I recently acquired a (free | really inexpensive) flute from (eBay | garage sale | pawn shop | flea market | the back of my closet | my neighbor whose child played with for 6 months and then never touched it again). Is it worth getting repaired? Am I better off getting something new rather than putting money into this?

We all want to know “Is this flute a deal?”This is my most frequently asked question. It’s also a question that I cannot answer without examining the flute and knowing your expectations for the instrument. Ideally, you will never buy an instrument without first having played it. But this isn’t always happening in the age of Internet shopping and people are possessing instruments with sometimes dubious histories.

At some level, if you can pick up the instrument, play it without too much discomfort or difficulty, and are happy with how it sounds, then there may be no immediate need for repair. While regular maintenance is important for overall longevity and quality of play in the flute, people have a broad range of tolerances for how well they need their instrument to play. One caveat about playing something until it falls apart is that a person may compensate for a maladjusted flute that eventually ends up hurting him or herself. In some cases, people who have to press very hard to play the flute can bend keys and rods and prematurely wear through pads. Or they can begin to develop hand, neck, and shoulder problems.

There are many inexpensive flutes floating around the marketplace. There are also more manufacturers and cutthroat price slashing all over the Internet. This does not mean that flutes are getting better; it simply means that cheaper and frequently less skilled labor is being used to put out what is intended as a disposable instrument or an instrument with a limited lifespan. People also have a worldwide garage sale for a legion of barely played flutes. Buying the cheapest instrument that you can find could mean getting something that will have a limited lifespan. And if the instrument was not well made to begin with, then it may end up being better suited as a lamp than a flute. Conversely I have seen people end up with rather nice instruments for very little. With an hour of work, they sound okay. Before you buy, ask how much the instrument was played and how it was used. And as with anything mechanical flutes have a lifespan, so find out how old it is. And while it is not a guarantee for a quality instrument, overall it is a safer bet to purchase an instrument made by a better known manufacturer.

The bottom line: You could buy an inexpensive instrument on the Internet and then find out that it does not play well or at all and then get an estimate for repair that exceeds what you paid for the flute. Or you may be told that it is not worth putting any money into repairing the flute. So shop carefully.

There are additional considerations to take into account when deciding between an inexpensive used versus new instrument. If you have a used instrument with significant wear on it, then it will probably require more immediate and frequent attention than a new instrument. And if the pads on the instrument are very old, sometimes it is most prudent to overhaul the instrument (more money spent, better result) or simply not do the precise adjustments that can really make an instrument sing (less money spent, not so great result). However, I have seen brand new instruments that are in immediate need of adjustment to work well or were simply never made properly, so new does not always equal better. And if you have any sentimental associations with your flute, you lose that when you buy another instrument.

And then there’s fate. If you find something you can afford and it plays fine without work, then you are a fortunate person. The pads and their skins may give out in about six months or a year maybe longer, but it could be fine until then. Or if that flute from grandma’s attic turns out to be a vintage Powell, then you truly lucked out with flutes and relatives. And when in doubt, a vintage Powell always deserves an overhaul.