Graphic by Meher Yeda / North by Northwestern

Bienen senior Jeremy Tai has played on a loaner instrument for the last three years. His high school cello wasn’t good enough for his college studies – it placed too low a ceiling on his talent. So he practices and performs on the studio bass owned by the Bienen School of Music.

But now that Tai is a senior, the loaner cello, valued at $70,000, will go to a different student in the fall. Tai needs to replace it with an instrument of his own for his professional career.

“I think my parents are going to refinance their mortgage to help pay for it,” Tai said. “That’s a significant thing. It really is.”

Tai looked into scholarships for instrument purchases, and even applications for a loaner instrument owned by a music foundation. According to Tai, fine instrument lending is fairly common among established orchestra members and soloists. Often, their relationships with instrument collectors or accomplished musicians grant them exclusive benefits. But for Tai, this wasn’t feasible.

“As it turns out, cellos on loan are extremely rare,” he said. He referred to institutions, including the Stradivari Society of Chicago, which lend antique Italian instruments to promising students. “They, for instance, have 10 or 15 violins that they loan out to people who are at this point famous. But for cellos, they only have two.”

Tai isn’t alone in his instrument cost dilemma – many Bienen students pay large sums of money for their college and post-college instruments. Freshman Joelle Chen recently purchased a $15,000 violin from William Harris Lee & Co., a dealership in downtown Chicago. She has three younger siblings, all of whom are practicing musicians. To pay for their lessons, as well as for Chen’s violin, her mother had to get a part-time job.

Photo courtesy of Joelle Chen

Ray Hou, another freshman violinist, said he wouldn’t have been able to purchase his instrument had his family not developed a close relationship with an instrument dealer in his native Taiwan.

Estimates for the average price of a Bienen-quality string instrument vary widely, according to information collected from over twenty instructors, students and instrument makers. Some students said prices started at $10,000 for the instruments they play. Others put the range between $50,000 and $150,000. The thousands that a young musician might pay for an instrument, according to both instructors and students, are a near-inescapable expense of the profession.

Still, Bienen students pay the same cost of attendance as everyone else – $78,654 per year. They don’t all come from significantly wealthier socio-economic backgrounds than the rest of the university’s undergraduate population, a fact confirmed by a source within Bienen’s administration.

Building blocks of cost

Eli Biagi, a luthier and instrument maker at William Harris Lee & Co., attributed a string instrument’s high cost to both the price of wood and an experienced instrument makers’ time.

“The majority of our makers on the master level have been making instruments for between 15 and 40 years, and these instruments are extremely highly sought after,” said Biagi.

Andrew McKone, the sales director at A440, a high-end instrument dealership in the Roscoe Village neighborhood of North Chicago, cautioned that determining a correlation between value, quality and price can be complicated. An entirely handmade work can be much more expensive, not just because of its age and rarity, but also because of the research that goes into its production.

Mass produced instruments are sold primarily to competitive high schoolers, and even some middle schoolers, who expect to pursue admission to prestigious conservatories. Their quality has risen in recent years, and, when combined with superior technique, can often provide students a high enough ceiling for their gradual improvement.

But McKone said that with mass produced instruments, “sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw.” Music students need to know if their investment will be worth it.

Making the investment

Andrew Raciti, a Bienen professor of double bass suggested viewing instrument investment “through the lens of starting a small business.” By the time students arrive at Bienen, one of the strongest music schools in the country, “they’re looking for professional-level instruments. They’re trying to get employed. They’re looking to buy an instrument that they can feasibly play for the rest of their lives,” Raciti said.

Some students choose to finance their instruments. Lisa Zimmermann, a manager at William Harris Lee & Co., said she partners with Noteworthy Federal Credit Union, which focuses on lending to artists and musicians. But she adds that for many other banks, even offering instrument loans isn’t appealing.

“You can repossess a car, but you can’t repossess an instrument,” Zimmermann said. “That would be horrible.”

McKone found that in the last four years, only a handful of clients at A440 have financed their instruments. He warns his clients not to miss a payment, because a low-interest loan on an instrument can quickly spike if a six-month or 36-month term isn’t met.

Some families know their children will attend a music school many years before the time comes for auditions; they’ll begin saving up money for instrument purchases early.

Caroline Rothstein, a violin and viola instructor with the Northwestern Music Academy, a year-round instruction program for pre-college music students, works with such families as they prepare for the financial strain of high school and college-level music. Growing up, her own family had her fill out the checks to her private music teacher to prevent her from taking her lessons for granted.

Though she declined to speak in specific terms, Rothstein said that on several occasions, cost of attendance has forced pupils to exit the Music Academy.

“It's very disappointing to have to say goodbye to a student for a reason like that,” Rothstein said. “Because it's not about work ethic and it's not about talent, it's about overcoming the basic cost of participation.”

As a student reaches high school, youth orchestras and summer music camp expenditures can foreshadow an ever-upward-spiraling cost of education, Rothstein added. Some families will realize this as early as elementary school and begin planning appropriately then.

When asked about rental instruments, Biagi stated, “we couldn’t afford to insure the instruments.” Wear and tear, he said, “is not a possibility. It’s an inevitability.” From time to time, McKone added, there’s also the worry that one of the store’s most valuable instruments might simply disappear.

The additional costs of music education don’t stop at the instrument. The average string musician may own two or more bows, which can cost up to 25% of the price of their instrument. Sheet music, copyrighted and licensed similarly to academic textbooks, can cost close to $100 per score. Instrument maintenance, which can cost hundreds of dollars a year, is made more necessary and frequent by the cold Chicago whether. Simply traveling with an instrument the size of a double bass can create financial distress.

Bienen freshman Cruise Myers said he purchased a $5000 case for his bass so that he can check it in on his way to and from his home in California.

Even with the case, “traveling is stressful, because there’s always potential for damage,” Myers said. “Without it, travel just wouldn’t be feasible.”

A question of necessity

With all these obstacles in mind, Bienen students sometimes arrive at Northwestern's doorstep without an exceedingly fine instrument. For some, this isn’t a terribly difficult situation to be in. Carmen Jackson, a freshman bassist, performs on a $1500 instrument, likely one of the least expensive at Bienen, purchased during his sophomore year of high school. Jackson said he isn’t certain yet whether he’ll pursue a career in music performance after Bienen; he’s a dual degree student with an undecided second major.

On multiple occasions, Jackson’s high school instructor commented that his bass didn’t have a bright enough tone, but Jackson will wait to consider upgrading to a better instrument until Raciti, his current teacher at Bienen, makes similar remarks.

“If I were, you know, by my junior [year] realizing, ‘Oh, I want to go to grad school for this,’ I would probably look into getting a bass,” Jackson said. “If I were set one way or another, then I think the next biggest influence would be what my instructors said and what they recommend.”

Photo courtesy of Carmen Jackson

Jackson hasn’t found that the quality of his instrument has held him back in his studies so far. In fact, few students were willing to say that a higher-quality instrument could provide a significant advantage in auditions and competitions.

Not all students agree. Some students were even unsure whether they would have been accepted to Bienen if they had auditioned on their high school rental. Chen said she once participated in a regional violin competition in Minnesota, and was asked to re-perform her submission on a finer violin belonging to one of the competition’s judges.

“I just got an email saying, ‘The conductor and I heard you, and the conductor said that we can’t let her in, because it was too bad,’” Chen said. “But then she was like, ‘Well, her technique is good, so let’s give her a chance, because it’s probably just the instrument.’”

She took the judge’s offer, performed on the finer violin, and made it to the next round. Through the experience, Chen began to doubt the quality of her high school instrument. “Maybe not one way or the other, but it definitely could have affected my playing,” she said.

Hans Jensen, a professor of cello instruction at Bienen, remarked that an increasingly common practice among competition judges is to gather a list of each student’s equipment, so that they can grade auditions accordingly.

“If you have two people who have the same ability to play, and one has a fantastic instrument and the other doesn’t, then you’ll be able to hear a difference,”Jensen said.

Professors at Bienen nevertheless resist grading on a curve or otherwise changing their evaluations of students because of the instruments they play on. The accepted logic among instructors is that students have many technique issues to address before they can start blaming the natural characteristics of their instruments.

Bienen, for its part, offers financial aid to students who need it, but has no institution-wide policy on instrument standardization, how instructors ought to account for differences in quality and what a student with marginal resources might do to acquire an instrument similar to their peers’.

Raciti repeatedly emphasized the grit and determination of college musicians, who might spend half of their waking hours perfecting their bowing and sight-reading. He said this would ultimately determine their success. Instrument quality is important, but not the primary roadblock if a student couldn’t dedicate themselves to refining their own talent. “The combination of being very adult in their pursuit of music with retaining a child-like enthusiasm for what they’re doing is what has to go into the work ethic that they’ve learned,” Raciti said.

Adrienne Thompson, the founder and director of the Chicago Music Pathways Initiative, also believes this to be the case. Her program, which is in its first year of operation, seeks to help talented music students from minority and otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds achieve admission to prestigious music conservatories. In her view, financial disadvantages go hand in hand with lack of interest and gaps in information.

If a student is admitted, they can expect to have lessons, mentoring and orchestra tickets paid for. In some cases, the initiative can provide seed money for college-level instruments. Thompson hopes to instill the same work ethic and studiousness that many students and faculty in Bienen aim to achieve. She said that although her institution is set up to gradually break down cost barriers for exceptional students, equipment isn’t everything.

“We are trying to eliminate excuses,” Thompson concluded. “We will not be telling [student] fellows that they cannot do something. I have seen students with less expensive instruments get into really good schools, but it was because they were prepared, and that is what we are trying to do.”

CMPI’s inaugural class of conservatory applicants had a 100 percent success rate, with offers of admission to schools like the Eastman School of Music and the Curtis Institute of Music.

Ways forward

Bienen students have floated several ideas for how instrument expenditures could be made less cumbersome – and how the imbalance between what other Northwestern students and Bienen string musicians pay could be ameliorated.

Jackson supports factoring in instrument purchases made during a student’s senior year of high school into Bienen’s cost of attendance. Although Jackson himself didn’t purchase a new instrument for college, he believes it would help families faced with the strain of paying tuition, room and board and instrument costs, all at the same time.

Other Big Ten music schools, like Michigan State University’s College of Music, offer applications for instrument loans, citing the accepted norm of acquiring a finer instrument as students proceed toward a career in music.

But the logistics of determining what a fair price is for a college-level instrument provide a caveat for financial aid officers, according to a source within Bienen’s administration. Many instructors, after all, don’t place tremendous stock in instrument quality, and different instruments – cellos as compared to double basses, for instance – can cost drastically different amounts. The Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid declined to comment at length for this article.

A second possibility Bienen students briefly considered would provide standard-issue instruments to each student musician. Pianists at Bienen, for instance, already use university-owned tools for practice and performance; none are expected to bring an instrument from home.

“I would think that would be a bad thing,” Hou said. “We, as musicians, choose our instruments based off of what we like. Maybe, for example, my hand position is fit to have a violin with strings that are further apart, and maybe another violinist prefers strings that are closer together.”

Andrew Raciti offered another criticism: “If you come to bass class sometime, you’ll see big guys with long arms who are six feet, and then you’ll see people who are five-foot-four, so they can’t possibly be expected to both play the same instrument.”

Another idea involves expanding the loaner system that cellist Jeremy Tai is currently benefiting from; he has been borrowing Bienen’s loaner cello for the last three years. His instructor, Hans Jensen, typically provides this instrument to a first-year with abundant talent and limited financial resources, and permits them to practice and perform on it until they graduate.

Bienen’s cello studio, though, has more than just one student each year in need of a better instrument. The same goes for other studios at Bienen, which sometimes don’t have a single loaner instrument for students to use. Raciti’s bass studio, for instance, can only lend fine bows to students. The only ways that a studio can acquire instruments, though, is either through donation or direct purchase, neither of which have been historically frequent enough at Bienen to cover student instrument needs.

The Curtis Institute of Music, one of the few prestigious conservatories to which Bienen is often compared, has a much wider selection of instruments that their students can borrow for short or medium terms. The Shepherd School of Music at Rice University has purchased a variety of string instruments in recent years that are expressly dedicated to long-term student use, up until the moment of graduation.

“If there are any benefactors out there who are wondering what they can do to help the school of music, instrument acquisition can be a tremendous boon,” Raciti said.

For now, though, the costs of fine instruments are passed in large part onto Bienen students, and history indicates this is unlikely to change.

When asked of his own experience studying music in college, Raciti said he knew many peers who had struggled financially because of their choice of career.

“Sure,” Raciti chuckled softly. “I mean everyone struggled. I used to decide between a few meals or strings.”