When do we return the rental flute and buy?
March 7, 2010 7:19 PM   Subscribe

When you do stop renting a children's musical instrument (flute) and just buy it? Where is the best source?

My fifth-grade daughter has started playing the flute. The local rental place charges $17 a month, which isn't too expensive, but at what point do we stop renting and buy it? What does a children's flute cost, and where can I buy one cheaply?

It's her first instrument and she's not taking lessons, so that's why we rented (duh). She's become reasonably proficient in a couple of months, and I don't object to spending money on music, but the rental place is scaring us with some story about "This flute costs $600!!" when they talk about insurance.

Is craigslist or ebay or somewhere else the best place for a secondhand flute (or other instrument, for the sake of argument)? And $600 is crazy...right? Thanks for any suggestions.
posted by wenestvedt to Shopping (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
$600 for a flute is not crazy, but it really depends on the make of the instrument. Flutes can cost much more than that and much less. My first flute was purchased at a pawn shop for $125 and it was fine for me until high school when I upgraded to a much nicer one and the pawn shop flute became my marching instrument while I saved my nice one for concerts. Not sure what that would be in today's dollars but I'd guess pawn shops are still a great place for cheap used musical instruments. For flutes specifically, it seems that nickel is cheaper than silver and for a beginner, the sound difference is inconsequential.
posted by supercapitalist at 7:28 PM on March 7, 2010

Middle school band director here.

Generally, most beginner's instruments are basically crap. And that's fine for a 5th grader, particularly if she's not taking lessons and isn't really hardcore right away. $600 is totally reasonable for a flute - hopefully you are getting a new (or almost new) student model instrument (Yamaha is generally a good brand for student model instruments, but there are many others).

I would advise you to rent right now, especially if you can do a rent-to-own. Do not buy anything off of eBay or Craigslist unless you have a professional flute player look it over. The worst thing you can do for your kid is to buy her a $200 offbrand instrument (they even sell these at Target / Walmart / Costco). You're better off with high quality used instrument, within reason.

In summary, keep renting unless you have any huge problems. AND, if I can give you some unsolicited advice, get your daughter in flute lessons right away (ask the band director for recommendations, or check at your local university's music department).

PM or email me if you have more questions!
posted by rossination at 7:30 PM on March 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

You could buy a flute at amazon.com or walmart while she is starting out and then upgrade to a nice one once she is really into it.

I say the best time to buy is when your child starts showing genuine interest in the instrument and makes a commitment to learning said instrument.
posted by icy at 7:31 PM on March 7, 2010

Didn't see rossination's comment - who clearly knows more about this than I do.
posted by icy at 7:35 PM on March 7, 2010

Former middle school band director here, as well as current music education master student.

Just chiming in to say that $600 is completely reasonable for a flute. My primary instrument is bassoon, and student models of those can start at $3000 and go upwards rather quickly.

If you're going to buy, you need to buy a quality instrument. I want to second what rossination said and emphasize that the worst thing you can do is buy an offbrand instrument at WalMart. These don't last, don't play well, and make playing painful. Get something quality, and it will last with some basic maintenance.

The best place to find a secondhand instrument often is talking to parents of students who quit band at the end of middle school - often, these instruments have been reasonably well kept, and can be bought much more cheaply.

Additionally (seconding rossination - damnit, why do you have to be so helpful before I got here?), start getting lessons for your child as soon as you can. Lessons are the single best $20-$30 a week you can do to make your child not only more proficient on their instrument and increase their musicianship.

PM me as well if you have any additional questions.
posted by SNWidget at 7:37 PM on March 7, 2010

$600 for a flute is not crazy- it's actually about the price for many instruments. Just be glad she doesn't play the saxophone- the alto cost my parents $1000, but at least my sister played it too. Look into lessons, and see when she can start taking band for school. I'm so glad I learned how to play a musical instrument, and considering that I started in sixth grade and played through my senior year, as well as for marching, pep and jazz band, I definitely think it was worth it to buy the instrument.
posted by questionsandanchors at 7:44 PM on March 7, 2010

flutes are one of the cheaper instruments to buy, by the way. a good student model, as mentioned above, can be had for a few hundred dollars. i disagree that a cheap student model is the worst thing in the world. flutes lack complicated mouthpieces and don't have toooooo many mechanical parts, as is the case with brass and more complicated woodwind instruments. the advantage of a new, cheap student model over a 'quality' used model is that the pads inside the keys do need to be replaced from time to time, and before their time if the instrument has been cared for improperly (left in a hot car, for example). this is where a professional musician trying out an instrument before you buy it can be of assistance. but if you are just wondering how much your daughter's instrument should cost you (versus what the rental place is telling you), go to google. i followed the path of supercapitalist, playing a gemeinhardt 2SP student model (evidently just under$300 these days) through 9th grade and then upgrading to a solid silver yamaha that lasted me through a "semipro" career playing in community musical pit bands. both of these flutes were approved by my flute teacher, but the first one was not fancy!
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:46 PM on March 7, 2010

Tandem: the difference between your student model Gemeinhardt and the WalMart off brand is quite vast. The Gemeinhardt is well made and will last most students through high school, as it did for you. I've seen many WalMart flutes end up with poorly sealed pads and bent rods before the end of a single year of light playing, costing even more to repad and fix, all the while sounding much more than a $400 student model.
posted by SNWidget at 8:08 PM on March 7, 2010

I think my parents paid $500 for my first flute in 1995, through a rent-to-own bit. We did rent-to-own because my parents weren't sure I would stick with it. Mine was a Gemeinhardt, an American company that makes very good beginner flutes (less so, I think, on the higher end of things). I've also heard that Yamahas are good. I've had friends with lots of trouble with other brands, namely Artley and Armstrong. Buy from a reputable dealer, and take your daughter with you so that she can try it out.

Also seconding lessons, but make sure that you find a teacher that makes it fun and not high pressure.
posted by honeybee413 at 8:14 PM on March 7, 2010

Okay, I'm going against the flow and saying okay, get her a cheap one off craigslist or ebay. When I wanted to start playing the violin, my parents got me a $25 violin from a pawnshop. (This was in the olden days, before the internets.) After I'd proved my interest with a year or two of lessons, and orchestra at school, they splashed out for a nicer instrument. Worked just fine for me.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:43 PM on March 7, 2010

I'd recommend trying to find a shop that will let you do a rent to buy program. When I rented my viola the money my parents paid could be used in the future to purchase an instrument. This works because the vast majority of kids either quit or become invested enough in the instrument where they're going to buy a really expensive instrument anyway. I don't have any experience renting flutes, but I bet the same business model applies.
posted by kylej at 8:57 PM on March 7, 2010

I played woodwinds (saxes, flute, oboe, bassoon) all through high school and was a certified band geek. Now I'm a dad on a pretty tight budget. SNWidget and others are right in that $600 isn't much for an okay flute, but I played on mostly awful secondhand instruments and wasn't too badly harmed by the experience.

If you think about how many people play instruments in high school (lots) vs. how many still play them in adulthood (almost no one), you can imagine the vast number of decent instruments lying around gathering dust in attics. My advice is to continue rent while she learns the basics and keep up a long-term Craigslist-and-acquaintances search for a good used instrument. I got a couple of nice instruments from people who were simply grateful to find a good home for their old school memorabilia. Rely on her instructor/teacher to help evaluate instruments and don't hesitate to resell/ditch poor finds. Don't be surprised when an instrument which has lain unused for 10+ years may easily need $100+ of repair work if the pads are brittle, etc. Good luck! Flutes are awesome!

I took so much crap for marching flute as a 6'4" dude in the Midwest... sigh.
posted by mindsound at 9:25 PM on March 7, 2010

Not a music director, but a flute player(30+ years) and a band mom (DaughterR is playing in college now, SonR in middle school).

My take?

$600 is most certainly not out of line for a decent student flute (mine, which I still play 35 years later, was $250 new). Yes, it is a lot more than a Target/*Mart horn, but it's worth it. Even for flute, which is a fairly simple instrument -- the difference in quality of materials and construction affects the playability (and more importantly, the ENJOYMENT) immensely. I do not recommend buying a cheap student instrument for a beginner, EVER.

Are you doing this through her school, or independently? If through her school music program, the director should know where to get the best value for student instruments. (Note that I said "value", which is not necessarily the cheapest. Usually, it's not the cheapest.) If independently, get her started in lessons (it's amazingly easy to develop really REALLY bad habits without proper instruction) and ask the teacher. Ask about rent-to-own for the horn she has now. Or find a couple of music stores and ask for the woodwind dude/tte.

If you really have your heart set on purchasing cheap on-line, go to an actual music store. Don't use Amazon or *mart. Woodwind & Brasswind or Sam Ash Music are much better sources. Sometimes you can get a refurb in nearly new condition for a really good price.

Don't buy off eBay/Craigslist until you know exactly what you're looking for and can get an independent review of the horn.
posted by jlkr at 9:31 PM on March 7, 2010

Here's my two cents:

#1: don't cheap out on the instrument you rent or buy, as noted above. I won't bore you with the long story, but suffice to say both my mother and myself had our musical efforts stunted (hers permanently, mine temporarily) by using crap instruments and thinking the fault lay with our (lack of) talent.

#2: does your child only practice when scheduled/told to/in class, or does he/she often pick up the instrument and play it on their own? Do they get excited about the prospect of having their own, especially the one that they've been looking at in a catalog? In short, when the instrument has become a hobby instead of a chore, that's a good point to consider the investment.

#3: try to find a place you can rent the instrument from that does rent-to-own -- if you rent it long enough, you'll own it. Just make sure they're renting you a good instrument that's been well-treated and well-maintained, and that the rent-to-own price is reasonable.
posted by davejay at 10:34 PM on March 7, 2010

Data point: I bought my son a drum kit -- a good one, in the hundreds of dollars and made of wood, though kid-sized -- after he came home from school excited about drums and naming parts of them, and kept that enthusiasm/chatter up for over a week. Mind you, he wasn't quite four years old at the time, and (as you'd expect) once he got 'em his interest waned. Now he's four and a half, and his interest has come back full-force and he's playing often and getting better. If you can afford it, having good-quality instruments around the house -- even ones that aren't being learned actively -- can be a real boon for passive encouragement (like having a piano in a highly-trafficked area of the house, to be actively touched and played with throughout the day.)
posted by davejay at 10:37 PM on March 7, 2010

Yet *another* music teacher here (haven't taught band in a while, but do still teach instrumental music, and I worked as a woodwind repair tech for a year or two).

When you do stop renting a children's musical instrument (flute) and just buy it?

When your child has made it clear that they're not just going to get bored with it in a few months and practices without your prompting and clearly enjoys it. Or when you get tired of remembering to send in your $17/month. If you want to shoot for something above a student model of decent quality, when your student is taking lessons from a flute instructor who can help you choose a really nice instrument for long-term use.

Where is the best source?

The best source, if you can hack it, is usually a locally-owned music store that bothers to run a repair shop as well. They usually will not sell crap off-brand instruments with bendy keys that won't play after a few months. They usually will do minor repairs and adjustments for free that you would otherwise pay a shop rate of about $50/hour for.

They often offer rent-to-own plans for the same price as renting, and sometimes good-quality, well-maintained used instruments for even less, which is what I always recommend my students do (I am surprised your store does not offer this for a basic student model instrument- are there other stores in the area?).

What does a children's flute cost, and where can I buy one cheaply?

Again, a real music store will charge more, but you get a lot more for your buck. Some very common brands to look for are: Yamaha, Pearl, Jupiter, Armstrong, Gemeinhardt and probably a few I am forgetting. I personally think you can't do much better than the basic Yamaha 200 series model for a beginner to intermediate player...but you'll pay for it if you buy new. You can probably find a used student model of at least one of those models in good condition at a music store for $400 or so if you are lucky. New ones will be more. $600 is not so crazy, depending on the brand and model (do you know those? the band teachers here may be able to tell you exactly the level of nuts-or-not you are dealing with).

Please, please please do not get your instrument at Walmart or Fred Meyer or Target or any place like that. They are almost always weird instruments made out of incredibly cheap metal that bends all to hell and makes playing more or less impossible (even if gently taken care of) after a handful of months. And most music repair places refuse to work on off-brand instruments because they'll just break again, and the customer will come back mad and won't understand that that's just going to happen with a terrible (if shiny) instrument.

Is craigslist or ebay or somewhere else the best the best place for a secondhand flute (or other instrument, for the sake of argument)?

I would not recommend eBay or any venue where you're not going to see and touch the instrument before buying for either new or used instruments. You might do okay with a big place like Sam Ash or WWandBW (both mentioned above- but WWandBW does carry some lousy instruments, don't know about Sam Ash). But again, with any place not a local music store, you likely lose out on repair and adjustment services. My local music stores all sell used rental models (reasonably quality, repairs/adjustments free) and also instruments on consignment whose quality they guarantee

You can do often just fine on Craigslist and sometimes pawn shops IF you look for a name brand AND you make the sale contingent on taking it to a repair shop and getting it checked out (or bring a flute teacher with you). You can look for things like torn/worn pads under the keys yourself, but you won't be able to tell if the action is all out of whack or if it needs to be adjusted because the keys are subtly bent or it's missing a couple corks or the any other of bazillions of things that can go wrong with a flute.

If we can't help you, these articles might be of assistance
posted by charmedimsure at 12:46 AM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think your question has been answered well, so I'll just add a couple things. My son plays string bass, which is not a cheap instrument to rent nor own. He started in 4th grade and was "reasonably proficient" by the end of 5th grade, enough so that we started private lessons with a member of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. His skills increased with the lessons and practice rapidly and he auditioned for and was accepted to an out-of-school "elite" youth orchestra this summer (he just started 7th grade) Once we realized he was in this for the long haul, we started looking to buy a bass. With his lesson teacher's help - this was key - we found a gorgeous bass for a large but reasonable amount of money (you think $600 is a lot? Try buying a nearly-full-sized string bass!) and I cannot believe how much better he plays with a quality instrument. I mean, really. It's amazing how much better he sounds, and he sounded really good before.

So I guess I'm saying get her in private lessons and see where she goes from there.
posted by cooker girl at 4:30 AM on March 8, 2010

Many music instructors have made relationships with instrument repair / sales agents over the years to keep their own instruments in good repair / buy new ones. When it became apparent I needed my own instrument she contacted these people to send batches of 3 - 4 used instruments that matched my ability and price ranges to her.

I was then able to try the instruments, keep the 'best', send back the rest and await a different batch that I could compare to my current favorite from batches past. After several months of back and forth with my instructor's help we found a match. Without the help from my instructor I'm sure I would have ended up with a far inferior instrument, not nearly as good a match to me - and possibly for far more money.

I don't think this process is an unusal one.
posted by csmason at 9:53 AM on March 8, 2010

Thanks, everyone, for such great answers! My wife & I will ponder them, and start taking note [har!] of how our darling daughter plays. She is the best recorder player in school and enjoys practicing her flute each night, but it's still only been a few months.

I recognize that a flute, if we buy a good one, will be worth spending on. Someone said, "You don't always get what you pay for, but you always pay for what you get." And a $150 flute from BJ's Wholesale Club just screams "I will bend," even to me. And I am a big believer in upgrading as you guy and selling on to the next person.

My two years of clarinet were no help here, but I least I know enough about the Internet to have asked in the right place. Thank you, all.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:15 PM on March 8, 2010


I am a flute teacher/professional flutist of 30 years. I'm so glad you want to be careful about the quality of flute you buy. It is so important to get one that is in excellent playing condition.

You definitely don't have to spend $600 to get a really nice one if you know what to look for. I, and others I know, buy and sell top quality used flutes, partly to offer a solution to the whole ebay/craiglist market. Sellers often don't really know much about the flute they are selling, and so the buyer, in turn, can't know what they're getting. In my experience, I usually have to sift through about twenty used flutes to find one real gem. Many that are advertised as being in good condition are, in fact, not even playable. Many require well over $100 worth of work to get them to play correctly.

But there are a few good used instruments out there for way less than you'd spend on a new one. If you find the right make/model in great condition and take it to a certified repair technician (the certification can make a HUGE difference in quality) to have it adjusted, you can have a great instrument.

Stick with a newer Yamaha 225sii, Yamaha 221, a newer Gemeinhardt 2SP, or a newer student Jupiter in like-new condition (INCLUDING THE PADS) and you should be fine. Even the newer Armstrongs are way better than the Walmart or Sam's junk. Beware of the fake Yamahas on Ebay that come from China (211's and I forget the other model). They are not the quality of Yamaha, and they are nickel-plated, not silver-plated. Yamaha is in the process of attempting legal action against them.

Once you've found a good model (Yamahas are the best quality), look at it yourself in super good lighting, really closely, and make sure none of the pads are torn, frayed, sticky or dirty (if only two or three are like this, it is fixable-but more than three can get very expensive to have them replaced correctly). Here where I live, a lot of music stores will do a complete re-pad job for around $150, but the only place I trust to do it right charges $350-$450 (!!)-(it's a very tedious job to do it right) to re-pad the entire flute. So, make sure you check the pads very carefully before you buy!

Also, the mechanism should look clean (not dusty or dirty), and you'd be safer to pick a flute that's not dented or dinged up. Some dents can be removed depending on where they are located, but it's safer to just get one in good shape if you don' t know much about it.

That was good advice above. Make the sale contingent on taking the flute to a good repairman who can look it over!!

Feel free to contact me with questions at contact@flutastic.com. I will not try and sell you a flute. I'd be glad to help with any way I can. I also know of at least two others around the country besides me who sell used flutes, are honest, and can either help you learn how to find a good flute, or have some available that are top quality. There's great satisfaction in helping folks find a really nice used instrument that is easy to learn on!! You can get a used flute in excellent condition for around $250 or less if you know where and how to look. It beats spending $600 on renting-to-own !!
posted by flutastic! at 2:07 AM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

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