Should Students Buy or Rent Musical Instruments?

Kevin Ott
Grandparents buying a violin for granddaughter

Your child has caught a music bug and wants to play an instrument. Should you rent or should you buy? There are benefits and downsides to both, depending on the student's interest level, age, and several other factors.

Renting an Instrument

Playing an instrument requires regular practice, which means that the instrument has to be readily available. Whether you're looking for something portable like a flute or trumpet, or something larger like a tuba or even a drum kit, rentals are available as an alternative to purchasing the instrument outright.

Benefits of Renting

If you have any doubt about your child's interest and whether it will be a long-term thing, renting is always a practical way to test the waters. Some of the key benefits include:

  • Renting can offer affordable pay-as-you-go contracts. M.U.S.E., a group of professional music educators who assist schools with music education in San Francisco, estimated the average cost of renting to be $20 per month used, $25 new. Online vendors, like the site Band Connection, have an average closer to $30 per month, though these numbers can vary depending on the instrument.
  • All repair and theft costs are covered in a quality, competitive contract though these liability programs require a few extra dollars per month.

Although online vendors offer great convenience and perhaps larger inventory, there is nothing better than letting your child actually see, handle, and even test out an instrument at a store location. You might even get a more affordable deal by renting from a local store.

Downsides of Renting

Renting is certainly a common practice among parents, though instrument rental does come with some headaches:

  • The monthly rental fee, at first glance, may seem doable. However there are sometimes extra fees such as security fees, interest, and insurance which make the bottom line more expensive than the advertised monthly rate.
  • Some of the most common plans are rent-to-own. This might seem like a good idea, but when you add up all of the fees you pay in addition to the monthly payments, you end up paying more money in the long haul than if you bought. It's better to sign a flexible short-term contract that offers rent-to-own as an option, not as a mandate.
  • No matter how adamant a vendor is about the cleanliness of their instruments, all rental instruments need a thorough cleaning before use. A study in the March 2011 issue of General Dentistry by the Academy of General Dentistry, as quoted by Time Magazine, reported an unusually high amount of bacteria found in rental instruments. Having to clean a rental instrument yourself, which sometimes means buying specialized cleaning supplies, can be a headache.
  • Some vendors require contracts that are too long, which almost eliminates the point of renting. A sensible contract should only require a 2-3 month minimum rental agreement, like this contract at Easy Instrumental, and then set you free from any obligation to continue with the contract beyond that point.

Be sure to review your vendor's rating at the Better Business Bureau before doing business with them. If you get caught up in an overly complex contract with hidden fees and long-term commitments, you may wish you had just bought the instrument and avoided the hassle.

Buying an Instrument

Renting isn't always the best option for students learning to play. Purchasing an instrument can be costly up front, but in the long run it may be the preferable choice.

Benefits of Buying

If you're confident that your child is going to go the distance with his or her musical interest, then buying is a great way to support him or her. There are several benefits that come with making this choice:

  • According to David Summer, a 35-year veteran music teacher with a Bachelor of Music in Education, buying the instrument gives the child a greater sense of commitment. He or she is much more likely to take it seriously.
  • While a new string instrument, for example, could easily cost $1000, you can save money by buying used instruments from stores, from someone you know who has lost interest in the instrument, or from a reputable seller online.
  • Buying an instrument allows you to avoid the hassle of complicated rental contracts and commitments. Rental agreements can be complicated, and there is always the possibility of dishonest vendors who sell less-than-functional instruments, or pushy ones who try to pressure you into long-term commitments.

Purchasing may also motivate parents to take a greater interest in their child's musical development; and this in itself adds great value to the overall experience.

Downsides of Buying

Although it can be a very special experience to purchase an instrument for your child, buying does have some downsides:

  • It can be an expensive long-term commitment if you start at a young age with an instrument that must be upgraded to larger sizes as the child grows. This is common with string instruments in particular. If you do purchase, first speak with the school's band director or your child's private instructor about how many times a larger size will need to be purchased before reaching the full size model that will last your child a lifetime.
  • If the student wants to switch instruments, it can become very expensive to buy multiple new ones. Renting does allow the student more flexibility to experiment with different instruments before you commit to purchasing one.
  • Just like buying a new car, the moment you take a new instrument home it loses resale value. In other words, don't expect to get the full price back even if you decide to sell it within a week of purchasing.

The bottom line is don't rush into the decision to purchase. Raising a dedicated musician is a long-term commitment both in emotional and financial support for your child.

Evaluating Your Child's Interest in Music

Purchasing a musical instrument can be far more expensive than people realize. Although children can be unpredictable and even their most passionate interests can suddenly change, here are some factors to consider before running out to your nearest music store to make the big purchase.

The Frustration Factor

There is always an initial excitement in learning music, but the most brutal learning period is in the first couple of months when even the most basic things on the instrument are difficult. This frustration might dissuade children from going further. However, if he or she can push through the period of frustration after infatuation with the instrument has faded, and is able to delay gratification, it might be a sign that he or she has the ability to commit long-term. Buying is then less of a risk.

Support Systems

When a child has a group of friends at school pursuing the same interest, it makes it easier for the child to stick with the instrument. In addition, building a positive support system at home that maintains a balance of fun exploration and rigorous discipline in the music journey, as recommended by GreatSchools.org, will make buying the instrument less risky.

The Age of a Child

Many parents wonder if there is a correlation between a student's age and his or her potential to stick with an instrument long-term. According to published research by Sage Journals from early 2014, a study of 157 students over ten years concluded that environment, not age, was the primary determinant of commitment. A home environment that gives the child a big-picture vision of what music can eventually lead to in both career and artistic beauty and an excellent school program were the biggest factors.

The widely respected Suzuki method, a teaching method crafted by virtuoso violinist Shinich Suzuki, successfully starts children on violin as early as two and three years of age by teaching them to play by ear long before they learn to read music. Suzuki believes it is easier to teach children when they are younger. His logic follows that if they start young, they will reach the more enjoyable phases of music mastery sooner, which produces greater passion and commitment in the child.

The Difficulty of an Instrument

According to TheTopTens.com, the top three most difficult instruments to play are the violin, the French horn, and the piano. If your child wants to play one of these, buying the instrument might be a bit more risky. Renting on a short-term contract might be a safer option.

Self-Motivation and Interest in Lessons

If a child shows great interest in exploring the instrument on his or her own and if comes to you asking for formal lessons in addition to practice time, that is a sign that it's safe to buy. It's a little more difficult, however, if your child's music class at school is making it mandatory for the child to have an instrument. This makes buying more risky. It's difficult to test your child's genuine interest when it is compulsory. Renting is likely a better option in this case.

Take the Risk

Whether you rent or buy, don't let the daunting task of evaluating your decision or the financial risk involved scare you away. Music can help students express themselves and encourages them to participate in not only private lessons, but also band and orchestral groups at school. Whether you rent or buy you're taking a financial risk, but the potential benefits outweigh those risks.

Should Students Buy or Rent Musical Instruments?