Increasing Upper-line Instruments in Your Music Program

Mike Lawson • Commentary • October 1, 2018

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Growing up (yes, I am old), I remember my dad stopping at the gas station by the soft serve ice cream shop.

As I was begging for a cone of ice cream, a service station attendant rushed to the car to ask how much gas we wanted to purchase, as one attendant filled the car another checked the oil, air filter, and air in the tires. When we paid for the gas we received green stamps! My sister and I thought we were rich when we traded books for a toaster. These days I wash the windshield, check everything, and hope there is no 3 percent up charge when paying with a credit card. Incidentally, the windshield washing materials are usually empty!

The first self-serve pumps were near to the full-serve area but eventually, because of lower prices, full-serve gas stations had to go self-serve to keep the business. Many times, I would gladly pay the extra money to have the vehicle checked while not getting out of the car, especially if in bad weather or if I needed to make a call.

Retail businesses went through a similar evolution. Eventually, fair trade acts allowed discount mail-order houses! These days with a mouse click we can find things online near wholesale cost and never get out of the recliner. Great for commodities but not great for items that need service.

The band business is that limited business. Few towns have an in-house, full-serve repair shop, a counter employee that knows what a thumb rest is, and a representative to pick up, deliver, and repair instruments while giving music programs free folders! Additionally, most support our professional organizations by providing workshops, buying ads in clinic programs, and other regional events!

Today I see fewer upper-line instruments and brand matching, and unfortunately, more poor-quality instruments in band programs. Some of this dilemma is driven by cost and internet/ discount shopping. A larger reason for a lack of quality is band directors not understanding where their parents’ money goes and being able to communicate information to families confidently. When the director closes the communication gap with parents of all income levels, the chances for better equipment increases. Explaining all options to parents requires the director to be highly informed by the retail dealer. Comfortably transferring this information to the parents to decide on an appropriate yet, affordable instrument is extremely important.

My first year out of college I was hired by a school that wanted to start a band. Area music stores heard the news and started contacting me about doing business with them. Being a discount shopper, I wanted them to explain where the money went when I asked a parent to purchase a cornet. One particular merchant said he would be glad to show me. He took a legal pad and wrote the cornet retail price and told me his cost on it, which was about half of retail. I reacted quickly that the amount of profit made was ridiculous!

The store owner broke down step-by-step by percentage what the salesman earned, shipping cost, taxes, repair shop supplement, store overhead, employee benefits, advertising, educational support, and a host of other expenses I hadn’t considered.

At the end he said the average company profit was 3-4 percent. This amount could be up or down by one or two percent – even negative! Without a profit the store couldn’t provide the services I desperately needed, invest in infrastructure, pay the rent, and give needed cost of living raises to his employees. This was a great education for me as I assumed all business owners were automatically rich without much effort.

On a trip to state concert festival (relabeled evaluations), my band booster president who owned a TV/computer business was sitting across the bus from me. As the last student boarded, I made a jab statement, “this is a crazy way to make a living, but we all can’t be wealthy business owners.” As the bus took off, he never moved his head and in most dead-pan statement he said, “I spend day and night keeping the store up. I have to hire repair people, treat them like royalty, and pay the dickens out of them. I just pray I can stay one payment ahead of the bank.” These comments were very educational to me.

Most of us never had to gamble with starting a business and think a company just runs automatically, profits are guaranteed, and the owners are rich. This is not the case for most, especially the early years in the development of the company. We educators may not make a lot of money, but we have a guaranteed income and great benefits.

To survive, all companies have to make a profit. Even the most philanthropic companies have to make a profit. Without a modest 3-4 percent net income a company cannot pay cost-of-living raises, keep the lights on, and pay rent. When the consumer buys only for the lowest price businesses have to make cuts to meet the competition, and often the full-service companies change to meet consumer demands or close shop.

For example, look what the internet and big box stores have done to small town businesses. To keep prices low usually the labor force in this “low-cost only” business is untrained and not as helpful as the full-service store with slightly higher costs. I know in my hometown hardware store; helpful employees are waiting to serve and usually know exactly what I need and where it is or know the person that does.

When I try the big box approach, I usually have to go to desk to ask for help, have a long wait, and usually have to go back and ask again. Often times the employees knew less than me about the product.

The musical instrument business is very small compared to hardware, home goods, and automotive, industries. Therefore, finding musical instrument parts, supplies and service is hard in most rural towns. When a person finds a deal on an internet car and has it shipped to a small town, usually there are several mechanics that can service it.

When I was in a town of about 50,000 the closest music dealers with a comprehensive repair shop were 1.5 – 3 hours away. Inconvenience aside, it may be tolerable to be without a car a few days, but when a band student is without an instrument and unable to practice daily, this is a disastrous scenario! A beginning clarinet player waiting for their horn to get new pads for three weeks quickly falls behind and the odds increase of them losing interest and dropping out.

My first-year teaching was in rural Independence, Mississippi with the band hall an old double-wide trailer. The cafeteria manager had a grandson in the band and wanted to buy her “grandbaby” an expensive trumpet like mine. I told her absolutely not, he isn’t ready!

She stated, “I don’t care what you tell me, I am going to buy it.” After the holiday Ronald was in the band hall flashing his new trumpet as the other students grew envious. Before the year was complete, over 30 percent of the band had purchased an upper line instrument WITHOUT me saying a word! Another parent, Mrs. Grantham soon called and said that wanted to get Melva a new clarinet. Again, I stated her daughter did not have enough experience for an upper-level horn, but she insisted.

The music store representative brought 4 upper-line horns to my office. As I was looking outside my window an old green Plymouth Satellite with a thick layer of red clay drove up. A lady dressed in a potato sack dress and a man with overalls slowly made their way to the trailer. The entire time I was thinking these people cannot afford a new clarinet! Mrs. Grantham asked, “What kind of clarinet do you think I should buy Melva?” I said, “Mrs. G I don’t think she needs one, she’s only been playing a short time and she’s not ready for an upper-line clarinet.” “What are these?” she asked, and the salesman described the entry to the artist-level clarinets. Mrs. G asked, “What kind of student is Melva?”

I responded “She is one of the best I have, but she is in the 7th grade. In three months, she could be flippant and quit band, but you know her better than I do. Get the one you are most comfortable with.” She pointed to the most expensive one and said, “I’ll take that one.” I nearly had a heart attack!

As they walked out the door the salesman, who was a fantastic mentor to me said, “Willson, you just learned a valuable lesson. You just laid out all the facts and options, then got out of the way to let her make the decision. That works most of the time, especially if the child is excited about being in the band.” I learned a valuable lesson that day!

The aforementioned band booster called one day to ask me to stop by his shop. When I arrived, he threw a discount catalogue at me and asked why he shouldn’t buy an upper-line trumpet from them instead of the company I recommended.

I said, “George, you can, just like I can go to the discount store to buy a TV. They don’t have people that understand the product, service people that can repair, or provide service we need here.” I went on to say that most parents would rather rent, and many do not have so much cash up front, nor the time or knowledge to shop for a band instrument.

Going on, I explained that when a beginner horn was used for the rental period the payments could be transferred to an upper-line horn. The music store price was close to the mail order price despite the mail-orders lack of amenities included, like valve oil, swabs and service. I said if you want to buy it there go ahead. He understood the facts and knew I was totally honest, knew my stuff, and as a result, he became an even more involved and loyal band parent.

In my talk to parents about acquiring an instrument from my recommended source, I remind them of four differences in band compared to other subjects: the size and scope of the band; all students must produce; the commitment of students for several years; and that band requires a sizeable investment. When explaining the reasons, I recommended specific brands and a store, I explain this very carefully.

“You’re concerned because you are torn between managing your family budget while wanting to give your child a musical experience, and hoping it’s not another toy played with for a day. I am going to do all I can to motivate and keep them in band, but there will be natural hurdles. When we work together, your child will be successful. Buying a good quality instrument is a crucial step. I will do all I can if you will also make a commitment to encourage (make) your child to stay in band.”

“My concern about instruments is strictly how they affect us in the band room. Our program needs quality, unity, and a source that offers full service to the customer and band program. We need a name-brand, quality instrument known to last, play in tune, and one we can find parts. A poorly made trumpet ordered online will rarely hold up. Most repair shops cannot work on these instruments as they cannot find parts and do not want to be blamed for the poor quality.”

“We also need unity in the band to help us at the teaching post. We need a similar line of clarinets, etc. so they match pitches and tone quality. When we have a matching brand within the band it helps everyone – especially the child.”

“Used instruments are available and some can be an excellent buy. If you find one, please make sure your child will not be affected by any peer pressure if the cosmetics are not similar to other students. Usually it’s best for a repair shop to check these horns – especially the woodwinds – be sanitized and put in good playing condition. The internet and eBay are options but please be aware of the many pitfalls when buying online. I simply don’t recommend it!”

“Our preferred store will have an affordable rental plan, all accessories needed, a full-service repair shop, and support staff that visits regularly to pick up and deliver repairs. These people run an ethical business, offer financing, and support our local community. They supply us with folders, offer full-service support, sponsor our convention and local district clinics, and support education development by funding workshops. Again, my only concern with the equipment you secure is how it affects us here. Most parents don’t have the expertise in choosing instruments and I am just trying to help the process along.”

“There is no financial gain for the band staff when you purchase a product here. You are welcome to shop where you are comfortable.”

Without exception 60-70 percent get horns that night – a huge help to starting band the next day! A few students acquire instruments elsewhere while some play school instruments. When the director has the knowledge to explain the instrument acquisition process in detail, everyone wins! My ratio of upper-line quality in my band was 100 percent and, best of all, my integrity intact.

Our music merchants need to educate the educators. When educators have the knowledge, getting started is much easier! This is a great way to get quality and unity in your band room. Acquiring quality instruments is a win for the students, director, manufacturer, music store, and the band program!

David Willson is in his twenty-second year as director of bands at The University of Mississippi where he was named Teacher of the Year in 2007 and awarded the Frist Award for his service to students in 2005. Under his direction the University Wind Ensemble has performed live for Mississippi Public Radio, been featured on National Public Radio, and toured throughout the south. The Pride of South Marching Band, also under his direction, has flourished and is considered one of the nation’s finest. Prior to coming to Ole Miss, Willson served sixteen years as a public-school band director in Mississippi. Willson is past-president of Phi Beta Mu International where he is strongly promoting mentoring for band directors and serving the band profession. Publications by Willson include Starting Beginner Band Students, Band Calisthenics, and Mr. Willson’s Warm Up. His articles have frequently appeared in the Instrumentalist, BandWorld, NFIMA and Phi Beta Mu Journal. He is active as a clinician and speaker throughout the United States.


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