By Ed Pearlman
Short answer: YES. An essential part of learning to play music on an instrument (as opposed to singing!) is having an instrument on which to play. Owning or renting an instrument and having the necessary accessories are important for learning but are not something teachers may be prepared to handle. And yet, without the right equipment it’s hard for a student to get very far. How can the teacher help? What do you do to help your students?
Some teachers might simply accept whatever the student has for equipment. Others direct their students to local or online stores to purchase recommended items. Still others select and rent or sell instruments and accessories themselves.
I’ve done all three. Lately, I’ve taken to making things available myself, especially for beginners. This post is about why and how I’ve gone about it.
Why go through the trouble of supplying instruments for students?
Because in our area of expertise, these items have become very unpredictable in terms of availability and price. In addition, some students or parents of students have dragged their feet in purchasing necessary items online that I’ve recommended, and made it difficult for the student to progress. Some of my students have purchased cheap violins on eBay with terrible sound, hardly usable bows, and bad pegs that render the violins practically untunable.
Last year I discovered ways to make what my students needed available to them through me. By bringing in inexpensive but decent shoulder rests, for example, I could sell one immediately to a new student and not worry about whether they’ll bring one to the next lesson.
How to provide instruments & accessories for students
I found that some music sellers have a wholesale division that is willing to work with teachers. While I’m not able to financially bring in a stock of instruments, I am able to order individual instruments for students, and to stock small quantities of items such as shoulder rests, rosin, and electronic tuners. This is a win-win situation for my students, the wholesaler and myself.
When I started doing this, I brought in 3 sample violins and several bows to try out, and settled on a pairing of violin and bow, with a decent but inexpensive case, resulting in a starter package that is not very costly and of decent quality. I mark up the wholesale cost by 50% (most retailers mark up 100% to cover their overhead and earn a profit); this allows me to offer a price that is good for the student but also covers my trouble in handling the merchandise, and my risk in putting out money to purchase items I may or may not be able to sell.
Give students the option to rent (with rules)
I also decided to allow students to rent violins. I didn’t want to pressure them to buy, and by letting them apply rent toward purchase, I make it easy for them to try out taking lessons for a while. I made up a simple contract that makes clear the student is responsible for any damage or for maintenance such as new strings. I also required that they take at least 2 lessons per month in order to keep the violin. The reason for this is that I’m primarily a teacher, not a violin shop. Making instruments available is just a service for my students to support my teaching, not a business of its own. If a student has to take a month or more off, I want the violin back to let someone else use it, unless they wish to buy it. I want only people to rent violins if they maintain a student relationship with me.
Another restriction I placed on rentals is a cutoff date of June 15 for the rent-to-purchase agreement. Summer is often unpredictable for students as well as for myself, and I can’t necessarily stick with the 2-lessons-per-month minimum at that time. So what happens is that on June 15 they can choose to return the violin, purchase it, or we can talk about a new agreement. I don’t really want to be in an indefinite rental situation, so I like having this limit. A student should be able at a certain point to decide whether to buy their own instrument from me or elsewhere, and this requirement alerts them to keep in mind that they may have to commit to an instrument at the end of the season.
How it has worked out for me
So far it’s worked well. Some students have purchased instruments. Others have continued to rent and we’ll see how it all turns out on June 15, but I’m okay with having violins returned and making them available again to new students in the fall. Nobody has abused their instrument so far! One parent got me to bring in a violin for them to buy and then decided to rent instead. Since they were already renting from a local person, I decided I would not undercut that person and was not willing to rent just so the parent could save a few dollars. After all, my focus is on teaching. As long as the student has an instrument, and as long as I’m not losing money on making instruments and accessories available, I’m happy to stick with teaching and not push anybody to buy or rent if they don’t need to.
By making instruments available myself, I believe I’ve gained several extra students, and made our lives a little easier. The nonmusical parts of learning an instrument — having an instrument and getting the proper accessories — is working more smoothly for everybody, and allows learning music to be our top priority.
Granted, for the most part I’ve been talking about beginners. More advanced students are more capable of taking my recommendations or researching their own needs, though I’m happy to consult with them about the instruments they are looking at. Also, I do like to bring in a case of bows each year for students to try. They learn a great deal about the difference a bow can make; they tune their ears in carefully to their sound and notice the different feel of each bow. I don’t buy these bows for them, however; I just put them in touch with the seller.
I look forward to hearing how you handle your students’ needs in this regard!