It is very common for parents to send their young children for music lessons these days. Usually, the decision is between learning the piano or the violin, although more and more parents are also going for ‘exotic’ instruments like the cello, or the flute.
One of the factors that parents think about is the cost. A lot of people are put off by the initial investment of buying a piano. I understand their concern because it is only natural to NOT want to spend thousands of dollars on an instrument when you are not sure if your child is really going to stick with it or give up learning after a year or two. Here’s the thing : you should get a decent instrument even if it means borrowing one or buying one secondhand. Starting with an electric keyboard because it is much cheaper is just not going to cut it. (Read more here.)
So, some of my friends have asked me about going for the violin because a violin is a lot cheaper. Yes, this is true when you buy your first violin, usually a smaller size one, and usually one of lower quality because you really don’t need a very good one in the beginning. However, the truth is that learning the violin is a lot more expensive than learning the piano in the long run.
When I decided to send my #3 for violin lessons, the main reason was not the cost but something else which is not relevant for this post. Although I was not really concerned about the difference in cost, I really did not realise how much more costly it would be in the long run. So for the benefit of parents who are not in the know, here’s what I learned over the years about the cost associated with violin learning. Bear in mind this is in our local context.
Assuming the child is of preschool age when he starts lesson. The very first violin is not going to be very costly because it will be a much smaller violin to match the size of the child, and nobody in their prudent mind will spend thousands on a beginner violin because the child will eventually outgrow the violin and need to get a bigger one. The beginner pieces do not need a good violin to play them.
If you have not caught what I said yet, I am going to give you the first reason why violin is not cheaper : you have to keep on changing violins as the child grows. No, you do not buy a bigger size violin so that you can skip some steps in between to save money. It is very important the child does not play an oversized violin. I will not go into the technicality so just take my word for it. (If your child’s violin teacher suggests you get an oversized violin, e.g full size when the child is clearly not adult size yet, consider changing teacher. Seriously.) What you can do to save some money is to sell the smaller, out-grown one and buy a secondhand next-size violin. My son’s violin teacher helps to facilitate this violin musical chair among her students whenever it is possible. Sometimes when the timing is bad and nobody is upgrading to the next size and selling their current one for us to takeover, we have no choice but to buy brand new.
If you asked me how much does a violin cost, I cannot give you a good answer because it really depends on the kind of violin your child needs. The size matters. The quality matters too. Although I did say that you do not need a really good one to start with, somewhere down the line, when the child is playing more advance pieces, you will need a good quality but small violin in order to play those pieces. A full size violin can be cheap. You can get one around $200-300 but the quality is only good for beginner pieces like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. So this will be suitable for a teenager or an adult beginner. A half size violin can cost more, around $800 or more, and will be used, such as in my son’s case, to play more advance pieces.
To give you an idea of how many violins we have gone through since he started learning at the age of 4, he started on a 1/16 size and is now using a 1/2 size. He will soon need to change to a 3/4 size before he eventually moves to a full size when he is all grown. So, 1/16, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, and next will be 3/4 and then a full size. There might have been a 1/10 in there also but I cannot remember now. We were not able to get secondhand all the time. For the past two changes, we bought brand new. Also, it is not just the cost of the violin itself, but also accessories such as shoulder rest and chin rest. Maybe even a case. You will need to buy at least 1 music stand but if you buy a decent one, that will be the only one you will ever need to buy. Scratch that. You probably will need a good, stable one at home as well as a portable one to bring around. But that’s about all you need to spend on stands. You will need strings on standby because strings will break. Strings are not cheap and they come in sizes too, just like chin rest and shoulder rest. So when your child changes violin, you may not be able to keep the existing strings and accessories. If your child continues with his violin playing, eventually you still have to get him a very decent full size violin which can cost thousands of dollars, just like a decent quality piano.
For piano, you only need to invest in one instrument. Once. You rarely need to change strings unless you have a really old one in a bad condition.
Apart from buying multiple instruments over time, you may also need to pay for aural and theory lessons separately. This is the part I am not entirely sure if it is the same for all violin teachers. From what I heard, it is pretty common that violin teachers do not teach aural or even theory. Actually, this is the same for non-keyboard instruments. The reason is simply because you need to be able to play the piano to teach aural and unless the violin teacher (or any non-keyboard instrument teacher) is also trained in piano, he will not be able to teach aural. Aural is necessary for taking music exams. Some teachers will get the accompanist to give a crash course before the exam but it usually won’t work well especially for higher grades.
As for theory, it is also not a given that the teacher is able or willing to teach this. You need a minimum of Grade 5 theory pass in order to take higher grade practical exams, so you will have to separately go for lessons elsewhere if the violin teacher is not teaching this himself. This situation is relevant for Singapore where most of us take the ABRSM music exams. If you are from elsewhere with a different system, this may not be applicable to you.
So I ended up engaging a piano teacher to take care of the theory exams and the aural part of the practical exam. This means I am effectively paying double for violin lessons. You may have heard of crash courses for aural and theory just to meet exam requirements. Personally, I am not in favour of squeezing 5 grades worth of theory knowledge into a few months because theory these days are a lot more difficult than in the past and that will be a lot of information to absorb within a short time. Even if you are ok with it, it is still additional costs to go for such short term crash courses.
In comparison, most of the time, in Singapore, piano teachers teach everything. However, some teachers may require extra time in order to cover both practical and theory, especially for the higher grades. Extra time does translate into extra cost.
Finally, you have to pay for an accompanist whenever your child performs for a competition, concert, audition or exam. Most of the time, he won’t be playing without piano accompaniment. An accompanist does not just play for your child during the event. There will be at least two practice sessions before that. You have to pay for the practice sessions as well as the actual performance. The charges vary. Some charge in a kind of package. Others by the hour. Sometimes transportation costs is also chargeable. If you do not have a piano at home and need to rent a studio for the practice session, it is another cost you have to pay. It can be very expensive and you cannot just get your older child (or yourself) who happens to play the piano to play accompaniment for his little brother. Unless, of course, you guys are pros. You can get an amateur or a piano student to play accompaniment for non-formal, in-house kind of performances but for important events, you want someone who is experienced and skilful. Playing accompaniment is a skill and the last thing you want is for the accompanist to mess up the performance for the violinist.
Whenever possible, I save money by using a CD. You may be able to find CD recordings of the piano part which your child can play with. However, in real life, most performances involve a real accompanist so your child will have to learn to work with a real person. In almost every formal competition, concert, audition or exam, you will need a real person. This is not cheap. For my son’s recent exam, I paid over S$500 for the exam fee and another over S$500 for the accompanist (which included a few practice sessions and the actual day).
If your child plays the piano, there is no such costs involved.
Costs should not be the main factor in your decision making but I do think you need to have a clear idea of what is involved. I hope this explains clearly what are the long term costs involved in learning the violin as compared to learning the piano, and helps you to make a decision about what instrument your child should take up.