Updated: Sep 25, 2019
Buying an instrument can be tough. It's time to say what a lot of teachers don't want to say, because it's no fun letting someone know they got a bad deal. But for the sake of students and parents everywhere who want to get a great deal with their hard earned money, I'll tell it like it is. There no guarantees that it will be perfect, but here are some things you can do to increase your chances of ending with an instrument that won't cost you in the long run.
Stay away from El Cheapos
They look like a good deal at first, but really, buying a super cheap instrument is like buying a car that looks great until you start driving it and hear things that don't sound right. Something is wrong with the specs. For a beginner, renting instead of buying is almost always the better option. Ask them about any store credit or rent to own, and some places even offer a deal on rental credit for competitors. You have options.
If you buy a cheap Amazon or ebay violin (or similar quality somewhere else) be prepared to shell out hundreds for a new bridge that actually holds the strings in the right spot, shave it down so that the action isn't unbelievably high, and replace the twangy strings that will make your face wrinkle up like you're about to sneeze. And after all that, it still won't sound as good as the instrument you could have gotten up front for the same grand total. Ouch.
And you may be thinking that you're getting something that you'll own that can get you through until you can buy something better. In fact, you will more than likely be getting through with a sad player who can't keep up because they play slower and don't sound good as they're mashing their fingers into an unresponsive instrument that holds them back. Renting is usually better than buying until you're ready to commit to an instrument that can get the job done.
Have a real player play it
Is it up to your specs? In other words, will the string height let you play at the speed you need? Is your viola making a ringing sound, or does it sound like it has a cold? Either have the student play it, or see if some other capable person can play it for you while you listen.
If you're spending good money on buying an instrument instead of renting, you should either test it out with a) a student who can play it in different ranges and styles and/or b) have a private teacher who can do the testing for you. Whether you consider yourself to have a highly trained ear for instruments or not, it's worth taking time to listen because you're going to live with it.
If you're not in a position to do either of these two things, you're probably better off staying with a rental. Nothing wrong with that, keep building that equity.
Ready for your questions
Check with your teacher
This is the big one.
You don't have to buy from the same place you rented from, you actually may end up getting what you really need somewhere else. I know my favorite places for a cello (it just so happens that they do a great job both with renting and selling) and I recommend them because I know my studio families will get good value, be taken care of if something goes wrong, and the student will get the most out of their practice time because they can actually play it.
Keep in mind that whether it's your orchestra teacher or private teacher, they spent years in their field learning what goes into a good instrument, and their experience with every instrument they pick up gives insight into what's good and bad in the market. Take advantage of that experience to get a better deal. If you've found yourself with an instrument you don't like, talk to them and see how you can turn a frown upside down--they will be happy to help you upgrade your instrument.
Don't be scared, be prepared
The good news is that by doing research of what the good deals are in your area, you have a much better chance of making the right purchase.
Look, I've seen families come into my studio over and over with an instrument that they don't like, and ended up overpaying for their instruments by the hundreds and even thousands. Other teachers know what I'm talking about. This is something that's learned the easy way or the hard way. So if it's the right time for you, go ahead and buy without being afraid--just make sure you're equipped with the right knowledge of what's out there in the market, test it out, and have some experienced advice on your side.
At that stage, hopefully your technique will develop more freely to match your goals. For more details on that, check out my blog post on leveling up your string playing abilities.
If you know anyone who could benefit from a crash course in instrument shopping, feel free to share this post with them!
Neil Fong Gilfillan is a Suzuki cello teacher in Frisco Texas. He and his wife Rachel Samson on viola/violin run Chili Dog Strings, the only string studio in Frisco named after a dog. To see more of his teaching techniques and performances, check their studio Facebook page, YouTube channel and Instagram!