Thursday, January 15, 2015

Why I Dread Students who got Violins for Christmas

Every year, students come to violin lessons in January with new instruments they got for Christmas. I've come to dread this ritual so much I've considered begging parents to avoid giving musical instruments as Christmas or Hanukkah presents. I can understand the appeal--a child is interested in music lessons, and what better way to introduce them than a brand new violin under the Christmas tree! Actually, there are many, many things that can go wrong with "Christmas violins," all of which make starting lessons far more stressful and difficult than normal.

First, the instruments themselves. Violins and other string instruments come in many different sizes. We have tiny little one-sixteenth size violins for three-year-olds, full size violins for adults, and many different sizes in between for different ages of children. Unfortunately, parents don't always know about this, so I often have them show up in January for lessons with an adult-sized instrument that's impossible for their seven-year-old to play. Everyone is disappointed. Parents, for spending so much money on a violin their child can't play for years, and children because they can't play the shiny, new violin they got for Christmas. Me, for having to break the news to everyone that they need to buy or rent another instrument. This has happened so many times that I've started asking the parents of new students to hold off buying a violin until after their first lesson. I have a selection of different sized instruments in my studio that kids can try out, or I can measure the child to find the right size. It also gives the child a chance to try out violin lessons to see if it's something they're really interested in before they get an instrument. Furthermore, I can recommend a reliable place to buy or rent an instrument to the parents. 
Which brings me to the next problem with gift violins; they're often bought by people who don't know anything about musical instruments, and sometimes unscrupulous stores take advantage of their customer's ignorance. While most music stores are staffed by good, knowledgeable people, I've seen many parents burned by the bad ones. Recently, I had students who get violins of such poor quality they were completely unplayable. Fragile, easily breakable chin rests, too small bridges that barely lift the strings off the fingerboard, bows with hair that immediately fell out, cheap, brittle strings that break when they're tuned the first time--these are some of the many problems I've had with poor quality instruments. Often, the same stores that sell these terrible instruments charge outrageous prices for the necessary repairs as well. I had one student with a broken, but easily fixable fine-tuner who was told he needed to buy a whole new violin. Again, these poor quality violins leave everyone disappointed. I've often had to spend an entire lesson changing strings and performing emergency violin repairs, which keeps students from actually learning to play and robs them of the enjoyment and fun they thought they'd get from their new Christmas present.

Worst of all, I've had students who came to their first lessons hurt and disappointed--they found a violin under the Christmas tree, but with no training, they couldn't get a good sound out of it and cried the rest of the day. Or unskilled parents tried to tune the violin or "fix" it somehow, and ended up breaking multiple strings. While I strongly believe that music lessons benefit children (and adults!), it's far better to discuss music lessons with your child, find a teacher he or she likes, and attend a lesson before buying an instrument. Then your child will have a better idea what instrument they'd like to play, and the teacher can recommend what instrument to buy, or what store to go to. Maybe your child would prefer piano or guitar to violin--that's okay! Surprising a child with music lessons and an instrument as a Christmas gift puts a lot of pressure on them, pressure that can make even the most excited child wilt in their lessons. 

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