There are a lot of factors that contribute to instrument quality. It is also important to know how this affects you, as the player, so in this description, here is what we will cover:
- How instrument quality will affect student attitude
- What a student-level instrument is
- How manufacturing can change
- Factors that affect instruments
- What to look for when choosing/recommending instruments
- Our experience observing schools with low quality instruments
How Instrument Quality Can Affect Student Attitude
The choice of an instrument is important. It does one of two things:
- Encourage the student to give up
- Encourage the student to continue
Two other factors also come into play. These are the quality of the music program and the enthusiasm and expertise of the teacher. These three factors will provide the encouragement and the social aspects needed to foster interest in the subject.
Using an instrument that does not play, or creates frustration is damaging to a student’s experience, no matter how much encouragement is provided.
Musical instruments are complicated machines, and many factors will combine to create a particular level of frustration or enjoyment of music. A description of these factors are outlined below.
What Is A Student-Level Instrument?
In essence, a student-level instrument is a “budget” instrument.
A well-designed and manufactured instrument of a full-priced professional standard will have a life-span of 100 years or more (depending on usage and some other factors). This comes at a high cost which is out of the reach of most people who would like to “try-out” music.
Creating a student-level instrument involves lots of cost-cutting. The manufacturer of student instruments must decide where cost-cutting will be applied to create a product that is still usable and functional. So, how much cost-cutting can be applied?
Imagine a well-made professional flute. The best ones are hand-made and have a price tag of around $20,000. A student flute that is considered to be good quality starts at about $1000, one-twentieth of the price.
Instruments that lie on a “usability” spectrum ranging from unusable/unstable with a short life-span and high maintenance costs (new purchases can be as little as $90), up to instruments that will play consistently over many years with minimal maintenance required.
I find it incredible that good quality instruments can be made so cheaply. And these days, the quality is so much better than many student instruments were 40 years ago. Technology has advanced a lot over the years, making manufacturing tasks quick, simple and much, much cheaper.
In addition to this, manufacturing costs are reduced by saving on manual labour.
Most student-level instruments are made in Asian countries to take advantage of lower labour costs. Some prominent instrument makers have done this by establishing their own factories, with their own culture, and implementing a particular quality-control process. Other manufacturers commission their instruments to be made within factories that are already established, which means that they must also deal with the culture and quality control that has been established there over many years. This has an impact on the end product.
How Manufacturing Can Change
At various times, manufacturers of instruments make changes to their designs or processes, and this changes the end result. A number of the big-name brands have dipped below a particular standard at one time or another, so when choosing an instrument to buy, it is important to know what the standard of manufacture is right at the time when you buy.
From time to time, manufacturers make changes to the manufacturing process, or to how the finishing steps are carried out. These types of changes are most often done to find ways of cutting manufacturing costs even futher. Sometimes the changes work and other times they don’t.
In the next sections we will discuss some of the factors that are considered by manufacturers when creating or changing an instrument.
Factors That Affect Musical Instrument Quality
There are many factors that affect instruments. Keep these points in mind when trying to choose an instrument to purchase:
- Whether an instrument is fixable
- Quality of the instrument design
- Quality of the manual labour
- Quality of the materials
- Longevity of the moving parts
- Longevity of the consumable parts
- Durability of the instrument
Instrument Quality Design
The instrument design is one of the most important factors. It will affect whether an instrument has a good sound and how responsive the instrument is. Some instruments are intentionally designed to be easy to play, rather than just being relatively playable.
The design of each component in an instrument also makes a difference to the cost and to its longevity. Below, I have provided a brief outline on a few important points, including the screws, the keywork and how they are connected.
Design of the screws
In order to save time, screws with heads (normally found on professional instruments) are replaced with headless screws. This can add up to a number of hours of time saved in fitting keywork to the instrument.
Any headless screw will eventually become loose and eventually work its way off the instrument, leaving the keywork unattached. The difference between manufacturers can involve, firstly, how finely the screw fits the post, and secondly, what method the manufacturer uses to keep the screw firmly in place when first fitted. Some methods will last a number of years and other methods will fail when the screw is adjusted for the first time.
The design of the screw will also affect how well the keys are fitted to the instrument. After all, the screws are there to keep the keys in place. The screw point must make contact with the end of the key to have a finely adjusted key. The less contact, or the bigger the gaps between the key and the screw, the more effort the instrument will be to play, and the more costly the instrument will be to maintain.
This point on the screw determines:
- How well the keys fit to the instrument
- If there will be extra slack in key movement
- If the instrument will be repairable
The result of this part of the design can determine how playable an instrument will be. If this junction is not tightly manufactured, the adjustments that operate the keywork will be impossible to get right, making many parts of the instrument difficult to play.
In many cases, we see instruments where the holes for the screws have been drilled far too large than is required. This can make the instrument cheaper to manufacture, but leaves the instrument unfixable when any problem arises.
Quality of materials
This is closely related to how durable the instrument will be. Where it involves the metal parts it will affect:
- How quickly the instruments wear away (moving parts)
- How easily the parts will bend – keys or instrument body
- How well the instruments stand up to normal handling pressures
The quality of most other parts will be the consumable side of the instrument and will affect:
- How well the pads will seal
- Longevity of the pads (How soon the pads and corks will need replacing)
- How stable the pads will hold (how easily the glue will melt)
- How long the corks will last (longevity of the glue)
Quality of manual labour
Much of the process of creating a musical instrument involves manual labour.
- Soldering keywork
- Soldering metal parts of the instrument body
- Fitting keywork to the instrument
- Fitting pads and corks to the instrument
The steps of soldering and fitting are not always completed satisfactorily, and will certainly be a factor that sways our recommendations.
Manual labour is the most costly part of instrument manufacture, and every manufacturer takes steps to minimize the time required to complete in instrument. The greatest cost savings can be made in this area, and in particular, the design and angle of the keycups over the tone-holes, the depth of keycups for the pads, and the thickness of the pad will make a great difference to how quickly the final steps of manufacture can be completed. Another critical factor involves how much glue is used to apply and fit pads and whether workers are granted time to take care of inconsistencies in the final fitting of the keys and pads.
When examining and choosing instruments for sales we want to know that:
- The instrument is playable and repairable.
- The instruments will provide many years of trouble-free service.
- The costs of maintaining the instruments will be comparatively low.
- The instruments can stand up to the usual handling and/or mistreatment by students.