When the pBone was launched in 2010 as the first legitimate plastic wind instrument, educators, retailers and musicians all held their breath waiting to see what direction this new trend would take. Those of you who know me understand that I am all three of those: educator, retailer and musician. So I really held my breath.
Now nearly eight years later, and yes, I have since exhaled, plastic is used as an alternative material for nearly every instrument in the winds family, and as a result, manufacturers are extending their product lines into different price points and marketing to entirely different kinds of customers. This new generation of plastic wind instruments needs to be better understood by parents and educators, which is the chief purpose of this presentation.
The basics of plastic band instruments can be thought of in terms of the ABCs:
Here’s a perfect example of where a misunderstanding of the role of plastic instruments can occur: even though these instruments are often inexpensive, they are not necessarily appropriate as student instruments. In my opinion, and I think most educators will agree with me, plastic is not ideal for a beginning student. The importance of tone production and the effort it takes to get a focused tone on the plastic material makes them less than optimal for an absolute beginner. That said, there absolutely are roles for them within early instruction. One student application for plastic instruments, for instance, is as a transition method between a recorder and a traditional wind instrument. But again, most instructors will want to get their beginning students playing on traditional materials eventually, rather than learning exclusively on a plastic instrument. These instruments are a fantastic development when used in their appropriate environments.
With all of the caution I have expressed about relying on plastic instruments for beginning instruction, please understand that they are of a far better quality than you might think. I have an Allora AERE and I love it. I play it all the time. Today’s plastic wind instruments have evolved to where many features closely resemble their traditional material counterparts. For example, the mouthpiece receivers on many trumpet and trombone models accept metal mouthpieces as well as the plastic mouthpiece that typically comes with them, and valve casings for plastic euphonium and tuba feature metal liners. All of these features improve the instruments’ response and quality of tone production.
Plastic trombones found their first popular use in school color pep band application. My school colors were green and yellow, so green and yellow trombones were a great idea to promote school spirit. Pretty cool, don’t you think? But the application for these instruments now extends beyond just matching your school colors. Marching bands can use multiple colors for visual effect just like they do with flags. Plus, students playing tuba now have a lighter weight alternative for home practice. Piccolo trumpets and flugelhorns are no longer cost-prohibitive for advancing students to own and have fun with. And playing in all types of weather is now an option for players who don’t want to use their “inside” instrument on that outdoor Dixieland gig. All of that is pretty darn cool.
The idea of using synthetic materials for music products isn’t new. Marimbas and xylophones have long been offered with traditional or synthetic bar material. Clarinets have a plastic option for beginning students, and fiberglass sousaphones provide a great alternative to the weight and cost of a traditional sousaphone. Violins and cellos can be found with alternative materials such as carbon fiber, and even a traditional category like clarinet and saxophone reeds now have dozens of synthetic alternatives to the cane reed, many of which are well-accepted by professionals and educators. Some of these alternative materials innovations go back decades.
Flutes – Several manufacturers now offer plastic flutes with a full mechanism ranging from entry-level products in the $100 - $150 range to “professional” models that can be $1000 and up. These flutes feature many high-end features including self-leveling silicone pads. One interesting advantage plastic flutes have is that the footjoint assembly have a sliding and locking guide, which ensures the alignment of the footjoint will be the same every time.
Clarinets – Plastic or composite material for the body of a clarinet isn’t actually all that new. But for under $150, a player today can have a lightweight instrument that looks and feels like a traditional clarinet. For this reason, many instructors have found plastic clarinets (and flutes to a lesser degree) to be excellent transition instruments for younger children starting on recorders but not yet ready for the formal school band program.
Trumpets – The basic Bb plastic trumpet has now been around just about as long as the plastic trombone, but several other specialty trumpets, like piccolos and flugelhorns, have recently become available in a plastic alternative. The fact that a traditional metal trumpet mouthpiece can be used with these instruments makes for an easy transition when practicing or performing, as the player can use their ‘regular’ mouthpiece regardless of the instrument. A wide variety of colors and finishes are available so the player can really personalize the instrument to their own preference and taste.
Trombones – The plastic trombone was the first entry into this new category, probably because of the relatively simple design (perhaps this is also a commentary on us relatively simple trombone players). More recently though, plastic trombones with F-attachment have become available, providing a cost-effective alternative for players who can’t afford the more expensive instrument.
Euphoniums/Tubas – This instrument family has the biggest cost benefit relative to a more traditional instrument. And for players who need a lightweight alternative or a secondary instrument, these models are a great choice. The lighter weight can be a wonderful option for schools or students, and the portability (especially for the tubas) can allow players to perform in environments where a heavier horn might be impractical.
There are many clever and creative applications for plastic instruments among today’s educators and professionals. Recently at the Bands of America Grand Nationals marching band championships, a school featured their entire trombone section, that’s 16 kids, with a solo section where they all picked up yellow trombones that matched the guard flags. The feature sounded great and added a creative visual element. Then they put down the yellow trombones and picked up pink ones, adding yet another element to the visual and musical presentation of their show.
Because the plastic material is fairly durable and the tone production isn’t influenced by additional layers to the material, players are able to customize their plastic instrument into a one-of-a-kind piece of artwork. Imagine a school art department combining forces with the music program for an exhibition of themed instruments.
For players using a lot of effects, that is to say processing their instrument’s sound to the point where the original tone isn’t necessarily noticeable, plastic instruments can provide a convenient, lightweight and inexpensive alternative, especially if the music performance is aggressive to the point where you’re concerned about damaging a more expensive instrument. Punk tuba. And they said it couldn’t be done.
Younger students can also take advantage of this new category, as a number of instruments have been created to address the gap between playing recorder and starting a traditional wind instrument. Product like the pBuzz get students used to the idea of tone production by buzzing your lips with an easy system for adjusting pitch using color-coded ‘positions.’ Flute and clarinet products like the Nuvo TooT and DooD are another great way to bridge students to the traditional flute or clarinet. By using a simplified key system and limited octave range along with a traditional clarinet or flute embouchure, students can get started down the path to success once they’re ready for a traditional wind instrument.
One new entry to this plastic wind instrument category is from Yamaha. In 2017 they launched a new category they call the “Casual Wind Instrument” market, whose flagship product is called the Venova. This lightweight plastic instrument has a tone similar to a soprano saxophone and a key system similar to a recorder, but with extended keys like a clarinet or saxophone. The lightweight body makes this instrument extremely portable – carry it to the beach, store in your backpack or even bring it on a hike in the mountains. The Venova comes with a synthetic reed but can also use a cane reed (soprano saxophone size) since the mouthpiece is based on a soprano saxophone.
As this plastic instrument category continues to grow and expand, the quality and the flexibility of these instruments will continue to improve. This trend shouldn’t be viewed as replacing the traditional wind instrument materials and manufacturers, but rather as complimenting them so players of all levels have options that might better fit their situation.