Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Choosing an Instrument

Every story is different when we tell how we chose the instrument we play; it’s almost a magical thing and that choice affects us for the rest of our lives. The way we view music and even life itself is very different if we see it from the viewpoint of a flutist or as a tubist, certainly, one is not better than the other but the difference it makes in the way we perceive the musical world we are entering is enormous.

One of the most fascinating questions a musician can ask himself is: Are we the way we are because of the instrument we chose or did we chose our instrument because of the way we are? I’m still working on the answer to that question. And there is also another very interesting question: Has the instrument you play changed your life?

But after that magical time when we chose which instrument we want to play comes another equally important choice; which instrument, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, euphonium or tuba do you want to buy? Now the question is less magical, less esoteric. It has to do with our level of musical performance and it has to do with economics. We must make a good decision.

I have a good friend, a very well known brass teacher, who has an excellent student who just went out and bought a new instrument… without trying different instruments or asking advice from his teacher. He ended up buying a rebuilt instrument that looked beautiful, but was stiff and stuffy, which frankly didn’t sound nearly as good as the old school instrument that he was replacing and cost more than some of the new instruments that are available on the market! My friend is agonizing as to what he should do now to help the unfortunate student.

Let’s take a look at the obvious; He can’t say to the student that his new horn is terrible, that he sounded much better on his school’s old horn, which he was using before. He can’t say that the price he paid was extraordinarily inflated. What can this teacher do?

I have heard this student, my friend, his teacher, is very proud of him and we both deeply feel the frustration; this young player is at the high point of his learning capacity and we both agree that his progress will be severely retarded because of this purchase. Without a doubt the student will sooner or later come to realize that buying that instrument was a very sad mistake and that he will have to find a way to correct it. Buying any instrument at today’s prices is a very scary thing and saying that we need to be careful is a huge understatement; but how can we protect ourselves and be sure of making a good decision?

Of course, that prevailing question of what type of instrument we need will always be present. However, once those basic decisions are made and we are test-playing an instrument that we may consider buying, how to test-play it is something we need to think about very seriously.

  In the various venues where I have taught, whether permanent or just a master class of a few days, I have always tried to discuss and simulate the process of choosing (test-playing) an instrument. I would like to offer a few suggestions that might be the best and safest way to pick any instrument, woodwind or brass that you will probably be using for a number of years.

1.         Try to define as much as possible what you want the instrument for. Should it be an all-round instrument that would serve you well for symphony, band, small ensembles, solos, jazz etc. or should it be more of a specialty instrument. In any case, try and have a clear idea in your mind of what you want.

2.         Choose a reasonable reed or mouthpiece and use the same one throughout the testing.

3.         Test the instrument with people you trust listening; use their feedback to help you in formulating your own opinions.

4.         Try as many instruments as possible.

5.         Be patient; take your time even if it takes you a few weeks to be sure.

6.         Do not allow yourself to be pressured by the salesman or anyone who might profit from you buying a certain instrument.

7.         Ask if you can take the instrument that interests you most for a few days and try it in your personal musical environment.

8.         It’s very easy to get confused when we try a large number of instruments. Use some kind of organized testing form to help you keep track of all the different instruments you’ve tried; sometimes it is useful to let your listeners fill the form while you are test playing.

9.         Choose specific passages for the various aspects you are testing, middle, low and high registers, loud soft etc. and play the same passages on each instrument.

10.    Finally, play music! See how the instrument responds to your style.


Choosing the instrument you will probably be using for many years is a very important step in your musical life. We are blessed today with a rich market full of wonderful instruments; try as many of them as possible, educate yourself as to what is available, and avoid extremes. Be careful and take your time.

Below is an example of a testing form that I organized for tuba; it would not be difficult adapt this testing sheet for any wind instrument. The important thing is to keep a clear memory of what you’ve tested and your impressions of them.

February 3, 2006, Kyoto, Japan

Revised June 28, 2012, Tokyo