Finding an instrument for a beginner

I advise beginners to find a teacher before finding an instrument. Most people do not have any knowledge about string instruments prior to beginning lessons. I consider it part of my job as a teacher to look out for my students’ best interests where instruments are concerned. Without a properly-functioning instrument, students struggle, and then my job as a teacher is made much harder. It is in my best interest, as well as the student’s, to help my students make good choices.

I recommend that students deal with a reputable violin shop (one which deals only in string instruments). By developing an ongoing relationship with a luthier (someone who makes and repairs string instruments), you will always know that you have someone to turn to in the event that your instrument needs work done–possibly even on short notice!–and you can ask questions and receive solid information from an informed source. Being a full-time luthier is a long-term, dedicated career requiring years of training–humans have doctors, string instruments have luthiers. Hopefully, you like and trust your primary doctor, or your dentist, or car mechanic, and have long-term relationships with them: you should have the same degree of trust and respect for your luthier. You will not pay more by going to a violin shop/luthier, you will just get your money’s worth from someone who is well-trained and truly cares about instruments. So where else might you obtain an instrument? Here are some places I’d steer away from, in general:

General music stores: These are stores which sell other things than just string instruments, like drums, wind instruments, guitars, piano music, etc. These stores often sell and rent string instruments, but they are typically on the lower end of quality. There is no full-time luthier onsite, and employees are unlikely to have the degree of knowledge to help you properly.

Big-box retailers: You can find instruments at Wal-Mart and other big-box stores. The quality of instruments here will be low, and employees of these stores will not have the background to help you. All too often, a well-meaning parent will buy an instrument only to find out later that the instrument is of such a low quality that it is not playable, and that it will cost much more than the instrument is worth to put it into playable condition, if it is possible at all.

Online sales: You may think prices are great on E-Bay, but there is usually a reason for those “great” prices. Even if you are an experienced buyer, you can’t see, touch, or play the instrument until after you’ve bought it, and it will probably not be returnable. You should also know that shipping a delicate, temperature- and humidity-sensitive string instrument comes with its own set of hazards. Most professionals prefer never to ship an instrument, if possible.

Sizing: I have had people arrive at the first lesson with an instrument that was perfectly good, but it was the wrong size for the student (yes, there are different sizes of both violins and violas). You would not put men’s size 12 shoes on a 6-year old; nor would you give a 6-year-old a full size (4/4 or adult size) violin. An instrument of the wrong size will lead to bad technique and eventually to injury. Musicians suffer from playing-related injuries just like athletes.

Set-up: Frequently, I see instruments that were badly set up and not playable until major adjustments were made. This can be either an expensive fix or inexpensive, but regardless, it always results in wasted time for the student while the instrument is in the shop.

Buying on looks: Non-musically trained people often think that “new” equals “good” (it doesn’t). People sometimes buy what’s pretty (shiny, glossy varnish does not equate with quality). People often buy without even hearing the instrument played (the equivalent of buying a car without a test-drive). Ultimately, good construction and set-up determine sound quality, and a marred, scratched varnish has no effect on sound. String instruments are a prime illustration of the phrase “looks can be deceiving”.

Poorly functioning tuning pegs: Pegs are an easy thing for your teacher to test for function, before you buy. I still remember my childhood experiences with my first violin (a miserable public-school rental instrument)–I have grim memories of trying to tune it, and I am surprised, in retrospect, at my own tenacity in the face of such frustration!

It is part of the teacher’s job to help guide the student to an intelligent, appropriate, and well-informed decision about an instrument. I am happy to help–it’s why I’m here. I keep a comprehensive list of shops where my students and I have had good experiences. It is standard for shops to send instruments out “on trial”. During this trial period, any good teacher will make sure to examine the instrument, play it, and give the student their expert opinion on size, quality, state of repair, price, playability, sound, etc.

I do not to accept commissions from anyone on instrument sales/rental. I simply suggest violin shops where my students and I have had good experiences in the past. I do not benefit financially from dealing with particular shops or repair people. I just suffer less if you suffer less!

Renting is a good option for beginners. Renting allows for a no-commitment trial period (“nope, I think I want to play the drums instead”). For a child who has a growth spurt, it is much easier to trade-in a rental for a larger model than it is to sell an instrument and buy a larger one. Renting also has a smaller initial investment. I recommend buying once we have established that the student will continue to play for at least a year. You don’t need to sacrifice quality in order to rent: quality rentals are available. Many violin shops also have an optional low-cost insurance policy for rentals, which is very useful for younger kids who are at the accident-prone age. Once a student is more advanced, buying becomes a more attractive option. At this point, many violin shops will put part of the money you have spent on rental toward the price of a sale, so you don’t need to think of renting as “money down the drain”.

There are good reasons for both buying and renting, and I’d be happy to discuss them further with you. Most importantly: don’t go out uninformed, to deal with strangers who may themselves be uninformed. If you are contemplating lessons, find a teacher first, and then you have a resource and an expert advocate to help you find an instrument in the most efficient, cost-effective, and pleasant way.

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