Wind Instrument Try-Before-Buy?
April 3, 2008 7:20 PM   Subscribe

Is it reasonable to expect to be able to try a wind instrument before buying it? I just bought a 'Gill' Wooden Sopranino recorder (Baroque fingering, of course) from a store in Boston without doing so, and got back to find that the lowest G and B notes (eq. to D and F# on C-tuned instruments) are so out of tune as to be unusable. I'll try to request a replacement since it was a $40 investment, but since I'm looking to purchase other such instruments in the future I'd like to know more about the ground rules.
posted by The Confessor to Shopping (17 answers total)
I was definitely given a chance to try out more expensive wind instruments (flute and horn) before purchasing them. But these were more like $1500 investments than $40, so shops may not be so friendly about letting people try out the cheaper instruments.

Wood is also not as easy to clean and disinfect as metal, so that may have something to do with it.
posted by that girl at 7:29 PM on April 3, 2008

My first teacher ((french) horn also) called those "woof tones" and for expensive instruments purchased from reputable dealers it's definitely the norm to be able to return (undamaged) instruments "no questions asked".

When I bought my first "real" horn (Conn 8D, N series), my teacher literally pulled 5 horns from the local shop and I tried all of them out in her house. I think it was a week or so before we even paid. But then again my teacher was a professional musician who had done this dozens of times with her other students.

You'll probably have more luck if the shop from which you bought the recorder is a bona fide music instrument store that sells high-end "real" instruments.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 7:53 PM on April 3, 2008

I bought my recorder online from a place that spelled out its policy of letting you try out the instrument and return it if you weren't happy, regardless of the reason. Unfortunately, I'm just dumb enough not to remember the name of the place or recognize it when I try to search for it. It was a site that sold only recorders/recorder sheet music/etc. I'm sorry I can't find it for you, but I thought I'd throw it in just so you know that such a place does exist.
posted by Enroute at 8:03 PM on April 3, 2008

Also, as I recall, the return policy applied both to wood and plastic recorders, cheap and expensive alike.
posted by Enroute at 8:05 PM on April 3, 2008

Best answer: Ah HA! It's Collins and Williams Historic Woodwinds, and they let you try it for two weeks before you're locked in.
posted by Enroute at 8:11 PM on April 3, 2008

I purchased a bassoon and when I didn't like it was able to return it, no questions asked. This was an $800 or so instrument from a mail order catalog.
posted by Eringatang at 8:19 PM on April 3, 2008

You can definitely try out instruments in music stores--when you're making a $2000 purchase, you wanna make sure it fits. I tried maybe 20 flutes before choosing the one I liked/could afford. Hard to say when it comes to cheaper stuff, but it's always worth asking.
posted by stray at 8:46 PM on April 3, 2008

nthing the above -- last time I bought a trumpet, I played through several dozen before taking two home to try in concerts for a month, then returned one. Every reputable instrument store I've ever seen has a similar policy. The only issue I can imagine is that on a $40 instrument the "restocking" fee (mostly sterilization, for wind instruments) might represent a major fraction of the recorder's price, whereas on multi-thousand-dollar instruments it's trivial.

A more jaded person might point out as well that it's probably unreasonable to expect a $40 instrument of any variety to play well, but I'm trying to be good.
posted by range at 9:21 PM on April 3, 2008

Best answer: Sure you should be able to return it. But there's more....

On a recorder, the lowest notes are the hardest to intonate. That is actually the skill involved in playing the instrument. As a neophyte, they will not be in tune. You have to develop that type of airstream artistry. I know it sounds sucky, but true. You can only cut the holes in the column within a certain degree of tolerance in order for it to "key out" correctly--and most manufacturers have that down. But it's an instrument of a fairly pre-modern design. Your technique is supposed to be strong enough to overcome the design (not its manufacture--and that is common design in a recorder w/regards to lower notes). Don't expect it to intonate for you immediately, that issue of air speed is up to you. That being said, Gills kinda suck--get a Yamaha.

And Erintang: No such thing as an $800 playable bassoon. Sorry. Chinese/Indian woodwinds ain't cutting it yet. That is a fraction of what a usable bassoon should cost and rightly so. It's no surprise you returned it.
posted by sourwookie at 10:27 PM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

And I deal in multi-thousand dollar instruments. I let people take them home on consignment for a week or so all the time--it's expected, especially if you have a relationship with teachers.
posted by sourwookie at 10:31 PM on April 3, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you for linking me to that site, Enroute; I think I may have seen it before as it seems familiar, but I'd forgotten about it. It really opened my eyes.

I apologize if my question seemed presumptive, range; my previous recorders were all plastic Yamaha models, and I wasn't aware of the breadth of quality and price available in wooden instruments. The plastic ones were good enough to teach me the basics, at least. ;-)

sourwookie, I've tried doing that, but it seems to take so much variance that the quality of the sound changes. I recorded the vid linked above using the Sopranino, and it hits the 'G' note a few times... it doesn't seem to be a matter of intonation.
posted by The Confessor at 11:20 PM on April 3, 2008

Another point to those investing in high end instruments--Don't go the online route.

They offer very little in terms of tech support. You buy it, you're kind of on your own. A good store will modify or tweak the instrument for free.

Buying a pro Alto Sax and the Eb-C pinky keys have too far a throw? Woodwind Brasswind will do nothing. We adjust that for you. And any local store sells at the same price. You will save no money online. None.

The idea of online purchases being less expensive is usually a myth.
posted by sourwookie at 12:04 AM on April 4, 2008

sourwookie: On a recorder, the lowest notes are the hardest to intonate

Really? I'm a hopeless amateur, but on my plastic descant recorder, it's the high notes that are the problem. I can't go any higher than the recorder's high G. The low C (all holes) is easy. (Sorry if this is too off-topic.)
posted by snarfois at 6:27 AM on April 4, 2008

On a slightly related note, I've been told repeatedly that harmonicas cannot be returned or tried out due to "health regulations", although no one has ever been able to cite law.
posted by leapfrog at 6:30 AM on April 4, 2008

I play bassoon, and whenever I've purchased a new instrument, not only have I been able to try it out, but I usually have an option to try out several instruments and find which one I like the best/feel most comfortable with. The same goes for buying any sort of high end flute or clarinet.

For a big purchase like this, always find a reputable dealer you can meet with face to face. Sure, you may be able to get the online purchase a little cheaper, but it's often not worth the service you can get face to face.

Eringatang: An $800 bassoon? Wow. Care to mention what kind that is? My semi-pro model that got me through undergrad is a Renard Fox 220 Artist, and it cost in the mid thousands, and the Fox I'm looking at for grad school is somewhere shy of $17,500. There are some quality, low-cost bassoons, but $800 is in the beginner trumpet threshold, not a bassoon.
posted by SNWidget at 6:37 AM on April 4, 2008

Response by poster: snarfois:

The notes above the descant's high G *are* a bit problematic, since they require a greater degree of breath control and the left-hand thumb hole must be slightly more covered than for the ones below (or at least that has been the case on my school-quality plastic Yamaha).

One practice piece that helped me when I was first trying to hit those notes consistently was (don't laugh) the Wham! song Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. I still play it at least once per day to try to improve the quality of the notes (I'm aware that they sound kind of ugly) and increase the tempo.

When you are ready to learn the sharps and flats, I suggest aping this rendition of the Zelda Overworld theme. Note, however, that the notes he plays above the high 'C' appear to be non-standard fingerings; all of the sources that I've read advise playing them by covering the bell of the recorder in conjunction with some combination of holes.
posted by The Confessor at 7:55 AM on April 4, 2008

I was in high school and my teacher had a fox for sale but it cost thousands of dollars. Since my parents complained about reed costs and wouldn't even get me a decent bocal for the school's instrument it's not like they were going to spring for a whole bassoon. I came home to find a "surprise" bassoon waiting for me that my dad had ordered from a catalog. It was entirely plastic, if you can believe that. I played the instrument once and returned it. I don't remember the name of the catalog, but the brand of the bassoon was some very generic band-instrument brand...nope, not coming back to me at all. When I visited my college they said they had one I could use, but when I got there they said it was in use by another student and they weren't excited about having us share. That was the end of that. The good news is, my "cheekbones" will be high forever! And I can exhale slower than anyone else in my yoga class. :)
posted by Eringatang at 9:52 AM on April 4, 2008

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