Many people find themselves thrown into the world of musical instruments they know nothing about when their children first begin music at school. Knowing the basics of good instrument construction, materials, and choosing a good store in which to rent or buy these instruments is extremely important. So what process should a parent follow to make the best choices for their child?
Clearly the first step is to choose an instrument. Let your child have their choice. Kids don’t make very many big decisions about their life, and this is a big one that can be very empowering. I can also say from personal experience that kids have a natural intuition about what is good for them. Ultimately, my strongest advice is to put a child into a room to try no more than 3-5 different choices, and let them make their choice based on the sound they like best.
This information is intended to broaden your horizons, not to create a preference, or to put you in a position to nit-pick in the store! Most instruments are extremely well made these days, and choosing a respected retailer will allow you to trust recommendations. Ask your school and/or private music teacher where to shop.
Woodwind instruments are made all over the world, but primarily in the USA, Germany, France, and China. When we talk about Woodwind instruments, we are referring to members of the flute, clarinet, saxophone, oboe, and bassoon families.
All woodwinds involve a fairly complex, interconnected mechanism that has to be regulated so that the keys all move and seal the holes of the instrument when they are supposed to. Your trusted local retailer will be sure to get you an instrument that is ‘set up’, although many new instruments come ready to go out of the box. When you are dealing with a brand new instrument, you should bring it back to the store for a check-up after about 3 months, or sooner if there are any issues. Because all of the materials are new and tight, they may come out of regulation as the instrument is broken in. This is normal. You should count on this kind of regulation every 12-18 months, or sooner if the instrument is played a lot.
Woodwinds also have pads. Pads are the part of the instrument that seal over the holes in the body of the instrument (toneholes). A perfect seal is required to produce the correct note. Tuning and sound quality are affected by a correctly ‘seated’ pad. These also occasionally need replacing, as part of your regular maintenance, although very rarely all at once. When all pads need to be replaced (once every 8-10 years), this is done as part of a comprehensive ‘overhaul’ of the instrument which includes taking it all apart, cleaning it, refitting and tightening loose parts, and replacing springs and corks as necessary. This is a rare procedure, and generally reserved for professionals. The maintenance repair is the most common one for parents.
Because of the many rods and key-cups (these hold the pads), there are a lot of very sensitive, easy to bend parts of these instruments. Knowing how to assemble them properly is important to avoiding unwanted repair costs. Be sure to ask your local retailer for the proper way to assemble your instrument. This is often the cause of the most common repairs, followed by bumping into things.
Interestingly, not all woodwinds are made from wood. Flutes and saxophones are made primarily of metals; Nickel-silver and silver for flutes, and generally brass for saxophones. We’ll stick to these materials for these instruments for simplicity’s sake, as there are increasingly more choices available.
For the rest of the woodwind instruments, wood is indeed employed for the main construction of the instruments.
Flutes & Saxophones
Student flutes are made from Nickel-Silver, then plated in silver. Nickel-Silver is a combination of brass with nickel, which has a similar look to silver when polished, hence its name. One of its primary advantages is that it is stronger than brass or silver on their own. As you progress to better instruments more Silver is used, starting with the headjoint (which is the most important factor in a good quality of sound). More on headjoints later.
Saxophones are generally made from brass. Try to find an instrument that has ‘ribbing’ on the body; extra plates of brass that provide structural support over an area where multiple posts attach to the body. This provides strength for the occasional and unavoidable bumps that your young students are bound to have. Some student saxes have keywork made of nickel-silver, which is a good strategy for strength in a vulnerable area.
Clarinets and Oboes
Clarinet and oboe bodies are typically made of ABS plastic for student instruments. This is a good strategy for bumps, but also against the maintenance habits and climate changes that students face. Intermediate and professional instruments are made of Grenadilla wood (which is changing as Grenadilla edges towards the endangered list). Because they are made of wood they must be protected against cracking. If a student doesn’t swab their instrument out after playing, the moisture can cause the wood to expand and crack. Likewise, bringing your instrument to school on a cold day and playing it without allowing it to come to room temperature will cause it to crack, or even rupture. This is caused a pressure differential from your warm air column on the inside of the instrument, versus the cold temperature outside of the instrument. If you decide to get a wood instrument, be sure your student is ready and able to look after it properly.
Keys on clarinets and oboes are generally made from nickel-silver, but can be made with silver plating, or other materials.
Student bassoons are made from ABS plastic, but there are some new makers in the market that offer hard rubber, and also maple (used in professional instruments). A downside for hard rubber bassoons is that they are quite heavy. If you can get a good wood bassoon for a reasonable price, then choose this one. Wood offers the best acoustics for bassoon, and can make the difference between a plain sound, and one that is rich and interesting.
Keywork on bassoons is equally made from nickel-silver, often silver plated.
Using the word ‘mouthpiece’ for woodwinds can be confusing. Here are the instruments with the correct names for the corresponding part of the instrument that makes the sound:
- Flute: Headjoint
- Clarinet: Mouthpiece (with a single reed)
- Saxophone: Mouthpiece (with a single reed)
- Oboe: Double reed (two reeds tied together with a hole in between)
- Bassoon: Double reed (two reeds tied together with a hole in between)
Regardless of the instrument, this is the part of the whole that makes the greatest impact on the quality of the sound, in combination with the player’s personal physical attributes. Students generally use what they get from their teacher, but below are some tips about how to get the most from your equipment. Getting a good mouthpiece can precede, and even postpone the purchase of a new clarinet or sax, so great is the difference with hard rubber.
For Flute, make sure your headjoint cork is properly aligned, and not dried out. Your local retailer will show you how to do this. If there are problems, have them fixed right away, or choose a different flute. For more intermediate flutes, choose a headjoint that is not only made entirely of silver, but is hand-cut. This won’t always be easier to play at first, but the sound quality improvement will be worth making the leap. Silver sounds better than nickel-silver, producing a better tone quality, with more room for changing the quality according to the player’s needs. You can buy headjoints separately, but it can be very expensive, and I advise against this until you reach a professional flute.
Oboe and bassoon use two opposing, slightly curved reeds tied together that vibrate against each other when air passes between them. Advanced oboists/bassoonists make reeds for themselves, a time-consuming, skill-heavy task. It takes many years to learn to make reeds for yourself, that work well. Fortunately, there are ready-made reeds that generally meet the needs of the student player. One key element you should test is to assure that the reed ‘crows’ perfectly at the pitch ‘C’. Crowing a reed is blowing through it when it is not attached to the instrument. Test the crow with a tuner.
Clarinets and saxophones use a single reed (small piece of very well shaped and profiled cane) tied to a mouthpiece (by a ring called a ‘ligature’) that vibrates when air is passed between the two. The combination of these parts is key to a good sound. Most students receive a plastic mouthpiece to begin. Good plastic mouthpieces are made by Yamaha for both clarinet and saxophone, with the designation of ‘4C’. I would recommend a ‘5C’ if it is available. It will be a little harder to play at first, but a good way to get a bigger sound right off the bat. If you would like to get a better quality of sound with more room for good loud and soft playing while maintaining and introducing a rich tone, then consider a hard rubber mouthpiece. Hard rubber is superior to plastic acoustically, and must be hand finished, unlike the plastic variety, which is spit out of a mold and polished/tumbled for shine. These are noticeably more expensive, but you should expect to spend in the $100-150 range for a decent hard rubber mouthpiece. Good names include: Selmer, Vandoren, Otto Link, Meyer, Yamaha, and Leblanc. Your local retailer should stock at least two of these brands for you to try – and you should try them! Because these are typically hand finished, they are often subtly different.
What about sizes?
Clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces have a variety of different sizing areas, but for the sake of simplicity, the most important is the ‘tip opening’. Tip opening refers to the distance between the tip of the reed and the tip of the mouthpiece. Sadly, there is no standardized system for measuring tip openings, although they are commonly measured in millimetres, or using a numbering system (usually beginning at number 5, a student sizing), or even letters. The metric method usually consists of two to three numbers; an opening of 2.97mm might be listed as 297, or as 97, depending on the maker. The numbering system can be listed as 5, 5*, 6, 6*, 7, etc. The ‘star’ numbers should be considered half-sizes. Letters work the same way as numbers in general; C, C*, D, D*, etc.
To give your student a leg up, aim for a ‘6’, or ‘D’ sizing. This is bigger than what they are used to, but will pay off with a bigger sound right away. Some notes on the ends of your range, both low and high, will likely suffer, but this is only temporary as you adjust to the new mouthpiece and develop greater strength.
Oil and Adjust. This procedure needs to be conducted on your student’s instrument annually, or even more frequently, if there is a lot of playing. The mechanics of the interconnected parts is delicate, and comes out of alignment often.
Bore oiling. Once a year this will be required on clarinets and oboes to help guard against cracking.
Avoid cheap instruments. With musical instruments you get what you pay for. There are a lot of instruments coming from India and China now. Many are excellent, while many others should not even have been made. Your local, respected dealer should have those that are reliable, and will stand behind them. Your big-box Costco, Wal-Mart, BestBuy, and e-Bay has no expertise in these matters, and functions for their bottom line only. Avoid these places. They cannot possibly offer you the continued assistance, service, or repair that a developing and interested student will need. If you choose this route, ask for American, European, or Japanese-made instruments. This will be a major separator of good from bad. People who make in these places are generally very well trained and part of a history of excellent wind instrument making. Your local, trusted retailer will help to guide you in the choices available, and remember that just because it says USA, or Paris on it, does not mean it was made in these places. Manufacturers are now sometimes making these things part of the ‘name’ of the instrument.
How much should I spend?
That is the big question. Be aware that popular instruments, like flute and clarinet, are less expensive because they are made in greater quantities. Some instruments, like oboe and bassoon, are challenging and time-consuming to make, making them more expensive. Below is a list of acceptable and approximate pricing (at the time that this is being written) for new student instruments that works for both American and Canadian currency.
- Flute: $350
- Oboe: $1400
- Clarinet: $350
- Alto Sax: $750
- Tenor Sax: $1200
When should I buy a better instrument, and Why?
60 years ago, there were no ‘student’ and ‘intermediate’ instruments. Manufacturers were just coming to the realization that there was an emerging, post-war market that was changing to support a more commercial model of instrument making. Today, instruments are engineered to get you to buy three times. First as a beginner, then as an advancing student, and finally as a professional. Clearly, this is a model that makes a lot of money for manufacturers.
For the right reasons, I often encourage parents to start with the better instrument, or even a good used intermediate or professional instrument. Starting on better equipment is like starting on that slightly larger mouthpiece; getting a bigger, better sound is encouraging. The better construction and materials combination of these better instruments will also leave more room to grow. So what are the right reasons? Here is a list that works not only as guide for helping to choose the right instrument, but for what you should watch for to help musical growth:
- Going to a school with a strong music program.
- Getting private lessons, or has asked for some. (Check with private teacher for recommendations before buying, this will help.)
- Practicing without parental encouragement
- Has at least 4 years of playing ahead of them.
These factors are good indicators of whether to buy, and whether to buy intermediate or professional. If the bulk of these are unclear, consider a rental for a year to see if they get any clearer, and supplement with regular (weekly) private lessons.
Music is an investment that requires attention from a variety of angles, and the instrument itself is just a small step. Being armed with the knowledge of how to get the instrument is just part of a process that a parent can – and should – be actively involved in. Many parents don’t know anything about all of this, but now you do! Ask the questions you need to know, and you’ll be just fine getting your new instrument.