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How to Shop for Pre-Owned Brass Instruments

Kacie Wright examining a pre-owned horn
Kacie Wright examining a pre-owned horn

For the budget-conscious musician, shopping pre-owned instruments can get you the same quality for a much lower price. But how do you know you’re choosing the right instrument? Here are some things to look for.

What condition is the instrument in?

Key points to examine on a brass instrument before purchase:

— Are there any dents or corrosion?

Not all spots are created equal. If the instrument is unlacquered brass, there will be brown fingerprints everywhere someone has touched it. This is a normal part of the oxidation process. Over the next couple of years, that horn will develop a dignified golden-brown patina.

If the instrument has red spots, that might be a sign of red rot, or it might simply be oxidation that managed to sneak under the lacquer. Consult a repair technician if you are concerned about the color of any spots on the instrument.

— Are the valves leaky?

Most reputable shops will be able to give you compression readings, which will tell you if there are any leaks too small for the human eye to see. Houghton Horns is happy to give you these readings on request, and we are in the process of posting them online for all of our instruments.

— Do the valves and slides move smoothly?

If an instrument has been sitting unplayed for months it might be a little sluggish until it’s oiled. But if lubricating the instrument doesn’t get things moving within a few minutes, there might be a problem.

Horn players can follow the instructions in the article How Do I Oil My French Horn?

— Has the instrument been regularly cleaned and taken care of?

If the horn has been sitting in the owner’s attic untouched for 20 years, even a thorough ultrasonic cleaning by your trusted repair shop might not be enough to return it to its original play condition. Ask how often the previous owner played it.

Authorized dealers and repair shops are a good place to look for refurbished instruments because they have a reputation for quality to uphold.

If you are buying from an individual, at the very least you should ask for receipts of any ultrasonic cleanings and repair work they have had done. Take it to your repair shop for a consultation during the trial period.

— Is there any sign of previous damage or repair work?

Once a brass instrument has been dented, even the world’s best repair technician can’t restore it to 100%. Smoothed-out dents and patches in the metal will change the resonance of the instrument.

— Is it free-blowing and easy to play?

There should be the proper amount of resistance. Ask yourself if you would be comfortable playing this instrument for hours at a time, or whether you’d be working yourself to death.

The upper register should be free and easy. The lower register should be rich and vibrant.

— Does it have unexpected intonation problems?

We’re not talking about the usual intonation trouble spots (such as low D, C#, and fourth space E for trumpet players). If you play a few scales and find some notes are weirdly out of tune, maybe pass on this instrument.

Houghton Horns can give you intonation readings on any instrument upon request, and we are working to post the readings for every one of our instruments on our website.

— Can you move flexibly between slurred notes?

Bring some sheet music you are very familiar with to try on the instrument. A new instrument should enhance your technique, not hamper it.

— Is it comfortable to play?

Can your hand reach all of the valves and pinky hook without strain? If they can’t, can anything on the instrument (pinky hook, flipper, etc.) be adjusted to fit your hand better? Can your teacher or a friend recommend a strap or grip that will make the instrument easier to hold?

If all else fails and you really love the instrument, your local repair shop may be able to move the pinky hook and other parts around to better fit your hand. If you want to go that route, be sure to factor that cost into the purchase price. But at any rate, don’t buy an instrument that will be painful to hold for hours on end.

Just because the instrument isn’t comfortable for you at first, that’s not necessarily a bad sign. A new instrument may take a few weeks to start feeling natural to you, especially if you are jumping up from a school horn to a more expensive one. Professional instruments require a higher volume of air and a higher degree of control than beginner instruments, and the step up can be difficult for less experienced players.

Bringing your teacher along to trial instruments with you, or FaceTiming them during the trial, may be helpful in deciding whether there is a genuine issue with the instrument, or whether it will grow more familiar to you with practice.

— Most importantly: Do you like the way it sounds?

Will you enjoy practicing with this instrument every day? Even if it may feel strange to your hands and lips until you get used to it, does it make you sound good?

There’s no rush

Spend plenty of time shopping around before you purchase. Try multiple instruments.

If a seller is too aggressive or too desperate to make the deal that same day, consider that a red flag. No seller who wanted a happy long-term relationship with their customers would rush them into making an unwise decision.

What happens if it’s not working out for you?

Read the terms and conditions before you buy. Legitimate sellers should offer:

— a trial period

— a return policy

— a warranty

If the seller insists that all sales are final, and you might not be able to contact them again if there is a problem with your instrument, don’t trust them with your money.

Is this instrument what you really need, or just cheap?

Five years from now, will you be happy you saved $500 buying from a stranger on Craigslist, if the slide sticks and the valves leak? A brass instrument is a considerable investment that should serve you well for years. As the old adage goes, if the price looks too good to be true, it probably is.

It’s better to buy the right instrument the first time than have to buy a second instrument soon after.

Don’t be afraid to walk away

Sometimes people get attached to an instrument before they find out it exceeds their budget, so they sign the contract anyway, to their later regret.Try saving up for a few months – if you still love that model three months later and can’t imagine playing anything else, that’s when you know you’ve made the perfect choice! Wherever possible, we recommend saving up and buying an instrument outright, because that will save you hundreds of dollars in interest. 

If a loan will be necessary, you can check out our financing options here. After you’ve set a tentative budget, you might also want to ask your personal bank for financing options, because a bank that already has a relationship with you might be willing to give you better terms than a bank that does not know you. Have an idea of how financing will affect your budget before you get too far into the shopping process.

Sometimes customers feel too embarrassed to tell the sales staff that a purchase is beyond their budget at the moment, and this leads them into unwise financial decisions. Don’t stress about telling the salesperson that you will need to save up before purchasing. If the business is legitimate, they have seen this happen a thousand times before and will be happy to say goodbye for now and check in with you later. If they get angry or pushy, you probably don’t want to be doing business with them anyway.

Other considerations

Don’t forget to factor shipping and sales tax into your budget when shopping. If you are shipping the instrument internationally, tariffs and customs duties may apply.

Pre-owned instruments often come with cases, but they are generally in poor condition. Don’t expect a 15-year-old factory case to keep your instrument safe in a serious accident. You may need a new case for a used instrument.

For sanitation reasons, we recommend tossing out any mouthpieces that come with pre-owned instruments. Even if your new-to-you instrument doesn’t come with a mouthpiece, many musicians prefer to change mouthpieces at the same time to better fit the instrument. You might want to add a new mouthpiece to your budget as well.

Once you add in sales tax, shipping, customs, a case, and a mouthpiece, a $3,500 trumpet could easily become $4,000. We recommend keep a spreadsheet in Excel or Google Drive where you can compare all of the various ancillary costs associated with the instruments you are considering.

Ready to start looking?

Okay, so you’ve got a spreadsheet set up and a new browser tab open? Check out instruments on our online shop or schedule an instrument trial appointment. Happy shopping!

— Kacie Wright

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What to Do When Playing Hurts

Pain Clip Art
Pain Clip Art

You’ve heard the phrase “No pain, no gain”, but when it comes to your brass instrument, pain might impede your progress instead of fostering growth. Who wants to practice when it hurts?

If you frequently experience pain while playing, DO NOT push through it. Speak up! Ask your teacher and your doctor for advice. Continuing to play in ways that cause harm to your body may result in permanent injury. Fix what hurts now, so that it doesn’t hurt forever.

Here are some common causes of pain while playing a brass instrument, and suggestions for correcting them.

Lips

Allergy

If your lips are swollen and stinging after practicing, first eliminate the possibility of a metal allergy. You might consider a nonallergenic titanium mouthpiece such as the Black H-Kote Houghton Horns mouthpiece rim.

Houghton Horns French Horn Mouthpieces Black H-Kote Rim

Poor Breath Support

You might be using your lip muscles to compensate for a lack of solid air flow. Focus on your breathing and posture. Ask a teacher or friend to watch you play and critique your technique.

Incorrect Mouthpiece Angle

Maintaining the correct mouthpiece angle is particularly problematic for marching band students, and who can blame you? You have to stay on beat, move in formation, obey all the commands the band director is shouting at you, AND hold your instrument at the right angle? You’re only human!

French horn players might want to try a Verus M1T mellophone mouthpiece, a Verus M1H marching French horn mouthpiece, or a Faxx mouthpiece bent for marching band to achieve an angle that puts less pressure on your lips.

Verus Mellophone Mouthpiece M1T
Verus Marching French Horn Mouthpiece M1H
Faxx French Horn Mouthpieces Bent for Marching Band

This video by Karen Houghton might be aimed at band directors, but it has some helpful advice for how to correct your mouthpiece angle on the horn.

Incorrect Embouchure

Watch yourself play in a mirror to find and correct embouchure problems. Consider using an visualizer to practice buzzing. Watch Mark Houghton’s video on how to use an embouchure visualizer.

Over-Practicing

Don’t tell your teacher we said this, but there is such a thing as too much practice. Know your limits – probably no more than three hours a day – and stay within them. There’s really no other way to avoid tired and sore lips.

Some people swear by Robinson’s Remedies for aching lips.

Robinson's Remedies

Braces

For starters, do you have your orthodontist’s approval to be playing a brass instrument in the first place? Otherwise don’t mash a metal mouthpiece against your expensive braces.

If your orthodontist has given you permission to play with braces, ask them for advice. They may recommend sticking wax on your braces, or they may be able to sell you a “Morgan bumper” you can wrap around your teeth while playing.

One reason braces are painful for brass musicians is poor breath support. If you are overusing your lips to compensate for insufficient breath support from your lungs and diaphragm, it’s going to hurt more. Practice your breathing and ask a teacher to critique your posture and technique. If you’re playing correctly, the mouthpiece won’t put enough pressure on your lips for the braces to cut into your skin.

Hand

French horn players are in luck here, as it’s fairly easy to tweak many horns to better fit a player’s hand.

First, look at your flipper and pinky hook. Do they have screws that can be adjusted with a screwdriver or hex wrench? You may be able to move the flipper and pinky hook up or down to perfectly fit your hand. When in doubt, ask your band director or a professional repair technician to adjust your flipper and pinky hook for you – they snap off pretty easily, but can cost $$$ to replace.

Don’t have an adjustable flipper and pinky hook? Our repair shop can install one on most horns.

Adjustable Flipper for French Horn
Adjustable Pinky Hook for French Horn

Horn players with small hands might want to consider a Fhrap, which takes a lot of the weight of the horn off the pinky.

Fhrap Black Strap for French Horn

Trombone players can install an ax handle brace to take some of the stress off their wrist. There is also an astonishing variety of straps and braces for the trombone. Ask our trombone specialist Christian for help with your trombone grip.

Trombone Ax Handle Brace Kit

Unfortunately for players of many other brass instruments, there might not be too much you can do by yourself to fix the problem of a poor hand fit. But before you toss out the entire instrument, it never hurts to consult a professional repair technician. On trumpets, for example, they may be able to move the pinky hook so that your pinky fits more comfortably.

Many brass musicians could benefit from looking into something like a Leather Specialties leather guard. If your hand is having to squeeze extra-tight to compensate for sliding in sweat and oil, something that secures your grip will release some of the tension in your hand.

Leather Specialties right hand guard for horn, Lewis model, black leather

Shoulders, Arms, & Back

After hours of holding up a heavy instrument, a little bit of soreness is only to be expected, particularly for beginners who haven’t built up the correct muscle groups. But if you cross the line from “kind of sore” to “actively painful”, there might be a problem with how you’re holding your instrument.

This is easier said than done, but teach yourself to be conscious of any tension in your shoulders and arms. Relax them as soon as you feel it. Practice in front of a mirror so that you build a habit of holding your instrument and distributing its weight correctly.

One of our favorite accessibility tools is the Ergobrass. It’s a brace that allows you to rest the weight of your instrument on the floor or a belt buckle. We highly recommend it for people who would otherwise struggle to play an instrument due to a disability, but it’s great for abled people who want to give their arms a break during an extensive practice session too.

Ergobrass Trombone Support

French horn players can read this guide to holding their horn.

Holistics

Learn to pay attention to your body. The signals it is sending you are important early warning signs of injury that can allow you to prevent larger issues later on. Consider taking up a practice such as meditation or yoga that will teach you mindfulness about your body and how it communicates with you.

Be diligent about warming up before each practice or playing session. Ask your teacher for warm-up techniques. Don’t restrict yourself to getting tips from brass musicians, either – vocalists, yoga practitioners, dancers, and athletes may have great stretches and exercises that help you loosen up before and cool down after a heavy stretch of playing.

Any other brass instrument-related health issues? Ask a question in the comment section below and our staff will get back to you with our recommendations.

Any advice we left out? Please leave a comment.

— Kacie Wright and Dr. Sally Podrebarac

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20 Questions on the 20th with John Sebastian Vera

John Sebastian Vera

This month’s 20 on 20 features John Sebastian Vera, Principal Trombone at the Pittsburgh Opera, the River City Brass Band, and current Acting Principal Trombone of the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Vera is also co-creator of the Third Coast Trombone Retreat (podcast coming soon!), and Professor of Trombone at Slippery Rock University.

1. What was your first instrument and how old were you when you started?

I started piano when I was 7, my mother and grandmother are/were both wonderful lifelong pianists with perfect pitch so I felt the pressure. I’ll just say I’m more suited for one note at a time. I started on a used King peashooter trombone when I was 11.

2. Could you describe what would be your perfect day?

Waking up early, meditating, great coffee with a friend, exercise/workout in some way, brainstorming/writing new ideas, practicing something that challenges me or just makes me feel good then getting on a plane and flying somewhere I’ve never been!

3. Most memorable performance?

Oof that’s tough, I’ll list a few:
-Nutcracker run with the Washington National Ballet at the Kennedy Center
-Shostakovich 5 with the Buffalo Philharmonic and conductor, Michal Nesterowicz
-Mahler 7 with Malaysian Philharmonic
-Getting to play on James Markey’s solo CD with my heroes as a grad student
-Outreach concerts in Haiti and Bangladesh
-Performing with Nelly and the Pittsburgh Symphony

 4. Significant teachers/mentors in your life?

All of my teachers had some sort of impact on my playing and even more so on the person I’ve become in their own different ways and when I listen to recordings of myself I hear a little bit of all of them. Jon Bohls, John Kitzman, Edward Zadrozny, David Finlayson, and James Markey.

5. Something you’ve been meaning to try, but just haven’t gotten around to it?

Kayaking in the summer, cross-country skiing in the winter.

6. Favorite symphony?

Gorecki Symphony No. 3

7. Who was the last person that made you cry and why?

Man, we’re getting personal here! I’m not ashamed to say I teared up when my hero Dirk Nowitzki retired. They didn’t make it easy with all the tribute videos and articles. He inspired me greatly.

8. If money was no object, what would you buy?

Now we’re talking. Eliminate debt for anyone in my family, give my friends who are running music schools in Haiti everything they need, and then travel year-round!

9. One thing most people don’t know about you?

I’m a lot more introverted than people realize, I fake it pretty well.

10. Opera or ballet?

Opera, duh, although the ballet repertoire is incredible and some of the most underrated music ever written.

11. First job?

Model train shop.

12. Favorite sports team?

All Dallas teams :smiley:, plus Everton FC in England.

13. If you could invite one person to dinner tonight, who would it be?

Thom Yorke.

14. Coffee or Tea?

Coffee in the morning, lavender tea at night.

15. Favorite book?

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.

16. Favorite movie?

Before Sunset/Before Sunrise/Before Midnight.

17. Siblings?

An older brother, Robert and two half-sisters, Deana and Cindy. I’m definitely the least successful of the family. So proud of all of them.

18. Favorite piece to play?

Jeremy Howard Beck’s “Awakening” for four trombones and “Spiegel im Spiegel” by Arvo Pärt.

19. Least favorite piece to play?

La Traviata, I know, I know. one of the greatest operas ever, but the trombone part is often waiting hundreds of measures for a buildup and just playing a loud whole note chord to do the process all over again. I get a lot of books read during those operas though.

20. Dogs or cats?

Dogs every day. I’m scared to like any cat photos on social media for fear they’ll take over my feed.

Trombone Day at Texas A&M University-Kingsville

Looking forward to seeing you, Kingsville!

The 4th annual Trombone Day will be held on the campus of Texas A&M University-Kingsville in their brand new music building. Those in attendance will be able to participate in a group warmup session alongside their peers, students from other schools, and 36 members of the TAMUK Trombone Studio. In addition, attendees will be able to play in a mass trombone choir reading session following the warmup class, and exhibitors will be available onsite for students wishing to purchase music and related materials. The reading session will be middle school friendly as well.

American Trombone Workshop

The American Trombone Workshop (ATW) has become one of the largest annual events for trombone in the world. The workshop’s mission is to give students, performers, and educators an opportunity to meet and share ideas, talents, and opinions about the world of trombone. ATW regularly hosts participants throughout the nation and abroad. The workshop is held at Brucker Hall—The U.S. Army Band’s headquarters and performance center—located on historic Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital.

ATW is the only professionally organized and staffed trombone workshop or conference in the United States. Soloists, educators, and students—as well as university and college trombone ensembles from around the world—attend the workshop annually.

The workshop hosts a number of solo and ensemble competitions for performers of all ages. Over 1,000 students and professional trombonists have submitted audition tapes for the various competitions sponsored by ATW since 1993. Competitions include the National Solo Competition, the National Jazz Solo Competition, the National Jazz Ensemble Competition, and the National Trombone Quartet Competition.

Registration

All events are free; however, it is recommended that each person wishing to attend complete an online registration so that we may inform you of special events, security protocols, and inclement weather alerts. Click HERE to register.

TCU Trombone Summit

Come see us at the trombone summit this weekend!

The TCU School of Music will host the 11th annual TCU Trombone Summit on Sunday, March 1 and Monday, March 2, 2020 featuring guest artists Barry Hearn, Joe Dubas, Amanda Hudson, and Barney McCollum. Master classes and performances will be held on March 1, culminating in guest artist performances in the evenings. The Monday evening concert will feature the TCU Trombone Choir.