A few decades ago, a rock ‘n’ roll band called Ocean Blue appeared on the scene. (Or, more appropriately, it appeared on the airwaves of WLIR, Long Island NY’s then-trendsetting alternative rock station.) Although the saxophone is known to appear in rock tunes from time to time, its use is a tad unusual. Nevertheless, Ocean Blue made haunting sax riffs one of its signature sounds. I, for one, was hooked.

The band hailed from the very un-musical (to the public mind, at least) town of Hershey PA. It’s a pleasant burg next door to the state’s capital, Harrisburg PA. Hershey, to this day, is still associated more with confections and a giant amusement park than with the music scene.

While taking my 19-year-old daughter back to Harrisburg University, I visited four area stores. In a nod to Ocean Blue and its lovely, saxophone-infused melodies, I made the venerable sax—an instrument for my school-aged child—the object of my search.

The road trip took place on a Saturday, when snow was falling hard for the first half of the four-hour drive from the New York area. None of the four stores was open on Sunday. And, because of the aforementioned snow, I arrived at my first stop a mere 20 minutes prior to closing time.

Central Penn Music
8 N. Londonderry Sq.
Palmyra PA 17078

Central Penn Music is located in Palmyra PA, a suburban town just east of Hershey. The music store is in a large strip mall, set back quite a ways from Pennsylvania Rte. 322. Fortunately, directions from my GPS navigation system proved accurate. The store sits next to a movie theater and a Dollar General store. Although Lowe’s and Walmart are in nearby centers, I didn’t have to fight for a parking spot in front of Central Penn Music.

Upon entering the store, I was greeted immediately by a salesperson. The other employee was waiting on another customer. Once I began to ask questions, she proved herself to be quite an expert on the needs of students in general, and sax players in particular.

Of note, the line of saxophones carried by Central Penn Music—John Packer—was the most reasonably priced line I found among the four retailers that day. Designed in Great Britain, the brand’s products are made by the same factory in China that manufactures pricier lines of saxophones. For a beginning student, she recommended the JP045, which was priced at $699.

“We are the first dealer in Pennsylvania to carry the John Packer line,” she said. “There are saxophones out there that are less expensive, but they aren’t made to the same quality specs. So, you won’t get as good a sound from them.”

On that particular day in January, the stock on hand was a bit low. One key reason was this: The store doesn’t sell or rent many instruments in the middle of the school year. The store’s selection is larger when the school year begins in the fall. Yet, the salesperson noted that, for interested customers, she could get instruments delivered to the store within a day, at the latest.

A good saxophone will make it easy for a beginning student to produce a good sound, she said, ensuring the student will be less apt to become frustrated. The sax is actually a good option for beginners, she added. “Often, kids will have difficulty with other reed instruments, and we’ll recommend that they try a sax.”

Unlike with some other instruments, the student won’t have to replace a reed or mouthpiece for several years, she continued. That usually occurs when the student is ready to acquire a more advanced instrument. Finally, she added that the store runs a robust rental program for schools in a 25- to 30-mile radius.

Forté Music
550 N. Mountain Rd.
Harrisburg PA 17112

Forté Music has a Harrisburg address, but it’s actually in a section of Lower Paxton Township called Linglestown PA. It’s in a standalone, chalet-style building on a busy street just north of Interstate 81. The family-owned enterprise marked its 40th anniversary last year.

Inside, I noticed the store was well appointed and fairly spacious. It also functions as a music school. Because it’s a two-story building, I assumed that the second floor had classroom space.

Although I can do a great job impersonating an uninformed parent, I was a tad bit embarrassed when the salesman at Forté Music questioned whether the child was interested in an alto sax or a tenor sax. Truthfully, until then, I was completely unacquainted with the tenor variety of saxophone, other than knowing that, if one kind is called “alto saxophone,” then there logically will be another variety. Call it a learning experience! The salesman informed me that the tenor sax is not one for beginners.

“Honestly, the alto sax is what the vast majority of students play,” the salesman said. “The tenor sax is bigger and produces a deeper sound, and it’s more difficult for students to play and learn.”

The salesman reassured me of the wisdom of my child selecting the sax. For starters, he began, quite a few students thoroughly enjoy learning to play. “The sax is also one of the most versatile instruments out there,” he declared. “It offers quite a note range, and you’ll find sax players in an extremely varied range of music types: from classical, to jazz, to rock ‘n’ roll.”

For the beginner, the salesman recommended the Conn-Selmer Prelude Student Model AS711. The instrument comes with a case and all necessary accessories, and it’s made by a venerable manufacturer. Although the instrument lists for around $1,120, the store had it available for purchase for less than $850. As an alternative, a student could sign up for the store’s rent-to-own program. (As evidenced by the signs on display, many area band students do exactly that.)

“If your child seems really, really into playing the sax, I would recommend buying the instrument,” he said. “If you think they’re going to be iffy about it, then go with the rental.” He added that most saxophone students, once they give it some time, end up loving the sax.

The rental program costs $56 a month for a brand-new selection, but there are alternatives. A “like-new” used instrument rents for $48 per month, whereas a less-than-pristine used sax rents for $39 monthly. Used saxophones are also available for purchase, the salesman noted, but the best time to do that is a month or two before the school year begins. That’s when parents of seasoned sax players “trade up” to higher-end instruments.

An interesting footnote: The store’s Owner also founded a Christian organization entitled Shofar Ministries. His ministry emphasizes performing, and it teaches the playing of the shofar, an ancient Hebrew instrument.

JW Music
331 Market St.
Lemoyne PA 17043

From Forté Music, I headed south on Interstate 83, crossing the Susquehanna River to the town of Lemoyne PA. Downtown Lemoyne is quite well preserved, and it looks like a movie set for an early-1960s downtown.

JW Music was easy to find. It takes up half a block on Market St., which is, incidentally, the very same street on which my daughter lives, once you cross a rather pretty bridge into downtown Harrisburg. The shop occupies two storefronts and, at the nearer of the two to my parking spot, a large sign directs shoppers to the neighboring entrance.

The store is quite spacious and well-appointed inside, and it’s obviously the place to shop in metropolitan Harrisburg for serious musicians. The store was abuzz with shoppers that Saturday afternoon, and there were plenty of salespeople on hand to help. The store definitely wins top honors for ambiance.

I felt confident that any of the salespeople would have dispensed good musical guidance. Because it was midyear, the salesman with whom I spoke suggested that I sign up the student for several introductory lessons prior to making any decision on an instrument. (That seemed like a good road to take, particularly since the likelihood of my child enrolling in a music curriculum earlier than next fall was low.) The Lemoyne store, I learned, has a staff of 10 music teachers.

With only one exception, the saxophones for sale at JW Music were the priciest among the four stores I visited that day. The store’s mainstay student-model sax is the Selmer AS400, which was retailing for $1,795 new and $1,395 used.

The low-priced option that day was a vintage Evette Buffet Crampon sax, which was selling for $395. “This has been used over many, many years of good service; it’s in decent condition; and it plays well,” the salesman said.

Meanwhile, the Selmer AS400 rents for $63 per month new and $53 per month used. No interest is charged, and all monthly payments are applied to the purchase price. A benefit of purchasing the store’s offerings is the warranty and service that comes with it. Apart from situations that involve obvious abuse, all maintenance and repairs are covered.

“Obviously, if a kid uses his sax as a weapon and clunks another kid on the head, that damage is not going to be covered,” the salesman confirmed. “But most situations aren’t like that. Repairs can cost on average $100 to $120, and we cover those repairs. That’s a good deal for parents in the Harrisburg area.”

JW Music also has a somewhat-smaller store in the large town of Carlisle PA, which is about 10 miles west of Lemoyne. Its popularity earned JW a “Simply the Best” award in a recent readers’ poll in Harrisburg Magazine.

Menchey Music Service
3907 Union Deposit Rd.
Harrisburg PA 17109

The last stop of the day was at the only true chain store among the lot. Menchey Music Service is an 80-year-old enterprise with five stores in Pennsylvania and three in Maryland. The Harrisburg store is on busy, six-lane Union Deposit Rd., right where it meets Interstate 83. It’s in a wing of a large shopping center that’s anchored by Gabe’s, a 64-store apparel chain based in West Virginia.

This particular store was, physically, the smallest of the four. However, the salesman more than made up for that in the variety of merchandise presented during my visit.

The man cautioned me that good deals happen in August, not January. Just for starters, the store offers three free months—August, September and October—to students who are just starting to play. “When it comes to instruments and kids, the parent always has to be wary of just how interested they are in continuing to play,” he said. “This is a good way for both parent and student to try it out, with no payments and no purchase obligation whatsoever.”

The store’s most popular model for beginners is the Yamaha YAS 23, which was available new for $1,382. Among the available models I was told were comparable were Jupiter’s 667GN and 669GN. I was informed that, of the two manufacturers, Yamaha is somewhat easier to service. The salesman also showed me several good-quality used versions of the instruments.

At this store, both for purchases and for rentals, service plans are additional. An extended warranty adds $100 to the price of any instrument purchase, and $7 per month to a rental.

The salesman strongly urged me to return around the end of the school year and enroll the child in some introductory lessons, to be scheduled over the summer. “All the lessons we offer are one-on-one,” he affirmed. “If you can give them that head start when they begin to play, they’ll ultimately be more successful at playing any instrument.”

The Sale

Call me a cheapskate, but I tend to scout for bargains. (It’s a byproduct of living in relatively pricey locales.) All four stores offered attentive service, musical expertise and the choice of either purchasing or renting an instrument. Comparing this month’s mission to previous mystery-shopping exercises, I noted the fact that, this time, there was a wide range of pricing. In particular, the first two stores offered merchandise that seemed to be priced a smidge lower as compared to the latter two.

JW Music was clearly more oriented toward people who are already musicians. The parent who knows next to nothing about music might feel a bit intimidated by that oversized emporium, what with its assortment of rooms devoted to percussion, guitars and the like. He or she might also be a bit put off by the price, although the rental charges are in accord with the other three stores. And, yes, the store had a well-kept used sax on hand at a bargain-basement price.

Menchey Music Service is a great all-around music store, and I appreciated the fact that the salesman showed me a variety of saxophones, including some well-cared-for used models. The buyer walks out feeling as though he or she has a multitude of choices. In fact, by opting for a used instrument, the purchaser might very well come away with a deal on an instrument that, otherwise, might not be affordable.

The salesman at Forté Music indicated that used saxophones are also available from his store. Based on the signs in evidence, the shop seems to do a brisk business with area middle school and high school students.

Going back to Menchey Music Service, though, the place shone in several ways. Chief among them is having had a greater selection of instruments than the other three places, despite the location’s small size.

All things considered, I was shopping for an entry-level instrument for a beginning student. Of the four, Central Penn Music gave me what I needed at a truly entry-level price. The store offers everything all the other stores do, including, one must note, a robust selection of music courses.

The only drawback to the shopper is that the store is about 15 miles east of downtown Harrisburg. Still, it’s worth the drive. (Note: There are several other music stores farther out on the same highway. I was unable to visit those.)

A final note: To their credit, all four stores took care to show me instruments that had earned the seal of approval from the music directors at area high schools. That’s no small feat. That area of Pennsylvania is a solid “family” area, with dozens of high schools. So, the retailers should be applauded for having tailored their wares to a wide variety of schools.

Parents can make their choice easier by visiting the school’s music director beforehand and obtaining a list of recommended instruments, and then using it as a guide when shopping. Because I was engaged in a ruse, I couldn’t access such resources.

No more articles