Thinking About Upgrading (your instrument)?

As musicians, we all have a favourite instrument but there comes a time when we realise that beginners clarinet we rented from school just won't cut it anymore. Here are a few tips I discovered about upgrading I'd like to share with you.

STARTING OUT


When we begin learning an instrument, it's not often we have much choice in the quality of said instrument. The tier system is usually - Beginner/Student - Intermediate - Advanced. With each jump, you can expect the expense to jump up. Because of this cost, it's not often your first instrument is more than a beginner's model since we're never sure if this whole learning to play lark will stick, so the idea of putting your eggs in one basket is ill-advised.


For me, as I've mentioned before, like a lot of other children learning to play, my first clarinet was rented from the school. It came with many dents and scratches and didn't actually work to begin with. Get this, the school never paid for repairs and maintenance so it was up to the parents to fork out the money, isn't that nice of the school? The joys of having a lack of funding for the arts. Anyway, before I get sidetracked by politics, let's move on.


My first saxophone was similar, except that Dad bought it third-hand for a very cheap price. Again, he had to pay out a bit more to have it serviced (in fact, I think the repairs ended up being more than the cost of the instrument itself). While Dad was happy to buy an instrument outright, there is now also the option of renting with a set monthly cost. You then have the option of buying off the remaining cost, so it doesn't feel as though you're spending a lot of money at once.


BEGINNER MODELS


The key thing to know about beginner/student models is, they're cheap. The clarinets are made of plastic (wood is too expensive), the keys can either be made of a light alloy with loose screws or quite a cumbersome alloy, adding unnecessary weight to an already heavy saxophone made from a heavy brass (I'm looking at you Armstrong. That first saxophone was ridiculously heavy).


The tuning can be very hit-and-miss, with high notes sounding awful or just not sounding, and in the case of my first saxophone, the low notes practically impossible to reach without playing them ffffff (that's really loud), which is really helpful in a quiet section of an orchestral piece. So yes, it can get to a point where we feel that beginner model instrument is holding us back.


BIG SPEND OR LITTLE SPEND


The great thing about both the clarinet and saxophone is that they come in parts. For both, there are -

1. The reed, which comes in different strengths, different cuts, and even different materials (like plastic). The price is always around the £30 mark for a pack of 10.

2. The mouthpiece, which again can have different tip sizes and be made of different materials (plastic, hard rubber, wood, or metal). Prices can fluctuate from as cheap as £15 to anything around and above £250.

3. The ligature, made from metal or leather, which come in all sorts of different shapes, all designed to give the reed freedom to vibrate. Again, like the mouthpiece, these can jump around in price.


Where the two instruments differ is in the fact that the clarinet can be taken apart (as seen in the above image). A common part to replace in order to affect tuning is the barrel. These all come in different lengths and widths (sometimes subtly different), which can be useful if your clarinet is constantly flat and so you need to shorten the overall length of the instrument. This isn't a cheap fix but is still cheaper than replacing the whole instrument.


Again, you could technically swap out some of the other parts but then you risk buying a part that doesn't fit together with those you already have, which is why you should always try something new in a shop before you buy it. ALWAYS! (if possible).


That leaves the obvious thing to do, buy a completely new instrument. Again, watch out for price, especially if, as I've already said, you've gone in-store to try out new instruments. If you don't set a budget while you're there, you may find yourself falling in love with a saxophone that costs double the amount you had expected to pay.


IS SAVING MONEY A GOOD THING?


A lot of folks out there will say, 'hey, isn't it just easier to get a new instrument?'. The answer is yes and no. If money is no issue for you then go ahead, buy that shiny, £10,000 tenor saxophone. For the rest of us, go with the smaller options.


Those issues mentioned above with the student models, the tuning and difficulty to produce certain notes, can be mitigated by sticking with the top 3 options listed above. Those 3 things are all designed to change the way your instrument sounds and, even if you went for the most expensive ligature and mouthpiece, you'd still only be spending a third of the cost of an advanced model instrument at most and, even then, you don't even have to spend as much as that to hear and feel a difference in your sound.


I myself have had the same student model alto saxophone for 10 years. I did get to a point where I thought the instrument wasn't able to produce the sort of quality tone I needed while playing Phil Woods 'Sonata' or Ronald Binge's 'Concerto'. So I changed my reeds from Vandoren 2's to Alexander Superial 2.5's; my mouthpiece from a Yamaha 4C to a Jody Jazz Jet 7; and my ligature from the standard leather one that came with the Yamaha to a Vandoren Optimum Series. My saxophone sounded like a completely different instrument and it was amazing.


I had spent just under £250 (the price of the instrument itself) to make these changes. That may sound like a lot but in comparison, £3,000 was spent upgrading my tenor saxophone to a Yanagisawa T992 (and that was with a discount) back in 2009, a while before I knew about how much of a difference changing the smaller parts made. I don't regret that cost but if I'd known then what I know now, I wouldn't have been so hasty to make that purchase.


Let me know how you've got on with upgrading the smaller parts of your instrument and whether it meant you managed to hold off buying a whole new instrument. See you next time!


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© 2020 Ed Brown