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Managing Band Instrument Inventory

Managing Band Instrument Inventory

Ed Dumas

When I was in university doing my undergrad work before dirt was a thing, we had a fifth-year that was more like an internship. I completed my bachelor of education at the University of Victoria, and back then in 1983-84, we were out in the schools working for a solid eight months of our final year. As soon as school began right after Labour Day, we were in our designated schools, and we did not end until the end of April. 

I did my final practicum with Ted Ireton at Claremont Secondary in Saanich. Ted was a fairly “Old School” kind of band teacher, but he was an awesome example who provided some very good insight as to how the career should go. Many of the ideas that I still hold onto were taken from his teachings.

On the first day of school when I showed up in Ted’s band room, I was assigned to manage the school’s instrument inventory. The school owned hundreds of band instruments covering all instrument selection, and each student was loaned one from the inventory of the school. My job was to check the inventory that existed up in the band “attic” versus the paper list of band instruments that I was given.

I grumbled a bit to myself when I was assigned this task, but looking back I likely would do the same thing in those circumstances if I was in Ted’s shoes. Today, practicum teachers don’t get the same amount of time, so they must get right into the guts of leading a class, and sometimes the important, but non-teaching things are missed.

Once I got my first job teaching, I quickly realized what a headache the inventory can be. Even later, though, I started to realize what a blessing it can also be, as that inventory list allows you to find things before you even get up from your desk chair! 

The biggest change in attitude for me came when computers first started hitting the schools around the late-1980s or so. The first computers were terrible, as they were slow, had little capacity, had terrible screens, printed slowly, and everything had to be stored on floppy disks. (Hey, you young folks out there, go ask your parents what a floppy disk is!) Yet, it did not take me long to see that the advantage of a database over a hand-written inventory made all the difference in the world!

Today, I would recommend a database file for each of the following: wind instruments, string & piano instruments, and percussion instruments. Also for your music library, I would recommend a database for concert band music, jazz band music, & choral music. I will leave a discussion about libraries for another blog entry.

With the more sophisticated Excel programs available now, instead of a separate database file for each, you could use a separate page for each. So a file for instrumentation would have one page for winds, one page for strings & piano, and one page for percussion. Another file for the library would have similar pages for the concert band library, jazz band library, and choral library. With the use of multiple pages, you can even add more for differing genres, such as combo music for winds, or voices, and so on.

Before we look at the kinds of information that are useful to keep in these databases, a note about backing up. By now everyone who works with computers must know about backing up everything and having redundant backups just in case. With the internet now so powerful most things are backed up automatically by the server where you are storing your data.

Most people think that the risks of server failure are now acceptably low and that they need not worry about backing up anymore. Yet, one should also consider the consequences of such a server failure, and not just the low risk of it happening. Despite the low risk now of online server failures, the consequences of such a failure can grow exponentially with the amount of data that you have entered into a database. Ie The more you have to lose, the more you are going to want to cover off even the most minimal of risks.

I understood this concept quite well when I was in the middle of a master's program. At that time, the internet was functioning well, but most people did not have online storage yet. Having multiple redundant backups was useless if all of the backups were stored in the same location. Failing to take one of those redundant backups off-site could have destroyed three long years of intense work in the event of a house fire. This could easily become a second disaster almost equal to that of the house burning down! While the risk is low, the disaster would be devastating if it came to pass. As you are creating your inventory database, consider storage loss likelihood and its consequences to determine your comfort level.

Wind Instrument Inventory

Begin your instrument inventory with the type of instrument first, followed by make, model and serial number. This process goes from the general to the specific to help you identify a specific instrument as quickly as possible. Create one column for each one of those categories, so that you can sort on any column. If that is all that you do, it is already better than what used to be hand-written on a sheet of paper. 

Yet, you will find the downfall when you go to find the specific instrument which is stored in the back storage room. You may end up having to open a few cases to find the single instrument you want if you have multiple copies of the same make and model. To speed up this process, it has been common practice to paint a number on the case so that the desired instrument can be identified without opening it. Just about any number will do, but over the years this can become disorganized as various instruments are retired or lost leaving holes in the numbering system. I would suggest that you not reuse numbers that are retired but leave a marking in the database of the old instrument now retired.

A Numbering System

Before computers first came out, we always had to create our class attendance lists by hand using an attendance book that was designed just for teachers. Most teachers chose to write their class lists in alphabetical order, but I always preferred a different attendance order for the band. So, I took the time to put the flutes at the top, followed by clarinets, alto saxes, and so on down through the band following score order. That way I could quickly scan the attendance by section rather than having my eyes bouncing around the room to find each person. This also made it much easier for student attendance takers to do this for me.

Later, when computers then entered the school system, we needed to create our attendance page on a computer program called Easy Grade Pro. This attendance page would have been created using the list that the office sent, and then printed out as the page that we would put neat little checkmarks into for each day. But this had the possibility of destroying my preferred organization of attendance by the instrument as the default sort was now alphabetical. So, I created a number system that forced the computer into sorting the student names in the way that I wanted. This allowed me to keep the attendance system by instrumentation.

So here is the basis of the instrument numbering system:

Flutes 100s

Piccolos 150s

Oboes 200s

Clarinets 300s

Bass Clarinets 350s

Alto Saxes 400s

Tenor Saxes 500s

Baritone Saxes 550s

Trumpets 600s

French Horns 650s

Trombones 700s

Euphonium 800s

Tubas 850s

Percussion 900s


Note that some sections begin in the 50s when there were fewer of them, like baritone saxes. Flutes, then, would be numbered 101, 102, 103, etc. Each section would have similar numbers so that each student had a unique number. Remember that the objective here was to force a computer to sort the names in the manner that I wanted. The students never saw these numbers, did not know what their number was and were NEVER called by a number.


The reason that I present this numbering system is as an option if you would like to paint numbers on your instrument cases. You need not follow this system precisely, as you can develop your own. The point is that the number on the outside of the school instrument case can have some meaning as to what the case contains, as well as numbering off how many of those instruments belong to the school. Most band teachers that paint the outside of an instrument case also paint the name of the school.


Now going back to the instrument inventory, you might want to add another column at the beginning of the database. That column would be for the distinct number that is painted on the case which would allow you, or someone else, to quickly identify the correct case.


A Note About Student Name Tags


Over my career, one of the most frustrating things that I have found is convincing students to make sure their instrument case had a name tag on it with at least a phone number. I cannot count how many times I have heard, in a rather whiny voice, “But I don’t need a name tag. I can identify my case!” The obvious answer to that is “The name tag is not for you! It is for everyone else except you!” 


I often got so frustrated with students obstructing this plan that I would then take all instruments without a tag and lock them away in a practice room until I heard another complaint that “Someone stole my instrument!” I would then let them in to find their instrument, but they could only take it out once the instrument had a tag on it. Here is the reason why this was so important.


One day part way into a school year I answered a phone call that turned out to be from the local A&W Restaurant which was about 2 blocks away from my school. Someone had found a clarinet in their dumpster, and it did not have a name tag to call, so they called me. I figured I could at least use the serial number to contact the various music stores to see whom they sold that instrument to, and then contact the specific music teacher or parent about the found clarinet.


Well, it turned out to be one of my young students, so I called the parent who was greatly relieved that the clarinet was found. After talking to the student we pieced together what had happened. After school, the student walked through the A&W parking lot with some friends, where they then sat down for a rest and maybe a snack. Afterwards, they got up and just left forgetting the clarinet now on the ground. Later someone else picked up the case and finding no name tag, just tossed it into the dumpster. Had that case had a name tag on it, the student might have been called by the first person that found it on the ground, or at the latest by the A&W staff that found it in the dumpster. Instead, the A&W staff did the smart thing to call the closest school who then forwarded the call to the band teacher, who then called several music stores to hopefully find an owner, to finally call a parent. There are just far too many opportunities for all this to break down when there is no name tag present.


Other Information In the Instrument Inventory Database


After the case number, instrument, make, model & serial number, I would also include the following information. 


Purchase Date

Purchase Price

Current Condition – New, Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor, Retired

Student assigned to

Location if not used

Last service

Work completed (in the last service)

Servicing costs



The “Student Assigned To” column in this instrument database is an extremely valuable entry, for it then quickly locates who is supposed to be in charge of a particular instrument. When the case is again without a nametag and it is a school-based instrument you now have a backup to find that information. It also helps you avoid assigning the instrument out twice.


The “Location” column was useful for those instruments that were not played that particular year. If you needed to find one of them it saved time by not having to look in every storage room in the music program. The repair and servicing costs are useful to keep track of to give you some basis for deciding when an instrument should be retired.


Other Inventory Lists


It will be up to you to decide if you want to keep string instruments on the same inventory list as the winds. I preferred separate lists for winds, strings (and pianos), and percussion. With Excel files now having the ability to keep a separate page in the same file, this seems to be the best option.


Using the winds numbering system, I found I needed to add some categories for piano, bass, and guitar in the jazz band. This would also be true when using this system for numbering the cases, though I would certainly avoid painting a number on pianos. Guitar programs usually have a class set or two of instruments that would need to be entered into the strings list. 


Percussion lists tend to have their peculiarities due to the nature of many of these instruments. There are often many different types of instruments, and few of them will be assigned to any particular student. Still, it is worthwhile to enter these instruments to keep track of what you own vs what is missing. Many of the percussion instruments are not serialized, so it is also valuable to identify duplicates in some peculiar way if possible. Yet, I would avoid adding a highly visible number to any instrument that does not have a case, as this can affect the audience's response in the performance.


One Final Thought About Inventories


When I was a student in Maple Ridge Secondary, we attended school every day in a very old two-storey wooden building. That building was a total fire trap and had it started to burn, we would not have been able to run out of it fast enough to keep ahead of the flames! It has been completely rebuilt which helps everyone breathe a sigh of relief, but still, I hear now and then about a school somewhere that had a significant fire.


If this happens to you, you will be very grateful for an accurate inventory of everything that is housed within the music facility. This will include all furniture, stereos, amps, bookshelves, file cabinets, chairs, and stands. Everything that is brought into the bare bones of the school needs to be put on an inventory, for if that building goes up in flames, your best recourse to replace the equipment on an insurance claim will be an updated inventory list.


Now, completing this inventory is a HUGE undertaking, and it is no surprise that it is often not done. It is maybe not even an assignment that belongs under the umbrella of a teacher, but I have usually found that most administrators are unable to manage a wind instrument inventory due to a lack of knowledge of instruments. Maybe a discussion with a principal about using any open days or Professional Development days to complete this task might help, if you have nothing else available to do. Finally, maybe using some senior students as aides can help with completing an inventory, and some schools are okay with offering graded time to make this a possibility.


Once you have a good digital inventory for your music program, you will find it a blessing to use when looking for an item. Your first instinct then will be to turn on your computer to see what is available and where it is supposed to be, instead of going to the storage room to see what is left in there.

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