Intelligent use of rental credit for instrument purchase

May 2, 2007 at 01:58 AM · My basic dilemma is this: not enough money. But since that's everyone's dilemma and it's not going away any time soon, I have to be more creative.

Ideally, I would like to buy two instruments in the future, a violin and a viola. I own a violin that I can play on, but it's a German factory instrument only worth about $1000 and I have outgrown it and become increasingly dissatisfied with its sound.

I don't own a viola at all, I've rented a high-end one from Johnson String Instrument, a Mueller viola, that I rather like the sound of. Whenever I play it right before or after my violin I'm always shocked at just how much better it sounds than the violin. It has a rich, warm tone that is what I think I'm looking for, although richer and warmer would be better and probably possible if I spent more money. I've tried out all of the high-end rentals that Johnson has in the size I want (15.5"), and I like the sound of this one the best. However, it's a bit beat up--it has two obvious flaws in the finish--and it's not visually all that attractive. Furthermore, it's in a *really* ugly case. The case is well-made, by Bobelock, but the exterior is black and the interior is a kind of golf-course green that I cringe to look at (apologies to anyone owning a case with a green interior--but YIKES!)

Johnson is having a double your rental equity sale coming up very soon. Taking advantage of the rental equity that I've accumulated, and doubling that, I have equity that amounts to $900+ that I could put towards buying my rental instrument. This means I could nearly, maybe even completely, buy my rental "outfit" outright next week without spending any more money. I'd have to insure it, which would cost a little more on my policy, and pay for routine maintenance myself (Johnson nicely includes that and insurance with the rental), but overall it seems like maybe it's a good deal. At least I'd have a viola to play on and I could stop renting. I'd be ahead of the game where I am now.

I'm leaning towards doing this and trying to get them to throw in a better case (or spending my own money on a better case, which I could still keep if I get a better instrument later). For my "real" rest-of-my-life instrument, I want to spend more time looking and shopping around, and I might rather go somewhere like Reuning and Sons than Johnson, who cater largely to the student and rental market in the first place. And while I do all this thinking and shopping in the meantime those rental fees will continue to pile up unless I take some action. And if I buy it now I could trade it in later and recoup some of the value that way. I mean, I've already spent the money on the rental. I think I've got a lot to show for it in terms of increased viola skill and enjoyment of playing the viola, but otherwise, the money is just gone.

However, given how I've come to feel about my violin, I think I'm likely to outgrow this viola, too, sooner rather than later. I like the instrument but I don't love it. I'd date it, but marriage? Not so much. I'm a little hesitant to become the owner of a second okay-but-not-stellar instrument, although the knowledge and determination that this will be temporary might be enough for me to deal for a year or two while I save and shop. I am an amateur and don't anticipate making any money off performing, although I do hope to perform more in the future.

If you were me, what would you do?

Replies (25)

May 2, 2007 at 03:08 AM · Karen, if I were you, I would take the opportunity to keep the Mueller viola that have been playing so far and like it for the following reasons:

1.I don’t waste more money renting;

2.I know everything about this viola so there’s no risk and work involved in getting to know a viola that may or may not work for me;

3.I don’t have an obvious or actual alternative to this one at this point. ( You didn’t say you’ve already set your heart on a different viola at this point.)

4.I don’t yet have a plan for the stellar at this point, but I need a viola that I like to play and I don’t want to spend more money unnecessarily. (You didn’t say what is the price range of your stellar instrument and how long it will take for you to acquire such instrument. )

5.I can always trade my okay-but-not-stellar instrument in later when I have saved enough money for the stellar; meanwhile, I enjoy the buddy that has brought me so much joy.

6.Okay violas are people too and I've already named this one after someone I really like:)

May 2, 2007 at 03:37 AM · 7. If you can own the viola without spending any more money, it's crazy not to do that, right? Your other two options with that are a) keep renting it instead (crazy), or b) stop renting and don't purchase (lose the $500 and $500 matching - crazy). They don't have anything else you want to put the $1000 on, so buy the viola. Unload it somehow later if you want.

May 2, 2007 at 11:16 AM · Yes, it is crazy to keep renting so I need to do something. The alternative would be to buy a better quality instrument using the non-doubled equity (about $450). The doubled equity only applies to the rental instruments.

Ideally I want to buy a viola worth $3-5K. And I want to "fall in love" with it. And then there is the whole issue of bows. I want to try out carbon fiber bows but haven't gotten around to that yet either. The rental outfits don't come with them. I haven't really liked any viola bow I've tried, but I think that's mostly because a viola bow isn't a violin bow and I just need to learn to come to terms with that.

I see this process taking months if not years: visiting different stores, taking bows and instruments home and trying them, etc. Starting lessons with a teacher (maybe in the summer).

And there's an added wrinkle having to do with my family's attitude towards credit: we rarely use it. Our house is paid for, we buy our cars with cash, and we pay our credit card bills off every month. My husband and I both agree on this and prefer it. I think I'd be less credit-averse than he for the purpose of buying an instrument (he's not a musician). But the thought of getting a loan past him, or for that matter, of taking out a loan myself, still doesn't sit very well with me. I'd rather save up over the next year or two and buy it outright.

The equity formula is complicated. 100% of the first year goes to equity, then only 20%. I've paid for 9 months of rental, and not used them all up yet (I just started in October). I could continue renting through October and accumulate significantly more equity, if I'm not going to double it anyway, that might make sense. Or I could buy the instrument now and double the equity and trade it back in later when I want to upgrade. That would give me more flexibility. I could do it next year rather than October. But I'd only get the most value for the trade-in from Johnson and I'm not sure I'd buy from them.

I may not have exhausted all the available violas that they have. As far as I know, I tried all the 15.5" ones when I was choosing the one to rent, but maybe they have some more in the back. They also offered the doubled equity on one particular new outfit model, the Jay Haide, as a special. I've never heard of Jay Haide instruments--does anyone know if they are any good?

May 3, 2007 at 01:39 PM · One other question to consider when making this decision: Will they give you any credit off of this (purchased) instrument if you later want to trade up? Most shops will take back your purchased instrument when you trade up, but if they are giving a great deal on using rental credit towards purchasing your current rental instrument, they may have a different policy than if you used your normal rental credit towards purchase of a new instrument. Worth making sure to help in your long term decision making process.

May 3, 2007 at 01:51 PM · From the way you describe it, you are being offered a "free" viola that you like.

What is the downside?

I've played lots of instruments; some I liked, some I didn't, some were "to die for" - but I don't know what it means to "outgrow" an instrument, since the better one's I've played have always been easier to play -that's one of the criteria.

Changing strings or adjusting the setup can work wonders. A too high or badly curved bridge can be a disaster. Bad conturing of the neck can be crippling on a violin or viola. All of these can be corrected.

May 3, 2007 at 02:08 PM · Karen, I wouldn't take the cosmetic issues you have with this rental viola too seriously. How you feel about the sound and playability are the most important factors.

Also, even if you have the goal of eventually buying a better quality instrument, it is a good idea to have a less expensive backup for outdoor use, or when the better instrument is in the shop.

May 3, 2007 at 04:31 PM · I really wouldn't worry about cosmetics. Are they the type of thing that could be improved with a touch-up? If so, you can find the money later for that.

Both my daughter and I have instruments that "came down" to us via the family. Mine is not at all attractive cosmetically, has extremely worn top edges, and a number of well-repaired cracks over the decades (I was told it is from the mid 1800's). It also doesn't have much monetary value (due to all of the repairs) Yet, I LOVE how it sounds, and it is quite comfortable for me to play.

I had my daughter's violin in for a fingerboard replacement. Her's also isn't that attractive cosmetically (although a touch up improved it quite a bit). The loaner was a nice good-looking modern violin. She really wanted her "uglier" one back - she liked the sound better!

To us, sound and ease of play are everything.

May 3, 2007 at 04:37 PM · I called and unfortunately it's not "free" as it turns out. The price I had seen was for a different class of instrument. The one I am renting is worth $1500, and I don't have that much equity, even doubled (only about $900). And if I bought it I would definitely be stuck with the bow and case I'm not crazy about, and the trade-in value would only be 60% of what I paid.

After I told them all my feelings about that, they steered me toward buying a new Eastman 305 outfit, which has a much higher quality bow with it--even a choice of bows, a Coda carbon fiber or a permanbuco (the rental has a brazilwood--don't know what that is). And a new adjustable Bobelock case of your choice. With (non-doubled) rental credit, I'd end up spending about $1100 for that outfit.

That seems like a good deal in the abstract but it's not the really practical good deal I was hoping for. Still it might be worth it if the Eastman is good. I've read that it is Chinese-made and the violin got a good review from Strings magazine several years ago. I won't have a chance to try playing one until this weekend, but I will then.

May 3, 2007 at 09:32 PM · "Brazilwood" bows are the bows typically found in rental instruments or with many Chinese instruments. I know that Johnson Strings has started including some Carbon Fiber bows in with their rentals because of the "quality" of the Brazilwood bows (Brazilwood by the way is a generic term for wood-possibly, but not necessarily-from Brazil that is NOT Pernambuco. Some will say that Brazilwood is a specific tree that is a cousin to Pernambuco, but in practical applications this is not true). By the way, just beacuse an instrument has it's origins in China doesn't necessarily make it a bad instrument. Chinese instruments have significantly improved in tone and workmanship over the past 3-4 years and now you may be able to find a solid playing/decent sounding instrument for a good price if you try out a few. The Eastman 305 is a solid instrument, depending on the set-up, and Johnson Strings has plenty of people on staff who can do a good set-up with this class of instrument. But, now that your "freebie" isn't so free, maybe try out a wider range of instruments before committing your rental credit. Good luck.

May 4, 2007 at 11:16 AM · karen, if you are serious about playing for a long time, you may want to look beyond that shop and beyond the 9oo equity. if you have friends who know instruments well, may want to look at some auctions near you.

even though renting a car can make more sense than renting a house, it is a tough call whether renting an instrument long term makes sense. this equity talks sounds academic and limiting since you can only redeem it in that particular store for whatever they have to offer. also, how much insurance do you have to pay which is something you won't see again?

May 4, 2007 at 12:56 PM · Hi Karen,

If you want to investigate other options, Skinners and Tarisio are both having auctions/public viewing of the Spring auction this weekend (5/4-5/6) at the Park Plaza in downtown Boston. You can go to the public view and try out a lot of instruments (if you don't mind playing in an open room with other people milling about and playing too). Even if you are not thinking of buying, you can see what kind of instruments (including bows) are out there.

May 4, 2007 at 03:01 PM · Al, you're right. This is not a long-term solution. This is my "second-last viola," not the one I plan to play for the rest of my life. On the other hand, I feel like I need something intermediate and not-too-expensive right now while I take my time looking for what I really want.

I like the idea of going to auctions and just playing a bunch of instruments without necessarily feeling pressure to purchase. I'm not embarrassed to play while other people are milling around, it's good training for busking ;)

But what I'd really like is to get to know someone knowledgeable, to establish a relationship with someone who I could take along with me to these auctions or shops or whatever. The Johnson people are all quite nice and at this point they are the only people like this I know (other than those on and the viola list). I'm still at a stage where I'm just not that confident about my ear and about my ability to tell a good instrument from a bad one. I get into this state where they all start to sound the same. And my non-musician husband will be whinging about the price every step of the way, which definitely doesn't help.

May 4, 2007 at 04:33 PM · yes, karen, i understand.

i agree that since there are some auctions nearby with no-pressure try out, it could be a treat as well as ear opening experience (but i always wonder if those on auction are properly set up). i am probably the last one to suggest how to test instruments, but i have seen experts talking about it here and there. if not mistaken, micheal darnton was talking about it at one time somewhere how he tested, could be maestro site.

besides playing and listening to the sound, i think you can have a good feel yourself if the instrument is easy to play, or feel good under your finger. this may be quite important for a viola i would venture to guess.

May 5, 2007 at 07:12 AM · Hi Karen, I think you've got the right idea, working with a shop that you're comfortable with. I would caution against buying from an auction. For one thing, the instrument might need work done on it to get to a playable state, and it may not be obvious to you while checking it out with many people milling around. Also, sales are final, and you don't have a trial period. And finally, you're right, your husband will be wincing at every bid and auctions tend to make you overspend. The advantages of working with a shop are that they'll service what they sell, and some shops offer a 1 year warranty, in that they will fix anything that is not right for you (the one I go to does that). So for example, if your bridge warps, or your fingerboard loosens. Also, establishing friendly relationship with the shop means that if they have something come in and they know you're looking for it, they will give you a call. And of course, if anything breaks you'll have someone willing to take time to fix it for you. Sometimes shops are so busy and backlogged with repair work that they give priority to ones that they sold over ones dragged in from an auction.

May 5, 2007 at 11:30 AM · Hi Clare, Do you have any colleagues in the Boston area? I was reading Karin Lin's previous blogs on buying an instrument and I feel very similar to what she wrote about shopping: I don't like it. I feel overwhelmed by all the choices. My husband is a great shopper, and he's been kindly willing to help me sort through information on the web. I think it actually helps that he's not emotionally invested in this purchase the way I am.

You're right about the shops. One needs a way in. I'd been looking for someone to check out and repair my violin, which I bought from my former teacher in upstate New York in the late 70's, and the first thing they asked was "was it bought here" and when I said no, they really cooled off. "Oh, we're really busy." So I ended up taking it to a little independent shop. Who seem to have done a fine job with that, but who don't have the staff and selection to help me with this purchase.

I'm going back to JSI today to play some moderately priced instruments, including the Eastman. I've heard only good things about it, including here and on the viola list. Hopefully I'll also hear good things coming out of it when I play it.

May 10, 2007 at 12:56 PM · Karen

They rented you that outfit for $450/yr? I think we would have rented the 305 viola for $75/3months or $225/yr. If you're a music school student, we offer discounts ... maybe the outfit price is around $950. Applying the rental credit of $225, you'd spend another $725.

As far as auctions ... as w/ ANY auction ... merchandise at auction is at auction b/c it was unable to be sold anywhere else.

You will have a vast selection, however, as someone else stated, you run the risk of having to put money into the instrument to make repairs you may not have noticed during viewing.

And I agree w/ another writer that, if you intend on playing, you may look beyond the rental equity and search for something that may be better than your ability but you can grow into.

Good Luck!


May 10, 2007 at 01:08 PM · i am not sure if i, or anyone else for that matter, can agree that instruments at auction are necessarily of undesirable quality. if i put couple strads in your shop, i am not confident you can move them.

on the other hand, there is another misconception discussed earlier, that is, if one buys an instrument from a shop, then the shop will give it preferential treatment in terms of upkeep. i think that is too simplistic and we may have underestimated the professionalism of the shops.

i do not know karen's situation well enough, nor her style of budgeting money. if i were a serious player, i would spend less time and energy dwelling on deals in rental and spend more research on acquiring the best instrument that i can afford, even if i have to pay it off in installments. this of course mandates due diligence and most likely the help of friends who are highly competent in providing good guidance along the way.

yet, if i own a shop, i would have offered rental because from my perspective, it is a viable business model because it will help maintain the cash flow.

May 10, 2007 at 01:29 PM · AUCTIONS:

Exactly ... we couldn't sell a Strad at our shop so we'd try to sell it at auction ... not that we'd have one in the near future :)

May 10, 2007 at 01:25 PM · i can imagine a shop owner will acquire a violin at auction for 3000 dollars and put in 200 dollars worth of repair and put it on the shelf for 6000. i walk in, like it, bargain, and get it for 5000 dollars. everyone is happy. nothing wrong with that.

now, imagine this: with help, i get to pick out that 3000 dollar violin. i bring it to the shop which wants 500 dollars for repair. ok. i can deal with that.

now, the apparent difference is the saving financially. however, the real benefit in the process is the education in the search of the violin. that, to borrow from mastercard, is priceless.

May 10, 2007 at 01:57 PM · Harland, it wasn't the 305 that I rented. It was actually a Zakmann (sp?) outfit, the $450 was for 9 months and included insurance. I turned out to have only about $420 credit because the insurance didn't count. (I'm not that great with numbers and prone to wishful thinking wherever money is concerned). As it turned out, I tried the 305 viola, and to my surprise, I didn't like it much. I liked it less well than the rental Zakmann and definitely less well than a more expensive Rudoulf Doetsch. How much would a 15.5" Rudoulf Doetsch outfit with Coda Aspire bow and decent case cost in your shop?

May 14, 2007 at 01:44 PM · We don't carry Doetsch ... not very happy w/ the line. I think we do have a couple of 15.5 violas. It may be easiest to call us 203.772.4722.

I'm not at the shop until after 5 but someone there can help in the meantime.



May 15, 2007 at 03:52 AM · Karen,

Your rental seems like a pretty good deal ($600/year on a $1500 outfit). As far as I know, most rentals are priced to generate the price of the outfit in 12-18 months.

But yes, at some point you need to buy. The best way of buying that I know of is to spend a while trying out *lots* of instruments. The best way if you can manage it is to go to the shop some time when they're not busy and camp out in a room trying out instruments for as long as you can. The goal isn't necessarily to find the right instrument, the goal is to give your ear a lot of exposure to different violas in a certain price range.

And if you can bring a friend who can play, that's even better since most instruments sound different under the ear than from a few feet away.

Think of it like house hunting. Look at a lot in your price range to get an idea of what you can get in that price range, check out a some more expensive ones to help you figure out what aspects of the more expensive ones you value the most, and then be patient and check out new ones as they become available. And pull the trigger when an instrument that has enough of the characteristics that you like becomes available at the right price.

Also I'm a real believer in not buying outfits unless you get to choose what's in them. In general, I'd go for a carbon fiber bow over a brazilwood bow. At $400 and under, it's hard to beat carbon fiber for price/performance on a bow. And if you buy a good wood bow later, you can always use the CF bow as a backup or beater bow.

As for instruments, Doestch is good but it's not that hard to get better if you know where to look. Jay Haide instruments tend to have very good price/performance as do the Scott Cao instruments. And most good string shops have "house" brands -- some of which can be very very good, depending on the shop.

The higher-end Jay Haide, Scott Cao, and house brand instruments are probably the first peak on the price/performance curve. They're essentially benchmade instruments (all made by one person) made by either a reasonably skilled but obscure maker or a very good apprentice.

Above that point, you start getting into master-made instruments that are great but also cost a lot more money ($15.5K will get you a viola from an up-and-coming multiple VSA gold medal winner, for example :-).

So perhaps you could skip the intermediate step and stretch to your "final" instrument.

I'd suggest you take a look at the Cao 750's, 850's, 1500's and Jay Haide L'Ancienne's for starters. They're higher priced than the 2X equity but *if* you've got a reasonable idea of what you want in an instrument, they're likely to be something you can play for a long long time (especially the 1500's or L'Ancienne).

If those don't make you happy, then it's likely you'll need an instrument that is in the $5K-$16K range. (Yes, appreciation of the finer things in life can be both a blessing and a curse. :-)

Whatever you do, good luck! And the shopping process should be fun. Just remember that no one is forcing you to spend the money that day.

Hmm. I just checked the JSI webpage. I see they have some Jay Haide violas and that the bows with their outfits are either Codabow Aspire or Dorfler. I've never tried the Dorfler, but I've tried the Aspire. It's a pretty good bow for the money. If I had my pick, I might go for a different CF bow like an Eastman Cadenza and the JonPaul Bravo is definitely worth trying but if you have no choice but to take the Aspire, that shouldn't be a deal-breaker. It's a good solid bow for the money.

And Bobelock cases are a great value for the money. You really can't go wrong there.

- Ray

P.S. -- you didn't by chance go to Princeton between 1981 and 1985, did you?

May 15, 2007 at 04:53 AM · Karen,

One more thing: ask JSI about their trade-policy. Most good shops give a 100% trade-in policy on anything they sell if you're buying something reasonably more expensive.

So another option might be to use the sale to purchase an instrument, save up for a while longer, and then trade that instrument in for your "final" instrument.

- Ray

May 15, 2007 at 10:29 AM · Hi Ray,

Well, I bought the Doetsch last Saturday, as I wrote in my blog, and I did get to choose the bow. I bought a Coda Aspire, which I liked a lot and couldn't honestly differentiate from higher-priced Codas. I can finally do spiccato with it, almost as well as with my violin bow, and I'd been having trouble with that on the viola until this bow. I also got a nice-looking Bobelock case with a black cover and lovely blue interior, although I still like the Musafia I have for my violin a bit better. At least this way I can tell them apart easily: the sweet little royal blue violin case vs. the big black behemoth.

I guess I'm just not comfortable with skipping this intermediate step, even though I can understand why some people would do so. Jay Haide was out of my current price range, I don't know about Scott Cao. It'll probably take me 2 years at least to "try lots of violas" and to save up enough money for something better. And yes, I do get 100% trade-in on this one if I decide to upgrade to a $5K or $6K instrument later.

I think my reaction to the bows summed up pretty well the stage I am at: I could tell that the Coda Aspire was better and made me more comfortable than what I'd been playing on from the rental, but I couldn't justify spending even more for the Coda Classic, or for a higher-end pernambuco, because I couldn't feel that subtle of a difference. I assume it's because I haven't been playing viola long enough in enough situations. And I haven't tried enough different bows. I need a bow and an instrument NOW to stay in the game while I rejoin the string-playing community after so many years off.

I also want to start lessons again, and if I spent $5K or more on the instrument (as opposed to the <$2K I actually spent), I'd have less money for that. $3K is a lot of lessons, and they're a good investment too.

My aversion to buying anything on credit--especially something that, for me, is basically a luxury since I don't make my living at this--is weird, I guess, but it's just something I have to live with.

And yes, I went to Princeton from 1983-87! Cloister? Infinity? Daily Prince? But I didn't know you played a string instrument! Are you going back for reunions this year?

May 17, 2007 at 08:13 PM · Hi Karen,

Yes, it's me. Daily Prince, Cloister, Infinity Ltd. But no one at Princeton knew I played a string instrument because I stopped playing after 10th grade and I was really no more than a 1/4 trained classical violinist. (I was a pretty good classical pianist but the violin was strictly my "for fun" instrument.)

Ironically, it's the violin that looks like it's going to be my "play it for a lifetime" instrument -- because I've grown to like playing fiddle music.

As for your recent purchase (I just caught up with your blog), it looks like you did real well.

The Doestch is a good buy. You can get better but you can get a lot lot worse as well. So if you like, great -- especially if JSI will give you a 100% trade-in on a more expensive instrument later. And the Aspire is a fine bow for the money. It's hard to go wrong with that one as well. Ditto the Bobelock case.

And yes, lessons are a good investment :-).

I don't know if I'll make reunions or not. I've not gone in a long time -- it's hard on the kids for me to be gone and one's a bit young to drag along.

Oddly enough, I'm also getting back into photography. I gave up any serious shooting a long time ago. I wanted to do color, it was too expensive and too much of a pain, and then I didn't have a place to put a darkroom anyway. But with digital photography, you just need a computer (and time!). So I just blew a chunk of change on a digital SLR, some lenses, and software.


- Ray

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