Step It Up!

Mike Lawson • Commentary • June 19, 2017

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Ideally, every band and orchestra teacher would like every child in their band and strings programs to own a quality “step-up” instrument, and the sooner, the better.

The good news is that this is possible! More than possible, it’s easy. Here are some things you can do to make this feasible for every child in your program:

Plant the seeds early. From the first day of class, teach your students the difference between a student level and a step-up level instrument. Some schools require a step-up for second- year ensembles, or for their honor bands – just as certain upper-level math classes require specific graphing calculators; others can merely suggest and encourage. But whatever your situation, let your students (and parents) know there’s always room for growth.

Don’t shoot yourself in the foot with your beginner recommendations. This advice can be controversial, I know; but I’ve heard many directors say, “This is the only instrument they will probably ever buy, so I want them to have (XYZ).” Your music company should work with your students so that just about anyone can afford a step-up instrument. But if you recommend, for example, a silver student trumpet for beginners, parents will be less likely to step up, since they don’t see a difference while the student is still stuck with a student horn, with a two-piece bell and valve section. If you recommend an open-hole, b-foot student flute, it’s nearly impossible for parents to understand the need for solid silver, because it looks the same. The student’s tone will never be able to progress past that of a silver-plated flute – an entry-level, student flute.

Use the step-up as a “carrot.” One advantage of renting or purchasing from a reputable company (versus buying online) is that your students should get full credit towards a step up. Let your students (and parents) know that a better-quality instrument will not only improve their playing but also will increase their chances of making the region or all-state band, or getting a college scholarship. We have seen over the years that what parents spend on their child’s audition instrument is entirely proportional to their scholarship award. Parents may not be aware that there are also scholarships available for students who are not majoring in music, but who are willing to play in college ensembles.

Don’t believe everything you read (or hear). The terms “step-up” and “professional” vary widely in meaning from manufacturer to manufacturer, and there is no set industry standard for this. What one company calls “pro” might be what another may call “intermediate.” Many school music dealers use the term “step-up” to refer to anything above a student instrument, whether “intermediate,” “pro” or whatever, just to avoid confusion. Study the features, not the verbiage; investigate the specs of each model, don’t just go by brand name. Instrument manufacturing is an ever-changing industry, and even some we thought were the most consistent in years past may be quite different today. Be sure you know what the potential benefits are of each feature, and how they will affect the instrument’s tone and playability. Some pro clarinets, for example, have a larger bore, which hinders producing a classic orchestral sound. Some instruments are more designed for jazz playing than classical and may make blending in an ensemble difficult. Investigate the manufacturer of yours, as many brands are actually “stencil” brands, made by one factory but stamped with another’s name (this is especially prevalent in string instrument manufacturing). Most of all, please remember that online reviews are often merely ads in disguise. Most reviewers are paid to say the things they say, and you will find that the internet is rarely as objective a source of information as we expect.

Use a specialist. Your school music company should provide product experts available to help students try out instruments. A product expert is a person who not only is a competent performer and teacher on a particular instrument(s) but also is familiar with the various brands, models and options available (essential!). This person should be able to take into account the performance level of the student, his/her physical characteristics, his/ her potential and plans, and his/her parents’ financial desires/constraints. Without this guidance, the student will often choose the instrument that is most like what he/she is currently playing – which defeats the purpose of purchasing a stepup. One example – when trying wooden clarinets for the first time, it’s advisable to back off ó a strength on the reed, so that the instrument doesn’t feel “stuffy,“ and the student doesn’t get discouraged right at the outset.

Take your time. When trying step up instruments, especially ones that are hand made, an extensive selection is critical. Try different models and different serial numbers. Since the higher cost, you’re paying is mostly for improved tone, it’s best to play only whole notes, at least for a while: lip slurs for brass, octaves for flutes, long tones, and so on. Once you start playing technical passages, your mind will be on your fingers, and you won’t be able to focus on what’s the most essential (and expensive) feature – the tone. Remember that a solid silver flute takes much more air than a silver-plated one; a wooden clarinet has substantially more resistance than a plastic one. Students will need some time to get accustomed to the new “feel.”

Don’t forget accessories. A new step up instrument will often require a better (or at least a different) mouthpiece, different reeds, polishing cloths, etc. A step-up string instrument will usually sound entirely different when played with different bows. There are many different mouthpiece options for reed instruments. Many come with a simple student blank. Choosing an appropriate step-up mouthpiece is crucial to maximizing the sound of the new instrument. Your product specialist should be able to recommend everything you need to enjoy your new instrument, and also give you instructions for proper care so you can keep it in good playing condition for decades.

Tracy Leenman is the owner of Musical Innovations in Greenville, SC, the NAMM Top 100 Dealer of the Year. She holds her B.M. in music ed (magna cum laude) and her M.M. in music ed from Syracuse University. She has done additional coursework at the Eastman School of Music. She taught for over 40 years, including at Greenville County’s Fine Arts Center, at Syracuse University (NY), and at Newberry College (SC), where she developed their new music business department. She is also the editor of the Carolina Bandmaster.

A respected clinician and author, she is a regular presenter at the NAMM Idea Center. She has done presentations around the country, including at NASMD, RPMDA; and MENC National, State, and Regional Conventions. In 2015, Leenman was named winner of RPMDA’s Sandy Feldstein Service Award. She performs regularly on bassoon with the Palmetto Concert Band, Foothills Philharmonic, and the Poinsett Wind Symphony. Musical Innovations was founded in 2009, and is known in the music industry as the “Little Engine that Could.” In addition to being among NAMM’s Top 100 for the past four years, they were chosen as Best Customer Service in 2015; and were named among the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s top 100 small business in the country earlier this year, winning the Small Business, Dream Big! Blue Ribbon Award. The company has also twice won the SCMEA Friend of Music Business Award.


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