To rent or buy?

To rent or buy?
Pauline Ashwood takes us through some of the options for accessing an instrument for private or group lessons.

While every individual is different, this section offers a guide on whether to rent or buy for private lessons. It is aimed at beginners (children and adults) and instrumental teachers. It is assumed that any person taking lessons has access to an instrument from the first lesson.

Buying a first musical instrument

Buying a musical instrument can be daunting, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the process. Our guide below will help you get started. One of the most important factors is that your instrument should have a sound and physicality that make it a pleasure to play. There is little advantage to buying an instrument that is currently too big meaning that in the short term, for instance, you can’t reach the fingerboard.

Buying a new instrument is a cost, and unfortunately high cost doesn’t always mean high quality. Buying the right instrument for you (or your child), however, should be seen as an investment.

Step 1
It is imperative that you seek a teacher’s advice on the most suitable brand of instrument and the best place to source it. If you or your child does not already have a teacher, it is advisable to find one before committing to purchasing an instrument. Buying an instrument designed for a beginner does not mean spending large sums of money. Expensive instruments are designed for advanced players and may not be suitable for beginners.

Step 2

A good beginner instrument should make it easy for a new player to produce a good sound, and should be suitable for use for the first three to six years of learning. Very cheap instruments are often barely playable beyond the first year and therefore offer poor value for money. A poor-quality instrument is a major reason why many children lose interest in playing at an early stage. As a general rule, instruments sold by reputable music retailers will be of a higher quality while instruments bought in supermarkets, bookshops and other general outlets tend not to last. Many retailers will offer more than one brand, so try to compare the prices of different brands for the same instrument. Again, your teacher’s advice will be relevant at this point. Your teacher may a have a preference for one brand over another and there may be valid reasons for this; for example, two seemingly similar ukuleles could vary in price, but in the long term one may hold its tuning better than the other.

Step 3

The internet can be a good option if you are absolutely sure of what you want, but check that the website you choose offers a returns policy, and be sure to factor shipping costs and methods into your purchase decision. Instruments should be well-protected and insured for damage during shipping. Traditional music retailers will give you an opportunity to see and play the instrument before purchase and some allow you to return the instrument for repair during the guarantee period. Many retailers now have websites which combine the convenience of online purchase with the reliable service of a local music shop.

Step 4

Prices vary between the different families of instruments, and this in itself can be a consideration when choosing an instrument for your child. For piano students, purchasing a keyboard that has weighted keys can be a suitable and affordable option. Good beginner string instruments start at around €150-300, as do flutes and clarinets, while oboes, bassoons and saxophones are typically more expensive. Brass instruments seem to be getting cheaper and good-quality examples can be found starting at €200. For brand recommendations, always ask a teacher.

Buying second-hand

If you know what to look for, a used instrument can be a good deal, and for more experienced players it can be a way to acquire rare instruments. Most novice instrument buyers, and even many more experienced ones, lack the expertise to judge the value and condition of instruments well. Therefore, it’s good to ask for guidance from your music teacher or an informed friend or colleague. In the case of more expensive instruments, it may be worth hiring a professional to assist in the purchase – for instance, consider hiring a piano technician to check out a used piano, or obtaining an appraisal on an expensive stringed instrument. Most reputable instruments will come with a certificate of authenticity, and the rarer or more expensive ones with a list of former owners. Much of the advice in the section above is also relevant here, particularly if spending a large sum of money. You need to seek the advice of teachers and instrument specialists.

Renting a first musical instrument

There are advantages and disadvantages to both buying and renting. Buying is obviously a bigger commitment, whereas if your local music service provider has a rental scheme this allows you to keep your options open. If you’re borrowing an instrument from any scheme, we recommend that you check out the terms and conditions to ensure you understand when the instrument can and can’t be used, who is responsible for insurance, what happens if an instrument breaks or gets damaged in your care, who manages services etc.

Financial considerations are often the main motivation for deciding to rent rather than buy a first instrument. Of course there may be a perfectly adequate instrument already in the family, in which case, provided the size is correct and it feels right for the individual, this is an advisable route. Again, checking with the teacher is important.

Renting can be a useful way for a pupil to explore whether an instrument is right for them. It is also a helpful way for you to discover whether you have space to house the instrument, or if it can be easily transported to lessons in the existing family car or on public transport. Some libraries across the country have begun purchasing and managing instrument banks, which can be a useful and accessible way of accessing a rental instrument.

If you are joining a music programme such as Music Generation or a band (for example a local concert or brass band), they may have a bank of instruments available on trial and loan schemes. Each organisation will have its own rules associated with renting or borrowing these instruments, so check with your local provider to see what they have on offer. Many youth orchestras and bands have had instruments donated to them and others have purchased an instrument bank with the support of the Music Capital Scheme. This is a great way to try an instrument without the financial commitment of buying. It will allow a player to see if this instrument suits them, and in some circumstances there is the option to trial several instruments over a period of time.

In most cases it is acceptable to bring your own instrument to a band or ensemble. Sometimes, demand for membership is high and so bands or groups will only have vacancies for particular instrumentalists. In the case of some instruments, groups or ensembles will have unique or lesser played instruments which can be borrowed or used when required. It is important to check the terms and conditions of borrowing a group’s instruments. For example, are you permitted to take it home, and if so, who is responsible for insuring the instrument outside rehearsals? Can the instrument be used for performances other than band /ensemble practice, i.e. can you use the band’s instrument for private study and lessons?

Pauline Ashwood is a freelance Arts Administrator with a wealth of experience in promoting live events. She is currently Director of Drogheda Classical Music and is involved in a number of Arts Organisations in the North East, including Programme Director for Ardee Baroque and Administrator for Drogheda Arts Festival.