While there is a slew of local issues present in all school music programs without a doubt every band program in America shares in facing one BIG problem – poor-quality instruments being purchased by students (or more likely, their parents!). There is no “silver bullet” solution to keeping the $99 clarinet, flute or trumpet out of the student’s hands. Some band programs are in the enviable position – either through local / district policy or by virtue of sheer program depth – of being able to disallow a student’s access to the band program unless they own a certain “recommended” instrument. Unfortunately the vast majority of school bands are far from this position and simply must make do with these extremely cheap and low-quality instruments. The key here is educating both the students and their parents on what makes an instrument a quality piece of equipment.
The more alarming trend we see is school systems themselves starting to purchase these low-quality, low-cost instruments for their band programs. In the metro Atlanta area we have started to see more and more marginal or flat-out very poor-quality instruments being purchased by the music departments themselves. There is one school that we frequently visit that was sent 10 new flutes by the district. These flutes cost the district approximately $100 each and are some of the very worst-built woodwinds we have ever seen. From the shoddy craftsmanship, poor intonation, and (at best) flaky key mechanisms to the terrible case they come in these instruments were a complete waste of money for the school district (and ultimately the taxpayers).
As a sidenote here I should mention that most of these poor-quality instruments come from factories in China. The fact that they are made in China does not make them terrible – there are a number of very high-quality instruments that come from Chinese and other Asian factories. Virtually all of the world’s top-quality consumer electronics are built in Chinese factories (think iPhones and flat-screen TV’s!) – these factories can build anything you tell them to build to a very high degree of quality! What makes these instruments poor-quality is the corners that are cut by the (often U.S.-based) designer – the factories simply take the plans from the engineers and make the products.
Quality instruments have NEVER been inexpensive! It is simply impossible to create a flute that plays properly for less than a $500 price tag. Anything less than that indicates that the price point was met by using lower-grade materials, poorly trained labor, improper packaging or an overall bad design. Even the old, venerable (and usually maligned) Bundy instruments that were very popular in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s were not “cheap”. By today’s standards these were high-quality U.S.-made excellent beginner instruments. It’s not a stretch to think that an American-made trumpet built to the old Bundy quality standard would cost upwards of $1,000 today! Compare that to the $99 clarinets so prevalent from Ebay and Amazon.
While these kinds of purchasing decisions obviously have a profound effect on the band programs within the district they are having an even more serious effect on the industry as a whole. As more and more school districts look simply at the bottom line and make decisions to purchase these cheap instruments the industry continues to decrease the quality of their student lines by cutting corners, using cheaper materials and lower-cost labor in order to meet a price point. If you take the time at the next instrument fair or music educators conference to really examine the student-line instruments on display by the mainstream manufacturers you will find instruments that exhibit a sharp decrease in general quality versus what was available even 5-10 years ago.
As this trend continues we will see a steady decline in the availability of quality student instruments. We are already at the point that there are very, very few U.S.-made student instruments available (there hasn’t been a student saxophone built in the U.S. in several years). If the trend of school systems supporting the manufacturers of these poorly-made instruments by buying them in bulk we will simply see this part of the market dissolve in to another “disposable” item. If the band programs continue to support these shoddy manufacturers (either by purchasing these poor-quality instruments or by failing to educate the students and parents on what not to purchase) we will soon face the reality of quality student instruments no longer being manufactured.