[ed. note - this article originally appeared in a blog article and generated enough interest to have a spot on my product review pages] At this time of year, many families are renting musical instruments for their child to begin study in their school band or orchestra. Recently, one of the parents of a private student asked me about renting an instrument versus buying a First Act brand instrument. First Act instruments are available in retail stores such as Wal Mart, BJ's, Toys R Us, and online through Amazon. They are appealing to families in these trying economic times because you can purchase a trumpet, flute, or clarinet for $219.00 retail, the violin for just a few dollars more, and the alto saxophone for $419.99. First Act sells far more in the way of guitars - you can pick up an acoustic for $99.00 and an electric for $159.99. Retail prices on student model instruments of the same kind from older, more established traditional brands are twice the amount of a First Act instrument. For example, a Bundy student model clarinet retails for $400.00.
Because First Act instruments are sold in bulk retail and toy stores, they naturally get the label of being "toy instruments" and not for serious music students. Most music teachers I know scoff at them, calling them "instrument-shaped objects". But, is this really the case? Are these quality instruments that are just marketed differently?
I have only ever had direct experience with a First Act clarinet once. A student of mine had one several years ago. It came in a soft case (the kind that zips up) that was rather flimsy. The instrument itself played with decent tone, but she was working already with bent keys. The mouthpiece she was working with was not conducive to easy blowing. The other problem she found was that the local music store would not repair it. More on that later.
I did some research online into what the general public thinks of these instruments, and I definitely found mixed results. First Act has quite a bit of material on their website that shows that their guitar line is well-received. Their In the News page is full of articles from prominent magazines declaring that the guitars are nice on the ears as well as the pocket book. Even within these articles, however, there are complaints about the fret design on the guitars in particular. Their site also has an entire section on artists such as Brad Whitford of Aerosmith who use and endorse First Act.
In 2005, First Act sued and won a unanimous decision in Massachusets Federal Court against music retail giant Brooks Mays on a charge of "false advertising" to the tune of $16.7 million [link]. Brooks Mays was discouraging customers to invest in the First Act brand, calling the instruments "instrument-shaped objects." The lawsuit was a major vindication for the company in the marketplace and certainly reconstituted their efforts to bring quality instruments to American families for the good of music education at affordable prices.
I found the following reviews for First Act instruments online. Some of these reviews are by general consumers with little technical knowledge of instruments and music-making. Others are specialty websites that attract enthusiasts for a certain type of instrument.
What I glean from all of this feedback is that First Act instruments are a student model instrument that serves the purpose of introducing young people to the world of music. For half the price, the student can own an instrument of comparable quality to other student model instruments. Quality control, however, seems to be hit-or-miss, as consumers report both great and horrible results with instrument durability, tone, and intonation.
Probably the biggest negative of First Act instruments is that there is a limited national network of music stores that will repair them. When I had my clarinet student with a First Act clarinet, she needed work done only a month after she had bought it. The road rep that came to my school from a local music shop said that his shop wouldn't touch it. First Act has a database of repair facilities that repair their instruments available on the company website. I live in the Greater Philadelphia area, an area dense with commerce of all kinds, including dozens of music shops of all types. The closest facility to me that will take First Act band instruments is a 45-minute drive away. That alone is a determining factor that will discourage me from recommending these instruments to my students.
Most music stores that rent beginner instruments to students have "rent-to-own" programs. My local shop rents in either four-month increments or for the whole school year. They offer a 1-to-1 credit towards purchase on all money paid for leasing. At their current rate, a family would own their instrument in three school years, and that price includes a damage waiver. Also, most instrument shops will give you a "loaner" instrument while they repair the leased instrument. If you own the instrument requiring repairs, this is not the case. When it comes down to it, it is a matter of whether or not you want an affordable instrument to own up front, or you wish to invest in something that will last longer.
If anyone has some direct experiences with First Act instruments and can share them in an objective, professional manner, please leave a comment on this post or contact me.