A parent’s guide to renting or buying a violin for school
By Patrick Sullivan
It had three strings, no bridge, and the top was coming unglued when the violin was carried into a classroom by a young beginner whose parents thought the teacher could fix it. “To them, all it needed was a little glue and a string,” Brad Bone recalls.
The lesson? Such poorly chosen first instruments frustrate teachers and can smother a child’s budding interest in music. “It’s like expecting a kid to play basketball in a pair of flip-flops,” says Bone, a longtime music teacher who now works for rentmyinstrument.com, a website that rents orchestra and band instruments.
But picking a school instrument is no picnic for parents. Moms and dads, usually inexperienced in the ways of the string world, face a bewildering list of decisions when they set out to acquire a student violin, viola, or cello. Buy or rent? Can your kid borrow an instrument from school? Do you need insurance? Is an Internet purchase ever a wise option?
Music teachers and experts in the instrument rental businesses help to guide you through the process.
1. Understand your school’s instrument-loan program, if there is one. Every student enrolled in a public-school music class in Berkeley, California, is able to rent an instrument from the school district for $10 for the school year. And even that fee is waived for families in need. Strings, rosin, and other equipment are supplied, while simple repairs are covered by the district, though parents must sign a contract taking responsibility for lost, stolen, or broken instruments.
Berkeley’s extensive collection of instruments is maintained and paid for by money collected through a voter-approved parcel tax nearly 20 years ago. And it helps keep kids interested in music. “About 40 percent of our middle-school students choose to stay in music through the eighth grade,” says Suzanne McCulloch, who supervises performing and visual arts in the Berkeley schools.
How common are such expansive programs? “Not very common at all,” McCulloch says. “In most districts, if there is a loan program, it’s only for kids in need.”
Public schools in Fargo, North Dakota, may be more typical. Fargo Public Schools, which has one of the best-respected string-music programs in the country, provides low-income students with free or low-cost loaner instruments, says Denese Odegaard, a music educator who has worked in local schools for decades. Others families must rent from a store.
2. Wait to buy—but not too long. Some parents aren’t aware of how much patience violins require, says Ann Jefferson, who has rented instruments to thousands of moms and dads during her 18 years at Ifshin Violins in El Cerrito, California.
“There are challenges to learning these instruments that take time to solve, and it will be a long process to become accomplished,” Jefferson says.
That’s why many parents wait to buy until they’re sure of their child’s interest.
Also, since young children play smaller instruments, many rental programs allow size exchanges at any time. You can sell an outgrown instrument, of course, but that can take considerable time and effort. That said, many shops take trade-ins, but you often don’t get the full value of the violin, so check the trade-in policy in advance of the purchase.
Some parents, though, wind up regretting waiting to buy because they’ve spent a pretty penny on rentals, so check to see if rental fees can be applied to the purchase.
Where’s the sweet spot?
Teachers can offer good advice. And Jefferson says the decision should rest on whether your child takes real joy in the instrument. Do they practice violin without being nagged? Do they treat their cello with respect?
“I can often tell if they’re ready to buy just by looking at the rental instrument and seeing how well it’s taken care of,” Jefferson says.
3. When cheap is expensive. Bargain violins are easy to find at garage sales, big-box stores, and on the Internet, but buying one likely won’t save you money in the long run—and your kid may pay a significant price in frustration and even physical injuries. “People sometimes go on eBay and buy some rotten thing for $50,” says Julia McKenzie of Johnson String Instruments in Newton, Massachusetts. “It may look fine to someone who doesn’t know violins, but if you can’t press the strings down it’s going to be hard to learn on.”
Such instruments degrade quickly and often aren’t worth repairing. The wood in the peg boxes, for example, is often so soft the peg holes become enlarged, rendering the pegs incapable of holding strings.
But what if the box says, “Music teacher approved”?
“Maybe it was approved by some music teacher somewhere,” says Bone with a laugh. “But it wasn’t your music teacher.”
4. Small is beautiful. Far too many children get stringed instruments that are too big for them, McKenzie says. Shops sometimes round up when they should round down, parents opt for convenience over playability, and kids sometimes want a bigger instrument to feel like a bigger kid. But learning is harder when you’re stretching to play. “People don’t realize it’s better to stay on a smaller instrument as long as possible,” McKenzie says.
The school or shop should also need to take your child’s size into account when setting up the instrument’s bridge and the neck angle. “Tiny hands don’t have very much muscle yet, and pressing down the string can take a lot of effort, so it’s important to set the string height so that it’s very easy to press down and make a sound,” McKenzie explains.
5. Read the contract carefully. Whether your child is borrowing from the school or renting from a shop, make sure you understand the terms. Many agreements are monthly, but some go by semester or require a minimum initial period. Summer rental is usually an additional cost, even if you’re borrowing from a school. Figure out whether the fee includes string replacement or repairs. Determine whether the rental package includes such extras as shoulder rests and rosin.
And inspect the instrument itself.
“If you notice scratches, seams coming unglued or other issues when renting or borrowing, make sure it is well documented on the rental contract so you don’t get blamed for these when returning the instrument,” Denese Odegaard says.
6. Insurance? Insurance! “Oh boy, yes,” McKenzie says. “They really do need the insurance.” She’s seen instruments suffer everything from bad drops to being run over by cars to deliberate sabotage by kids who don’t want to practice. Plans vary widely, so find out if your options cover maintenance, accidents, and theft (and check whether your own homeowner’s insurance covers instruments).
7. Don’t rent to own; do leverage trade-in value. Renting to own doesn’t offer flexibility. What if your kid needs a bigger instrument or a better one? It’s also a bookkeeping challenge that many violin dealers prefer to avoid. But many shops will apply some portion of your rental fees toward a sale. “We send out notices to our customers that they’re accruing equity that can go toward purchasing an instrument,” McKenzie says.
8. The Internet offers rental options—but be careful. Some online sources can rent to kids living almost anywhere in the country. There are several respected services with a reputation for customer service, including rentmyinstrument.com, Ifshin, and Johnson. But whether you’re renting online or at your local shop, watch out for red flags. One sign of a promising shop is the presence of a dedicated workshop, McKenzie says. “Is the rental shop set up to take really good care of rental instruments? Some people have tried the rental business and given up. It’s very challenging to maintain.”
9. Instruments merit respect and require careful treatment. Violins are delicate. And whether your child’s violin comes from her school or a shop’s rental counter, someone likely values it for more than its price tag. “We care about our instruments—the look and the sound of them,” Ifshin’s Jefferson says. “And we’re sad when they’re destroyed. Many people can play that instrument through its life. And we’d like that life to be long.”
Looking for more in-depth information about buying an instrument? Try Strings’ Your Dream Instrument.