Many times, an anxious young comparison shopper (often a lady with a growing family, we’ll call her Tammi), would come into my shop and say something like, “I need a clarinet for Julie, she starts middle school band in a week, what can I get for cheap?” She’s been to the ‘rental fair’ or similarly labeled event at the school gym, where several music stores have brought their rental stock and contracts, and has discovered several things:
- New, beginner instruments are not cheap. Currently, the retail cost on a new student model clarinet (similar for trumpet, trombone, and flute, the most common beginner instruments) can be around US$600
- ‘Rental’ contracts are often ‘rent-to-own’ contracts, with a term of around 30 months, and some kind of interest rate attached. When Tammi pays for the clarinet in this way, she will have spent about $1,200 for her $600 clarinet. This can be an advantage from a month-to-month point of view – it’s a fixed amount each month, regular maintenance at the music store she rented from is often included, and it’s a shiny new instrument that Julie can be proud of. Tammi has learned to look over these contracts.
When Tammi comes into my shop, she’s going to learn several things:
- New is not always better. For instance, the new clarinets she has been shown, while all are made by reputable makers, are being constructed with lighter, cheaper materials than was the case even 10 years ago. In the case of Julie, the beginner, who doesn’t yet know how to handle a fragile instrument, lighter and cheaper means more trips to the repair shop, and more time without the instrument in Julie’s hands. Practice time is critical for the beginner, and a week ( a common amount of time for a repair to process) without the instrument might turn her to losing interest in the clarinet altogether – a big financial loss for Tammi. During my career as an instrument technician, I regularly worked on 50 year old American-made instruments that were so well made as to still be in service for their 3rd generation of beginners!
- Real bargains can be had today. For instance, I always had in the shop a variety of older Vito brand clarinets, which I and many others in the repair trade believed to be the best student model clarinet ever made. Due to consolidation among makers, this brand is no longer available, but there’s lots of good ones around. The ones I sold had been cleaned, all the pads replaced, all the tenon corks replaced, and the keys and other metal parts had been polished, so that the clarinet appeared, and played like, new. They came in a new case, with all the parts needed to begin (mouthpiece, ligature, cap, reeds, and cork grease). They sold for about $400.
- If Tammi wanted to do this herself, she could buy a Vito clarinet in good shape on Ebay for $25, bring it into my shop, where I would refurbish it just like the one described above, and she would be about $350 out of pocket. She would of course have to start the process with about 3-4 weeks to spare before Julie’s first day in band, but it could be done.
There are a variety of other bargains like that available for all beginner instruments. The best way is to decide on what type of instrument you’re looking for, then find a reputable repair shop and see what they would charge you to refurbish an instrument that you’ve acquired.
A good way to locate a reputable shop is to check with the National Association of Professional Band Instrument Repair Technicians – www.napbirt.org. They have a list of where to find their members.
Just as in cooking, the best results come from the best ingredients. When going the ‘used’ route, always begin with a high-quality instrument. Stick with instruments that were built in the USA, (western) Europe, and Japan. I’m not excluding makers in other countries, but many of these others came to quality instrument-building only recently. The real bargains are in brands made in the countries I’ve listed. Here’s some brand names I like:
- Flutes – Armstrong, Artley, Gemeinhardt, Yamaha, Pearl
- Clarinets – Bundy, Selmer, Vito, Normandy, Noblet, Leblanc, Yamaha, Holton
- Saxophones – Bundy, Selmer, Vito, Leblanc, Yamaha, King, Holton, Conn (avoid Conns made in Mexico)
- Trumpets – Conn, King, Selmer, Bundy, Bach, Getzen, Yamaha, Holton, Olds (USA)
- Trombones – Conn, King, Selmer, Bundy, Bach, Getzen, Yamaha, Holton, Olds (USA)
Note – I have been retired from the instrument repair business for a number of years, so these dollar amounts are now out of date, but the concepts remain the same.
Other Note – The brand names mentioned on this page are property of their respective owners: Armstrong, Bundy, Selmer, Vito, Leblanc, King, Conn, Holton, and Bach are owned by Conn-Selmer, Inc. Pearl is owned by Pearl Corporation. Getzen is owned by the Getzen Co. Yamaha is owned by Yamaha Corporation of America. Olds is owned by F.E. Olds.
– your comments are welcome!