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Step Up or Step Down

As it is as beneficial to select a reputable brand of band instrument when renting or buying, it can be as detrimental to purchase an off-brand instrument.  Just because the instrument is new and shiny does not automatically mean it is a better instrument.  Most band directors would prefer that you purchase a good used instrument than a new one that is not a recommended brand.  We all know there are some used cars that we would never purchase because of their reputation and bad repair history.  Many of us turn to magazines like Consumer Reports to find the ratings for automobiles and other merchandise.  Since Consumer Reports does not rate clarinets, you must rely on your band director or other neutral professional for advice about instrument brands.  The music store salesman is not a neutral professional.  Many times, the store has specific companies they sign a contract with as an exclusive dealer in the area. Often these are reputable brands, but sometimes they are not.  Beware of the instruments sold in discount department stores or wholesale clubs.  You may get a good price, but this is definitely a time when you get what you pay for (sometimes, the instrument may not be worth the low price you paid).

Many music store salesmen will talk to you about an “intermediate” instrument as a “step up” instrument.  This is an instrument that is better than a “student-line” model most of the time, but not quite as good as a “professional” model.  It is true they are of better quality and some of the manufacturing techniques used are more sophisticated and the measurements are more precise.  The question remains as to whether it is really that much more beneficial to have an intermediate instrument for two or three years between the student-line and professional quality instruments.  Also, some “intermediate” level brands of instruments are not as good as “student-line” or superior brands. Many band directors are going to ask that a band student have a professional-line instrument by the time they are freshmen in high school, or at the very least their junior year.   So, it is really a matter of opinion if an intermediate instrument is really needed.  If your child plays a student-line instrument in elementary school, then an intermediate instrument may be good throughout middle school, especially since accidents seem to happen more frequently with a middle school aged student :~).  However, if the student-line instrument is already of high quality, then it may not be necessary to purchase one in middle school.  Something else to consider: if you are in a school system that has and elementary band program, you may want to hold off on stepping up to a higher quality instrument in middle school.  Many times, middle school is the time that some students will be asked to switch to another instrument.  You may ask:  “Why would my child be asked to switch to another instrument.  Is it because he/she is not doing well enough?”  In this case…..not necessarily.  There are some “color” instruments that are more difficult for a beginner band student to master and are easier to learn if a child starts on one of the more basic instruments first.  “Color” instruments include the following:  Oboe, Bassoon, Bass Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone and Baritone Saxophone in the woodwind family; and French Horn, Baritone and Tuba in the brass family.  If you child has made good progress on his/her instrument, the band director may ask your child to switch to one of these ‘color instruments to finish “filling out” the rest of the band’s instrumentation.  A step-up instrument would be a waste of money in this case.  Always ask you band director what the plans are for instrument selection before purchasing any kind of band instrument.

So, should you purchase a “step-up” instrument?  It is not necessary, but can be beneficial if you communicate your plans with the band director and agree that your child will stick with his/her current type of instrument.  Just make sure that the “intermediate” instrument is a reputable quality brand.  If you conduct your research and seek advice from neutral professionals, you can indeed “step up” to a better instrument and avoid “stepping down” to a brand new, shiny, inferior instrument.