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Change of attitude to instruments


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#1 Acciaccatura

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Posted 15 July 2017 - 16:49

Here's a thing I've been thinking about for some time. And finally, a trip to an Eastern European music shop to try and get some clarinet reeds prompted this post.

Over the last few decades the attitude towards musical instruments has definitely changed. When my grandfather was a music teacher some forty or fifty years ago, you got any instrument that worked, and that was enough either forever, or until you were good enough to receive a better one from a conservatoire or you might buy it if you earned a living from it. Obviously, there hadn't been much choice, but the same thing still persists in many places. I remember reading about some instruments that are marketed as professional where they are made, but here it's believed they have to be upgraded before grade eight.
Also,I've always believed that if you play piano, you play the one you've already got at home, the one your neighbours want to get rid of, or something like that (obviously, unless it's badly damaged), but have recently found a site that sells 'beginner' pianos in spirit that they should be upgraded after a while.

So the question probably is whether we are all too preoccupied with choosing 'the right one' and not doing most instruments justice, or instruments used to be much better in general, or is it something I'm not seeing?

P.S. During that visit to the shop my expectations had changed from getting a few reeds of a particular make and strength, to getting just the strength right, to getting just something of a middlish strength. And it wasn't a tiny local shop. So not I'm wondering whether all this choice is really unnecessary.
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#2 sbhoa

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Posted 15 July 2017 - 21:06

Perhaps on a time when perhaps more people played an instrument there were more who just got to a level where they could join a band or something and were happy with that. With maybe fewer playing the proportion who are hoping for more improvement has increased.

I could manage to make a decent sound on my student level clarinet but it will never give the depth of sound I'm becoming capable of producing so though it's not essential it does have its limits. It's probably not really necessary to upgrade an instrument before grade 8 and it is often quite possible to get a decent grade 8 pass on what would be considered a starter instrument. There may be comments about depth of sound but that could also be true with a much better instrument and a player who just can't yet produce the sound the instrument is capable of.

The idea of a starter piano is a bit scary as sometimes this means a piano that is sub standard. Unless you do have a bad piano I think that upgrade would be later than with other instruments and in most cases until you either had the desire and money to change or were working at a very high level.


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#3 elemimele

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Posted 15 July 2017 - 21:39

Perhaps there's some upgrading going on that's not strictly necessary, but for many people, music is a hobby. Buying a new instrument is part of the hobby. It mightn't make someone a better musician, but it does add enjoyment. I wouldn't say no to a gorgeous wooden recorder, even though it will be a long, long time before my plastic recorder becomes the limiting factor.

It certainly doesn't do anyone any harm - music shops have a bad enough time of it, without us all deciding to be prudent in our purchases!


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#4 Saxwarbler

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Posted 16 July 2017 - 10:44

My clarinet is a 1970s Corton, probably made for the student market, according to the chap who taught me. It's a wooden one that was bought for me secondhand in 1994 as a birthday present. Whenever I talked about upgrading my teacher advised against it. Although a budget end instrument, he told me, it was of perfectly good quality and I would probably need to spend (then) around £1000 for an instrument that would sound or play noticably better than the one I already have - so why bother? It's what he called a 'Wednesday' clarinet: the people who work in the clarinet factory (as in most factories) don't get fully up to speed until the middle of the week and they're starting to slow down again and become a little slapdash towards the end of the week, thus Wednesday being the best production day.

Some years later I found myself on an OU summer school and a fellow student was the managing director of Rosetti UK, who had been the main importers/distributors of Corton instruments. He generously took a look at the instrument for me, declared it to be as good as the day it left the factory and said that the Corton range had been one the best they'd ever sold. I still have it, it still sounds good and is still in good repair (and requires minimal maintenance).

I'm not sure how many student clarinets these days are still made of wood. I have played plastic ones and I really am not keen on the sound or feel of them. Whether I would have upgraded had my first (and only) clarinet been a plastic one, I don't know. I probably would. For now, however, I'm hanging onto it because even if I had a couple of grand to spend then I doubt it would make me sound any better.


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#5 Saxwarbler

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Posted 16 July 2017 - 10:59

Perhaps there's some upgrading going on that's not strictly necessary, but for many people, music is a hobby. Buying a new instrument is part of the hobby. It mightn't make someone a better musician, but it does add enjoyment. I wouldn't say no to a gorgeous wooden recorder, even though it will be a long, long time before my plastic recorder becomes the limiting factor.

It certainly doesn't do anyone any harm - music shops have a bad enough time of it, without us all deciding to be prudent in our purchases!

Good point. I was lucky (see my last post) but there is certainly some dross around for the unwary. And if you've taken to an instrument and have the money to spend then why shouldn't you treat yourself.

There is an older lady I've played saxophone alongside for ten years, and who started playing a couple of years before that, whose playing hasn't improved very much over that time. She is very wealthy and recently stepped up from her perfectly respectable Yamaha to a high-end Yanigasawa - "because I saw it in the shop, I played it and I liked it so I bought it!" I don't like to think how much it cost - I won't ask and she's not a boaster. She thinks it makes her play better. I don't think it does, but she certainly plays with more confidence and I say good for her.


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#6 sbhoa

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Posted 16 July 2017 - 11:55

 

Perhaps there's some upgrading going on that's not strictly necessary, but for many people, music is a hobby. Buying a new instrument is part of the hobby. It mightn't make someone a better musician, but it does add enjoyment. I wouldn't say no to a gorgeous wooden recorder, even though it will be a long, long time before my plastic recorder becomes the limiting factor.

It certainly doesn't do anyone any harm - music shops have a bad enough time of it, without us all deciding to be prudent in our purchases!

Good point. I was lucky (see my last post) but there is certainly some dross around for the unwary. And if you've taken to an instrument and have the money to spend then why shouldn't you treat yourself.

There is an older lady I've played saxophone alongside for ten years, and who started playing a couple of years before that, whose playing hasn't improved very much over that time. She is very wealthy and recently stepped up from her perfectly respectable Yamaha to a high-end Yanigasawa - "because I saw it in the shop, I played it and I liked it so I bought it!" I don't like to think how much it cost - I won't ask and she's not a boaster. She thinks it makes her play better. I don't think it does, but she certainly plays with more confidence and I say good for her.

 

Yes, I've heard that happen too. Getting an upgrade before your basic technique is good is not likely to improve your sound much. 

A good player(not necessarily professional) with a student level instrument will generally sound better than a less good player with a top level instrument. 

The exception would be where the first instrument is a poor one.


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#7 Banjogirl

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Posted 16 July 2017 - 17:04

This is a whole scam in the States, or at least the part of the States where my relatives live. My little nieces go to a school (they are in a VERY affluent area) where different intstruments are offered at different ages. The school has a deal with a music shop, which reccomends instruments for differnt levels of playing. I couldn't comment on the violin they bought but when the oldest started playing the clarinet it was a standard Yamaha model. The music shop in question sold it to the parents for about double its normal cost, looking at other US online stores. The exact same clarinet. So I imagine the same had happened with the violin. The shop advertised this very nice clarinet as being a beginner's instrument, and claimed that more advanced students would need (not might want to, but need) to spend absurd amounts of money, at their shop, to get a suitable instrument. The parents mostly don't know what they need to buy or how to go about it so they are guided by the school and the shop who will both be raking it in.

 

I have sometimes been amused by the agonised threads that appear on here, often from adult learners, who are wondering how many hundreds of pounds to spend on, say, a violin bow, to go with their collossally expensive violin. It always feels like a bit of a distraction when they might be better spending their time and energies practising more. There's also the modern day thing of having to boast about everything, and thinking that things must be better if they cost more (often as long as everyone else knows what they cost). I was pleased buying my sons' viola and cello that the shops wouldn't tell us the prices until they'd chosen the one they liked the best. Both chose the cheapest, one chose the cheapest bow he was offered and the other the most expensive.


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#8 cestrian

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Posted 16 July 2017 - 17:14

I would imagine that the difference between now and 'former times' is that cheaply manufactured beginner instruments are more available now rather than we have become accustomed to upgrading. I can't imagine piano makers in the late 19th century making student instruments 'for those up to grade 5'. But, on the other hand, if the fact that we do have that now makes music more accessible then quite frankly bring it on. Who would learn bassoon if you had to shell out 10K for one to start with?


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#9 Flutery

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Posted 16 July 2017 - 19:41

I have read this topic with interest, as an adult learner looking to upgrade to a better instrument. Do I think I should stick with my second hand silver plated flute for ever? No, of course not. When i first passed my driving test, and bought a second hand mk 1 ford escort, I didn't expect to still be driving it 40 years later. I have more money now than I did then, I want more reliability than I did then, and comfort too. Same with a better flute really, I want a better mechanism, a solid silver head and maybe solid silver body, open holes, maybe a C# trill key and most of all I want the opportunity to play music with more colours than my present flute can give me. Do I feel guilty that I'm not post grade 8 before looking for all these qualities, heck no! I imagine pianos are a different kettle of fish, but I'm really looking forward to upgrading and will donate my current flute to the local music service so that somebody will benefit from a decent student flute.
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#10 Lemontree

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Posted 18 July 2017 - 17:01

I think there are a lot of things you are not seeing. First of all, I don't think it was so different back then. 

 

 

I think we value things differently today. Including the wrong idea that with a better instrument comes better playing. The thing is, most people rarely get to the point were the instrument is the reason for a lack of progress. We just tend to believe the instrument is the reason for this. And since everyone is today talking about when to upgrade an instrument, the awareness of the instrument being at fault leads to the disbelieve that a lack of progress is an unfit instrument.

 

Standards have changed, which I can best explain on my instrument - flute. The Boehm flute as we know it today, all shiny silver was invented 1847. What most people don't know is that this flute was a long time completely neglected. Especially the Paris conservatory avoided its use. Not because it was not better but because the head of the conservatory had an instrument maker workshop producing wooden flutes of the old make. In addition, the shiny silver flute was much louder than the traditional wooden flute which produced an immense problem in orchestral use because of the risen volume. It was not until the 1950s that the silver flute finally found its way into the orchestras and gained attraction as a solo instrument. And before that the Meyer system flute with much less keys had just become a standard, all the while people still tried to figure out what keys to add and what other functions, and there still is quite some development going on. All my teachers still prefer to play with C foot rather than with B foot. That became only "recently" a flute player standard for the higher levels. Going steady with a flute is not so difficult in the beginning. But I hit my first pass at around Grade 5 with the key resistance of my flute and with the missing B foot since today's repertoire asks for a lot more B° than before. And the resistance of my keys varied a great deal which when I especially worked on equal finger motion got into the way. That was the first time my old flute really held back my progress and I updated. But only, because those instruments are available today. They weren't 60 or 70 years ago. Back than, they all had similar flaws. And not everyone gets rid of unequal finger motion at that grade and thus, runs into this problem.

 

The next problem is the high quality of high level players when you already play above and beyond in a range were competition actually matters. And I think we nowadays have more of these players around. There, the fit of the instrument to the player is really important. With the flute even the exact height of the keys matters and a lot of other very small details only a high-end instrument can provide. However, there is a long way to go to come to this point and a lot can be done with a much more reasonably prized instrument. When I hit that spot with Grade 5 I got the exact model I already had but open holed and with B-foot. The main difference being that my first flute was a Yamaha 511 and the new flute the same YFL 684. Yamaha changed the numbering so that a former 5er model would now be a 6er model. The difference being the age. My first was made in the 1980s, whereas my 2nd was made somewhere in the new millennia. During that time the drilling position of the holes changed slightly, making the new one more receptible to certain notes. So I didn't actually get an upgrade but for EUR 100 I had to pay more, which would probably have been the B-foot anyhow since it is more material. And I have a long way to go before the need arises for a better flute. But just because we dream of being such a player doesn't necessarily mean we are there yet.

 

However, I would love to update. But there is one aspect though people also tend to forget. With flute, upgrades also mean more expensive overhauls. At least where I live. The flute might be much faster worn out because of inadequate use just due to the fact that the material is more bendable and has to be played with greater care. And so on. It might also be contra-productive. No matter, how lovely the instrument sounds when played. So I restrain myself for the time being because I am more of a realist than a dreamer.


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#11 Dharma

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Posted 18 July 2017 - 19:32

There's a couple of things I strongly agree with here. I can't find the quotes now, but basically:

"A better player will sound better on a poor instrument than a poor player on a better instrument".

I absolutely agree with this. When I started (rock) guitar, I bought an instrument that was beyond my means, and was what you might call "mid-range". After playing a few months on this, my cousin visited. He'd been playing guitar for about 10 years, and in his hands, my guitar sounded absolutely amazing. It took me thousands of hours of practice to replicate the kind of tome he had managed to get. Years, and more thousands of hours later, people with "top range" instruments couldn't believe how my tone was so much better than theirs.

Secondly "If you've taken to an instrument and have the money to spend, why not treat yourself?"

Indeed.

I've been playing violin 4 months, having spent around £400 on my starting instrument. I have a job, and I have the funds, nobody is going hungry, and I could see and feel the difference in quality between this and an instrument costing £150.

Because of my experience mentioned above with guitar, and because I've heard my teacher play my instrument and made it sound great, I know it would last me forever, for the standard I'm likely to achieve. However, I'm already planning, and secretly browsing, to buy another instrument next year, with a budget of something like £2000 - £3000. Not because I think it will make, or even allow, me to play better. It won't. Not because it will make me sound better. I doubt it will make any significant difference. But, simply because I like nice things. I want to look at a nice flame, and nice varnish, and I have the funds to spare without anyone going hungry. So why not?
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#12 Acciaccatura

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Posted 18 July 2017 - 19:50

Thanks for a lot of interesting thoughts, here are some of mine to add.

 

First, the price of instruments must have dropped when it became possible to mass-produce them. I doubt anyone would like the idea of upgrading a child's instrument, if you spent a few months saving for the first one just a couple of years ago. Also, if something is not cheap to make or buy in the first place, nobody would make a slightly worse and cheaper one just to make (or buy) another in the foreseeable future. As a result, if really good instruments are out of reach of good players financially, there have to be some mechanisms to access them if you are really good and need it, which would create an idea that an instrument is something to earn rather than buy.

 

Another question is whether someone who only had one instrument and maybe could try other people's ones would turn out to be a worse player, as he didn't have the instrument that suits him (or her) in particular, better as he is used to trying to get the best sound possible, or just the same? This kind of use is similar to someone who has a working but slightly battered piano at home and can use a better one at school, the teacher's and piano players turn out just fine=).

 

And yes, I agree that if no one is starving and it makes you happy it's fine to buy a better one just for fun. It's not that I never think of it, I just don't have the money now :)


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#13 Saxwarbler

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Posted Yesterday, 10:55

One of the economic mantras passed down to me by my very thrifty father was, "Do you need it or do you want it?" Further to that, I was also made to ask myself, "Does the one you have do the job you want it to do?" When I bought my first saxophone, yes, I wanted it. Yes, I could probably justify a need for reasons of musical development, but I had a clarinet that I was getting on well with and I wanted to expand. It came to me third-hand from a friend and I kept it for nearly ten years. For all that time I promised myself that I would only upgrade when I could not answer 'yes' to that second question. Eventually, as I improved, I began to feel the instrument letting me down at the extreme edges of my ability. It wouldn't speak quite so readily in certain situations and often didn't sound bright enough for me. I new mouthpiece helped but only for a short time. In the end I replaced it with the instrument I now - an 'advanced student' level instrument that is now twelve years old and still has much to give. I'll probably never get to the point where it can't do what I want it to because I know I'll never be that good.

On the other hand, my perfectly good budget level digital piano will almost certainly be replaced in a few years by something that better simulates a 'real' piano in both feel and appearance. Hopefully I'll reach grade 5 about the same time as I take retirement, so guess where part of my lump sum will be going? For the moment it's enabling and teaching me to play so yes, it's doing the job it's supposed to do.


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#14 Tenor Viol

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Posted Yesterday, 20:41

This is a complex subject and there are many aspects to it, many of which have been discussed above.

To some extent the nature of available instruments has changed. We might decry it to some extent, but mass production of entry level instruments has significantly moved things forwards. Obviously there is dross to be avoided, but you can get a perfectly decent entry-level violin or saxophone etc for what in modern terms is a very modest cost. 

Those instruments have design constraints, mostly to do with cost, so cheaper materials, little or no hand-finishing or adjustment, less sophisticated build.

I suspect that entry level instruments in the past were in relative terms much more expensive than today. In real terms, we are wealthier than people of 50 or 100 years ago and we can afford to buy a beter/more expensive instrument if we wish whereas in the past people would probably not have bothered, or could not have affordeed to change.

I bought a new tenor sax last year. Why? One was my new instrument is easier to play, it has better ergonomics. The other is weight - it is half the weight due to better design, better materials, better engineering. It is much easier with woodwind and brass instruments to see where the money goes. If you spend more you get better materials, better engineering, better ergonomics. The design of woodwind and brass instruments makes it much easier to control the variables that impact performance.

This is a much harder game to play with string instruments as there is significantly more variability and that is due to there being a lot more direct human intervention in all stages of production. You can stamp or cut-out the mechanical parts for a clarinet or a saxophone and have complete repeatability. You can't do that for a violin or a cello.    


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#15 elemimele

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Posted Today, 16:17

Does anyone actually know how much, in comparable terms, musical instruments cost in the past? For example, when Pepys bought his famous flageolet, what would he have paid for it? We should be able to find figures and look at them relative to, for example, typical clothing. A quick google-search doesn't give Pepys' payment, but accounts from large households ought to have genuine numbers.

 

Of course this is still all dubious for comparison. Pepys wasn't the average man in the street (who, nowadays, should we compare with whom, back then, anyway?).

 

It might be interesting, though, to see how accessible a musical instrument was, compared to a set of clothing. Again, things have changed: a normal Renaissance man in the street wouldn't have had the quantity of clothing we expect to own today, and buying clothing would have been a bigger issue than it is now.

 

I'm not even sure how much things have changed since, say, my grandparents' youth. Again, back then, they also weren't paying for upmarket mobile phones, and their housing costs were much smaller relative to food-costs than is the case today.

 

Mass production is a double-edged sword. It has brought large numbers of cheap and accessible instruments (good) but anything involving a Real Person carrying out individual handwork is now outrageously expensive. This distinction between very expensive hand-crafted items and cheap mass-produced things clearly didn't exist when everything had to be hand-crafted. I suspect that hand-crafted is, relatively, more expensive, because less people are doing it, because the market is now smaller (and undermined by mass-production) and the entire workforce is sitting behind a desk moving complicated electronic paperwork about, instead of carving lumps of wood.


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