This is a deep subject and I will try to make it as simple as I can possibly make it.
There are a lot of very good soprano saxophones out there. Obviously, the very cheap new ones are suspect and the vintage sopranos have a lot of miles on them (and all that may suggest). If you are an experienced saxophonist , meaning not a student or a very young player, you already know that there are horns that may be very fine when in good shape. When you come across such a horn, you know already what that means: pads, rods, tone holes, body integrity, previous damage and/or repair.
With soprano sax, those things certainly apply, and more so in many cases. The margin for error on soprano is quite small, so small dents in the wrong place mean something more. Bends in the body tube mean more, too. It is very difficult to know what a horn will be like once put into proper order, given the very small tolerances involved.
That said, there are ways to “calculate” those things, to some degree. But that is not our subject here.
Our subject is: how do I select a soprano that is likely a good match for me?
Well, there are some questions that can lead you in the right direction, if you are capable of answering them. That is no small accomplishment, either. It takes honesty, some inward searching and it takes a little time. But the rewards are large and they are also long lasting. But we also need to deal with ‘expectations”, which can be quite unrealistic for some people. Hopefully, you are not one of them. If you are, then get ready for disappointments. For you, they will be unavoidable. But for someone with “realistic” expectations, success is almost certainly achievable.
- So what are “realistic” expectations and what are “unrealistic” expectations?
If you are absolutely new to the soprano saxophone, you need to keep your expectations on the modest side. What does that mean? It means that you cannot possibly find the greatest soprano sax that is perfect for you on the first go around. There are too many unknowns, the most important one being YOU. Until you’ve played some serious soprano sax for a period of time, you cannot assess the relative merits of any good soprano. You can’t know if it has the right feeling in terms of resistance or resonance; you cannot really know what kind of sound it can give you; you can’t know very much, actually.
After you’ve played enough soprano, you will begin to get a feeling for the idiosyncrasies of that particular horn WITH that particular mouthpiece, as played by you. But until then, keep your expectations to the basics: a quality built instrument, in good repair and good setup. The mouthpiece is a part of that, too. You need a good, balanced mouthpiece so that you can actually play the horn as intended. All kinds of bad stuff happens at the mouthpiece on soprano.
Just so you know: I will check out any mouthpiece free of charge and tell you what I find. Then you KNOW what you have. The only cost to you is postage both ways.
- That said, what are unrealistic expectations?
That you will find your true love first time out. Not likely.
That the horn will make you sound like your soprano hero or at least close. Not likely.
That you will find the greatest bargain ever when you buy your first soprano. Who knows?
However, if you focus on the important things, you will likely do just fine. What are the important things?
- Do I have a budget that will allow me to find a quality instrument?
- Am I able to test play the horn or must I deal long-distance?
- Can I return a long-distance horn for a refund if it is not as described?
- Do I have any professional support (teacher, friend) who can help me make a good choice.
The answers to those questions are neither good nor bad. But they do tell you quite clearly how you should proceed.
- Reputable dealers have earned their reputation. Take advantage of that and use their expertise.
- All music shops are not the same. If all they have is one sax and lots of pictures, they are not a sax-savvy shop. They may know less than you, actually.
- The big name horns have earned their reputations, too, although some have tarnished a bit over the years. A new Selmer Paris is a Selmer, but Selmer also sells horns that do not deserve the same “Selmer” respect these days. A new Buescher is NOT a Buescher deserving of the name. And on and on.
- There are many solid, good sopranos being made and sold at very good prices. They are made in Taiwan and in China.
- It is a buyer’s market, so you should know that you really have lots of good choices. Take your time and make a good one. You don’t need a “great” choice, just a good one. Avoiding a terrible choice is really what you want to do. And it isn’t hard.
Coming soon: How to proceed.