How To Talk To Parents About Step Up Instruments

Picture of students playing instruments.

By Amy Delorge

Amy Delorge, a music educator at Biddeford Middle School in Biddeford, ME, winner of the Music & Arts 2016 “Music Educator of the Year” award shares insights she’s learned from her decades of experiece.

As band directors, we always are looking for ways to help our students and ensembles create a wonderful sound. One of the ways we can help our students create a great sound is by improving the quality of their equipment. Sometimes small improvements like better quality reeds or a different strength of reed can make a tremendous improvement in a student’s sound. Often as students are growing and maturing their needs would be better served by purchasing a professional mouthpiece or other accessories such as reed guards or a different ligature.  

Sometimes the biggest improvements in tone quality come from stepping up from a beginner student instrument to an intermediate or even professional instrument. My personal experience as a middle school band director for the last twenty-two years has helped me develop some ideas that I hope will be helpful to you in your quest for improving a student’s sound through the possibilities of purchasing new equipment.  This is in no way meant to substitute for great teaching, the use of proper breath support, embouchure, posture, technique and articulation skills.

Students at the middle and high school levels will often develop a level of dedication and commitment not previously demonstrated in their earlier years. This is seen in participation through their involvement in school bands, private lessons, adjudicated performances, music festivals and earning honors at regional, district and state festivals. As band directors we often see students whose faces light up when they they play music, commit to practice and demonstrate steady growth and development in our school bands. This love of music is what drew us in as youngsters and propelled us to become band directors later on. When you witness that spark in a student for band this is a great time to speak with their parents about the possibility of upgrading their sound.

I use those sparks of commitment and dedication to indicate that it may be time to consider upgrading equipment. Sometimes a student or parent will make the initial inquiry, other times I see the extra special qualities in a student that make me feel it’s time to begin this conversation and sometimes I recognize that certain aspects of playing would be much easier with a different instrument. When presented with these moments it’s time to make a phone call to a parent, write a brief email or even begin a conversation with your student about stepping up to an intermediate or  professional instrument or exploring improved quality accessories.

My conversations with parents often flow like this:

“Hi Mr. and Mrs. Jones. It is really fantastic to see the development, commitment and joy from your daughter Suzie on the clarinet!  She has been seriously dedicated to her music throughout middle school and I imagine you are as proud of her as I am. Suzie has been playing on her student level clarinet now for four years and it has served her well. At the level of musicianship she has demonstrated I would love to speak with you about the possibility of an intermediate level clarinet. The benefits for Suzie would be extremely exciting. She would notice a dramatic improvement in her sound, the overall feel of the instrument is significantly different with key action that will help her continue to develop technique. A professional level clarinet is something she can continue to play throughout high school, college and as an adult too!  This is a significant investment in Suzie’s talent and her passion for music. I am happy to share some ideas with you and Suzie about brands of clarinets and reputable music stores to consider when you’re ready. In the meantime there is also a possibility of looking at some higher quality mouthpieces, reeds and ligatures too that will also make playing a more enjoyable musical experience for Suzie with a smaller investment.”

Perhaps the parents of your student will have concerns about such a sizable investment and freak out over their child’s ability to care and own such a valuable instrument. You can remind parents about the responsible habits you have observed with their child first hand and that you feel the increase in trust and quality of the instrument is something that their child is extremely capable of. Remember, we often see the very best in our students without the typical developmental issues that parents see at home. You can reassure the parents how responsible, thoughtful and careful you have seen their child behave with their current instrument and that you believe this will only improve with the privilege of owning an intermediate or professional level instrument.

This is an investment in the child’s future in music.  Parents often invest thousands of dollars over the long run in children’s activities; this is similar and you can remind the parent they’ve already witnessed the child’s dedication. There is not a gamble in supporting their child; they have a proven track record. As a child’s band director, do you know about karate, baseball, football, dance, cheering and other activities that require thousands of dollars in their child?  Remind parents that there are many ways to make this investment manageable by using financing through the music store which can make the expense fit any budget.

Stores like Music & Arts even run special events with 0% financing that make the cost more manageable. You can also let parents know that reputable music stores have instrument warranties against damage and free repairs in many situations upon rent and/or purchase. You don’t have warranties like this on cars, sports equipment or other items! These warranties can really help put your mind at ease about investing in your child’s love of music and their ability to continue to enjoy something they’re committed to.  

Some families may not be ready to make such a large investment in purchasing an intermediate or professional level instrument. But it’s fine to lay the groundwork and approach it again in six months to a year. Is there a special occasion that may be something a parent is more likely to make this purchase for; a birthday, Christmas, Hanukkah, promotion night, etc?  A purchase could be made now and saved to be given at one of those special occasions.  

Keep in mind that a smaller investment financially with new or better accessories can also help your students create a better sound too! Mouthpiece and headjoint kits are readily available to borrow from your Music & Arts representative or try in the store.  This variety of mouthpieces will allow a student to experiment with comfort, results in intonation, range and sound. A new higher quality ligature for a clarinet or saxophone player makes a tremendous difference over a stock ligature. High quality reeds for oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and saxophones are essential. Some students and parents may not know that there is a huge variety available. Even the Legere synthetic reeds are now being endorsed and played on by professionals. Saxophonists can pick up a better neck strap with better cushion or adjustability. Encourage your students to purchase a higher quality set of maintenance materials, cotton or silk swabs, new mutes, higher quality cleaning materials. There are so many options at every price point.

It is very important to try an instrument out, much the same way you would take a car out for a test drive. Most reputable music companies will allow you to “borrow” a new instrument for a few days or even a week if you will leave your credit card information for them, for their protection. You can attend a special event created for exactly this purpose at Music & Arts’ “Upgrade Your Sound” events around the country. Teachers, you can offer to meet your student and family at the music store; what better way to put the parents’ minds at ease than to have your expertise and guidance in person as they look at a step up instrument!

Every child is different and a great instrument for one person may not be the best instrument for another. When you go to the music store have your child bring his/her own mouthpiece and reed to try things out. You will adjust more quickly when having this familiarity. Ask to speak with a salesperson in the store that plays the instrument you are considering. These trained professionals often have invaluable insights and can make on the spot observations about your child’s embouchure and other needs.

Most importantly when purchasing an instrument, I always tell families to buy from a reputable company. In this age of on-line, catalog sales and auctions, as a consumer it is important to be well informed. Many sales today are just that, a sale. Once you have paid you are on your own. I stress to families that they may pay a little more when working with a reputable dealer that you can talk to in person and know the capacity of the service department. It is more costly to these companies to have a service department, which is skilled, and trained to help you, versus a location that does only sales.

Most of us are well informed about the instrument we were first trained on. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the ever changing market of instruments available today and not know what models or even brands to recommend to your students and their family. This is a perfect time for you to use your Music & Arts representative as they are up to date on the highest quality instruments available. They can also help direct you to information for families on payment and financing options available to make affordable.  We don’t have to have all of the answers! This improvement in your student’s equipment will help you achieve the sound, depth and warmth we seek in our ensembles.

About the author:

 Read her Music Educator of the Year interview here.

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