Better Gear Won’t Make You Better

The other day I had my first clarinet lesson with a new private student. During the course of the lesson, he told me about what he was learning in band at school. During one session, the clarinetists were encouraged to get better reeds and ligatures, which hold the reed to the mouthpiece. I, of course, told him that those kinds of decisions needed to be made by him and his parents, not the band director. Some families cannot afford to spend $50 or more for a good quality ligature. Besides. while better gear is better, it doesn’t necessarily translate into making a player better.

A professional instrumentalist can make a lesser-quality instrument sound good, but a beginning student cannot make a professional-quality instrument sound good. Better gear is a reward. It is something to look forward to after one has put in the hours of grueling practice to get good enough to deserve it.

There is a difference between adequate and broken. Most kids can successfully learn on an instrument that is simply “adequate.” I learned on an adequate clarinet. When I started playing in 1983, it was already 20+ years old. I played that old plastic clarinet until I was an adult. When I was in high school, I made first-chair clarinet in my school band using that adequate instrument. At some point in high school, I spent my own money on a better mouthpiece and started investing in high quality reeds. But in a lot of ways that was putting lipstick on a pig because my old clarinet was not wooden.

Broken instruments, on the other hand, can interfere with a student’s learning and need to be repaired or replaced. But even then, students can sometimes overcome that. I may not have been a very beginning music student, but when I was in high school starting on the tenor saxophone, I played the school instrument. It was TERRIBLE. Keys were literally held shut with rubber bands. But I still played lead tenor in the jazz band. The kid whose parents had a lot of money had several professional-level saxophones. He did not play first chair. It wasn’t the instrument that made the musician.

Sure, better gear helps. By the time I auditioned for all-state my senior year, I owned my own semi-professional tenor saxophone. I wouldn’t have gotten into All-State with an instrument held together with rubber bands. I am sure the instrument would not have been able to handle the demand of the audition piece.

I think an instrument that is a little challenging (though not unusable) can test a student’s mettle. Do they *really* want to learn to play? If the answer is yes, then they will struggle through the time where they must put up with something of lesser-quality until they can finally get that better mouthpiece, ligature, or instrument.

If there is too much pressure too soon to get what is better or best, my fear is that students (and parents, perhaps) will have the impression that these better quality materials will magically turn the kids into fantastic musicians. It won’t happen. Better gear does not take away or even lessen the amount of time needed in practice.  A couple of times I have recommended better gear, thinking that a student was having difficulty due to the ligature or mouthpiece. In the long run, it didn’t help.

In fact, better gear too soon could have a negative impact. I remember having the opportunity to try my saxophone teacher’s Keilwerth saxophone. It was amazing! That is the best saxophone I have ever played to date. Getting a sound out was SO easy, like cutting butter with a hot knife, as they say. The saying is cliche, but perfect for describing how effortlessly I could play a note. I wonder if getting a note out so easily might develop bad habits in young players who don’t yet know how to control their air support and pressure.

There is a level at which “make do” will form a better musician. The struggle against resistance forces creativity and problem-solving. It develops persistence and perseverance. It develops strength in character, mind, and body.

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