Buying an instrument

Anyone who teaches private woodwind lessons has some horror stories of students arriving at their lessons with new, or new to them, instruments. From the old and decrepit, to the shiny yet cheap imports that disintegrate within weeks, to the well known brands and models that we generally steer people away from for various reasons, we all wish that parents and students would enlist our help in selecting an appropriate instrument.

I've arranged the following points as a guide for beginning students.

1. When first starting out, do not buy an instrument right away. Call the private teacher you plan to use and get their recommendations.

2. Ideally, I would like my own students to borrow or rent before they buy, especially if they are working within a budget. This gives time to decide if the student likes the instrument enough to invest in one, as well as time to find a good deal on a good instrument and save up some money.

3. Whether buying, borrowing, or renting, have your private teacher test the instrument to make sure that it is working. Teachers are happy to meet you at a music store to test instruments and help you choose one. That way you don't get stuck in a rental or purchase contract with an instrument that isn't right for the student.

4. Avoid renting double reed instruments, except from double reed specialty shops, or in cases where your teacher approves the instrument to be rented. The problem is that oboe and bassoon rentals generally cost more than flutes and clarinets, and the rental instruments can be of poor quality or poorly maintained and difficult to play, only because relatively few people have any idea what a good double reed instrument is or how it's supposed to work.

4a. Explore borrowing options thoroughly with double reeds or in cases of budget restrictions and save up for an instrument. If the student goes to a school with a music program, find out if a school-owned instrument is available. A private teacher may even have a used instrument lying around that they are willing to lend or rent to their own students.

5. Avoid buying from Internet warehouse music stores, online auctions, or classified ads, except under the advice of your teacher. Always try before you buy, or even better, have your teacher test any potential instrument.

6. When researching brands, take Internet advice with a grain of salt. The best advice will come from your live-action private teacher.

7. Don't be shy about discussing any concerns or questions that you have. Think of a private teacher like a doctor or other specialist. There's nothing that they haven't seen or heard before.

Comments are open for other tips, questions, horror stories, and discussion!

Unusually Gross Flute Pads

I think these pictures deserve to be posted for a few reasons.

1. When buying an instrument from someone who is not an expert, such as from a classified ad or Internet auction site, you never know what you are going to get.

2. No matter how broken or dirty your instrument is, your repair technician has seen worse.

3. Swab your instrument after you play. If your instrument gets wet (from marching band, etc.), allow it to air dry in a safe place and call your technician. Do not seal it up in the case while it's damp.

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How to clean your staples and bocals

This cleaning solution is fast, effective, safe, and leaves brass bright and shiny.

You will need:

  • White distilled vinegar
  • Dawn or other dishwashing liquid
  • A bowl or glass that will hold the items to be cleaned
  • Water
  • A staple brush (Forrests) or bocal brush (RDG)

Mix one part water to one part vinegar. For extra effectiveness, use warm water, or heat the mixture before using.

Add a squirt of Dawn and stir the mixture.

Toss in your staples or bocals and let them soak for five minutes. Scrub them with a brush to get the gunk out. Rinse well and air dry.

June has been an odd month.

I have TWO alto clarinet overhauls in the shop right now. One is finished and one is in progress. Alto clarinets are oddball instruments, and having just one is a novelty, but two! What luck. I'm using Roo pads from Music Medic and am very pleased with the results.

Then, today, I repaired a very unusually broken key. It was the side octave key on a Loree English horn.

When a key breaks, the break typically happens at a brazed joint (where the different parts of the key were soldered together at the factory), or at some thin or weak part of the key. This particular break happened at the hinge tube. I had never before seen such a break. I'm not even sure how it could have happened. The hinge screw was perfectly intact, with the two broken (and bent!) pieces of outer hinge swinging uselessly from it.

I had to carefully line up the two pieces of the outer hinge, braze them together, and then straighten and ream until the hinge worked again. It was one of those repairs that I had to do a little bit of improvising, but it somehow worked out, and I'm very happy about it.

Other than that, I've been up to the usual sorts of things in the shop. Flute overhauls, lots of oboe work, a bassoon overhaul, and of course some clarinet work. Wow.

This week in the shop...

Early in the week I adjusted a Selmer bass clarinet (low C). This bass clarinet had a wonderful overhaul done by the fine people at RDG a few years ago and has been holding up very well. I like to see instruments that have had such quality work done because they're easy to put back into adjustment from normal wear and tear. The adjustments needed were minor, especially compared to most other bass clarinets that I see in the shop. It was especially surprising because the instrument had even been checked as luggage on a few flights, which is usually a nightmare for large clarinets.

I'm finishing up the Straubinger conversion on the Powell. All I have left to do is finish installing the pads on the left hand keys and then do the final adjustments once everything is assembled.

I also have an old Haynes flute in that has severe leaking problems. I had to do a bit of surgery on the F# key because it was wiggling around on the hinge, and the low C# key had a similar problem. It has Straubinger pads, but today I discovered that none of the stabilizers were glued in, so that is now on my list of tasks for this project.


I am now Straubinger certified! The workshop went well and I learned a lot from it. Everyone at Straubinger Flutes are really outstanding people, and David and Joel are a fountain of flute knowledge. Even the other workshop attendees were great and we had good conversations over meals.

The process was difficult and tiring but well worth it. With David's guidance I now look at flute padding in a very different light. I've already put my new skills to use in the shop and am seeing fantastic results. I'm looking forward to installing Straubinger pads in many fine flutes!

This Week

Tuesday: I got to meet a long time reed customer, which was very nice, and adjust his oboe. Then I finished the key work on the body section of the Powell and secured everything with torn up paper towels, since there are no pads in it to cushion the keys against the flute.

Today: I am nearly finished with Loree oboe MN67 because the bottom joint went together very easily. There are still two problems left for me to solve, one with the G#-F# adjustment, and one with the low B key.

Also today: Oboe sectional for the OCWS, which was very fun and oboey.

Tomorrow: I need to get the footjoint of the Powell ready. Hopefully this will include cleaning and key fitting and not soldering. The tone holes, ribs, and rings all looked good, and it's straight, and it holds air, so nothing *should* be wrong with it. But, just in case, I can take the whole day on just the footjoint without my schedule becoming a disaster. Ideally the whole flute will be done tomorrow though.

Also tomorrow: teach an oboe lesson and go to rehearsal at Saddleback. And, if there's time, pick up dry cleaning and get information from the city's recreation department on setting up the reedmaking class this summer.

Friday: Finish everything: the Powell, and Loree oboe MN67, and a quick examination of an Artley clarinet that may have found a home. Oh, and hopefully do a couple of minor things on my own oboe too. The shoemaker's children go barefoot, etc.

Also Friday: rehearsal at Saddleback.

Saturday: teach oboe, sell some reeds, go to a birthday barbecue, and play a concert at Saddleback.

Sunday: teach oboe (2 hours), go to Torrance and play a show (three hours), and then go as quickly as possible to OCWS rehearsal (three hours).

Monday: collapse into a heap of tiredness. Hopefully have the day off.

March Madness

March is going to be extremely busy for me. Enjoy the list:

  1. Orchestra gig at Saddleback
  2. Sweeney Todd (the musical) in Torrance
  3. Straubinger flute pad workshop in Indianapolis
  4. Orange County Wind Symphony concert
  5. Instruments to repair
  6. Appointments: dentist, reedmaking with Jonathan Marzluf, repair customers, and much more
  7. Regular stuff like oboe students and trying to have friends and going to concerts

I am going to need a day off in April. Maybe a couple of days, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Loree oboe repair, part IV

Early last week, I completed the partial overhaul on the Loree oboe. After finishing an instrument that needed a lot of work I like to let it sit for a few days and then reexamine it with a fresh perspective. So, yesterday I took that oboe back out and found two more little things to fix. The trill key pads had a small problem, and the low B spring was contacting something that it wasn't supposed to contact.

Now I can really be confident that nothing has slipped by me with this instrument!