How to Play Test an Instrument

By Charlie Miller
(edited and reprinted from April 1978 Getzen Gazette)

How many times have you seen someone play test an instrument and spend most of his/her effort tying to hit that high F? Or try to perform a passage that they would find difficult on their own instrument? Testing one’s abilities rather than the instrument will only lead to frustration and teach you nothing about the horn being tested. So what should we look for when we test a new instrument?

I believe when you’re testing a new instrument, you should do only that. You should be finding out just what that instrument will do for your playing. What are its limitations? This is important because the instrument chosen is what you’ll be living with every day and you’ll either enjoy it or fight it for a long time. So here are some suggestions we all might consider when trying out a new instrument.

1. Quiet Please

Find a private room for your first encounter with the instrument. I believe it’s preferable to be in a room neither totally built for sound or too live and all echo. This way you’ll be in a middle of the road acoustically speaking. This will give you insight into the instrument in the average acoustical situation you may be performing in.

2. What Will It Do?

This is the main point of play testing. Try to find out what the instrument can do. Based on how it’s built, what is it naturally capable of without you forcing it? What tends to be easy on it? What’s more difficult? Play as naturally as you can without changing your style while trying to get the instrument to do something. Any changes you make will be required every time you play the instrument. If you do change something, you’ll cause yourself discomfort with the instrument and cut down your general efficiency in proportion.

3. Look To The Future

Chances are you won’t get to know an instrument well in one or two sittings, but you can get a good idea of how it will fit into your everyday playing. General practices, formal rehearsals, and live performances. There are certain things about an instrument that can be realized only after playing it a while, but if we watch for them initially, we can get an idea of what to expect from the instrument as we grow into and get used to it. Some examples are: How are the notes placed (Centered? Spread? Do they “lock in”?). What is the uniformity of sound and response over all registers? How’s the pitch of various notes (its scale)? How does the instrument project? How do you feel and sound after playing it for an extended period of time? How is the mechanical action of the instrument? Play slowly and listen carefully for these things and any others you may have in mind. This way you can get a clear picture of the characteristics of the instrument in question.

4. Blindfold Test

A way to get some objective opinions about an instrument is to get a few people in a large room with their backs turned and alternately playing different instruments for them. Be sure to tune the instruments with each other and play the same piece more than twice per instrument. This helps ensure that intonation differences won’t be misinterpreted as tone quality. It also rules out freshness and fatigue as factors. Each time you play a passage get opinions. If everyone says the same thing you have a good idea it’s really so. Do this until you have sufficient feedback on each instrument.

Keep in mind that an instrument is an individual, personal thing. Ask questions and use the ideas of others, but remember that how the instrument feels to YOU is most important. We all differ in our physical make up, such as lung capacity, oral cavity, tooth size and shape, etc… Also, musical likes and preferences are different from musician to musician. After all considerations are made and all opinions are listened too, the most important decision falls back to you. How do YOU feel about it? Always bear in mind that this is the instrument you’ll be working with day in and day out. Be sure you know what you’re getting into and that you like it for your own purposes. These are a few thoughts on testing new instruments. I’m sure there are many more possibilities. To repeat, I would say the main target is to approach the instrument realistically to find out what it can and can’t do. While play testing, avoid becoming personally involved in some difficult passage, high notes, or any other thing that won’t really help get the answers you’re after.

We all know that the relationship between a musician and his/her instrument is very intimate. We get to know every corner of it and every thing it’s capable of. Just how far we can push it to play soft or agile. What it will do in the low to high registers. How hard we can push it to play loud before it breaks up. How the instrument feels in our hands. These are the beautiful things about an instrument. The things that, if we know them well, give us a chance to improve and deliver better. If we know our instrument well, we can then easily monitor our own personal ability and progress. We then know what we can do and what gives us problems. Then, and only then, can we grow and develop our abilities and ambitions as players. Learning not to blame the instrument for a personal shortcoming.