to make you feel better about your purchase I guess).  What you will find if you comparison shop is that most dealer's prices for the same make and model of instrument will come in very close to each other.  

    ARE THERE SOME BRANDS I SHOULD BE LOOKING FOR??
    ARE THERE BRANDS I SHOULD AVOID?

    Legal issues prevent the posting of a list of either here.  Contact me, your child's music teacher or their private music teacher for their experiences.  It is a rare music teacher or performer who will not share their success (and horror!) stories with you.  

    I can tell you this: DO avoid instruments built prior to World War II.  Instrument manufacturers respond to the demands of the educational and professional world; orchestras, bands and even individual players.   Over the last 50+ years, the tuning standard has steadily risen.  Even though A=440 has been the tuning standard for most of that time, symphony orchestras have been pushing that standard up; A=442 and even A=444 is prevalent among the major orchestras today.  Instruments manufactured prior to 1945 or so were built to a lower pitch standard (lower than A=440!) consequently they play VERY flat. Even with tuning slides pushed all the way in, these instruments cannot be brought up to pitch to play in tune with modern models.  

    Instrument manufacturers also continually improve their product line, not just to lower costs but also to build a better instrument for the money.  Newer instruments tend to respond better, have better tone, play better in tune with themselves and are easy to get parts and repairs if damaged.  Instruments - even student-line instruments - built from 1960 to 1980 were usually solidly made and can be very good buys.  American, Japanese, and European-made instruments from 1980 and later are likewise of good quality.  If you encounter instruments made in Mexico or Asia be sure to scrutinize them very carefully, even if they bear an American brand name.   

    WHAT IF I WANT TO SELL THIS INSTRUMENT LATER?

    A decent instrument, even a student-line instrument, will command a higher price if/when you decide to sell it than a bargain-basement clunker.  Dealers generally don't buy used instruments unless they are in pristine condition and like auto dealers, the price they will give you for an instrument will be less than the retail price they will expect the next buyer to pay. For this reason, the best place to sell used instruments is with a classified ad or even something like Craig's List.  You stand the best chance to sell your instrument if 1) it is a recognized/long-time brand name, 2) it appears clean and well-kept (this includes the case!), it includes all accessories (lyre, mouthpiece, neckstrap, etc.), and 3) it is in ready-to-play condition.   Don't expect a buyer to take a chance on an instrument purchased "as is."  

    In 99% of cases, instruments do not appreciate in value unless they are an extremely rare or desirable model.   

    CONCLUSION

    So there you have it - a not-so-short discussion on what you need to know about buying an instrument.  Remember the goal is to make informed and intelligent decisions about an instrument that you will be playing often and maybe for a very long time.  For that reason, playability should be the factor that carries the most weight, not price.  I'll end this dissertation with a quote that used to hang on the wall at a music store where I took private lessons when I was a high school student.  The sign read: 

    "The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten."  


    I could not have said it any better myself.