Wednesday, November 16, 2016

It's Not Just a Rental Instrument

I'm in Cleveland this week for a VSA (Violin Society of America) convention.  It's a competition year, so I brought my latest violin for judging, and it's always nice to spend time with others in the same business.  I've gotten to catch up with people I don't see often, and even made a few new friends and contacts.  I'm enjoying myself a great deal.

This year I also had the opportunity to give a talk!  It went well, although it was on the first day of the convention before some of the people I knew had arrived, and there are talks happening concurrently this year, so some people had to miss mine who wanted to go.

But it was a good talk and I got many good questions afterward.  The best part was to discover other people with shops like my own in different parts of the country; smaller shops where they care more about relationships and music than they do about profit and growth.  I was approached several times in the following days by people who liked what I had to say, and told me they run their businesses with the same philosophy.  They were pleased not to feel alone.

So here, if you are interested, is a slightly edited version of my talk.  The original had more than 60 slides and some graphs and I can't include most of them here, but trust me, they were awesome.  My regular readers may be bored by the more nuts and bolts descriptions of our business, but I wanted to include them for my colleagues who missed the talk.  (There are some things of more general interest if you skim past the contract stuff.)


Korinthia A. Klein
Korinthian Violins, Milwaukee WI
VSA Nov 2016

My name is Korinthia Klein and I run a small violin shop in Milwaukee WI.

I come at this business from many angles: as a player, a teacher, a parent, and a luthier.

I began playing violin in public school in Michigan, switched to viola in high school and majored in that instrument at the Ohio State University, and I still play today with a group called Festival City Symphony.  

I got my diploma in lutherie from the New World School of Violin Making in the year 2000 and then worked for several years doing repair work at Classical Strings in downtown Milwaukee where I learned repair and setup.

When my husband returned from his first deployment to Iraq and neither of us had a full time job at that point, we decided to use his combat pay to open our own store across town in 2008.  

Keeping the store operating while caring for our three kids on my own during my husband's second deployment to Iraq was challenging, but our customers were understanding about our circumstances and we survived it.  

Today we have a loyal customer base, an active teaching studio, and I'm proud of the niche we serve in our community.  I love violins, I love my job, and I love helping other people make music.

Strads in Vermillion SD
And I love these conventions!  Violin making and repair work can be isolating, and I appreciate the chance to talk with other people who care about the minutiae of violins too.

However, more often that not I've noticed that when we talk about instruments in this forum, we talk about the greatest and least attainable ones, which is understandable.  We're all interested in the Strads and Guarneris and rare objects of great beauty.  But, for most of us, our bread and butter is in rental instruments.

rental violin
All players begin as students, and most students start on a rental.  I thought it might be a good idea to take a moment and focus on these undervalued instruments that contribute to our livelihood. 

From a shop's perspective there are a lot practical reasons to run a rental program. Compared to sales or repairs which fluctuate, the income from rentals is generally steady and predictable.  The initial investment in inventory can be steep, but once the instruments have paid for themselves the upkeep and maintenance is fairly affordable and rentals are a reliable source of revenue. 

There are lots of ways to run a rental program.  Every community has different needs, different resources, different challenges.  I know my standards may seem too high for some, and too low for others, but I'm comfortable with what we've developed for our store in terms of what it provides for where we are.

This is what our rental program in our particular corner of Milwaukee looks like:

We rent violins from 1/32 through full size, and violas from 12” to 16 1/2”.
They are all $20 a month.  The first month is a trial month with a $20 deposit, which works out to a free month since they get that $20 back whenever they return the instrument.  We bill quarterly, which means we charge ahead three months at a time, and most people do that with automatic payment by giving us a credit card number to use, but we also let people pay by cash, check, or Paypal.  

We refund people for any time they don't use once they return an instrument, so they are not locked into any time frame.

Rentals include the instrument, bow, a case with carrying straps, all basic maintenance, good strings, rosin, and a cleaning cloth.  

The only time renters are responsible for paying for additional costs is if they lose the instrument, or damage it in such a way that we can't rent it anymore.  Even expensive varnish damage or something like cracking off a scroll is covered if it's something I can repair well enough that I'm comfortable putting the instrument back in the program, but I do always point out how much the repair would have been so the customer is aware what they would have paid had they owned the instrument.  

We don't have a rent to own program, and the contract is strictly a rental agreement, but we let people use up to half the price of an instrument in rental money if they wish.  The retail price on the rental violin outfits is $500, so that means they can use up to $250 of rental money toward buying it if they want to.  If they rent from us for at least a year they can use that money as a discount toward almost any instrument they want—it doesn't have to be a rental level one.

There are actually lots of great places that supply rental level instruments I could recommend, but the instruments we happen to use in our rental program are all Christino Prelude models from Everjoy Music.  Patrick there was nice enough to send me a sample violin to try before we actually had a business number and he's been responsive to our needs and great to work with.

The instruments are consistent, made of decent materials, but not too precious.  We do all the setup work ourselves in the store.  I want my rentals to vary as little as possible.  For our program I'm not interested in having different levels of instruments and I like to keep things as simple as I can. 

We no longer rent cellos.  We used to rent cellos, but so many were coming back smashed that my heart couldn't take it anymore.  Also, for the size of our space and the rate at which our rental program is growing they would be too hard to store and maintain at this point anyway.  I'm also running out of space for all the broken rental cello related projects:

Sparkle cello

Cello lamp

cello toybox

box of violin making in a cello

Thankfully there are a variety of other shops in town where I can send people to rent cellos.  I don't feel particularly in competition with the other shops in our area.  I'm fairly specialized, the other places are more general.  We're very small by comparison, and I can't do everything, so I'm glad to spread the work around.  I am plenty busy as it is.  Any builder who has ever opened their door to repairs knows what that's like.

Our first year was the only one where the expenses exceeded revenue while we were first stocking up.  The very next year we made a profit on the rental program and it has remained profitable ever since.

We actually sent out our first rental before we even had the storefront up and running.  I don't even remember how she found us, but we ended up having her meet us in my shop at home.  I wasn't sure when we started just how many instruments we would eventually need.  For the size of our shop I imagined around 50?

Currently we have more than 400 rental instruments out, which brings in enough income to cover all of our rent and basic expenses for running the store.  The number of rentals has steadily increased every year, with a small uptick in returns at the end of the school year that is usually balanced out by the number of new people renting to participate in summer programs.

If we ever hit 500 renters we're going to have a party.

So rental instruments are in important part of our business.  I'm proud of our program.

I had many years on the teacher side of the equation in Milwaukee before I ever opened a store, and to be able to get the kind of instruments out there that I wish I had seen while at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music is like a dream come true.  I know what teachers want to see, I know what is helpful to students, and I know the kind of support parents need when trying to find the right equipment for their kids when starting in a string program.

I still come at this business from the point of view of a player, and a teacher, so I don't claim to be trying to maximize profit as one of my goals.  However, I think long term, creating a program that increases the chances students will continue to play violin beyond that initial trial phase that begins with renting, is in reality the better business strategy because it helps develop the musicians we want to build great violins for.

So, the initial idea for this talk came from my frustration with the phrase, "It's just a rental instrument."  I hear this too often as an excuse to not put the proper amount of work into the kinds of instruments new students play.  

Now, on some level the sentiment is true.  I don't have to treat the varnish on a rental instrument as sacred the way I do on my customer's violins.  I can take more liberties and get experimental with the repairs because they are not valuable in any important sense.  

But some of the rentals I've seen out in the world that kids are expected to play are atrocities that leave me stunned.  This is really typical of some of the rental violins a friend of mine has had to work on in Chicago:

And she's not supposed to do much to them other than replace missing strings or tuners.  I know I am preaching to the choir with the crowd at this convention, but the idea that repairs like these were deemed acceptable to send out in the world by anyone is shocking.

I don't even understand this last one.  My friend sent me this picture in horror because she wasn't expected to do anything about this neck since the shop didn't want to pay for it.  I think she was only asked to change the strings.  But that is unusable!  I don't know how anyone sends that out in good conscience.

Playing violin is already hard enough.  I don't want to look at that anymore… Let's look at something cute:
Trying to play violin when the instrument is fighting you at every turn is nearly impossible.  I'm amazed at what some people are willing to put into the hands of a new student and expect them to learn on it.

But they shrug and say, “It's just a rental instrument.”  

And the idea is that once the student is better then it will be time to invest in something good.  But if they never get a fair shot at seeing what violin is really like, and they think they are incapable of making a nice sound because they don't know the instrument may be to blame, then we will never get to that next phase with the better instrument.

It's not just a rental instrument.  It's the beginning of someone's violin journey.  That should be respected and supported, and not dismissed as something unworthy of our efforts.

So, why do people rent?  

Renting is essentially buying time—a less costly investment in finding out if playing violin is something that fits into someone's lifestyle.  I usually encourage people to rent rather than buy when they are testing the waters in some way.  

There is no way to know at the outset if a beginner will take to it (which is a big reason we offer a trial month at our store, because if a kid says “I want to play violin!” and if after a week he or she says “I don't want to play violin!” I don't think a parent should be penalized for trying). 

Small children change sizes quickly, and unless someone has a plan for a fractional instrument (for instance if they already know they will pass it down to other children over the course of several years) then renting usually makes the most sense.  

Even people getting back into playing after several years may find it's smart to rent first, even though for many their first inclination is to buy or have something restored.  

I tell adults who are beginning or returning to violin that their success will likely have less to do with their enthusiasm or talent and more to do with their schedules.

Children often succeed merely because someone else is in charge of finding them time to play each day.  

For adults who must be disciplined enough to make their own schedules, turning practice into a routine can sometimes be more difficult than they expected.  I'd rather someone spend $20 a month for half a year to see if it's something they want to continue to do, rather than invest hundreds in either buying or restoring an instrument at the outset.  I usually recommend they rent for six months and then if they are convinced they will keep playing we can discuss more permanent options.

Some of our customers rent in order to have a less precious instrument at school, or to keep at work and they have a better instrument at home.  

Some parents start off wanting to play along with their children so they can assist them, and many discover they love it themselves and want to keep playing.

Let's talk about parents for a moment.

Most rentals are for children, and even though they are the players, the customers are really their parents.  They run the gamut, like any customer base, and some are knowledgeable and players themselves, but most are entering into the violin world for the first time.  

It's a weird world, and they are extremely vulnerable.  

I try hard at our store to educate people as best I can, to prepare people for the cost of things down the line so they know what to expect, and to explain why when an instrument gets too cheap (as in things they find on Amazon or eBay) that it can be detrimental to their ultimate goals.  

Of course, there will always be customers who expect too much who want to nickel and dime you for the best deal and who have no interest in seeing your perspective as a business owner.  That happens.  But the vast majority simply want what's best for their kids, and want to be able to trust you and what you say.  They don't know the difference between something good and something bad.  

I lay out the advantages and disadvantages of renting, make myself available to answer any questions, and trust them to figure out based on my advice what will work best for their families.  I don't take their trust for granted.

So what do I find important in a rental instrument?  

Well, here are what I consider to be the five basic commandments of rental instruments, and if all student instruments met these standards I think we'd have a lot more happy players out there.

First: Thou shalt make it tunable.

The most common complaint teachers have about poor quality rental instruments is that they take too long to tune.  I cannot begin to explain how frustrating it is to waste up to half the time of a lesson simply trying to get a violin to stay in tune.  

Often the solution is simply to drill new holes in the pegs or to wind the strings on correctly, but too many shops don't check before they send an instrument out, and it's maddening.

It's also of immense help on fractional instruments in particular to have fine tuners for every string.  My personal preference is to use a Wittner or Wittner style tailpiece with the tuners built in.  With added on tuners I see a lot of damage to instruments and strings, there is more potential for buzzing, and I don't like the sound when the after length gets choked off.  

But an instrument must be easy to tune.  That can't be stressed enough.

Second: Thou shalt make it presentable.

Even rental violins should look stage-worthy for a recital, and not just because grandma will want a picture.

I understand that rental instruments lead harsh little lives out in the world and they suffer damage and disfigurement that can be time consuming and costly to repair, but there are good, solid reasons why the cosmetic elements of a violin should be maintained.  

Learning to care for a delicate instrument properly is an important part of a student's education.  If the instrument doesn't look like it deserves respect, no one will treat it as if it does.  People become careless.  Those are bad habits and attitudes to distill into the violin world.

When my younger renters in particular come in to exchange an instrument for the next size up, I always take a moment to inspect the instrument they've been using and try to determine if any of the wear and tear it has undergone is indicative of any repeated unconscious behavior that they need to get under control.  If so, I point it out, and give them the chance to figure out what they are doing that is causing harm so that they can stop it.  

Most people are embarrassed when I point out such things, but I always tell them this is part of why they rent, to learn those things now before they get to the instrument they will own and be completely responsible for.  They won't know how to treat a better instrument properly if they haven't had any practice.  Best to figure it out early on an instrument I can repair at no cost to them.

After I had an upsetting incident with a rental customer who returned a viola covered in long scratches down the top, and then insisted we sent it out that way (which we never, ever would), we instituted a policy of photographing each person with their instrument before they leave the store.  I wanted to insure that I never had a repeat of that unpleasant conversation. We've had very few reasons to ever reference these photos, but it does establish at the outset that the violin is in good condition when the renter gets it, and it makes them stop and appreciate that any damage that comes to it will clearly be traced back to them.

We work hard in our shop to make sure all of our instruments look like something you'd be proud to perform on.  I even go so far as to strip and revarnish some of our instruments if I think they no longer look presentable but still sound good.  

But honestly, the amount of even cosmetic maintenance we've had to do to the average instrument when it returns to our shop has gone down in recent years, because the renters themselves take pride in treating them well. 

Starting with a violin that has no visible scratches, where any damage can be clearly traced back to your own actions, creates an accountability, and most people--even young children--take that seriously.  

So setting a standard for the appearance of rental instruments in the long run I believe protects them, which is more cost effective and better for everyone involved.

I've had to educate some teachers on treating our instruments well, too, because even they can get into a habit of treating rentals as less deserving of decent treatment.  Many seem to mistakenly believe adhesives won't have any effects on the varnish.  The worst offender was someone who put moleskin (like you use on your feet for blisters) on literally the entire lower bout area on the back of one of our quarter size violins.  That was a mess.

In such cases I usually remind teachers that if they wouldn't do something to their own instrument, they shouldn't do it to ours.

A few years ago I started doing annual repair work for a local high school with a large stock of instruments and I managed to convince them to let me strip a couple of cellos to repair some pretty awful damage.

Stripping and revarnishing whole sections of a cello is not normally the kind of repair a school wants to pay for.  The cellos were junky, but they got used regularly.  

I argued that first of all, it wasn't fair to whoever was assigned one of these cellos that they have to be seen with them on stage when they hadn't done the damage.  

But most of all, the cellos were going to continue to be abused, because they didn't look like they should be treated well.  I practically want to scratch at those ribs just looking at them!  That can't be encouraged.  

The school went ahead and let me add the varnish work to the list of expenses, and I'm pleased to say that the general level of abuse those cellos have gotten in the years since has dropped dramatically across the board.

Appearance matters because it directly influences behavior.  It's in everyone's best interest to encourage the best possible behavior with these instruments.

Third: Thou shalt make it safe to learn on.

I don't mean that I'm worried it will blow up (although a bad tailgut going can certainly sound like bomb going off), I mean that students learning techniques for the first time aren't learning bad habits to accommodate a poorly set up instrument, and aren't fighting it to make a decent sound.

Whenever someone brings me a violin they've recently found that they want to make playable I ask a lot of questions, the most important of which to me is “Who is the intended player?”  My recommendations can change depending on the answer.  If someone is simply looking for an additional instrument and their playing technique is already established, then there's not as much to worry about if an instrument is quirky.  


But if the violin is for a beginner?  A beginner deserves the chance to start with as standard a set of parameters as possible.  They need to learn the basics, and they need to trust that the habits they are building are generally applicable to playing any violin.  
They should not be developing techniques which may only apply well to a specific violin, especially if that violin is awkward in some way, and due to lack of experience they have no means of recognizing that.

The string spacings at the nut and bridge need to right.  The curvature of the top of the bridge needs to be right.  The string heights need to be correct.  

It's okay to leave the string heights a little high at the nut end since most teachers add tape to the fingerboard and the strings need to clear those so they don't buzz.  But I've seen rental instruments where the nuts where so high that playing a low first finger was painful, and the kids just thought it was supposed to hurt.  That can't happen.

Anything that will directly impact someone's technique needs to be correct.  Period.

Fourth: Thou shalt not overlook the bow.

We go through a ton of rental bows.  They wind up being rather disposable because it's hard to justify the expense of rehairing them, but we do periodically sort them and see which ones we can work with to put back in the rental program.


The bow can't be warped.

The hair can't be stripped or filthy.

There should be a spread wedge in place.  

You should be able to tighten and loosen the bow appropriately. 

These are about as basic things as one can ask for in a bow, but you'd be amazed how often I've seen kids expected to play with bows where one or ALL of these things have gone awry.  

Just, no.  It's half the instrument.  It must work.

And when they don't we find ways of recycling.  Those are “bow-quets.”  (See, puns can be decorative!)

And finally...

Five: Thou shalt make it sound nice.

That should be the most obvious statement yet, since the whole point of learning violin to begin with is to make a nice sound.  But I can't tell you how many times I've seen parents who don't want to spend any money while getting their kids started on violin say, “The sound doesn't matter, they're just starting.”  

How will they know they are doing anything right if the sound doesn't matter?  That's the only way you can judge if you are doing anything right, because, again, that's the whole point.


Now, a big part of that at our shop is strings.  We use good strings because it's important to me, and I have to listen to a lot of these children play in various recitals out in the world and I don't want to listen to tinny strings.  For our violins I like the sound of Visions on our fractionals, and Dominants with a Pirastro Wondertone Gold E on our full sizes.  For the violas I tend to use Helicores for the smaller instruments, and Dominants with either a Jargar or Larsen A on the larger ones.  

We don't charge customers for strings when we change them, and I don't think most of them realize that that's fairly unusual.  But again, it's important to me that the instruments sound nice, and strings are a big part of that, so that's just what we do.

We don't advertise, so we count on the instruments to speak for us.  Teachers appreciate how nice our instruments are to work with and several insist their students go to us exclusively because reliable rentals make their jobs easier.  We currently have some renters who come as far as 50 miles.  

I even had one parent last year who came straight from a recital with her daughter to rent from us based on sound.  She said a few of the other children in the recital had instruments that just sounded dramatically better compared to the one she was renting, and after asking the parents of those kids where they got them, they all pointed to our store.  She came right over and switched. 

That means a lot to me and tells me I'm doing something right.

So, if I check out a rental and I can tune it, it looks nice enough to play in front of grandma, there is nothing about the setup that is getting in the player's way, the bow works, and the sound is decent, we're good.  

There is certainly a range there, and again, different people's standards and choices will vary from shop to shop, but this is the list that I use.  I think it's important to at least be clear going in what your standards are.

For me, it comes down to what is good enough for my own children.


This is them now, about to turn 15, 13, and 10 all in the next few weeks.  I've been using photos of them all tiny and cute through this slideshow and thought you should know they're bigger now and still playing.

Anyway, I'm able to tell parents when they come in to my store that my own kids use these instruments.  The rentals are good enough for my kids, and I won't offer their kids less.  That's a standard I'm proud of, too.

I understand not wanting to put too much time and energy into lesser quality instruments, but the truth is we ignore the quality of rental instruments at our own peril.  Rental instruments are where the vast majority of violinist begin.  If they have a bad experience, or even simply an unclear experience, they won't continue.  

I've met too many children who have said, “I don't like playing violin” when what they meant was, “I don't like playing that violin” but they didn't know it.  We want kids who are meant to play to continue playing.  

Even from a purely business point of view this makes sense because we want them to grow up into customers who require better instruments and equipment and repair work someday.  Luthiers need players for our work to be relevant.  To not support players at the beginning of their violin journey is foolish.

So, no, it's not just a rental instrument.  It's the start of what could be a lifetime relationship with music and your shop.  

It could be the beginning of someone's career.  

It could make or break someone's relationship with the violin world.  

It's the start of someone's dream.  Don't sell it short.


  1. I love the thoughtfulness, every step of the way. :)

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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