When your child takes up an orchestra or band instrument, it may be hard on your ears at first. But it doesn't have to be hard on your wallet.
For one thing, teachers and instrument dealers are in agreement that you should never buy an instrument for a beginner. Instead, you should rent.
The Parkway School District in St. Louis County, Mo., distributes brochures to parents with suggestions, advice, expectations and a list of area music dealers. "Usually," says Sandy Collins, fine arts coordinator for Parkway, "we suggest they rent. Especially in strings, there are sizing changes" as children grow out of their violins — and that can get expensive after a growth spurt or two.
Charles Brookman teaches elementary strings at Craig Elementary School in Creve Coeur, Mo. He adds, "At that age, you never know if the student is going to stick with it."
Parkway provides violins in third grade; students must provide their own instruments thereafter. Brookman thinks there's a good argument for renting all the way through middle school.
"My biggest concern is that when families go out to get instruments, they just look at the price — and they don't consider the quality or the craftsmanship. With student instruments, there is an amazing range of quality," notes Brookman. "I've seen some instruments that were bought on the Internet, and it's amazing that they hold together. Other parents buy more quality than the student can handle."
At Craig, teachers have "a sit-down with the parents, to talk about the strings program and all the benefits of it." Despite the explanations and the brochures, when school begins there are still instruments that don't pass, and Brookman has to go back to the parents and ask if they can be returned. "There is a quality issue: They constantly break strings, the bridge flies off all the time, it just becomes more hassle than it's worth."
Brookman knows that cost is a concern, but he cautions that it isn't everything — and notes that some schools will help families when there are financial constraints. "The nice thing about instruments is that, if you take care of them, they don't depreciate," he says. "If a kid really wants to play, schools will find a way to make it possible."
He recommends that parents shop locally. That way, if something goes wrong, the local dealer will do the work. If you buy over the Internet, you may run into issues with repairs.
There's also the problem of getting the wrong size instrument when Internet shopping; it's hard to tell how big it is when you're looking at a picture on eBay. "Local area dealers usually have someone on hand to measure students," and that eliminates a lot of problems, he says. "I've had 8-year-olds come in with full-size violins. They can't handle the instrument physically, and that can lead to general discomfort and a lack of interest in the instrument. They're embarrassed to go back to their parents and say it's wrong."
Greg Smith, owner of Dale's Music in St. Louis, offers rentals by the month. The advantages: "You can rent them as long as you like; you can return them whenever you wish; you can purchase them if you want." Some of the rental price — about $23 per month — can be applied to the purchase.
At the Kirkwood Music Center, owner Al Boulicault says that monthly rental prices range from $18 for a used violin to $60.44 for a double bass. That includes a case and basic accessories, and insurance. Dealers also have lists of recommended items, and plenty of free advice for newbies.
If a particular dealer doesn't include insurance — or if you choose to buy your instrument — Sandy Collins stresses the importance of getting insurance on your own, "in case it's lost, stolen or damaged. It can be quite costly if you have a cello and somebody runs into it."
"We provide everything they need to pick that instrument up and play it," says Boulicault. "Except for skill, except for instruction, they're ready to go."