So you want to start playing the violin or you want your child to be involved in an activity that will help their brain development, general development of life skills, and something that they will enjoy? Fantastic! As a violin teacher, I am excited that you recognize the joy and life teachings that learning an instrument can bring to you and your family. While playing on a very expensive violin won't necessary make you a better violinist by default, there are some considerations even beginners should make when picking out their first instrument. First, let's discuss what not to purchase...
Beware the VSO
I often have parents explain to me that they want to make sure their child enjoys the violin first before they make a large investment in purchasing a violin. I totally understand this! However, it is important to note that in the last 15-20 years or so (aided by online merchandisers such as Amazon) the violin market has been flooded with what violin teachers call "VSOs" or "Violin Shaped Objects." VSOs are very cheap instruments--many priced at less than $100-- that often have significant design flaws that make them unplayable or, at the least, very frustrating for a beginner to play. Violin is already a very difficult instrument to start on and if your instrument is also working against you, this can be very discouraging. When I first began teaching, I let some of these VSOs slide in my studio when parents talked to me about their reasons for why they were putting off purchasing a better instrument for their children. What I found was that these students were more likely to give up in frustration from playing on an inferior instrument, and the parents, since they hadn't made much of an investment in the instrument, were less likely to be involved in their child's music education.
So, what is so bad about these instruments?
VSOs typically have fingerboards that are not made of ebony (a hard wood and one traditionally used for fingerboards), instead they have fingerboards that are made of a lighter, softer wood and are then painted black to look like Ebony. This is a problem because Ebony can take the high tension of the strings at the nut without wear to the instrument over time. One instrument in particular that I inspected had strings that were cutting into the nut of the instrument... so much so that you could see the wood splintering on either side of the strings! Many of these instruments do not have a bridge cut to fit the instrument and come sent with the bridge in the case for the player to assemble. This is a huge red flag since the bridge needs to be specifically cut to fit each individual instrument by a skilled luthier, and it must be placed correctly to optimize the sound. I have also seen VSOs with fine tuners that do not work because the tuner screws are not lined up with the levers below the tailpiece. I like to teach my beginners to tune first using the fine tuners. This helps them learn the concepts of tuning, train their ear, and more, but with an inferior instrument, developing these skills is much more difficult and teaching tuning to a beginner becomes impossible. I could go on and on about the problems I've seen with such instruments, but I think you get the idea. I don't recommend that anyone bother with the $80 Amazon violins, unless it's for wall decor. Typically you will be wasting time and money with them and beginners tend to end up frustrated with their poor sound and have a harder time learning to play the instrument.
So, what should I buy then?
You have a few choices when it comes to beginner instruments. One choice is not to buy at all and rent an instrument instead. I'll explain more about renting further on, but let me list a few of my recommended retailers for beginning violinists. This list is mostly local to the metro-Detroit area, so if you are looking for violins elsewhere, be sure to talk to your violin teacher. They should have knowledge about where to buy violins in your area.
Shar Music: Probably the most well-known in our area, Shar's headquarters is in Ann Arbor, MI, but they ship nationally. Shar Music has low prices for beginning instruments. Their Franz Hoffmann student instruments start at about $200 for an outfit (includes case and bow). Rentals cost about $20/month. 50% of whatever you spend toward rentals can be applied to the purchase of an instrument later. Shar Music is also a one-stop shop for string instrument accessories, books, etc..
Anderson Music: A Metro-Detroit family owned chain with locations in Troy, Farmington Hills, and Orchard Lake. I don't usually send people here except for rentals because their instruments cost significantly more than Shar. However, their rental instruments come from Eastman Strings Violins which generally sound much nicer than the Franz Hoffmanns and they have a rent-to-own program for these instruments.
Psarianos Violins: Psarianos Violins is a fine instrument shop that sells only handmade violins and their instrument prices start at over $1,000. However, they have an awesome rental program where they will give you almost 100% (minus a few dollars each month in insurance costs) toward the purchase of an instrument later. Rentals are on a 3 month term and about $75/3 months.
Buying vs. Renting
Often times buying an instrument will be more cost-effective than renting, but when you purchase an instrument you are responsible for all maintenance and repairs. When you rent an instrument, the business that you are renting from will complete all maintenance and repairs as part of the rental cost. If your child is on a fractional size instrument and may be outgrowing their instrument soon, it may make sense to rent until they are on the next size. As a teacher, I give guidance to my students and their parents about where to purchase or rent instruments from, but at the end of the day, the decision of whether to purchase or rent is a decision that the family must make based on their financial means and personal values.
As with many other things in life, you typically get what you pay for when purchasing a violin. There is a lot of work that goes into the production of a good quality instrument, so expect to pay for it, but know that there are options even for those on a budget.
Hopefully you found this post helpful. If you have further questions, please comment below.