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Top 5 Reasons to Step-Up

               Often it is the subtle elements of music that are the most valuable in telling the story of a piece; the dancing trills of flutes and violins, the meandering bass line of the low voices, sweet slow vibrato a lead saxophone, or the clear cutting sound of a choir of trumpets are all examples of small adjustments musicians make to their technique that contribute to the tone of modern and classical music alike. As a musician you need an instrument that can express each minute aspect of a piece and it can be extremely frustrating when your instrument is holding you back. There is hope though! A carefully constructed musical instrument can make a huge difference. Here are five reasons why a step-up instrument can be a smart investment.

Female student smiles at violin as young woman tutor looks on approvingly.

1. Better Sound Quality

                 Ever hear a brass instrument that sounds “blatty”? Or a clarinet that with an meak, airy tone? Maybe you’ve noticed a rattle or an extra buzzing sound when you play. Often the source of these less desirable attributes are student line instruments made with materials and processes that are selected in order to keep costs low. At the intermediate and professional levels, instrument manufacturing is a hands-on process where quality sound comes before efficiency of manufacturing. Hand-hammered bells on upper level instrument will ring like, well, a bell, whereas the thinner metal of their drawn counterparts often have a much flatter sound. Tone holes on step-up flutes and piccolos will be shaped from a single piece of metal rather than cut and fitted with “chimneys.” This prevents any resonance loss where the instrument would otherwise be soldered together. There are many more examples of fine tuning craftsman will apply to ensure they are creating a musical instrument that will sound great for the player.

A good instrument should feel like an extension of a player’s body, a tool that allows you to express yourself. As you advance as a musician the complexity of the music in your repertoire becomes more demanding. Discerning the difference between soft (P) and very soft (PP) or hearing the change in color from a melancholy piece to a peppy chart should be easy for your audience. Step-up instruments’ careful craftsmanship creates finer tolerances which preserve the path of a player’s breath through the instrument, amplifying small adjustments a player makes to their technique and making every bit count toward the sound. 

Young man musician in tuxedo plays the French horn while looking upwards.

2. Better Response and Playability

Though on the surface raw ingredients that are used in student and upper level instrument are the same, there are a few important exceptions when it comes to the refinement and selection processes. Fretted instruments and orchestral strings can be made from either solid pieces of wood or layers of wood sealed together. Solid wood is more resonant because the sound waves vibrate freely through a uniform material rather than having to pass through layers of glue and wood. Various species of wood can be employed in the building of musical instruments as well. Exotic woods like ebony, grenadilla, and mahogany can be hard to come by due to trade regulations, but often are the best sounding options for select instruments. Similar to the treatment of vodka or gasoline, brass, silver, and other metals and alloys are purified and heat-treated to bring out the best qualities of the material.Both the selection of choice woods and thorough refinement of metals create materials that are more aligned to transmitting sound on a molecular level. A high-quality instrument made of these components will respond more quickly to vibrations produced by the player buzzing into a mouthpiece or vibrating a reed or string, meaning greater dynamic and expressive control.

Close up on musician's hands as they play silver oboe keys.

3. Improved Key Mechanisms and Design Functionality

Just like the keys on your computer keyboard, the mechanisms behind the buttons on an instrument determine the tactile feedback and responsiveness of the keys. Step-up instruments have improved springs such as the blue steel springs found on many intermediate saxophones or the strengthened springs inside a valve instrument’s pistons. They also have different orientations of bracing and lever systems between the keys which can shorten the distance the key needs to move. This is done to improve responsiveness as well as add durability and richness to the sound as well, as the extra material provides a stronger transmission of the vibration. Flutes’ keys also can have closed or open holes for added warmth and flexibility. Intermediate options such as additional keys, pistons, rotors, and even, in the case of trombones and French horns, added tubing create advanced instruments that can keep up with a player’s growing repertoire by allowing for alternative fingerings and positions as well as expanding the achievable range of an instrument. Additions or changes like the above add up to a more versatile musical instrument that will allow a musician continue to grow their talent.

Young woman smiling with saxophone.

4. More Customization Options to help you find your instrument.

              While there are loads of accessories options that can shift the tone and timbre of your instrument (ligatures, reed cut/strength, mouthpiece shape, string material, etc.) there is a limit to how far these add-ons will alter your sound. One major way to affect your sound is to select from various finish or plating options a common example is silver plating over the traditional lacquered brass on trumpets, euphoniums, and saxophones. Orchestral strings feature UV cured spirits on upper level instruments which simulate the antique look of the most famous violins, cellos, violas, and basses. More unique options include 24K gold or raw brass without plating on brass instruments, and hand engraved designs on instruments of all types. Changing the finish shifts where an instrument falls on the spectrum of bright to mellow as well as changing the outward appearance. Metal winds can be made from alternate base metals, nickel-silver is a common affordable option, which will either augment the tonal quality of an instrument. Intermediate and professional flutes commonly have higher silver content to sweeten and enrich the sound quality.

Most wind instruments are available in bore sizes which can be honed to .001 mm, a difference which is enough to provide more or less feedback or “healthy resistance” to a player’s breath. Sharper or subtler bends and ramps of the tubing and body can affect the quality of the tone of an instrument as well. Saxophone neck and clarinet bore shape are other pieces that can be selected to affect your tone and control. Orchestral instruments can have built-in electric options that allow you to digitally modulate your sound and easily electronically amplify yourself. The customization options are almost endless. Selecting an instrument with different features to match the tonal quality you desire or genre of music you prefer to play will bring you closer to realizing your full musical potential. 

Origami dollar folded in the shape of a classical guitar.

5. Money Well Spent

                  Though the maintenance involved on upper level instruments is sometimes more involved– you may need to polish your silver horn more often or humidify the case of a wooden instrument– they often cost you less at the repair shop. Refining and heat treating metals makes them more durable. Using wood that has been aged longer will prevent seams from splitting and other issues due to warping from the natural setting of the wood. Step-up instruments’ components are hand selected by experienced craftsman meaning that each moving piece is examined and tweaked if necessary before the customer receives the instrument. Geared tuners and tuning pegs on with finer tolerances and higher quality components keep your instrument in tune longer, saving you time. Intermediate and professional level instruments are usually playtested for quality control as well.This also ensures screws will be tight, bridges and sound-posts set, springs seeded, and more before shipment. Without this careful inspection a new instrument may not play until a trained technician makes adjustments. 

                  Not only are your dollars going to tangible improvements in your instrument, you are also investing in your own musical pursuits. Whether your plans involve a career in music or playing as a hobby an upper level instrument can be a great source of motivation. A fresh sound, a more responsive horn, and alternate fingerings or positions to master will help you grow as a musician. If you are considering upgrading your child's instrument, it can show that you are also invested in their passion for music. Shopping for an instrument may even teach you a little something about your student and their musical talents!


                 The high quality materials, expert craftsmanship, and specialization found in intermediate and professional instruments will help any player continue to improve. Your local music store will often allow you to compare instruments in-store, if you are in the Madison, WI area Ward-Brodt Music has a great selection and expert staff that can answer any questions you might have. Stop fighting your horn, upgrade to a step-up instrument and hear the difference for yourself!