Readers of this blog may note that I have tried a number of instruments from overseas and given some favorable reviews to a number of them. Since I'm looking out for a relatively small budget while trying to build up the instrument inventory and the whole band program at a newer school, I have to consider cost as a critical factor on any purchase. This has led to a pretty open mind and lots of trying of new things. For this week, I'd like to describe my experience at Prince Music Company a few weeks ago.
A couple families have asked me about the instruments carried by Prince Music, so I wanted to check out what they offer in person. The prices are comparable to some other dealers on the low end, but having a more local connection to dealers like this would be nice. Prince Music carries the most common starting instruments for band (as well as strings, though I won't be dealing with those since I don't have the expertise to do so) in up to three different models: student, student+, and intermediate.
[Why do we designate instruments this way? There are some "beginner" instruments which are fine for a student to play through high school. Also, having "professional" features on a "beginner" instrument may be a brilliant marketing tactic, but having a high-F# key on a 5th grader's saxophone is like putting 5-disc CD change on your kid's tricycle..]
I tried quite a few instruments--basically all the models available for flute, clarinet, alto and tenor sax, trumpet, and trombone. The branding appeared to be either Slade or Etude on all instruments, and several were labeled "made in China." There were marked differences between the lines (Student vs Student+ vs intermediate), and the short story of the review is to stay away from the regular Student models.
No serial numbers. Poor quality craftsmanship (evidenced by some misshapen parts, like a pad holder on a clarinet and sloppy soldering on the brass instruments). Hard to tell if the sluggish valves on the trumpet were due to mishandling or something else, but the Student line instruments all felt worse than the ones I am used to playing. Pitch was more or less fine (adequate on everything except the saxophone--as I have found common on the low end saxophones, the upper octave gets sharper and sharper the higher you go up). I brought all my own mouthpieces and reeds, so I assume that the stock mouthpieces would only sound worse (since that has been my experience so often before).
You could start a beginner on these instruments. Though I have questions remaining about how long they would last, I didn't find anything terribly wrong with the instruments in this line. The quality of the bracing and soldering on the trumpet was noticeably better. Everyone likes having a serial number on their instrument, so that's another plus! The saxophone Student+ is only $50 more than the student model, and that extra $50 gets you something that is perhaps worthwhile to play. While I think there are better options out there, the Student+ models that I tried would at least be okay to start a student on.
I'm really not sure what the real-world difference between "Intermediate" and any other type of instrument is. The term seems to be used to push people into a more expensive purchase with the illusion of quality. You don't want a professional instrument yet? Okay, how about something at the intermediate level?
In the case of the Intermediate instruments at Prince Music, I found very little separating them from the Student+ line. When I pick up my own Bach Stradivarius (model 37), I immediately notice some pretty significant differences compared to my Getzen-made trumpet. The differences between the Student+ and Intermediate level instruments seemed to be negligible. For instance, both the Student+ and Intermediate trumpets have a rose-brass lead pipe. Does the Intermediate instrument have a better tone? Maybe, but it would take more side-by-side playing to figure it out, and if you're wanting to do that, you probably don't want to be looking at the cheapest line of instruments you can find.
While the Student+ (and Intermediate) instruments tended to play fine, the considerably lower quality of the Student line raises doubts in my mind about all the instruments. I would not want a student on one of the Student instruments, and I would also be hesitant to try buying one of the others without some sort of guarantee on it.