At music conventions, I observe a steady flow of cautious parents sidling among the displays of stringed-instrument providers. They eventually approach and begin to inquire how much they are going to have to spend to outfit their bassist children who aspire to be music majors in college. My answer is that the best equipment makes a huge difference, though I apologize to them that I know this is not what they want to hear from an instrument dealer. Some of them pick up on it and start to put a picture together of how they are going to get behind their kids and give them the best shot of getting into a good music school. Others are so far out of their comfort zone that I see them later engaged with uniformed sales reps at "mass-market" music stores, talking payment plans and model numbers as if they are buying a car. Clipboards and calculators, catalogues, shiny new instruments, and percentages make some parents feel they have a sensible plan for spending "less" to indulge what must certainly be a pipe dream. I would submit that underfunding a talented student's instrument is the express lane for downgrading his potential into a pipe dream.
My parents had the foresight to buy me a very fine old bass (Gemunder) when I was in high school, with the guidance of my teacher in the symphony and a recommendation from the symphony principal (who's now my husband YAY). My mom was an antique dealer and can identify good workmanship when she sees it, and understands that fine instruments appreciate. I can't say definitively that the bass did it, but after acquiring the bass, I ranked first in the state three years in a row, and was accepted to every music school to which I applied, with either a full scholarship or nearly so. I won some competitions that had cash awards, a recording award, tuition remission to summer festivals, and a small independent scholarship. The value of the scholarships at the schools I attended was probably around eight times the price of the bass. And, my parents got their money back in full for the bass, which eventually sold for 2.5 times what they paid.
As an adult, I was off to a slower start funding my own bass purchases, and was making frustratingly slow progress in technique - but since I had already been performing for years, I lost sight of the association between the quality of my instrument and my technical development. I figured I "knew how to play" and work with the instrument I had available. I observed some young students whose parents had equipped them with better basses and bows pass me up and get study and performance opportunities that I was struggling to access. With very few exceptions, those who had the best equipment won the best jobs. The pace of my technical progress ONLY improved when I took their cue, took out a loan, and got a good bass. Your skill may or may not be developed enough to win you the Indy 500, but if it is, you are not going to win it in a Ford Fiesta, or scale Everest with a Disney Pocahontas tent.
This begs the question "then why are there crappy basses?" and the best I can answer that is "because people buy them". Which begs the question "why do people buy them", which begs the answer "because dealers stock them and appear to be offering expert guidance", begging the question "why would they do that?" which can be answered "through some combination of ineptitude and greed". I observed a dealer rep trying really hard to sell a customer a German bow, and then finally saying "well I can't play German bow...". Then why is it on display? How does he know if it's worthy of what the customer needs to do with it? If its value is in its playability, how does he have any idea of how to price it? Because it has a model number in a colorful catalogue?
I PROPOSE A TWO-POINT SOLUTION TO GIVING YOUR STUDENT BASSIST THE BEST ADVANTAGE. DO SOMETHING ABOUT THE SCHOOL INSTRUMENT PROBLEM, AND USE THE SAVINGS TOWARD GETTING HIM A BETTER BASS OF HIS OWN.
I submit that the entire economy of selling crappy instruments at a profit to schools is a crock and a reprehensible destructor of talent and human potential. We already know that in some cases, textbooks are erroneous and/or insufficient, and we are certain they are absurdly overpriced, but the publishers price them and the schools pay it. Yet if it comes under the heading of arts education, it's OK to supply horrible equipment that can't remotely be said to function to the level of the instruction provided. We dealers are compelled to underbid each other, which has led to the most unethical practices in the race to the bottom. Instruments that are drop-shipped, defective, unplayable, and worse and worse over time as budgets are eroded. Don't get me started on the setup. We are all supposed to bid on the same model numbers, which is a shifting sands of distributors and unethical dealers labelling the identical model instrument with their own numbers to make it impossible for others to compete, even by supplying better equipment at the same or better price. Arts administrator positions are being eliminated, and purchasing departments don't know that buying a bass is any different than ordering a desk.
If state departments of education were serious about education, they would be set up to buy their instruments direct, and have their own repair departments. They would be picky about quality instead of pitching dealers into a cage match. They would not hear of orchestra teachers (musicians) having to parcel out their own meager budgets instead of teaching music. They would actually have good instruments AND also be saving a ton of money you paid in school taxes. School districts employ their own bus mechanics, but when it comes to instrument repair, they give out contracts to the lowest bidder. How could there be any consequences of that? Only your kid's career, that's all.
I invite any parents who want to discuss a non-profit school instrument co-op to get in touch. The profit motive is doubtlessly the biggest obstacle to talent education. It is really time to overturn this regressive system, but it's going to take a little work and your voices. AS A RETAILER, I HAVE THOUGHT THROUGH THIS MANY TIMES AND I STILL DON'T SEE THE POINT IN CHARGING SCHOOLS FOR STUFF. Would you charge a child for his uniforms, books, and what he needs to get an education so he can get a job? Yet, it's the kids who are ultimately paying the price - adults cheating them on quality so they can line their own pockets. Here at the bass center, we find ourselves often barred from supplying better luthiery and better equipment to schools that desperately need it, because of long-term contracts given to big dealerships. So we can't sell them stuff, but we CAN in many cases give it to them, and/or facilitate their booster clubs to provide what the string programs really need, with affordable solutions that can be put in place as long as there is enough manpower to administrate it. I don't know about you, but anything I can do to get my offspring a talent scholarship instead of having to fork over full list price for college sounds like a good investment. [UPDATE: I decided to stop waiting around for people to get interested in changing the system, and to just do something about it. So, Quantum Bass Center will be providing top-level instruments to one beginning orchestra class starting Fall 2014, and publicizing their progress compared to students provided with for-profit, low-quality instruments. See our Education section for the latest updates on the project.
So what's the answer? How can parents navigate the bewildering morass of dealers out to make a buck? How can they feel safe buying an instrument that is old, unlabelled, cracked, ugly, and expensive, instead of something that has a model number? Basses are made of trees. No two are identical, regardless of what the sticker says. There really isn't any security in labelling. I'd submit the best security in purchasing comes from expert advice, usually starting with your child's private teacher - as long as he does not have a financial relationship with the instrument dealer. This can not be emphasized enough. If you run into a teacher who takes commissions on instruments, he's not ethical enough to be a teacher. I'll say it again. Find someone else.
Just about any reputable teacher, even if he is not yours, will offer an opinion on an instrument you are considering. Consider asking him to review photos of it by email.
You can save a lot of time and possibly a regrettable purchase by going directly to the shop(s) where the professionals go, and visiting with personnel who can competently demonstrate and clearly explain their inventory and where their pricing fits into the market. This is also funky territory, as not all shops with fine instruments in inventory are entirely ethical. At a bass convention, I was looking at an old, unstamped French bow from a major East Coast shop, when the salesman came over and said "yeah, that's an old Ouchard". I said I don't think so, and he insisted. I replied that I own one (his opportunity to substantiate his claim), and he walked away without another word. There was a world-renowned expert in French bow makers on site. An ethical dealer will not only be OK with seeking authentication on an unstamped or unlabelled instrument, but will suggest it, participate in it, and usually offer to pay for it. Taking an instrument you are considering to a luthier for an opinion can be enlightening, not only in learning about the instrument, but about the dealers involved. An ethical dealer will point out any known defects of a used instrument in advance, and will not have a problem with you taking it to a respected luthier who may see something overlooked, and if something is found, will make it right. If the second dealer just runs down the instrument you are considering in order to try to sell you one of theirs instead, you know who to avoid in the future. Keep in mind that mass-market music stores, though they employ repair staff, typically don't attract expert luthiers capable of evaluating fine instruments. If possible, get a player's opinion from a respected professional bassist who is knowledgeable about instruments. Not all bassists and teachers know instruments particularly well - some are more "gearheads" than others.
Is it going to be expensive? Probably. Capable dealers will be able to offer multiple solutions to the financing issue and will work with you. They know it can be a supreme challenge to get the gear musicians need. Parents will want to know what will become of this investment if things really don't work out for their young bassists. Virtually every dealer will accept their instruments back on trade or consignment. The key to getting the most value when it's time to sell is the condition of the instrument. Youth sometimes have a pretty casual opinion of what constitutes "taking good care" of their instruments, and it literally pays cash dollars to drum into them they need to take exceptional care to avoid devaluing the bass you paid for. Otherwise, it's essential not to overpay to begin with. New, factory-made instruments rarely resell for at or near their purchase prices, unless you keep them in superb condition for several decades. Used instruments actually retain their value much better. Laminated basses are becoming increasingly overpriced and have the poorest resale prices. Interestingly, here at the bass center, we almost never see a fine instrument up for sale because the player gave up playing for lack of opportunity. The basses that come from abandoned careers are virtually always entry-level instruments. You make the connection.