plonkee money an english-er's thoughts on personal finance

April 29, 2008

so you’d like to play music

Filed under: shopping — Tags: , , — plonkee @ 12:00 pm

So, I’ve decided to take up the oboe. As you do.

I already play the viola pretty well (or at least I would do if I practised) and I’ve always thought that if I learnt another instrument, it would be the oboe – we don’t mention the awful piano lessons I spent about 3 years taking when I was much, much younger.

One of the reasons that I didn’t take up the oboe as well as the viola is that it’s quite expensive to learn musical instruments. I was very fortunate in that I had the opportunity to learn an instrument at very low cost through my areas music service. I received 30 individual half hour lessons a year, plus played in a variety of orchestras, sang in choirs, took theory and musicianship lessons – kids can still do the same thing today, where I grew up, the cost is about £132 ($264) per term, group lessons are a lot cheaper. I’ve written elsewhere about how important music is to me, and it’s one of the most enjoyable things that I did at school.

So, now that I’m an adult, I can afford to pay for my own lessons. I’ve had my first oboe lesson, it was a lot of fun, and I’m paying £10 for half an hour, which is the low end of the going rate round here.

buying an instrument

If you or someone you know is interested in learning a musical instrument, you might want to know some typical costs. Don’t forget that these are UK prices, I’m not sure what the rates are likely to be elsewhere, but the relative expense of one instrument compared to another is likely to be the same.

Instruments – student / beginner models

  • violin £80-£100
  • viola £80-£100
  • cello £200-£250
  • double bass £500-£650
  • flute £150-£300
  • clarinet £150-£300
  • oboe £800-£1000
  • bassoon £1000-£1500
  • saxophone £300-£600 (this depends on size)
  • guitar £80-£100
  • trumpet £150-£250
  • french horn £400-£800
  • trombone £200-£300
  • piano £1000-£2000
  • drum kit £200-£300
  • recorder £10-£20

taking lessons

To really, progress, on most instruments, lessons are helpful especially at the beginning. You would be able to get away without if you want to strum the guitar, have a go at the recorder, or provide the drums for your local band. If you want to play in a brass band, or play traditional music (folk and the like) it’s possible to go along and pick things up. But, teaching yourself in this way is hard to do unless you are already quite musical. But, if you aren’t musical you would still get good results on any instrument from having lessons, especially if you worked on the instrument for a couple of years.

A beginner will only be wanting half hour long lessons. In fact you can get to a pretty good standard only having half hour lessons (certainly well enough to impress most people you know). These seem to range from £10-£15 a time. My oboe teacher offers discounts if you pay for more up front, and if you get them through school, or team up with a friend, you wouldn’t need to pay this much.

buying music

If you can learn by ear, then you can do without this. Likewise, if you’re playing in a brass band then the music will probably be supplied. Otherwise, the costs start at £5-£10 for a beginners book, and then ranges from £5-£20+ depending on how much music is in the book, and how rare it is.

If you get into it and you have the cash, it’s easy to spend a lot of money on music. The trick is to actually learn the stuff that you have, before you buy out the whole music shop. That said, it’s nice to have a few things that people will want to hear at different times, like Christmas Carols. Maybe one day you can gather the family round the piano for a singing session (we really did this when I was little :) ).

ongoing costs and repair

Woodwind instruments need to be repaired or overhauled every couple of years or so. This costs about £50-£100. On top of that, clarinettists, saxophonists, oboists, and bassoonists require reeds (cane that vibrates to make the sound), which cost from £5-£20, or you can learn to make your own. Then cork grease (so you can get the bloomin’ thing together) is about £2.

String players need rosin (sticky stuff that makes the bow sound on the string) which costs about £3, and you will eventually break a string and they cost from £5+ to replace. String technology hasn’t changed much in the last couple of hundred years so they are relatively low maintenance. You might one day need a bow rehair, but

Acoustic pianos need to be tuned, preferably a couple of times a year. Digital ones don’t really require that much maintenance.

Overhauling a brass instrument costs from £200 upwards. Fortunately, these aren’t in the repair shop quite as much as woodwind. Otherwise, there’s valve oil, at about £3-£4.


The biggest and most important thing that you need if you want to play a musical instrument, is to practice. Little and often, repetitively, and with purpose (i.e. don’t just play the bits you can already do). To make progress, it’s reckoned that you need to practice about 20-30 minutes at least 4 times a week (a bit like exercise recommendations, really). To become a virtuoso it has been suggest that you need to put in about 10,000 hours of practice. Fortunately, practice is free.

best value for money

Once you get into playing an instrument, there’s a tendency to want a better instrument. My viola cost about £1500 more than 10 years ago, and a really good violin starts at about £10k. The cost of pretty good flutes, clarinets, trumpets, oboes, etc is between 2 and 3 times the beginner instrument cost (and, of course upwards). For value for money, I’d say that the recorder is probably the cheapest instrument – even excellent wooden recorders only cost a couple of hundred pounds. Otherwise, once you’ve bought the thing, the piano is pretty reasonable, and the guitar, is an excellent self-contained instrument where most people are happy with a relatively inexpensive one.

If your dream is playing a concerto in front of an audience of hundreds, then choose the instrument that you love the most – that’s the only thing that will get you through the hours of practice required.

Edited to add: I remembered these frugal musical instrument tips that mrs. micah wrote about a while ago.

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