I have been freelance writing ever since elementary school. My passions include music, age-appropriate dance, travel, and more.
Why Quality Band Instruments and Why Not Off-Brands?
Have you ever played in a band before? If you did, you may recall the days of playing trumpets in your middle school bands or the baritone saxophones your high school marching bands (with color guards and dancelines). Also, some of your students in your school you encountered, in particular ignorant bullies, called you "band geeks" or "band nerds."
Every football game, winter and spring concert, field trip to an amusement park, and any other event where the organizers invited you, you amazed the crowds with your sound. The things you have learned throughout your time playing with the groups include perfecting your embouchures, practicing good playing posture, and promoting teamwork.
But among those things, promoting and presenting the good quality of your instruments give your bands a superior sound.
Unfortunately, for some frugal and tight-budget people, buying (or even renting) a musical instrument they can play in a band can be expensive. They are wary of what brands they buy, and brand-names are the most expensive versions of basic needs, even on instruments they can blow on.
So, they go to places where everything is cheap and buy off-brand versions. School music directors, music instrument repairmen, and professional musicians alike warn them to steer clear of them, but they ask why. The off-brand musical instruments are known as instrument-shaped objects (ISOs).
Note: I'm talking about wind instruments here - percussion and string instruments are different stories.
I Considered Buying An ISO at a Discount Store, But Didn't
After shopping for school supplies in 6th grade, I saw a display at a discount mega-store that caught my eye: shelves loaded with flutes, trumpets, and clarinets. The latter items enticed me, but when I saw the retail price, I thought that I will save my money until I'm affluent to buy one of them. Unfortunately, I did not. (Fortunately, I rented a Selmer clarinet for the first two years in middle school and bought a Yamaha for the last.)
When my memories of seeing that instrument display came back to me a few years later, I searched for the term "clarinet" in the official website of the store I last saw it and found a brand that was not Selmer or Yamaha. (I'm not disclosing the names of the off brands of the instruments to avoid any legal actions.)
I saw some bad reviews, saying that the timbre was poor, the keys fell off, and other things that declared it an inferior clarinet. I searched for the clarinet and the off brand on the search engines and found out that it was an ISO.
The lighter side of defining an ISO...
Where ISOs Come From
Quality instruments are made from experienced craftsmen. They know the right materials in crafting them, the steps on how they are made, and the tuning that make them the best of the lots.
You can't expect excellent quality, playability, and great timbre from an ISO because their makers make them in the lowest quality possible. Often, they come from third-world countries, where there are abundances of sweatshops. Isn't it ironic that the same manufacturers who make cheap toys and shoes make instruments that look like they are top-quality?
Worst of all, they come from discount stores, flea markets, and online auction websites. Most of their employees don't know about the specifications about the instruments, and they are offered at fractions of the prices of the quality ones.
Buy A Better Clarinet!
What They Are Usually Made Of
Woodwinds are the most vulnerable instruments to be marketed under ISO's, particularly alto and tenor saxophones, C concert flutes, and B-flat soprano clarinets. The reason why is because they are the most common ones and can be seen in large numbers in any given band.
Flutes and common saxophones crafted in that manner are not respectively made with silver alloys or brass. They are made of pot metal, which is commonly used for cheap jewelry and toys. Clarinets are made of low-quality plastic and its keys are made from the same materials as its brass-bodied cousin. I speculate that the reeds from the ISO manufacturers for the common single-reed instruments are made of bamboo, not from the more costly Arnudo donax cane.
Brass instruments can be made into ISOs, most notably the B-flat trumpet because it is a common one in its family. Like the cheap flutes and saxophones, it is made from the same metals used for cheap toys. While the brass alloy for a true trumpet is nearly heat-resistant, the cheap counterpoint has a low melting point.
While brass and high-quality plastics are too expensive, ISO makers use cheaper versions that make them look like those fresh from the instrument market.
Looks Cool, But...
What About Colored Instruments?
Have you seen a red trumpet in a symphony orchestra or professional wind band performance? You probably don't think so. Have you seen a green alto saxophone in your high school marching band that won a lot of awards? Probably not. Colored versions of band instruments - from crayon-yellow flutes to blue clarinets - look appealing but are distracting to any ensemble meant to appear professional.
Also, they are ISOs, since the sweatshop crafters spray a cheap lacquer that has the potential to peel off on top of the poorly-made materials.
Can't they JUST say that the violin is a FLUTIN' ISO?
In 2012, a girl from New Mexico was told off by her orchestra director at her middle school because she played a purple violin, which her grandmother purchased for her from a big-box store. Her mother blamed the situation on public schools squelching individuality and creativity. But she recalled, "She didn’t like the color and she said she had to keep tuning it, suggesting it was a piece-of-(explicit) violin (read: an ISO)."
Despite the school district offering her to have the girl rent one of their natural-colored violins free-of-charge, she left orchestra for choir.
Band (or any other large group) is all about teamwork, not how well you stand out on the outside. But colored instruments, on the other hand, just don't follow this rule.
Do Music Stores Fix ISOs?
Music stores are hesitant to fix instruments that are ISOs. Again, pot metal melts at a lower temperature than real brass or nickel, and it gives repairmen a harder time to re-solder the keys or valves. Also, they face greater risks of doing so because most of the parts are from lead.
How Can I Enjoy the Gift of Music, While Not Feeling the Pain of an ISO?
To avoid being ripped off because you bought a musical instrument that is structurally and musically decrepit, here are some tips:
- Buy or rent instruments from a real music store - they have better quality instruments and it will save you some grief.
- Consider renting to own - it costs less, and you can worry about just paying it on a monthly basis.
- Buy or rent an instrument with a brand that is reputable. (See below for a list of good examples.)
- If you are buying an instrument online, buy the brands that are well known. When purchased, go to the nearest music store to check if it needs to be repaired.
Examples of Quality Brands of Band Instruments
Gemeinhardt, Yamaha, Jupiter, Artley, Armstrong
- Clarinets (any kind)
Selmer, Yamaha, LeBlanc, Buffet
- Saxophones (any kind)
Yamaha, Selmer, Jupiter
Bach,Yamaha, Selmer, King, Jupiter
- F Horns
Bach, Yamaha, Conn, Holton
Bach, Jupiter, Besson, King, Conn
- Euphonium or Baritone
Yamaha, Bach, Conn
Yamaha, Bach, Conn
In a nutshell...
Buying or renting a band wind instrument is expensive. Even worse, the ISOs that seem like good prices for instrument that look high-quality on the outside are too tempting. Remember the concept of caveat emptor - be wary of cheaply priced imitators on the market. It's better to rent one with a decent quality than to buy one at a local flea market that can fall apart.
- MY Top 3 Tips on Selling Musical Instruments on Resale Sites
Please make sure that the instrument you're reselling is NOT an ISO! Besides, many resale sites have policies regarding counterfeits, those are, ISOs that look similar to brand names.
Buying Guides for ISO-Prone Band Instruments
- Top 3 Flutes For Beginners: How To Find The Best St...
- Buy a Quality Clarinet Online
- Best Saxophones For Students and Beginners
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2010 talfonso
talfonso (author) from Tampa Bay, FL on March 11, 2020:
Nicole, thank you for quoting parts of my Hub! Can't wait to have music educators and music store workers use it year after year - I recently updated it to include more relevant videos.
Nicole on November 05, 2014:
Thank you! I'm quoting your article at our instrumental workshops at the school I work at. It's like pulling teeth trying to get kids to buy quality instruments instead of the ISOs they buy online. Some 'clarinet brands' (and I use the term 'clarinet' loosely) misalign themselves in the cases!
Carolyn Augustine from Iowa on August 03, 2010:
I love the way you add a touch of humor (instrument-shaped objects!) to an otherwise informative and information-packed hub. Voting you up and adding a link from my clarinet hub! Cheers!