Identifying your instrument needs

© John Soffe

Image: © John Soffe

James Cavanagh's step-by-step guide to investing in instruments for non-professional performing groups.

Whether you are a new start-up ensemble or a group that has been operating for several years, there will be an ongoing need to purchase and replace musical instruments. It is important that orchestras and ensemble organisers are mindful of the need to keep and maintain musical equipment. Maintaining a carefully selected bank of good-quality instruments will have a positive effect on both musicianship and membership levels.

Instruments in good working order are vital additions to every ensemble. Musicians of every age and experience are unduly challenged when they attempt to play sub-standard equipment. Excessively inexpensive instruments can be predominantly short-lived; more importantly, they can provide sub-standard results. Ensembles can normally expect a regular turnover of orchestral instruments so try to obtain instruments of reasonable quality which when cared for, provide longevity in use.

All wind, brass and percussion instruments, by their nature, incur and experience much wear and tear; this occurs irrespective of how well they are cared for. These instruments eventually become obsolete and lose their shelf lives. The same applies to some string instruments.

Directors and organisers should take a strategic approach to purchasing instruments. Advance planning is the preferred route and should be a requisite for every ensemble director and administrator. You should endeavour to utilise as wide a variety as is practical of the required instruments for your ensemble type and performance repertoire. Plan in advance, be proactive in your selection process and avoid the need to react to circumstances. If you adopt this approach it follows then that you avoid issues of imbalance and a situation where you have too many of any one particular instrument.

Need is often dictated by the musical requirements as defined in the works being rehearsed and performed. When purchasing instruments, try to define where your regular musical needs lie. It should be possible to gradually reach your targets. A strategic approach is in the long-term interest of the music being performed. This also leads to a valuable addition to your music making in terms of variety, colour and timbre.

In the case of beginner starter groups, basic instrument requirements leading to incremental additions are generally organised around repertoire requirements. Always try to have all of the voices of the ensemble represented. This is essential if you are to do justice to your music.

  • A starter brass band should include at least: 6 cornets, 1 flugelhorn, 1 tenor horn, 3 trombones, 1 euphonium, 1 tuba, percussion and timpani.
  • A wind band/concert band should start with 2 flutes, 1 oboe, 4/5 clarinets, 1 bassoon, 2 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, percussion and timpani. You can subsequently add alto sax, tenor sax, euphonium and extra tubas. All of this can be expanded upon as funding and participant interest increases.
  • In the case of a string ensemble, the least number required to get off to a good start is 8 violins, 2 violas, 3 cellos and 1 double bass. Again, the ensemble can add to this nucleus as numbers and interest increase.
  • In the case of a wind/brass section in the orchestra, take care not to create an imbalance by oversubscribing to any particular instrument. For example, the flute is a very popular instrument and if you don’t plan carefully, you could easily end up with a starter wind section with 10 flutes! Instead, strive to have all voices represented in your ensemble. Beginner numbers for an orchestral wind section are 2 flutes, 1 oboe, 2 clarinets, 1 bassoon, 2 French horns, 2 trumpets, 1 trombone, percussion and timpani.

Modern composers and arrangers for orchestras and ensembles are increasingly diverse in their choice of instruments. Today’s music often features minority wind, brass and percussion instruments such as harp, piccolo, cor anglais, a varied range of clarinets, contra bassoon, a full range of brass, and a vast array of tuned and un-tuned percussion. In general, strings maintain the status quo. All of these instruments are often vital to a group and an important addition to the ensemble. Every effort should be made to procure these for regular use.

While the choice of instrument is mainly dictated by the needs of the group, it is a valuable exercise to reflect on how individuals should be assessed for suitability to play specific instruments.

In every case, potential players should be evaluated for suitability - we always try to match the instrument to its user. This evaluation is best carried out by an experienced specialist teacher and always in the interest of the player.

Some of the many factors that influence suitability and selection are:

  • weight of instrument
  • size of instruments versus size of individual reach
  • teeth formation (in the case of wind and brass instruments)
  • calibre of instruments, beginner versus advanced
  • embouchure

In general all applicants and new members should be expertly guided based on suitability along with your group’s musical requirements.

Musical instrument accessories require just as much attention as the instruments themselves. These are an important part of daily upkeep and performance of the instruments, so do investigate the merits of the various accessories before purchase. Care and maintenance of equipment should be an on-going priority within your organisation. This process could be managed by a nominated member of your organisation. Some of the many replacement parts and maintenance equipment for musical instruments include:

  • Replacement strings
  • Bows (rehair)
  • Resin
  • Reeds
  • Slide grease
  • Valve oil

Make sure the cost of accessories, repair and upkeep are taken into consideration when budgeting before purchase.

When purchasing instruments, always work with a recognised retailer who should guarantee a reliable aftercare and repair service.

In every case, second-hand instrument purchase is an option. Always have a second-hand instrument inspected by an expert before purchasing. Remember once purchased you will have no comeback in the event of an issue with the instrument.

It is also possible to rent instruments from most musical instrument retailers if there is uncertainty as to use or suitability. It is possible to pay an initial small percentage of the price of the instrument to cover a trial period. At the end of this period, you can either return the instrument or purchase for the initial full price less your deposit. There are also organisations in place who store banks of instruments for loan or hire. The Irish Association of Youth Orchestras is a good example.

James Cavanagh is one of Ireland's leading conductors and music educators. He is Head of Performing Groups at the Royal Irish Academy of Music where he teaches Trumpet, lectures in conducting and conducts the RIAM Symphony and Intermediate Orchestras.