Finding an affordable musical instrument for your child

Making Beautiful Music

by Jacqueline Harris-Stone

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Some feel that the chance to play a musical instrument should be part of every education. And it's never too late to start! If you want to give that gift to your child, or to yourself, here are some ideas on how to frugally find an instrument:

Check Where Old Instruments Go to Die

Some of the best instrument deals on the planet can be had in pawn shops, flea markets, and even ebay. Instruments are oftentimes sold for a fraction of their worth. Don't discount those with cosmetic damage. A friend of mine once walked into a pawnshop, having seen his dream piccolo trumpet in the window that was worth $1200 new. The proprietor fetched it from the window and dropped it. My friend started to walk out of the shop, and was offered the trumpet for $200. A repair shop fixed the dent for $100, and he has enjoyed playing on it since.

The key to my friend's good luck was preparation. He knew his costs. If you're not as knowledgeable, write down the brand, model and serial numbers, and obvious flaws to let you do your research before returning to buy. If you can't do that, use this rule: if the instrument has no detectable problems besides a few dents, and is priced at half the price of the lowest new instrument advertised on the web, you are most likely getting a good deal.

Search Repair Shops

The first place I always suggest that my students try when they are looking for an instrument is at top-notch repair shops. Not only do these stores tend to buy and sell instruments for low prices in order to create fast turnover, but also they have their finger on the musical pulse of the city. If someone has an instrument for sale, they are likely to know about it and maybe even have it in the store for you to try.

Mine Your Contacts

Let every musician you are acquainted with know you are looking for an instrument. Ask your child's music teacher, the organist at church, or your neighbor that moonlights in a jazz band. They may have a friend or student looking to sell who would be delighted to hear of a buyer. You're likely to get a fair price and a great instrument this way.

Join an Internet Group

Every instrument has at least one Internet list and several forums. These are gold mines for information! Let the group know what you are looking for, and watch the suggestions and offers roll in. Or, alternatively, if you have a possible instrument to buy, solicit their opinions on whether the price is a good deal, and what any repair costs might be.

Borrow an Instrument

If you want your student to participate in a music program, but cannot afford to get him his own instrument, talk to the music director. Many schools have a few of each instrument, just not enough to offer one to every student that wants to play it. Even if they don't, it's likely that the school owns several of the more expensive, less popular instruments, such as tuba, euphonium, or bassoon. They are also almost certain to have their own percussion instruments, which only require the beginner to purchase a pair of sticks and a drum pad.


Many music stores offer a rent-to-own option. This is a great option when you don't know whether your child will continue. Since approximately 50% of all new music students do not continue past the first year, I would strongly recommend this option for young beginners.

Buy for the Right Level

Fitting a musician to an instrument is more of an art than a science, so know what you're looking for. Young beginners want a shiny, newer instrument. Brands are less important than cosmetics. But for the third year student, sound becomes important, and you should look for a second-hand high quality intermediate level instrument, which can be used non-professionally for life or will keep its value when it's time to trade up.

If it looks like the student is serious enough to play past high school, then it's time to purchase a professional instrument. One caveat: the really serious player will eventually want to custom build an instrument to themselves, with their teacher's input. So while a new professional level horn may be the perfect high school graduation gift for the player majoring in something other than music, a music major would be better off with a used horn and an instrument savings account to be used in a few years.

Go ahead and give that gift of music to yourself or your child. It need not cost much at all.

Jacqueline Harris-Stone plays bass trombone professionally and teaches. She holds a master's degree from Juilliard.

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