Sometime between eighth grade and high school graduation, every young music student should come into possession of what is called a “step-up” or “performance” level instrument. And that instrument should be new. Here’s why.
You will recall from a previous column (Hannemann’s Music Corner: And Now a Word From Your instrument – July 9, 2013) that there are essentially five levels of instruments: beginning, student, performance (step-up), professional and custom.
Each level is designed and made to correspond to the playing abilities attendant to that level. Consideration is given to four sound qualities: timbre, dynamics, responsiveness and projection. To this we should also add sounding range – the range of notes, low to high, which are accessible (playable) to the instrument and player.
Most instruments have a sounding range of 2.5 to 3 octaves. Some, like the clarinet and French horn, will go 3.5 and darn close to 4 octaves. However, within the complete sounding range of any instrument, there is a practical sounding range which is somewhat smaller.
That practical range is comprised of the notes that are reasonably easy and comfortable to play. For many instruments the really low notes of the total range and the really high notes (“screaming” range because when you hit them, people run screaming from the room) can be fairly difficult for both instrument and player.
Happily, notes which are difficult on one instrument are more readily available on other instruments with a different sounding range. While I can get the notes in the screaming range of my clarinet, I tend to think that range is why God invented flutes.
Instruments are made with all these factors in mind, particularly sounding range.
For a beginning player, the task is all about learning the fundamentals of music and making the instrument play anything at all. Tone control, dynamic control, and responsiveness simply do not signify. Nor is projection an issue. The beginner plays at only one level – loud. Usually the playing range is one octave or less and the music to be played is usually by step (e.g. C – D), occasionally by skip (e.g. C – E) and in whole notes, half notes and quarter notes with occasional eighth notes.
The beginning instrument is designed accordingly. It will generally play well within a limited sounding range, usually the mid-range of the instrument. The tone will be uniformly even in this range without much variability. The fingering will tend to have looser tolerances to be more forgiving of fingers that tend to mash keys and valves while learning a whole set of small motor control skills.
The standard student instrument is designed with the developing player in mind. The developing player is now learning music which requires a larger sounding range; shorter and quicker notes (16ths, 32nds, and some triplets); more intricate playing techniques; and greater variability in timbre and dynamics.
The instrument then, will have tighter tolerances for quicker playing and provide good tone color and dynamic variation across the practical sounding range of the instrument. But they still don’t play the extreme upper and lower ends of the complete sounding range all that well. They will play it, just not all that well.
This brings us to the performance level instrument.
By now, the player has learned all of the basic techniques and is at the stage of refining those abilities and learning some of the more esoteric stuff. The music is about as complex and demanding as it will ever get for most players and all forms of music – classical, jazz, blues, etc. – are equally available. Octave leaps are not uncommon, and the player can now play the full range of the instrument.
The non-professional player at this level will spend a lifetime perfecting their playing while enjoying almost every piece of music ever written. They may even attempt some of the really difficult pieces written for virtuoso players, and, with practice, will be able to play these pieces.
The performance level instrument is designed to meet these demands. The full range of the instrument will play well across the full range of timbre and dynamic variation. The responsiveness will be quick and easy with keys and valves of very tight tolerances. The instrument will be made of excellent materials to accomplish these ends.
For the majority of non-professional players, this is the last instrument they will ever own. This is the instrument that will be their musical companion for the rest of their life. This is the instrument that will be played in college pep bands and marching bands – for which you do not need to be a music major to participate. This is the instrument that will be played in the community orchestras and wind ensembles. This is the instrument that will be played when friends gather to “jam a few tunes.” This is the instrument that will be played in the semi-professional venues. This is the instrument which for some, will be the opening act to a professional career. This is the instrument which the player will go to for comfort at the end of a difficult day, or play with joy in celebration of life’s high moments.
Nor does it matter how often the instrument gets played in the years to come. Instruments are patient. I know of many people who set their instrument aside while they embarked on their career and raised their children and later picked up the instrument. The most recent example was a gentleman I met who, now in his 70s, decided to take out and begin to play again the instrument that when he was in school, his professional musician father bought for him.
It cannot be stressed enough. The performance level instrument is a lifetime instrument for all the music of all your days. That is what it is made for.
Your student will need this instrument a lot sooner than you think – possibly as early as eighth grade (the sooner the better) and certainly before graduating from high school. Your eighth grader is just beginning to finish the developing student stage or may already have done so, depending on how well (not how much) they have practiced and learned. Your high schooler is decidedly beyond the developing stage and is already learning to refine and extend their abilities.
A used instrument is no longer an option. A new instrument employs all the current technologies of instrument making allowing for better design, better materials and greater precisions. An instrument made in 2013 will, in all respects, be a better instrument than its comparable grandfather was when it was new. Used instruments better serve the developing player and do so well and truly. Your high schooler is beyond that.
Buying an instrument should be about the instrument and the player, not about the price-tag, but since so often people will get this backward and look at price first, we should cover this.
A new performance level flute, clarinet, trumpet, or trombone will run between $1,700 and $2,500 depending on make and model. Saxophones, French horns, bass clarinets, baritones and other similar instruments will be more. Violins and violas are about the same, cellos and basses more. By the way, many decent professional instruments don’t run much over $5,000 depending on make and model.
That seems like a lot until you put it in perspective. If you think your young musician will only play until the end of high school and never play again, re-think that. Your teen has had several years of music education. It will not go to waste, nor will it lie dormant forever. By now, your high schooler, your adult-to-be, is on the verge of forming a lasting bond with which ever instrument they are currently playing. This bond will be a lifetime itch that will always want to be scratched.
They will always have a fondness for their student instrument, the one that taught them the basics and really introduced them to the joy and wonder of music. But as a high-schooler, your child is on the edge of adulthood. The instrument they play in these last years of adolescence will be their adult instrument. They should be playing an instrument made for that purpose.
Music is a gift for a lifetime. A performance level instrument is an instrument made for a lifetime. What else can you buy at any price which matches that?