Throughout middle school, I’m a band student. I have played a Selmer clarinet in 6th and 7th grades and a Yamaha in 8th grade, never the brands I have seen once in Walmart back in 5th or 6th grade. I was once tempted to buy that clarinet in the display at the front of the store, but thinking it was expensive, I denied myself from buying it.
Of course – I was right; those clarinets, as well as those trumpets, flutes and saxophones I have seen in Walmart are not just too darn expensive for me. Many band directors, musicologists (especially organologists), and other musical educators call it “instrument-shaped objects,” mainly because they look like high-quality, but they are actually poorly-made.
So what defines an instrument-shaped object? Firstly, they are brands that are not too familiar to those who know a great deal on musical instruments, and they use names that are not models from leading instrument makers such as Yamaha, Conn-Selmer, and Dynasty. Here, I don’t mention the “off-brands” in fears of getting sued like that Texas music store in 2005.
Secondly, the most commonly used band instruments are often victimized in the retail of instrument-shaped objects. For the most part, those instruments are the soprano trumpet in B-flat, the Western concert transverse flute in C, the alto saxophone in E-flat, and the soprano clarinet in B-flat. They often mass produce low-brow versions of them because they usually carry the melody and are more commonplace than, say, the horn in F.
Third, some companies have the penchant to create colored versions of those instruments. As I browse through eBay and what every shopping site sells them, I saw green clarinets, yellow (not gold, but that yellow you see on a crayon) flutes, and blue trumpets. As a former band student, the lacquered versions are distracting to the band director and the band as they play poorly.
On top of all that, they are usually made of low-quality materials, usually from the hands of Pakistani, Indian, or Chinese sweatshop employees. If it’s a trumpet, flute, or alto saxophone, for example, it’s made of a pot metal that is better for toy jewelry than something actually made of brass. Also, the accessories are likely low quality. I picture those Asian sweatshop workers who manufacture bog-standard accessories for bog-standard single reed instruments making reeds out of bamboo instead of French Arnudo donax cane.
Poor naming, vicimization of common band instruments, unprofessional finishes, and cruddy materials make up instrument-shaped objects.
One thing that bugs me more than cruddy quality and el cheapo-sounding names alone is the cost of instrument-shaped objects. For example, a Vito student soprano clarinet in B-flat costs $799, but with an off brand that costs as little as $90, it’s a much cheaper choice. Those instruments are sold at your neighborhood flea markets, Walmarts, Costcos, and other discount retail vendors. The time of purchase is usually when the Latin phase, caveat emptor, chimes in and haunts you for making a purchase. When that $90 clarinet becomes decrepit, you take it to the music dealer and he refuses to repair it because of low quality.
Other nails in the coffin shaped like a saxophone gig case are the timbre and playability of the instruments. I read review after review of the off-brands (again, not mentioning them) and noted squeaky tones, keys falling off, and leaky pads on shopping sites like the official Walmart site and Amazon.
Parents should be chary of making purchases of instruments over the Internet. If there’s a brand they are not sure of when shopping online, they should look it up on the web and read the reviews. They should look for trusted brands, like Jupiter for trumpets and Yamaha for clarinets (I own a Yamaha clarinet, mind you).
Better yet, they should sacrifice a bit of gas mileage and drive their tushes to their local music retailer for a rental, and rented instruments are close to certain that they are manufactured by reputed brands and they are the same prices as their cheap, bog-standard counterparts.
If parents have their children in band, or have children aspiring to partake in that said elective in school, they should cautiously discern the woods of band instrument sales – otherwise, they would end up with a decrepit-beyond-repair instrument known as an instrument-shaped object.