Music lessons

Buying a first musical instrument is a rite of passage. Somewhere between “Can I have a pony?” and “Can I borrow the car?” most kids will plead: “Can I have a guitar/violin/flugelhorn?”

Like cars, musical instruments can be expensive and come in a bewildering array of choices. And like ponies, their novelty may soon wear off. But whether you’re the parent of a budding pianist or a middle-aged jazz fan who wants to play like Miles, finding the right instrument needn’t be a headache.

Especially if you’re just starting out, your first move should be to find a good teacher, one who can help you master your instrument and also help you to shop for one. That means steering you to a reputable dealer and offering advice on the best options for your skill level, budget and even your physical stature.

“For violins and cellos in particular, sizing is very important,” says Kelly Parkins-Lindstrom of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. “They range in size from a one-sixteenth — which would be for a three-year-old — to full-sized.”

Since fit is so vital, you should always buy an instrument in person — never from a catalogue or on eBay. Try playing any potential purchase with your music teacher present. If she or he can’t accompany you to the store, ask to borrow the instrument for a week and tote it with you to a lesson. (Most stores will let you do this if you provide your teacher’s name and a credit card number as security.)

If you’re buying for a child, bring her with you to the store to make sure the instrument suits her. And if your child is between sizes for a violin or cello, go for the smaller model, even though it means your young musician will outgrow the instrument faster.

“When it’s larger, you’re putting stress on the child because of the extra weight,” Parkins-Lindstrom says. Too large an instrument can throw off a child’s posture and interfere with his or her ability to play the instrument properly.

If you’re not excited by the notion of buying a succession of new instruments to keep pace with your growing child, consider renting. Stores such as the Long & McQuade chain offer base-level violins for as little as $100 a year.

Fiddling not your thing? Long & McQuade will let you have an acoustic guitar for as little as $14 per month, and five-piece drum sets, with cymbals and hardware included, for around $35 a month. Later, if you want to keep the instrument you’ve been renting, the store will rebate 60% of your rental fees toward the purchase price.

For older children and adults as well, renting is a no-risk way to find out if you have the interest to keep your lessons going for the long haul. Renting makes even more sense if the instrument you want to try is a several-thousand-dollar investment, such as a piano.

For example, Toronto’s Remenyi House of Music offers a six-month piano rental for $75 to $85 a month. If you decide down the road to buy that piano, or any other in the store, the retailer will deduct 100% of the rental fee from your purchase.

Just make sure you understand all the terms before signing up for a rental deal. With pianos, for example, you may be responsible for getting the instrument to your house, which involves paying professional movers $200 or more.

Plus you’ll be asked to plunk down a damage deposit. Remember, too, that whether renting is more economical than buying will depend on what you want to play. Clarinets and other woodwinds are relatively inexpensive, so you may be further ahead to buy one, then resell it if things go awry.

John Hoffman, a former professional musician and the father of three in Peterborough, Ont., purchased a trumpet for his middle son three years ago, for about $350. If Jesse quit in a year, Hoffman figured he could have resold the trumpet for at least half what he paid. That would have been cheaper than renting for the same period.

“You can generally get a good price for your instrument if you’ve looked after it,” says Hoffman, who ought to know — he’s bought a lot of noisemakers in his day including, on his recent trip to Cuba, a lute-like instrument called a laud.

If you do decide to sell, your first stop should be a new-instrument dealer, since many also handle used instruments. If you’re more ambitious and want to extract maximum value, try selling your used dulcimer online or through a newspaper classified ad. (Remember, a dealer is looking for a profit, so he’ll pay you less for your used instrument than a customer would pay for it.)

The key to getting a good resale price is buying quality in the first place. The additional advantage is that you or your child will be more likely to stick with a higher-end purchase. Cheap instruments aren’t just hard to resell, they’re discouragingly hard to play. A $59.99 guitar from the department store will shred your fingertips and won’t stay in tune. Who wants to practise on that?

“Kids, and even adults who don’t know how to properly use an instrument, can be hard on it,” says Mississauga, Ont., music teacher Jennifer Montgomery. “The more durable it is, the more it will hold its resale value.”

Better entry-level instruments have come down in price recently, which is all the more reason to buy quality.

“Ten or 15 years ago, you had to spend quite a bit of money to get something half-decent,” says Long & McQuade’s Paolo Martinolich. “Nowadays, a lot of companies — like Yamaha and Epiphone — make a decent instrument at a lower price.” (See Shop talk, below, for a rundown of some popular instruments.)

Folks on a budget can start out with an electronic keyboard or digital piano, which cost a lot less than the real thing. Hoffman’s youngest has been learning on a $300 Yamaha keyboard for two years (he’s now 10) and is doing fine.

But it’s important to look at the features before you buy. The lowest price tabletop models and those with smaller-than-standard keyboards will take a talented learner only so far.

“Get one with a full-size keyboard and a pedal, so it comes closest to the real experience of playing a piano,” Montgomery says. A decent model, with weighted keys that simulate the action of a real piano, will run you about $1,295 with a full-size keyboard (88 keys). For $2,000 or $3,000, you can get a digital piano that’s vastly superior to a new upright in the same price range.

Alternatively, you can try buying a traditional piano secondhand. A good used upright can be had for around $2,500, making this an attractive option for people who want a real piano, but don’t have $5,000 or more to spend on a quality new model.

But be aware of the dangers. It can be risky for the newcomer who doesn’t know a Washburn from a washboard to buy a used guitar or other instrument from the want ads. You could end up paying more than the instrument is worth or, worse, wind up with a lemon.

“I occasionally do a tour of the pawn shops and I’ve seen guitars selling for more than we charge for the same thing brand new,” Martinolich says. “A lot of these dealers don’t play, so they think, ‘this one’s shiny, let’s put a higher price on it.'”

The right way to buy a used instrument is to shop around at reputable dealerships. For child-sized strings, you might also try contacting a teacher of the Suzuki method (see the Yellow Pages under Music Instruction-Instrumental), who will have students as young as three and can put you in touch with an older learner who no longer fits her fiddle. Either way, you should ask your music teacher to help you find the best instrument for you.

Whether you decide to buy or rent, and whether you choose new or used, take your time.

“Many people feel that the pressure is on to buy the same day,” says Parkins-Lindstrom, who stresses that is absolutely not the case. Mozart may have composed the overture to his opera Don Giovanni in one night, but that doesn’t mean you have to rush.

Shop talk

Here are guidelines on how much you should pay for a new, entry-level instrument and which manufacturers offer both quality and value.


You can get a new upright piano for as low as $3,500. “But if you want a piano of some quality that will be easier to resell, you have a better chance with something around $5,000 to $7,000,” says Rosa Remenyi of Remenyi House of Music in Toronto. She recommends Kohler & Campbell pianos in this price range.


With a carrying case and bow, beginner violins start at around $450, regardless of size. According to Remenyi, no one brand dominates the industry, so don’t get hung up on labels. “There are so many shops around the world, and one factory might make 50 labels,” she says. Unless you’re an expert, buy from a reputable dealer who can attest to the quality of the instrument.


Art & Luthier makes good starter acoustic guitars for under $200 which are a personal favorite of Long & McQuade’s Paolo Martinolich. He also likes electric guitars from Epiphone (whose parent company is Gibson, one of the most revered guitar makers), also starting at under $200.


CB Percussion offers a full-size five-piece set, complete with cymbals and hardware, for under $500.


Quality Alpine clarinets are under $450, and alto saxophones are under $1,000.


A student-model trumpet by Blessing will run you about $550.

From the October issue

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