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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Where to Get an Instrument for Your Child

Recently, I received a request to raise and comment on the issue of where a parent might obtain a good quality violin for their child. This question also raises other important questions: should I rent or purchase my child's instrument? Where should I rent or purchase my child's instrument? What size instrument should I get?

We have several youth string programs at Texas State University, and parents raise this discussion annually. Here are a few of the informational points I discuss with the parents of new string students.

Where Should I Get an Instrument for my Child?

A parent should be careful when getting an instrument for their child. I highly recommend that you follow the advice and suggestions of your teacher first and foremost, because your teacher is the expert in this field and has the experience to back up any recommendations. Still, there is some advice I can offer to help you avoid future problems.

EBay is a wonderful and fun tool for purchasing many different things, but for buying a violin or other stringed instrument, in my opinion EBay is the worst place to go! Anyone who knows anything about good musical instruments will NEVER sell them on EBay. You are more likely to get a poor instrument or an instrument that will need much repair in order to be put into working order. The main problem is that you will have little or no idea whether the instrument is any good. You cannot tell what the instrument's quality is without examining it in person. You cannot tell what prior repair work has been done, and despite the ability to resolve any dispute through EBay, who would want to take the time and trouble to do that?

There are many retail music stores that sell violins, however, a retail store may not be what you are looking for either because they may not be generally equipped with the experienced personnel to adjust the instruments properly for easy playing. Many stores offer their violin inventory and do not understand how to adjust the instrument to its best possible playing condition. Adjusting an instrument involves numerous items to check for and make adjustments about the instrument. For example, I offer here a link to a sample 15-point checklist that might be used when adjusting an instrument:

When a parent ignores my advice concerning which shops to rent or purchase an instrument from, I am usually faced with an instrument that has not been properly adjusted. The pegs might not fit, the bridge and sound post might be out of alignment, the nut and fingerboard may have issues concerning improper height, the instrument may need minor repair, and the chin rest might not properly fit.

I might struggle with the new instrument for a few weeks. Usually the issue is that I cannot tune the violin very well the because the pegs will not hold. Another common issue is that the bridge is way too high for a student to play comfortably. Of course, the parent winds up struggling with these same issues every other day of the week. Each week I struggle some more and make a point of saying, "this violin just needs to be adjusted. I'm surprised the shop did not do that for you before letting you leave the store." I say that enough times, and then the parent actually goes to the store and asks the shop to adjust the instrument. At that point the parent also realizes that the shop does not understand what "adjust the instrument" means. The parent then quietly returns the violin and then heads over to one of the stores I recommended.

Note to teachers: I think it is crucial that a teacher build a good report with the violin shops in the area. I know everything about the shops in my locale: I know which shops have deservedly high reputations and in which shops I need to be careful in my dealings. I have visited with the shops that I would recommend to my students and their parents, and I have also explained to the shop what my sizing policy is. My relationship with the shops has grown to the extent that in many cases the shop employees also remember that I like my students to have real wooded bows rather than fiberglass, wherever possible. One shop even understands my color coding preferences for finger tapes.

The BEST place to purchase a violin or other stringed instrument in my opinion is a specialized fine string instrument shop that has a luthier available to repair the instruments properly and to see that the instrument is properly made ready for easy playing. A luthier is someone who has typically completed a special apprenticeship program to learn how to work with wood to craft violins and other stringed instruments. This is not a skill that can be learned via the Internet or by working in the back of a shop. Luthiers are highly trained individuals; some have learned their skill in foreign countries.

If the child's instrument sounds lovely, your child will be more encouraged to practice because it is a pleasure to listen to the music he or she is making. As a parent you will enjoy the beginning sounds your child makes, so you will be providing the necessary encouragement and appreciation your child needs to spur him or her on to practice even more (to please you more). Conversely, if your child is not producing pleasant sounds, you and your child will not enjoy the music learning experience quite as much.

I recall an instance when one of my young students outgrew her 1/8 size violin. I explained to her father that she needed a 1/4 size violin. For some reason, the father delayed going to the violin store, until finally the situation became untenable for the young student. Her violin was so tiny, and she had grown so quickly and so much, that she had trouble crowding her fingers into the proper positions to play correct intonation. Every week I would remind the father that she needed a new size violin, but every week the child returned to her lesson with the old size violin.

Finally, frustrated as much as the child seemed to be, I drug out an old 1/4 size violin from my closet, which we happily refer to as the "camping violin." One of my other students had been camping once somewhere in Texas and while hiking a herd of wild horses had raced through the campsite and trampled everything in its path. Fortunately, my student had not taken her violin along on this camping trip.

The violin in my closet was a dog. It sounded terrible, and I inherited it somewhere along the way from someone, but I do not recall how I came to own it. It had a horrible, thin, scratchy tone, and there was nothing that anyone could do to improve the sound. I mostly kept it around in order to have a 1/4 size violin available to check my student's violin size. We call this the camping violin because if a student borrowed it to go camping and a herd of wild horses ran through the campsite, I would not shed a tear if the violin was destroyed under thundering hooves.

So to hand over this violin to a student would almost be a gesture of abuse, but, I could not think of any other solution until the father went to the violin store. Perhaps it was a financial decision on the parent's part, but I did not know the reason.

At first the student was excited because the violin felt right and fit the student's size. That probably lasted a few days. At the child's next lesson, dad was disheartened to report that he had some difficulty getting his child to practice. She had no interest. She said it sounded "scratchy," and she did not enjoy the sounds she made. I understood, because that was the problem with the violin. We limped along like this for several lessons, until the child practically stopped playing altogether. At that point dad became really concerned. He finally went to the store and got her a new instrument.

At the child's next lesson, her face was all lit up like it was Christmas Day. She could not wait to show me what she had been playing on her new violin. She was literally jumping up and down with excitement as she made me look at her pretty new violin. Dad was smiling too, because practicing no longer was an issue in his home. His daughter looked for opportunities to practice and enjoy her sweet violin sounds.

Should I Rent or Buy my Child's Instrument?

Some families will prefer to rent, some to buy. If a parent is unsure whether the parent or the child will continue his or her interest in studying music, the parent might consider renting the child's instrument initially. The shops that your teacher might recommend usually have very affordable rental programs. Most of these programs also offer the option of purchasing insurance for the instrument, which might cost a few dollars per month. These shops can also set up the parent and child with a purchase-to-buy program as well, so the parent  is able to choose a plan to fit the family's budget. One difference in renting versus buying is that over the long haul, renting will benefit the shop more than purchasing. The advantage in renting is that usually the shop will provide basic maintenance and care, such as providing new strings or replacing bows with worn out bow hair, without additional charge. Be sure to ask the shop what you will be getting.

If you buy the instrument, the shop often provides you with a trade-in value when you go in for a larger size, and you can pay the difference between the trade-in value and the cost of the new instrument. Many of my students have traded up their violins size by size until they reach the day when they can purchase a full size (4/4) instrument. With the purchase option, these students built up equity for the cost of the future full size violin.

Sizing is special topic, so I will save the discussion of that topic for a future post.

Parents, please follow your teacher's advice. After all, you attend lessons with the teacher you have chosen because they have this expertise. Teachers, take the bull by the horns and provide your students and their parents with the information they need to make wise decisions about obtaining an instrument.

Happy Practicing!


  1. I agree that E-Bay is not the best place to get a quality instrument.

    However, I took my chances and we purchased our 2-year-old a 1/16 a violin, thinking that for the $50 price tag including shipping, and that it would be more of a toy anyway, we went for it. We were pleasantly surprised with the results. It stays in tune, and has a rich tone for an instrument its size. It came with two bows, a case, and resin as well. This gets into the whole ethical thing about cheap labor overseas, but for those on a budget it can be worth the risk.

    I told my former violin teacher about it, and she said that she has purchased several violins on e-bay. A couple were not very good, but like your camping violin, they were good for sizing. However, most of them have been great. She sells them to her students for less than they can buy them at the store, and makes enough profit to make up the difference for the not-so-good instruments.

    E-bay does have it's place, but buyer beware!

  2. Thanks Tamsyn for your perspective. I wish I could say some of my folks had been so fortunate. It is a difficult thing for a parent to purchase an instrument if the parent does not have the knowledge or expertise to know if they have gotten a good deal. I am blessed to live in an area that has wonderful shops in the neighboring towns.