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Thinking of starting (or returning to) a woodwind instrument as an adult?  Follow the appropriate links for some tips and advice.
Never played before - which is the woodwind instrument for you?
If you have not played before it is sometimes a good idea to try out several different woodwind instruments before committing yourself to buying one.

It is not uncommon for someone to fancy playing the flute, for example, only to find that they have far more natural aptitude for the oboe or perhaps the clarinet.
 

Factors like hand size and stretch or irregular teeth may be relevant.  If you can find a teacher or friend who will give you a ‘taster’ session (or come to one of ours - see below), this may save you from the disappointment of a fairly costly mistake.

You may be interested in the following sections:
buying an instrument lessons or teach yourself? music, reeds and accessories

Beginner and Start-Up Events

Many potential players are deterred by the thought of committing to buying or hiring an instrument about which they know absolutely nothing!

Blow & Blast runs occasional complete beginner courses or 'taster' events that offer adults the chance to find out how they would cope.

You don't need your own instrument for a start-up event and we promise you won't be put under pressure to continue!  Visit our Beginner and Start-Up page for details of booking, dates and venues.

Picture of flute and clarinet

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You have decided on an instrument - now how do you obtain one?

 

If you are quite certain which woodwind instrument you wish to play then there are a number of options open to you.

 

Buy new

A good student model is the sensible choice if you have not played a woodwind instrument before. You purchase a ‘kit’ or ‘outfit’ that includes the instrument itself (which will have a guarantee), its case and usually some extras like cleaning swabs, lubricants and a few reeds, if appropriate. If you can possibly afford it, do not buy a very cheap instrument. These often seem fine initially but very quickly develop faults that are expensive to fix. Also, even minor problems make learning to play difficult and discouraging.

We would recommend that you choose a largish, reputable dealer who specialises in woodwind instruments.  Visiting a shop has the advantage that you can see and try different models. However, this is of limited benefit if you don’t already play. Alternatively, there are a number of excellent retailers with mail-order services that can be accessed by phone or online.

Most large dealers also have hire or buy-back schemes and second-hand instrument lists.

Hire


Hiring appears relatively inexpensive but, in practice, most music shops insist you pay for a period of at least 3 months.  Make sure that you have the time to take advantage of having the instrument in your possession.  Too many people end up hiring for a longer period – simply because they have not planned ahead.  It is often more cost-effective just to buy and, if necessary, sell again or take advantage of a buy-back scheme.

 

Second-hand

Second-hand instruments from reputable music shops are either being sold on commission for existing owners or have been reconditioned and will have a guarantee attached.  Ex-rental models, which may hardly have been played, are often excellent bargains.

Second-hand instruments from other sources – small ads, E-Bay - can be a complete gamble.  If possible, only buy subject to your teacher’s approval.  Perhaps the most important point to remember when buying second–hand is that paying for a complete overhaul or any major repair may cost in the order of £100 or more.  Even a new case is expensive.

Borrow

Temporarily borrowing an instrument from a friend or family member allows you to discover whether or not you wish to pursue your interest.  However, it is important to establish whether the specific instrument is in reasonable playing condition.  Ask the owner to demonstrate and if he/she has problems then get some advice.

 You may also be interested in the following links:

Lessons or teach yourself? music, reeds and accessories useful links


You still possess your old instrument – is it still fit to play?

If you are returning to an instrument after a long gap, you may be aware yourself that it is no longer in working order.  If you are not sure, and you have a teacher, then ask for advice.  Never just take the instrument to a shop and ask to have it put into playing condition without asking for an estimate first.  It is very possible that you would be better off purchasing a reconditioned model from a reputable dealer.

If you no longer have an instrument then you might find advice on buying an instrument helpful.

You may also be interested in the following links:

Lessons or teach yourself? music, reeds and accessories useful links

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Lessons or teach yourself?

Advantages of lessons

If you haven’t played a woodwind instrument before, it is a good idea to have a few lessons to set you off on the right track.

A teacher can help with various basic essentials:
  • putting the instrument together properly
  • how to hold it
  • how to care for it
  • how to blow correctly and obtain a good sound
  • finding a suitable reed, if applicable
  • principles of articulation (tonguing, slurs)
  • advising on appropriate music, depending on your previous musical experience (or lack of it!)

If you encounter problems in the early stages, having lessons means that you have someone on hand to give you help or reassurance.

For those who are a bit further on, having lessons provides an incentive to practise.  Your teacher may encourage you to perfect certain skills or, alternatively, attempt new challenges where, left to your own devices, you might have opted for a less constructive approach.  He or she will suggest music (and possibly even lend you some), can advise on instrument and accessory purchase and may be able to assist with minor repairs.

Looking for a teacher

Disadvantages of lessons

Cost – lessons are not cheap!

Many adult learners find that a weekly music lesson is not compatible with their lifestyle.  It can be difficult to fit sufficient practice time around other commitments and, in some cases, a teacher who is unsympathetic to such issues can be counterproductive.

However, instrumental teachers have to earn a living.  Recognise that if you are hoping to have lessons once a fortnight at most, and may want to stop for lengthy patches due to family or holiday commitments, you are a far less attractive proposition to a teacher than a once-weekly school pupil (unless, of course, you are happy to pay a hefty retainer for all the lessons you don’t have!!)  So, if you find someone who is happy to take you on a more erratic basis, treat him/her very well!  Do not make a habit of phoning the night before to postpone (yet again) because you haven’t done much practising and remember to mention beforehand that you will be going off on holiday…

Bear in mind that very irregular lessons – unless these are to sort out a specific problem – are not much use as an incentive to keep you practising!  They also make it difficult for both pupil and teacher to follow any progressive structure.

Finding a teacher

Look for someone who understands and respects why you want to learn.  An enthusiastic teacher who will give you a good basic grounding is of far more use to the adult learner than a professional performer with plenty of qualifications who can’t really understand why someone of your age is bothering.

Instrumental teachers often advertise in local music shops or libraries.  Word of mouth can be invaluable for discovering whether someone sounds like the right kind of person for you.  A nearby school or university music department may be able to give some recommendations.  Your local authority arts development team is another possible source of advice.

A trial lesson can be an ideal way of discovering whether you have a good rapport with a potential teacher.  However, not everyone offers this as an option.

Be aware that some teachers may not be prepared to take adult learners and, if they are, you may be expected to sign up and pay in advance for a block of weekly lessons.  Alternatively, you may be charged at a slightly higher rate because you attend on a more ad hoc basis.

Teaching yourself

Provided you are well-motivated, you may find that you can progress quite happily and efficiently without a teacher.  Perhaps there is nobody suitable in your area, or you find the whole idea of formal instrumental tuition intimidating.

There are often good instructions on how to play in the early pages of instrumental tutors – make sure you choose one that includes plenty of information.  Watch and listen to performers at concerts, on TV or YouTube.  If you have a friend who plays any woodwind instrument, they may be able to help with how to achieve certain effects or explain what musical symbols mean.  See what advice is available free on the internet.  Perhaps consider an instructional DVD.  With a little ingenuity, it is possible to go a long way without any direct help.

However, at some stage most people need some sort of ‘enforcer’  – perhaps to stop them giving up when they hit a technical challenge, to encourage them to keep practising at times when their life circumstances make this difficult, or to help them re-start if they have had to abandon their instrument for a while.

This doesn’t have to be regular lessons.  Instead, it can be fruitful to set yourself occasional goals – perhaps choosing to attend a Blow & Blast workshop, meeting a friend for a duet session, going on a playing holiday course or even sitting a music exam.  Any of these should highlight aspects of your playing that require attention and give you ideas about how to develop your skills.  Goals of this nature provide that all-important incentive to practise - with the advantage that you have far greater flexibility about what you do and when.

You may also be interested in the following links:

Music, Reeds and Accessories Useful links

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Music, Reeds and Accessories

Music

One of the advantages of having a teacher is that they will recommend suitable music.  If you are teaching yourself, the best tutor book will depend a bit on your existing musical knowledge.  If you have played another instrument, the Learn as You Play series is good.  However, if you are new to reading music, a book which progresses more slowly and includes lots of repetition is valuable, to build your confidence and give you a secure foundation. 

Oosthuizen's Let's Play Flute/Clarinet/Saxophone can be useful for those coping with ‘the dots’ for the first time although, if you catch on quickly, the first book won’t take you long to complete.   The Tune a Day series is also very self-explanatory.  The old-fashioned edition is excellent and you may be able to pick up a second-hand or sale copy for practically nothing.  The 'new' version has a CD, slightly different music and a more modern lay-out. 

Nowadays, many of the books are available with a CD.  This has the advantage that you can listen and check whether you are managing particular elements correctly.  However, trying to play along with the recording can be incredibly difficult.  Learners often end up neglecting sound quality and details of articulation while struggling to keep up.

The Abracadabra series has lots of familiar tunes, lasts for a while, is relatively cheap (if you opt not to have the version with CD) and is useful as supplementary material.

Generally, it is a good idea to go where you can look at anything you intend to buy.  Does it look appealing to you?  Do you think that you would be able to attempt it? The word ‘easy’ in the title does not necessarily mean that the music is suitable for a relative beginner.  Some internet music suppliers give a ‘difficulty rating’ which can be helpful.

Music is sufficiently expensive that there is a lot to be said for rummaging through the piles that sometimes appear in charity shops or trying E-bay or Amazon for second-hand copies.  However, if buying material with a piano accompaniment, check first that the woodwind part is actually there – it is often missing!

Reeds

Clarinet and saxophone reeds are usually available from music shops that sell instruments.  You can purchase individual reeds or packs of two or three.  For hygiene reasons, it is not possible to try playing on them before buying. Later, when you know exactly what you require, you may find it cheaper to buy boxes of 10 or 12 reeds by mail order.

Beginners usually start on a fairly soft reed (1½ or 2) and progress to something a little harder.  If you are teaching yourself, you may have to experiment with the strengths to discover what is appropriate for your mouthpiece and best for you.

Oboe and bassoon reeds are much more expensive and not so readily available.  For a choice of options, you are more likely to require a specialist supplier.  However, it is often possible to order several reeds by mail order and return those which turn out to be unsuitable.  Some places even offer ‘trial packs’ with two or three different strengths/lengths/shapes/scrapes on the same basis.  Again, expect to have to experiment a bit before you find what is best for you.

Accessories

When it comes to many accessories, it is worthwhile asking other players what they have found helpful and perhaps asking if you can try whatever it is.  Otherwise, it is possible to spend a lot of money unnecessarily.  Unfortunately, a gadget that someone else finds really helpful may not suit you at all.  If you are attending a Blow & Blast workshop then we will be happy to advise you if we can.

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Useful Links

www.dawkes.co.uk

Large specialist woodwind and brass instrument retailer in Maidenhead. Dawkes Music has more stock and a far higher turnover of second-hand models than is generally available in Scotland.  They give sound advice and have an efficient mail-order service.  They also sell accessories and carry out instrument servicing and repairs.

   
www.johnpacker.co.uk Budget instrument retailer, specialising in providing relatively cheap but serviceable student starter instruments to schools, local authorities, etc.
   
www.reeds-direct.co.uk Speedy and efficient mail order for clarinet and saxophone reeds.  However, you have to buy a whole box at a time.  Their website and catalogues give extensive information on the makes, types and strengths of reeds available. 
   
www.britanniareeds.com

www.regencyreeds.com
Mail order suppliers of bassoon (Britannia) and oboe (Regency) reeds.  Websites give extensive information on makes, types and strengths.  They also suggest suitable reeds for beginners.
   
www.juneemerson.co.uk Probably the world’s most comprehensive mail order supplier of wind music!  Speedy and efficient.  Excellent if your teacher recommends a particular book.  Staff are well-informed and helpful if you telephone but their website can be frustrating!  You can request one of their free catalogues which grade items according to difficulty.
www.abrsm.org

www.trinitycollege.co.uk

Two of the best known music examination boards.

In each case, the Grade 1 syllabus provides a list of relatively simple pieces.  These can prove useful if you are looking for suitable music.

website content © P and C Melville-Mason, 2011-16