Pay the Piper

So you want to play a musical instrument?

You'd like to learn a musical instrument but don't know what it will cost? We tell you both the obvious and the hidden costs - everything you need to know

Why play an instrument?
What instrument to play
How to buy an instrument
Where to get lessons
How much progress will I make?
Doing your practice
Music exams
Upgrading your instrument
Finding opportunities to play
Switching instruments
Violin & Viola
Double Bass
French Horn
Trumpet & Cornet
Other brass instruments
Your questions answered
What's copyright?
Links to other sites

What it costs

Private tuition costs from about £18 an hour upwards. Lessons are normally half-an-hour, and most private teachers work in terms of ten weeks, so you should think of a figure from £90 per term. Some private teachers charge more, of course, and one has known teachers with wide reputations for coaching very advanced pupils ask for as much as £50 an hour. There are limits, though, for a beginner. If a teacher expects you to pay more than, say, £30 an hour you should ask yourself what makes them so good they are worth that much?
If you are able to get tuition at school the cost will depend on what arrangement the school has made with the teacher. If they have simply arranged for a private teacher to visit the school and bill parents direct - in other words, if the school is merely providing the premises and the contact - then the normal private rates should apply. If the school is accessing tuition from the local music service the cost can be very high, and the real cost of music service tuition can be in the region of £24 an hour or more. However, most music services (and some schools) are able to subsidise the cost so you will end up paying much less. The law forbids any maintained school to make a profit from instrumental tuition. It also forbids a school to make any charge at all for singing tuition, although this is a silly law and some schools ignore it until a parent complains. Independent schools usually charge the normal private rate. They are allowed to make a profit from instrumental and vocal tuition if they wish.
Although it is normal for instrumental lessons to be thirty minutes long, and sometimes less within the school system, there are other ways of doing things. An older, more advanced pupil might do very well from having a longer lesson only once a fortnight, for instance, because they are able to exercise more control over their own practice and progress in between. The younger the pupil, the more regular and frequent the tuition needs to be.
Sheet Music
Sheet music is quite expensive, especially some of the more rarified European publications that are sometimes set for higher grade examinations. Beginners, though, usually work from "tutors" - that is, books of carefully graded pieces, scales, exercises etc. that can provide all a young pupil needs for quite a long time. A good example is Wastall's "Learn as you play" published by Boosey & Hawkes. There are many others. You normally have to let the teacher select which music will be used, which is sensible because obviously they will work better with material they know well themselves. Once you get into the realm of instrumental examinations you will have to branch out and buy books of pieces or even, in some cases, pieces published singly. If your teacher does not select from the exam syllabus very carefully, this can be expensive. On the whole, certainly in the early years, sheet music shouldn't cost you more than £15 - £20 a year.
Apart from your instrument, there is not a lot of equipment to buy. You will need a music stand, of course. It is possible to pay a great deal of money for music stands, but what most musicians do is buy the cheapest - probably about £10 or so - and acknowledge that they'll have to get another one in a couple of years because they're flimsy and will break eventually. Some instruments are best kept on a stand, either between practice-sessions or even during a concert. You can get purpose-made stands for many wind and brass instruments. These vary a lot in cost depending how complex they have to be. The players who seem to find them the most useful, because their instruments are an awkward shape or size, are trombonists and saxophonists. Players of double-bass and 'cello need something in which to rest the spike of the instrument while playing, to stop it from slipping and to protect the floor, unless they are lucky enough to have an instrument with a rubber foot. You can make such a device yourself. A simple block of wood with a depression in it for the spike can be tied with string to your chair, or a t-shaped piece of wood can fit behind the legs of the chair. But most music shops can sell you, very cheaply, a 'cellist's "mushroom" - a little plastic circle with grippy rubber underneath. Double bassists also need a tall stool - see the page about the Double Bass. Do invest in something to keep your music in. It can get terribly tatty terribly quickly if you try and carry it in your instrument case, although some violin cases have a nice music pocket on the outside. You don't need anything fancy - one of those plastic wallets from W.H.Smith or Staples will be fine - but it does need to be big, at least A3 size.
You need to insure the instrument. Accidents do happen, and your instrument is a considerable investment. First check your household insurance policy. You may find that up to a certain value any of your possessions are insured, whether they are at home or elsewhere. If this is not the case, contact a specialist musical instrument insurer. They are not expensive at all, and they really do understand about the things that can happen to musicians and to musical instruments. They even understand (as many normal insurers do not) that musical instruments have to be taken to school sometimes, with all the extra risks that entails. Many musicians both amateur and professional use a firm called British Reserve. Local authorities do not usually accept any responsibility for personal possessions while on their premises, so if your instrument is stolen or damaged while at school you should not necessarily expect the school to do anything about it.
An interesting recent idea you might consider if your instrument is particularly valuable, is Musi-Trac. Costing about 25, this is a tiny microchip which can be embedded in the actual instrument, and is virtually impossible to remove. Special scanners can read the signal from the microchip and compare it to a national register, meaning that if your instrument is stolen it is immediately identifiable. Recovery is much more likely, and the risk of theft reduced.
Instrument Maintenance
The costs here are not great.
Every three years or so, woodwind instruments will need a "re-pad" - the little soft pads that actually close off the holes will have to be replaced. This will cost in the region of £40 - £70. If your instrument has rings of cork to seal the joints between sections, a tiny, tiny smear of cork-grease or Vaseline is good. Shake the moisture off the sections of the instrument and if they've given you a pull-through (a little rag or something absorbent to pull through the bore of the instrument to dry it) use it before putting it away, although modern instruments are not affected by water at all. That's about all. Don't polish the instrument - just wipe with a clean dry cloth if you want, although it's hardly necessary. Especially do NOT polish metal instruments like saxophones. The finish is protected with lacquer, and you'll polish the lacquer off! Use your dry cloth to wipe away finger-marks - that's all. Very occasionally one meets a person who has an ingredient in their perspiration that marks the metal of a flute (unlike saxophones or brass instruments, flutes are not lacquered). Nobody seems to have an answer for this, but it is very rare, luckily! For more detailed advice about maintaining woodwind instruments, go to John Myatt Woodwind & Brass
Brass instruments need no maintenance unless something goes wrong. However the valves need a very little special valve-oil (from the music shop) once in a while, and the tuning-slides need a smear of Vasoline to keep them from jamming. Do not dismantle the valves yourself - you are likely to find that you can't work out which way round to put them back. Do NOT polish the instrument with metal polish. The finish is protected with lacquer, and you'll polish the lacquer off! Use a dry clean cloth to wipe away finger-marks - that's all. For more detailed advice about maintaining brass instruments, go to John Myatt Woodwind & Brass
String instruments need new strings - the smaller the instrument the more frequently the strings break or become rough under your fingers. Either the music shop or your teacher will put them on for you. The bow will need re-hairing every year or two, which is a job for a specialist bowmaker or violin repairer. You should rub some rosin (again, from the music-shop) onto the bow every time you play. Do NOT polish the instrument - you'll damage the varnish. Use a clean dry cloth only, being careful to wipe away deposits of white powder from the rosin, as this can get on your fingers and make playing uncomfortable. When you put the instrument away, remember to slacken the hair of the bow a little by turning the screw at the end (don't slacken the strings of the violin, though!). Never put anything except rosin on the bow hair. Some people wash the bow hair when it gets caked with old rosin, but frankly we don't advise it unless you really know what you're doing. The same goes for cleaning the instrument - there are special preparations available, but really you need to know what you're doing.
Joining an Orchestra
Joining a band or orchestra is not usually an expensive business. For instance we know of one county where members of local youth orchestras have to pay £28 a term. But of course there are things like concert dress to consider, and then your parents will want to come to all your concerts so they'll have to buy tickets! There are youth orchestras and bands that have residential courses and sometimes go on concert-tours abroad, which can be very expensive although very exciting and enjoyable, but that's something for the future if you're only just starting out.
The Parental Taxi
Finally, you should not ignore the effect on family life of having a budding musical genius in the house! Once you are good enough to be playing regularly in an orchestra, band or local music school ensemble, the commitment will tie the whole family - or at least one parent - down regularly every week. There will also be holiday activities to be considered which will affect family plans. And there is the cost in both time and money in getting you to your weekly lesson, to concerts, to rehearsals, to courses etc. We know some parents who feel they spend all their free time (Parents? "Free" time? - huh!) ferrying their musical youngsters all over the place - they love it really, and they're very proud, but it is a consideration that must not be ignored.



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Copyright © David Bramhall 2001