Important Questions to Ask BEFORE you rent a violin, viola, cello or bass.
Your child's success depends upon the quality of the instruction they will receive, the support and encouragement of parents and in no small part, the instrument they will use. Unfortunately, scams and low quality instruments abound. By asking the following questions, you can protect yourself financially and give your child the best start possible in an important life enhancing experience.
1) How much will I pay for 9 months or a year?
Don’t be fooled by “3 month specials” that promise an enticingly low introductory rate. Your child will need an instrument for more than 3 months, so do the math and compare total amount you will have paid in rental fees at 9 months and 12 months.
2) What is the quality of the instrument and bow?
This is an extremely critical question. Over the past 5 years the market has been flooded with cheap imports from China. The strings are rigid and painful for soft fingers to press down on. The other components are made of cheap woods that have not been aged properly, so therefore tend to warp or break. The pegs are ill-fitting and it is almost impossible to keep the instrument tuned properly. The bows, like the instruments are made from poor grade wood and warp and make it extremely difficult to play the instrument. In short, even with the best skills and ability, the instrument delivers a very unsatisfying experience and a sound that would turn even the most determined child away from a fulfilling musical experience.
3) Is this a “rent to own” program? If so, how much money will I pay before I own the instrument and what is the retail value of the instrument? Again, do the math. You will be surprised to see that after 24 payments, you will often be paying $400 for an instrument with a retail value of $200. That is very expensive financing!
Go beyond the promise of “100% of your rental credit is applied towards the purchase.” That is a great promise, but not if the instrument you end up with is only worth half of what you have paid. It is not unusual for a child who has been taking private lessons for two years to need a better quality instrument than the rent to own programs provide.
4) What happens if my child needs a bigger size or better instrument? If your child starts out what is called an “incremental” size instrument (1/8, ¼, ½, etc.) it is very likely that they will not be big enough to play on a full size instrument before a “rent to own contract” is over. If you now own a ¾ size instrument, will the company allow you to trade this instrument in towards a full size instrument? What will they give you as its trade-in value? Again, do the math. If you spent $400 in payments on an instrument that is worth $200 retail, some companies will only give you 40% of the retail value to trade in towards the ownership of a full size instrument. Your $400 “investment” just dropped to $75.
If you are in a rental program, find out if there are any penalties or loss of credit accrued when you change instrument sizes or upgrade the level of instrument.
5) Can my rental credit be applied towards the purchase of an instrument? If so, how much of my rent will be applied?
Ask what is the maximum number of months of rental credit can be applied. It doesn’t help to rent an instrument for 18 months, only to be told that only 12 months of credit will be applied towards the purchase price. Also be clear about what kind of instrument you can buy with your credit. Will it be the same “grade” instrument or same size as your rental? Remember, over time, with good instruction, consistent effort, parental support and a quality instrument, your child will be improving.
Don’t be afraid to contact a store and ask directly “how much money will I have accrued towards purchase after 12 or 18 months of renting an instrument?”
6) Does my instrument have a warranty?
Does the company you are dealing with stand behind their product? If there is a manufacturing defect, will they repair the problem without charge? Is the instrument a decent quality to begin with? Don’t be fooled by fancy Italian names. Any string outfit (instrument/bow/case) that has a retail value of less than $200 is more than likely a cheap import that has been renamed.
7) What happens if my instrument needs a repair?
Unfortunately, accidents happen. Because they are made of wood the instruments are fragile by nature. If your child drops their instrument bridges can break, strings pop, pegs snap, seams open or cracks appear. Bows are especially fragile. Because of their fragility, there has been a move in recent years to produce high quality carbon fiber bows which are much more durable. Traditional wood (Pernambuco or Brazilwood) has been the standard material for hundreds of years, but carbon fiber bows in incremental sizes are becoming increasingly popular and now produce a sound and responsiveness equal to the traditional wood bows. All bows should come with fresh horsehair. Just like your own hair, horsehair on bows becomes dirty and slick over time. The only way to fix this is to re-hair the bow. This is usually done about every 6-8 months. Warning: Fiberglass bows are not as desirable as wood or carbon fiber.
If your instrument does need a repair, does your shop provide experienced “luthiers” on site? (A luthier is a highly trained individual who specifically works on string instruments.) They have gone to school for years to acquire the special skills to specifically work on string instruments. (Want to know more, check out the North Bennett Street School at http://www.nbss.edu/education/programs/violin-making-and-repair/index.aspx) If you go to a store that has flutes, drums, trumpets and pianos, it is EXTREMELY unlikely that there is a resident luthier.
8) What does “set up” mean?
A trained luthier will present you with a violin that has been “set up.” This means that all of the components (bridge, strings, pegs, sound post, fingerboard) have been carved and adjusted to very exacting specifications that are unique to each instrument. Luthiers are part scientist and part artist and take great pride in the ability to apply the laws of physics to instruments in order to create the most beautiful tone and responsive instruments possible.
9) Which is better, “new” or “used?”
Unlike pianos, brass and woodwind instruments, string instruments that are well maintained last for 100’s of years. String instruments by the old Italian masters, like Stradivarius, Guarneri and Amati cost millions of dollars and are played by major artists around the world. Many bowed string instruments actually improve with age. Of course, this depends upon the quality of the instrument to begin with. A poorly made, cheap violin is not going to improve, it will degrade and fall apart over time. A well-made instrument that might have improved with age, can also degrade if it is not taken care of. Watch out for varnish damage that is due to the instrument being subjected to extremes of heat or cold and/or cracks in the back portion of the instrument. Cracks on the top or sides of an instrument are not a big issue as long as they have been sealed correctly. Sloppy repair work is sometimes worse than no repair work.
10) What is the definition of “damaged beyond repair?” Check the fine print. This is an important point. Your entire rental investment could be dissolved if the shop you are working with designates the instrument as “damaged beyond repair.” Get your shop’s definition in writing. Just as an FYI, there is such a thing as “damaged beyond repair.” That would include cracks on the top or back of the instrument, damage to the neck or scroll.
11) What if the instrument is lost or stolen?
Ask what you will be charged if your instrument is lost or stolen during the rental period. Also, check your homeowners insurance and see if they are willing to cover costs in the event of loss, theft or “damaged beyond repair.”
12) If my child starts on a fractional size instrument and needs to change sizes during the rental period, will there be any additional charges for changing sizes?
Children tend to grow constantly. If they start on a fractional instrument size, they will probably need to go to a larger size at least once in a two year period. (Don’t rent an instrument that is too big thinking that they will “grow into” it. This is very bad for their skill development and can actually cause physical harm.)
13) What is the minimum length of time I must participate in a rental contract?
This varies from 1 month to 12 months. Ask your dealer. I would advise finding a program that has a 3 month startup period and then allows for month to month and allows for accrued rental credit to be redeemed at anytime.
14) What are the hidden dangers of buying an instrument off the internet?
See questions 1-9, especially #6. Most major string shops now offer an online process to rent instruments, but they are ALL housed in a real brick and mortar location. They have probably been in business for quite a while and are going to be around for years to come. If you buy off Ebay or through some other 3rd party vendor, you have no way to have the instrument fixed, trade it in on a higher quality instrument or guarantee the quality.
If this seems like an overwhelming task, then the simple solution is to “ask your teacher.” In fact, do not rent or purchase an instrument or bow from any shop until you have asked for the advice of a trained professional music teacher. (Trained professional teachers will have at least a Bachelor’s degree in music education or performance, but that is another 10 questions to ask list.) However, if your teacher to give music lessons by the store that is providing the rental, then you are likely to get a biased answer.
The second piece of general advice is “Don’t be cheap.” Your child’s desire to play an instrument is precious and should be taken very seriously. It is insulting to their spirit to reward their enthusiasm and wonder with poor quality equipment.
Finally, don’t buy from unknown entities off the internet.
Phyllis Freeman has been teaching violin and viola for 31 years. She runs a school for strings in Frederick Maryland and was previously on the faculty of the Peabody Preparatory in Baltimore. She has been the President of the MD/DC chapter of the American String Teacher’s Association and has written articles for the Suzuki Association of the America’s journal. Together with Rebecca Henry, she has created a website called ViolinPractice.com. She has a Bachelor of Music in performance from Indiana University and a Bachelor of Music degree in Performance from Peabody Institute of Music.