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Wednesday, April 8, 2009 03:30 pm

Rent or buy, new or used?

How to invest in a good instrument... and make the most of your investment


It will soon be time for fifth graders’ families to sign up for middle school band, and families who have arranged for their own instruments, whether by renting or purchasing, will have first choice when it comes to section assignments. In making an instrument selection, musicians, instructors and retailers all agree: let the child choose, and make sure it is good quality.

Ralph Sordyl, owner of House of Music, 222 North Grand Ave. East, encourages parents to let first-time students try out a variety of instruments before making a decision. Students may not be aware of the wide variety of instruments in a band, he says. Take them to a store where they can see and play several.

“The right instrument is the one the kid says, ‘I want that one!,’” says Kingsley Keys, director of bands at Franklin Middle School. “It may be the way it looks, or its sound, but that’s the instrument that will motivate the student to learn.”

“You want an instrument that plays well, something you can count on,” says Don Udey, retired Glenwood High School director of bands. “The fastest way in the world to discourage a beginning band student is to give him an instrument that doesn’t work.”

To find a good-quality, affordable instrument, start comparison shopping early. If you need more time, or if your student isn’t sure which instrument to play, rent.

Renting puts a good-quality instrument in a student’s hands for the least initial investment. Some instruments can be rented for three months for less than $50, says Tim Rolens, owner of Rolens Brothers Institute of Music (formerly Walko Music), at 1120 S. Second St. in Springfield. Larger, more expensive instruments rent for $95 per three months. Rental fees may be applied toward purchase, and Rolens discounts the purchase price of a new instrument 40 percent in the first year.

However, the used market offers attractive options for quality, affordability and trade.

How to buy used
“There is an excitement to buying a new instrument,” says Sordyl. But if price is important there are a lot of good used instruments that are a good value. They’ve already depreciated, for one thing, and they can be traded in the future, he says.

In addition, says Sordyl, purchasing a used instrument can make some of the bigger, more expensive instruments accessible.

Travis Thacker, co-owner of Carl’s Pro Band at 802 N. Morris Ave. in Bloomington, agrees. “Good-quality playable instruments (that are) excellent brands in good working order, usually sell for half the retail price of new instruments. Most of the time, that’s the best option. There’s a low initial investment, and good resale value if the student quits band.”

Make sure you see the instrument yourself, rather than buying it online, says Thacker, and take it to someone for a thorough evaluation. “You want something that’s working, that you can still get parts for, and is worth investing in.”

Springfield-area trumpet player and teacher John Hoagland buys and sells instruments. “Stick with name brands,” says Hoagland. “China’s getting better, but (you should) pretty much avoid all the stuff from India and China right now. And if you haven’t heard of a brand, make sure you talk to someone about it, especially on eBay. There are a lot of sound-alike brands for sale, such as Selman (which sounds like the saxophone brand Selmer), that aren’t worth a penny.”

Udey’s appraisal of inexpensive band instruments from China matches Hoagland’s. “You can get an instrument from China brand new for $100, in designer colors, green, red, pink and purple. You have to separate flash from quality.”

Buying a used instrument from a private owner, says Hoagland, is like buying a used car you would take to your mechanic. “In Springfield, we are so fortunate to have Randy Langellier, one of the top instrument repair technicians anywhere. He will clean it, play and test it, and tell you if it’s worth buying.”

Langellier services instruments from his workshop in the basement of Rolens’ store. An evaluation costs $15. If the instrument is worth cleaning and repairing, he will remove any major dents, replace worn pads, adjust keys and more to ensure that it’s in good, playable condition.

Some aren’t worth it, says Langellier. “On the other hand, some of the older instruments are better than what’s coming out today, including most of the (off brands) from overseas. People are paying bottom dollar for them, but they’re disposable instruments, not even repairable when they need work. The customer thinks he’s getting a good deal, but the instrument is such poor quality it’s actually harmful for the student.

“It won’t play well, and it’s frustrating for the student. That’s the most important reason you should have the instrument checked out. If it’s not playing properly, nine times out of ten the kid will quit.”

To know a good brand when you see it, used or new, compare brands across stores, and ask the players. For student trumpets, Hoagland likes Bach, Yamaha and Getzen, to name a few. A student Yamaha may retail at around $1,000, a Bach more than twice that. But an intermediate Getzen sells for around $800.

To buy new, shop for features and service, not the name.

“Getzen trumpets are very nice, and a good value,” says Thacker. “They offer a silver-plated, step-up model, and use nickel-silver plated pistons. They wear better, handle better, are more resilient and more durable than softer Monel alloy pistons, which can stick and wear out quicker. They come with a lifetime guarantee.”

Hollywood Winds offers a nice intermediate alto saxophone that includes a high F-sharp key and several other features that make it much more advanced than a beginner student Yamaha or Selmer, says Thacker, and costs around $975. “For that money, we haven’t found anything to compare. It’s something a student can use through high school and be proud of, and not break the bank.

“There are a lot of options out there for instruments that don’t cost as much, play great, last year after year and are made of good materials,” continues Thacker. “You can find replacement parts and repair them. That’s our big thing — that an instrument is mechanically sound and repairable if needed.” Rather than purchasing an inferior instrument, and thinking “this will be good enough for now,” Thacker encourages parents to purchase quality features from the start.

“You want to give students every opportunity you can so they’ll enjoy playing music. They’ve got enough challenges in the beginning. The instrument should be the one thing helping to encourage their playing.”

One other important aspect of a new instrument purchase is follow-up service. Licensed Yamaha dealer Samuel Music, 3730 Wabash in Springfield, which carries primarily Yamaha and Jupiter lines in new instruments, honors manufacturers’ warranties, and offers an extended warranty covering accidental damage for $6 per month, says store manager Eric Dennis.

Carl’s Pro Band, in Bloomington, provides warranty service as well as including a free ultrasonic cleaning on brass instruments within the first year of purchase. This is approximately an $80 value that helps keep the instrument in top playing condition. For more information, visit www.carlsproband.com for details.

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