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How to buy a great string instrument
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Author: Phyllis Freeman
How to find a good quality violin, viola or cello for your child.

You have decided that your child could benefit from learning to play violin, viola, cello or string bass. Congratulations, and we welcome you to an exciting and rewarding world of music making.

One of the first questions that may immediately come to mind as you begin this journey is "Where do I get a quality instrument?" Finding a first instrument that is responsive and has a beautiful sound is a critical first step when learning to play a string instrument. This is especially true when procuring an instrument for a child. Here are a couple of guidelines:

1) Find a reputable string instrument dealer. If you walk in the door of the shop and see flutes, drums or trumpets, immediately turn and leave. String instruments are a specialty item and if a store offers a variety of instruments, that often means they are less likely to provide the string specialists that you will find in shops that exclusively deal in string instruments.

2) If your child is first starting with a private teacher, consult with the teacher before making any commitment. Most string teachers have established relationships with string instrument dealers. These dealers know the teacher's preferences in terms of shoulder rests, strings and instrument brand. Since the teacher probably sends significant business to a particular shop, you are also more likely to get "priority" service. Every teacher has slightly different preferences when it comes to how an instrument 's tone quality and how it is "set up" (chin rest, shoulder rest, type of strings, etc.) A store that consistently deals with a teacher will have this information and can therefore provide an instrument to the particular teacher's exact specifications. It is important to remember that string instruments come in a variety of sizes and young children need to be "sized" for an instrument. It is very frustrating for a child to try to learn to play an instrument that is too large for them. Matching the size to the player is a determination best made by a string specialist. Ask the person with whom you are interacting at the string shop whether or not they are a professional string player themselves. (Based on their response, your common sense should kick in about what to do next.)

If your child is beginning in a school program, ask the school's string teacher. Most string teachers will hand out a list of recommended shops. Keep in mind, however, that they are often obligated to give you the names of all shops, even those that might not provide the best service, instruments and experts. Instead, ask the teacher where they take their instrument when it needs to be worked on or from whom they purchased their instrument.

3) Stay off the Internet. Yes, it is tempting when you see those rock bottom prices for violins from China, but unfortunately the quality is often very poor and many of the instruments virtually unplayable. I have actually seen instruments that could not even be tuned because the instrument was so poorly constructed. You will also be stuck with the instrument for life, because few decent string shops will take these instruments in on trade. Also, shops like to deal in their own "brands" and usually won't take other brands in on trade. Don't let price be the determining factor when selecting an instrument. You will not have "saved" any money if the child is frustrated and quits because of trying to play an inferior instrument. As by way of analogy, consider the quality of and the money you spend on sports equipment

4) Ask the following questions of the sales person before signing on the dotted line:

How much is the most expensive violin, viola, cello, bass in your store? The higher the figure, the better. First, it likely gives a more accurate snapshot of the overall quality of the shop. It may indicate they take this business seriously, and are willing to invest and maintain an expensive, high end inventory are prepared to be around for the long run—for themselves and your child. Consider too, that with good instruction, your child might really get into this, and it is not uncommon for parents to pay $15,000 for a violin (even more for a cello) for an advanced teen. That may seem inconceivable now, but music can change children for the better. It opens doors in life that you have not even considered. Cross that bridge when you get to it, but know that there are options should that point in time come, and you would be making an investment in your child—and the instrument. So, plan to plan ahead a bit. Their involvement may lead to wonderful and creative things. It does every day.

This leads to the next question:

What is your trade in policy? Remember, most children are not starting on full sized instruments, so as they grow you are going to need to have instruments that grow with them.

Renting vs. Purchasing: If you are with a good shop, then this question simply comes down to your personal cash flow. Many shops will credit your rental payments up to a certain amount and then apply it towards your eventual purchase.

Used vs. New: Believe it or not, used is often better. Remember the great Italian instruments are hundreds of years old and therefore "used." As long as the instrument is in good condition (no cracks, open seams or disfiguration), old and used are fine.

Insurance: Many shops will offer "instrument" insurance. You should check with your homeowners insurance agent and be absolutely certain that an instrument is covered under your policy. If there is any question, take the shop up on the instrument insurance offer, especially for cellos. A child who can leave his or her lunch on the bus can do the same with a musical instrument. There is also the risk of the instrument being damaged if it is dropped or bumped into.

Carbon Fiber vs. Wood Bows: Strongly consider carbon bows for kids. The bows are less fragile and usually much more "stable" and "even" the than wood bows that can often cost twice as much. Plus, the kids love the colors of the carbon bows and may become much more engaged just because their bow is purple or red. Give the child some say on the color selection, it will give them a greater appreciation of their tools of the trade.

This may become something of a hobby for your child or their life's avocation. Music has the power to change lives, and by investing in a quality instrument from the start, you send a message that this is an endeavor to be taken seriously.


Phyllis Freeman
    Ms. Freeman is very active as a performer, teacher and entrepreneur.  She created and directed a very successful Suzuki string program at the first charter school in the state of Maryland, the Monocacy Valley Montessori Public Charter School, from 2004-2011.  She is also the director of the Maryland Talent Education Center which is located in Frederick and Mount Airy Maryland and a member of the violin/viola faculty at Peabody Institute in the Preparatory Division.  In addition to her administrative and teaching positions, she is the principal viola for the Maryland Symphony Orchestra and a member of the National Philharmonic.  Ms. Freeman has had several articles published in the American Suzuki Journal.
    Ms. Freeman is also the founder and CEO of Molto Legato LLC,  a new media company for the classical music industry.   . Molto Legato has a video division that created a DVD series that violin students use at home to help with practice as well as documentaries like "What is a Suzuki Festival," "Suzuki Founders in the US" and an interview with Suzuki patriarch, John Kendall.  These documentaries and many masterclasses can be found exclusively on www.ClassicalMusicCity.com

Some of her other articles on CMC are "Motivation and Practicing, 5 Things Every Music Teacher Should Know",  "Video, a critical teaching tool", "10 Practicing Tips for Parents" and more.


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