To Buy or Not To Buy. That is the Question

Congratulations! Your child has decided to join the school band or orchestra! Every year, we encourage students to choose the instrument they are the most interested in, and help parents navigate the tricky waters of music stores. Right about now, as the parent, you are probably feeling overwhelmed, especially if you don't have any experience with music or school music programs.

Never fear! I'm here to help.

Choosing The Instrument

How do teachers decide which instrument to give to your child?

In most public schools, the teacher will assign instruments based on their orchestration needs. In many cases, the band is multi-grade, covering all the music students in the school, so there is a group that the new students are "joining". In other schools, there are bands based on grade. And when we have that situation, then all instruments are available to the students!

A band should have a certain number of flutes (8-10), clarinets (8-16), saxophones (4-6), oboes (1-2) and bassoons (1).* A school orchestra will want to proportion the number of cellos against the violins (more violins = more cellos). So even if your child wants to play the oboe, there may already be 2 older students in the band, and additional oboes wouldn't make any orchestrational sense.

Our goal, as teachers, is to build a band that allows the kids to have the best experience possible. Almost 20 years ago, I taught at a school that had 14 saxophones, 15 trumpets, 10 percussion, 3 trombones, 2 clarinets and no flutes. It was, as you can imagine, a disaster and left the kids frustrated and disillusioned about music in general.

The second way instrument is determined (especially at the private schools) is just by allowing the kids to choose on their own from the list of instruments being offered -- flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone and percussion -- which means elementary band music is balanced without having to tell a kid "no" when they want to play something.

If your child is exceptionally interested in playing something and the teacher tells you no, you may want to have a private chat with the band teacher to make your case for why your son or daughter is so obsessed with a particular instrument. Originally, in 4th grade, I was assigned the French Horn, an instrument I had zero interest in playing. I wanted to play the flute! So my mom called the teacher and explained that I had been crying ever since getting the horn. My teacher reassigned me to the flute, and well...the rest is history.

The good news is that if your child wants to switch instruments in the future, most teachers welcome this exploration! Parents often ask if their child can switch to a particular instrument "easily" and my answer is always yes. It's easy to learn a new instrument. It's just as easy to switch to saxophone from flute as it is to switch from clarinet to oboe or oboe to sax or flute to clarinet, etc. etc. etc.. If your child wants to do it, all the teachers can help make that happen!

Finding the Instrument

Please, please, please, I cannot say this enough, DO NOT SHOP FOR INSTRUMENTS ON eBAY!!

The garbage for sale on that site is overwhelming! What may look like a great deal is most likely an instrument that has no verifiable quality and certainly will not come with any sort of guarantee that it's going to work when you open the package. So I'll say it again:


Your best bet is to check out local music stores first: Bertram's Old Town Music (Pasadena), Pederson's (Burbank), Baxter Northup (Sherman Oaks), Nick Rail (Calabasas). You can walk into the store and speak directly to s salesperson which will help you make the best decision possible.

They all have rental programs which also include repair benefits. If you choose to buy the instrument, they will usually give you a warranty for a year or more.

If you prefer to buy online, I always recommend you begin your search at Woodwind & Brasswind. Beyond that, please have a chat with me about your options.

If you have any question about where to look, I'm always available to speak to you!

Rent or Buy?

For some people, renting is the way to go. For others, buying an instrument is the smarter option. How do you decide which is best for you? Here are the questions I consider when recommending renting or buying to parents:

1) Does the child seem enthusiastic about playing this specific instrument?

2) Does the child exhibit the necessary skills to play this instrument?

3) Do we think the child will play this instrument more than one year?

4) Does the child already play another instrument (i.e. piano)?

5) What is the cost difference between renting and buying?

Does the child seem enthusiastic about playing this specific instrument?

When I evaluate the student at the beginning of their lessons with me, it's very clear who truly wants to play and learn, and who is just doing it because a friend wants to be in band. For those kids who don't seem to have their heart in the process, renting is always the better option. You are given the "out" at the end of the year to return the instrument and sign up for a different activity the following year without having spent a small fortune.

Does the child exhibit the necessary skills to play this instrument?

It's painfully obvious to me when a student has a natural propensity for a certain instrument. Flute, for example, is a very difficult instrument for beginners. Most kids spend the first 3-4 weeks struggling to make a sound, but all who continue beyond that point, will progress along the same curve as the other instruments, and by the end of the school year, be completely caught up (if not a little ahead of the rest of the woodwinds). It's the kids that continue to struggle well into the 2nd and 3rd months who are clearly not cut out for the flute. In that case, I usually suggest they switch to clarinet or saxophone at that point so they can continue to participate in band and not fall behind. These are the students who should clearly be renting...

Does the child already play another instrument (i.e. piano)?

In general, kids who have already been studying music prior to joining band, have an easier time moving to a new instrument. Those kids are likely to stay in band longer than 1 year, and are usually the ones hanging on through high school. And, I find, they grow into adults who still take out their instruments "for fun" and join community bands. The kids will have an easier time learning a new instrument, and so many of them take pleasure in helping their friends learn their new instrument. This is a good indicator that purchasing a flute or clarinet might be a better choice.

Do we think the child will play this instrument more than one year?

Some instruments are very expensive to buy outright. Oboes are the most expensive intermediate level woodwind for purchase. Intermediate oboes, which are the first level of oboe I will ever suggest a parent purchase (there's not reason to ever buy a beginner model oboe because that is truly a monumental waste of money), begin at a $3000 price point. Once you get in to professional models, we're talking close to $11,000.

There are only 2 factors I consider when suggesting a parent purchase an intermediate oboe for a student:

1) the student has outgrown the beginner model, and

2) has expressed an interest in playing well into high school.

There is only one factor that I consider when suggesting a parent sells the existing intermediate oboe and invests in a professional model: The student will be a music major in college

Those parents who have already upgraded their child's flute know that intermediate is usually the point where we stop upgrading. A good intermediate flute (for ex the Yamaha 400 series) will last an amateur flutist their whole life. If it seemed like pro oboes were expensive, then pro flute prices will certainly spin your heads.

Pro flutes BEGIN around $9000 and can run up to $50,000. There are internationally renowned flutists who play on instruments creeping up to the $100,000 range. So you can see why it's important to view intermediate flutes (or gently used lower priced pro models) as the final option.

Clarinets and Saxophones, though, are a different story. Most pro clarinets won't increase past $8000, and around the same for saxophones, unless you get in to custom models and modifications. Intermediate clarinets & saxes are very affordable and truly last a musician a lifetime.

Now that I'm including cellos in my private studio, it's of course important that I bring those instruments up as well. Renting is the ONLY option you have until your child reaches the 4/4 size instrument. You should not even consider buying a 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 cello unless your kid is Yo-Yo Ma playing concertos with the LA Philharmonic.

When you do reach the 4/4 size, the same questions above need to be asked. Beginner level 4/4 models can be as low as $600, so don't panic. That price may make more sense than renting, so again, we'll discuss the options when that day comes.

An advancing student who plans on continuing for fun through their life shouldn't need a cello costing more than $3000-$5000, whereas a music major expecting to be a professional cellist someday... well, let's just say the flute and cello parents may bump in to each other at the bank as they apply for loans.

What is the cost difference between renting and buying?

The simplest formula for determining if renting or buying is best for you is to compare the price of purchase vs. the total rental cost over three years of study (6th, 7th and 8th grades):

Common scenario: $1000 used intermediate flute purchase vs. $50/month rental. You have to ask yourself how you personally feel about paying $330/year to own the instrument vs. $600/year to rent.

Oboe scenario: $2200 used intermediate oboe purchase vs $75/month rental; $730/year to own vs. $900/year to rent

For one person, outright purchase makes sense, for other, the rental gives them peace of mind that they can discontinue payments and give it back.

I always recommend parents buy used intermediate instruments -- in the last 5 years, I have helped parents find and purchase intermediate instruments between $1000-$2200. I recommend parents buy gently used (1 year or less) or brand new professional instruments as this is the one the student will likely use for 10-15 years until they can afford to replace it themselves as a professional musician.

Luckily for everyone besides oboe parents, most flutes, clarinets and saxophones are relatively cheap. Most beginner models of these instruments cost $300-$600, so it's just a simple math equation: will renting for a year exceed the cost of a new one? And if it does, just buy one. You can always sell it (for near to the purchase price as long as it remains in excellent condition) when you upgrade a few years later. And, one more lucky feature of these three instruments is that students outgrow the beginner models at a slower rate than the oboes. You can usually expect 3-4 years on the beginner model before the need to upgrade, and even then, it's really a question of what does the student intend as their next musical step. Play through high school "for fun" may only need an intermediate flute, while someone going off to college to be a saxophone major would require the purchase of a Selmer pro model.

There's no need to navigate this tricky sea on your own. Never think, for a second, that you have to make these decisions on your own. I am always a phone call, email or personal meeting away to guide you through the process.

*Brass instruments are distributed much the same way, but since I don't teach brass, we won't talk about those instruments.

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