Travels With My Cello

  • A Stringed Instrument Specialist’s Manifesto

    We might go to Menards for  tools; the florist for a bouquet; the local bakery for that favorite bread & pastry; or PetCo for that anxiety vest to settle the dog. We might try to use a single store for most daily needs, but we undoubtedly sacrifice quality, selection, or service - most likely all of those - when the needs are diverse or highly specialized.  

    In a world where online shopping is the ultimate convenience, the local music store is needed just as much as “mom & pop stores” among the big box and discount stores. There is great value in having the music store in town that carries pianos, guitars, flutes, trumpets, saxophones, clarinets, drums, and violins all in one place– with the lessons, service, and accessories to go along with them.Music professionals get music, rosin, and music stands at local places like this. Colleges, elementary orchestra, and adult beginners would not function without them.

    However, just as one can go to Wal-Mart and get basic drills and bits, that specialized tool or even just a smaller than average drill bit is usually found only in a store that has an entire aisle of drills and bits; someplace that gets beautiful flowers from all over the world; someplace where someone else woke up at 2 am to start baking from scratch; somewhere that has 10 aisles of dog food; and yes, someplace that only works with instruments in the violin family; all specialty items.

    Five years, 10s of Midwest communities, and probably 1000s of stories across the country does not a study make, but it is close. Most communities have access to one of these general music stores, but far fewer have anyone who can offer assistance with the nuanced world of bowed strings let alone do work on them for repair or setup. While there are rare examples where a store has enough customers to justify proper investment in strings, it is the exception.  Those general music stores with a respectable string offering usually have prices that are higher than comparable instruments and equipment from a string specialist.

    There are numerous reasons for this; frequently, there are simply not as many string players; most schools at least have band programs – fewer and fewer have an orchestral program. Schools and music stores support each other, so this is clearly the lifeblood of a music store. Communities that have strong music programs organically have increased access to the proper tools for their art and learning. Since many schools have relationships with the music stores that provide the school’s instruments and students' rentals, there is usually a sales representative visiting the school. It is easy to simply visit the orchestra teacher and provide parallel services to the orchestra program, where present. Beyond this, a store is usually able to give schools quantity discounts based on volume. If a school decides to get both their band and orchestra instruments from the same store, they will be offered combined discounts on everything. This is simply a quality over quantity, battle of least resistance, and sometimes even a bullying of the orchestra teacher by the band teacher, whether by personality or tenure.

    With budgets under constant stress, it is hard to blame teachers for trying to do more with less. Unfortunately, music funding reductions  can push more of the cost on the students' families while sacrifice their learning simultaneously. Another financial issue is the inevitable repairs on stringed instruments, not nearly as durable as their brass counterparts. Even the most well behaved student has that horrible accident, and all will need bow rehairs. Music stores are able to discount or even cover a certain amount of repairs for a district, based on their total rentals or total orders with the company. It is very hard for any school to ignore potentially hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of repairs that the school would normally have to pay for or pass on to the students through various activity fees.

    Beyond financial, another budget is the teacher’s time constraints. It is certainly easier and quicker to just use the company who is visiting the band or who might have been servicing the orchestra program for years with the predecessor. Whether they are pressured by unions to not work outside of their contracted time or simply want to spend time with their own family, teachers only have so much planning time in a day. In order to spend time finding the qualified source for stringed instruments, sacrificing preparation or family time, they might decide to just maintain the status quo. Why bother?

    In reality, going the easy route takes more time and costs much more than people realize, as poor instruments need more repairs, require more tuning, and simply do not sound as good or play as easily. Teachers then have to spend more time tuning before class can actually begin, before they can actually begin teaching. Do we want to pay our teachers to tune all day? Teachers also spend more time trying to show students how to battle their instruments. Students get frustrated and are much more likely to quit, and parents blame the student not the instrument for unpleasant noises that are no fault of their child. All beginning string players scratch and make strange noises, but string specialists can set up the instrument in such a way that responds well and is forgiving, giving all students the best chance for success. The instruments should be a tool just like any textbook. Good instruments either help the teacher achieve their goals or work against them. Primary teachers are constantly given new text book samples, incentivized to put a new book into the program, yet instruments are simply seen as a cost, something to be avoided or continued just because that is how it has been and the stores are right downtown, ready and willing.

    It is time to do a little extra work for a huge return - in effective teaching time, music educational quality, and student progress. There are infinite studies on the benefits on music education, so everything we can do to motivate students to stay with music through high school is a push in the right direction. Administrators would be surprised at the turnaround in their music enrollment when students are playing on instruments that actually make them happy, and are actually fun to play.  If it's a game of numbers, let's push the numbers in the right direction.  It is time to tell teachers and communities that only quality instruments will be allowed. The end of a school year is upon us. Until schools are ready to make this commitment, families and students should perform their own due diligence and find the best options for beginning or continuing their string education.

     

    Any teacher, student, or parent has options. Are there string specialists in your town or within a reasonable drive? Feel lucky and use them! You will be pleasantly surprised that they do not cost much more, if at all - most will cost less. A violin isn’t a violin; you do not want the VSO (violin-shaped-object: looks like a violin but sounds like a cardboard box). Comparison-shopping with reputable online violin shops, especially if you live in a particularly expensive part of the country, is a good way to ensure cost effective purchasing and renting. If you do not live close to a violin shop, take full advantage of online opportunities and find the reputable online violin shops that focus solely on violins, violas, cellos, and basses. The places that carve each bridge to the violin, fit each peg to the instrument, adjust the soundpost to respond easily and with balanced tone, and have the instrument options to grow as you or your student grows, both in size and quality. Trust us, it's certainly more than a 3-point inspection, even more than the 27-point inspection your vehicle might get.  Many of the people working at string specialists have played their instruments for 20-30 years or more, so take advantage of their wisdom and ask questions. Take the time to make an informed choice in your purchase. Choose wisely.

     

    For more on VSO dangers and some of the pictures, read here.  

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