Hello everyone. I’m sorry it’s been so long since I posted. I’ve recently moved, and I also took a (much needed) vacation. I’ve decided to let the Fear Series rest for a little while longer, because those posts are complicated and really require a lot of editing and revision on my part. I will definitely finish that series, but in the interest of keeping the blog going in the short term, I’ve decided to start a second series called the “Equipment Choices” series. I’ve been inspired by Bret Pimentel’s admonition  that equipment lists don’t really do much good if they don’t come with an explanation of why those particular horns have been chosen.  So in that spirit, this new series will be about my horns and why I’ve chosen them. But before I start talking about my particular instruments, today’s post will just be about my general philosophy for choosing woodwind instruments. 

First, if you’ve looked over my gear list, you’ll notice that a significant portion of my stable is old, so I need to be clear about this – I never choose an instrument just because it’s old! Yes, I kinda think it’s neat that some of these horns are much older than me, and to think that some real craftsmen from the 20’s are looking down on me now, smiling, that their creation is still making music. But I have only two criteria for choosing instruments – do they fit my needs, and do they fit within my budget. Yes folks, it’s really that simple.

Every instrument is a compromise, right? No single instrument does everything perfectly. (If you invent such an instrument, please let me know ASAP!) Some instruments are more out-of-tune than others. There are differences in tone colors, consistency, blowing resistance, response, dynamic range, weight, ergonomics – and that’s just scratching the surface. When you’re evaluating an instrument for your own collection, lots of instruments will clearly disagree with you because one or more of these things is simply unacceptable to you. But then a lot of times the choice becomes really difficult because you’re working with several fine instruments and none of them have those things that immediately disqualify them. These are the times when the choice is toughest. 

Yes, these are the times when you really must understand your own playing – what your strengths are, what your weaknesses are, what styles you prefer to play, etc. Somehow you have to have (at the very least) a vague rank ordering of these things in your mind, so that, as you expose the strengths and weaknesses of any given horn, you can compare them to your own strengths and weaknesses. If you don’t already have this information in your own mind, you’ll be choosing instruments based on a few obvious things that appeal to you immediately, but ignoring the things that will, in the long run, cause you to want to get rid of the horn. So the first rule of choosing a horn is similar to the old adage “physician, know thyself” and basically says … the more you know about your own playing and proclivities, the better you’ll be at finding horns that emphasize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.

Okay, great. So now you know everything about your own playing and what you need (and don’t need) from a horn … (rrrriiiiigggghhhhhttttt ;). But how about that budget issue? Yes, you have to be able to afford it, plain and simple. For me, this is where older horns come in. They’ve allowed me to populate my stable of horns on a relative shoestring budget. There’s absolutely no way I could own 15 woodwinds if I hadn’t gone this route many times. I’ve found that older horns can often (but not always) be had for great prices, and (having been lucky enough to strike up relationships with some fantastic repair people over the years) I’m comfortable that most anything I find in “distressed” condition can be “rehabilitated” into great playing condition. 

If you’re thinking about going this route, let me give you a little advice. You can easily lose your shirt buying old horns that have major problems. Just be careful about it and you’ll be fine. You can minimize the risks by learning what kinds of problems are expensive fixes, and what kinds of problems are cheap repairs. Get to know some techs, preferably ones who understand vintage gear. When you find people like this, they usually love to discuss it. So when you see a distressed horn you’re thinking about purchasing, call him/her up and tell them what you’re seeing. They will be reluctant to provide an estimate, but give your best guess on the work needed and they should be happy to provide it. Do this enough times and you’ll eventually find yourself doing the estimates yourself. 

Another downside to the vintage stuff is that you may not be able to get a trial of the horn. Now that is a significant problem – and I don’t recommend inexperienced people buy horns sight unseen – but you can greatly minimize the risks by getting to know the different makes and models. You should also have a handle on serial numbers so you can estimate manufacturing dates. You don’t have to memorize all this because these resources are out there on the web, but get familiar with them and save the links for future reference. There are plenty of places on the web that talk about how a Conn New Wonder plays differently from its successor (the 6M), or why you should care if that Centered Tone clarinet serial number starts with an “N” or a “P”. As much as possible, you should play good working examples of these kinds of instruments and get familiar with their characteristics. When you go to trade shows, seek out the guys with the vintage stuff. Or if you find yourself in a big city, seek out a dealer that specializes in vintage. I can assure you, they’d all love for you to play their horns, and in doing so, you never know when you’ll find something that knocks your socks off! 

If those kinds of risks are unacceptable to you, or you simply don’t feel like doing all the work necessary to protect yourself in the market for vintage gear, that’s fine, but you should probably stick to the “modern” stuff. And hey, that’s fine with me, because that means one less person I have to bid against! 😉

To wrap this up, let me say a few words about things that are NOT in my list of criteria when searching for a new-to-me woodwind instrument:

  • It’s stamped with the name of or endorsed by (insert name of amazing player here). 
  • It’s made by (insert name of famous company here).
  • It’s made in (name of country here).
  • It looks really cool. 
  • It’s made from (insert name of special alloy or wood here).
  • It has keywork that goes up to Q#.
  • It plays perfectly in tune.

Get the picture? Rule number 1 trumps all the above. Find horns that work for you, and don’t worry about all that other stuff! 

Okay, that’s enough for today. In the next installment of this series, I’ll pick one of the five categories of woodwinds that I play, and we’ll get down to specifics. As always, your questions and comments are appreciated. Happy doubling!