ISO Warning for Parents of Instrumental Music Students Everywhere:
Every year around this time, kids start coming to school with new musical instruments that their parents bought for them, thinking they were getting a great deal. This is a great thing, because it means that the students and their parents care enough about playing music in school to purchase an instrument of their own.
However, the instruments that show up at school are often not musical instruments at all, but what we in the instrumental music education field call "instrument-shaped objects (ISOs)." ISOs are typically sold at places that do not specialize in the sale of musical instruments (Walmart, Costco, Amazon, et cetera) and while their price may seem attractive at first, there are a few things to consider. Here are some questions you can ask yourself before purchasing a new instrument.
1. Will this instrument help my child learn music?
Ultimately, musical instruments need to be able to produce the correct tone quality and play in tune with the rest of the ensemble. Some ISOs do not even make it this far, so while they may look like an instrument, they do not sound like an instrument. Instruments that come in "fun" colors are often (but not always) guilty of this.
Instead of buying the instrument that "looks cool," try going to a music store and trying out a variety of instruments. The salespeople in the store will help you determine which ones are best suited for your child.
2. If the instrument needs repair work, will a local music store or repair technician work on it?
Off-brand instruments and ISOs often use parts that are not a standard size and may be difficult to work on or replace. They may also be made of substandard materials that make working on them very risky. Most of the popular brands from major manufacturers (Conn-Selmer, Yamaha, et cetera) are easy enough to work on, and repair shops have boxes and drawers full of replacement springs, pads, and screws. However, when families bring in ISOs for repairs, many stores won't even look at them. A quality brand name musical instrument can last for decades with regular maintenance and small repairs. An ISO is lucky if it survives the first year.
The comparison I often use with parents who do not have a musical background is with cars. Would you buy a cheap car from a brand no one has heard of, with no dealership anywhere around you, made in India or China, with no warranty, that no mechanic would service?
3. Does my child's music teacher allow this brand of instrument in the school band or orchestra?
Your music teacher probably has a good idea of what instruments students should be playing in terms of make and model. Before buying an instrument, consult with your music teacher. Finding students affordable options can be tricky, but it's very worthwhile. Often, school band handbooks have a list of acceptable brands or unacceptable brands. This is so that all parties involved are spared the headache of dealing with ISOs.
4. Is there a better way to spend my money?
Assume that the instrument you just spent $150 to $200 on lasts for one school year, but your child wants to keep playing from grades 4-12. If you bought a new one every year, you would end up spending $1,350 to $1,800 on 9 different instruments that broke each year. Instead, maybe your child's band teacher can help you track down a used instrument from a brand name in the $500 to $1000 range. It will sound better, need fewer repairs, and if your child stops playing, you'll likely be able to resell it for most of what you paid for it.
Brand new student model musical instruments are getting to be very expensive in recent years. However, the option of renting or rent-to-own is usually much more cost-effective. Buying an older used instrument or getting Uncle Mike's old saxophone overhauled are also good options, particularly for younger band students.
Please be careful. Try before you buy. Keep your child's music teacher apprised of the situation. And please, don't waste your money on junk ISOs that are destined to sound terrible until they inevitably break.