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Are Professional Instruments Only for Professional Players?

Rating: 3 votes, 2.33 average.
The instrument choices today make this question more complex. Some of this post applies to tuba and other instruments, but I will specifically address euphonium.

Until the late 1970's, there was a pretty wide line between pro euphoniums (i.e. Besson and Boosey & Hawkes) and everything else. That line was largely drawn by the compensating system, but also included the larger bore of the British instruments. Today we have large-bore, compensating euphoniums that cost less than some student-level non-compensating instruments!

Today's dividing line is narrower, but it is still there. The professional instruments are made better and offer better playing characteristics, but some players would not perceive a difference in the feel or the output of the horn. Those players might begin to notice shortcomings over time, but probably not. Such things are best noticed by back-to-back comparisons, and if a player simply uses the instrument without trying complaints.

There is SOME relevance to a story from my early days in the CG Band. It was still figuring out how to be a premier band and did not have a heavy schedule, so I was working part-time at a stereo repair shop. The owner told me to go to the wholesaler he used and pick up a multi-meter (VOM) to help in my testing. I said I'd find a cheap one, since I was still learning, and he said, "No - get a good one." He said *he* could get by with a cheap meter because he would know how to allow for its weaknesses, but for a learner it was important to get clear & accurate information.

Certainly it is true that an expert can get by with a cheap horn and still sound great. But a pro horn will just make some things easier and may very well sound a bit better when pushed. It is *also* true that beginners may find some things easier on a better horn, even if they don't realize it right away.

Budgetary concerns are a high factor for most people, so that can determine the level of instrument that will fit the budget. That is not the only consideration, though. An established brand of student horn may be able to take more abuse than a pro horn in the kind of school use it is likely to face. It can also be easier for learning hands to get used to. Valves are not as tight, usually, and taking them out for oiling and cleaning is easier. Besides, on a non-comp euphonium the valves are shorter and lighter, which also makes them easier to handle.

After years of being at conferences and displays, I have been quite surprised to talk to players who were rank amateurs, but who could play one of the top-line horns and feel some differences. They could even discern small differences between/among models of the same brand. At the Sterling booth I recall one such person who had definite feelings on the difference between the yellow brass and gold brass bell. Many of these folks were older and had the resources to buy one, so it worked out nicely for them. If that still holds true, then it's a safe bet that many of the very best instruments out there are in the hands of players who struggle just to play.

Some people say, "Buy the best instrument you can afford." I'm not sure I'd go that far for everyone. If you are really serious about your music and/or get great pleasure from it, then that rule is pretty good. But if you just want to have a good time in band, a church group, etc., and don't expect to practice any more than necessary for survival, it could be there are better uses for your money.

Suppose you need a new instrument and have "only" $8,000 to spend. If you are a serious and accomplished player, you would probably want to buy the good horn. But if you are seriously lacking skills and are serious enough to work hard, then buy the cheaper horn and spend the rest on lessons, materials, etc. to get better. Being a better player also enhances your enjoyment of playing.

I have tested enough horns over the years, including design iterations and prototypes, that I can pretty easily tell when I find a horn that offers improvements or one that limits me. So I can appreciate a pro instrument, and it helps me play a little better. But if we had other pressing needs for our family funds, I would get a $2k-3k horn and do all the "gigs" (and I use the term loosely) I do now. I might have to practice some things a bit more and may not get that extra 10-20% of tone, but I would still sound like me and could certainly express my musical thoughts. I would enjoy groups and solo playing at a very satisfactory level.

Carefully weigh your own options. We have some great lower-priced horns available from companies that offer good service and are run by real, live musicians. And we have more choices than ever in the high-priced instruments.

Remember what the (now old) movie "The Karate Kid" taught us: BALANCE. At low, middle, and high prices you have some really fine choices, so consider all the factors and make a balanced decision.


  1. hyperbolica's Avatar
    Yeah, these are some really good points. Also you might consider that some pros or semi-pros buy secondary instruments, that you might use for learning slide or valve techniques, or for additional gig opportunities, or just for the stimulation of learning something new. My trombones are pro-level, but I don't need pro-level valve instruments, so I turn to the Chinese market you reference, but also the used pro market. You can find the level of quality that you need at various price points, with the appearance or maybe condition being the variable for older used pro equipment and reputation and durability being the variable for the lower priced Chinese horns. It's totally realistic to find an 80 year old trombone that you can use professionally, as long as its in good condition, and in some cases (where performance and collecting interests intersect) sometimes the older instruments can be as expensive as new ones. Just a reminder that the used market is a valid place to find good quality stuff too, and is often a better choice than the low priced new options.
  2. davewerden's Avatar
    hyperbolica: very good points! I made a decision to not talk about the used market because that is such a huge variable. And some folks want to buy a new horn, or have no safe way to buy a used horn, etc. In my situation I would certainly consider either something like a Wessex or a good used horn for a secondary instrument. (Sidebar: I own 3 slide trombones; two are newer Yamaha models and the 3rd is an old King Liberty. In some ways that old Liberty is the sweetest one to play!)