"Buying a Piano"
By Paul Kenny as featured in the Nov/Dec 2001 edition of "Australian Music Teachers Magazine".
As featured in "The Australian Music Teacher Magazine"... So, you want to buy a new piano or upgrade your old piano. There are so many options when it comes to purchasing one of the oldest musical instruments, the piano. You have the choice of purchasing a new piano, a 2nd hand piano, or even a digital piano. There are so many choices and so many brands to choose from. But, be careful… there are also many traps along the way.
The piano has been around for about 300 years and over that time the essence of the piano has not really changed. The cabinets have changed over the years and have improved but the internal workings have not really changed from the first models produced in the 1700’s. The basic workings are that you play a key then a hammer hits a string and it vibrates and the sound is reflected off the soundboard to produce the musical tone (sound). There are approx. 10,000 parts in a piano and many of these are very finely tuned. The moving parts within the piano are called the ‘action’. Just like a car the ‘action’ is the engine of the piano. If the action has problems or is not maintained then the piano will not perform as it should. A piano is generally considered to be one of the hi-end purchases or investments that we make in our lifetime. It is very important to spend time researching various options like new, 2nd hand, brands, warranty, etc. before jumping in on an impulse and purchasing a lemon.
Does size matter?
The answer to this question is… Yes and No. Size/height of an upright piano does not really matter. The difference in pianos in relation to size, means that in an upright piano the soundboard and also string length are greater therefore give the piano a richer tone and an increased resonant sound. For instance… in an upright piano with a height of 108cm compared to a larger upright of 121cm there is a height difference of 13cm. Therefore there is approx. 13cm more in the height of the soundboard and also greater length of the strings. The soundboard of a piano is like the speakers in a stereo system, the bigger the speakers the greater the bass response and deeper the tone. This is exactly what happens in a piano. You must also keep in mind the size of the room in which the piano is going to live. In some rooms that have deep pile carpet and heavy curtains the smaller pianos will loose their volume because of the ‘soft furnishings’ absorbing the sound. If the player is just a beginner or has only been learning for a short amount of time then a smaller size piano like the 108cm or 112cm will be fine. If the player is a serious student, teacher or a person that has been playing for sometime, then a 121cm or larger would be required, maybe a grand piano. The reason for this is that the player has experience and performance ability and would be looking for a better tone and resonance in the piano which they are playing or practicing on.
New or 2nd hand?
I guess the short answer to the question of 2nd hand is… PROCEED WITH CAUTION. This is for several reasons. There are a lot of people selling 2nd hand pianos who are making a lot of money playing upon the ignorance of the piano buying public. They have found that they can take an old piano and clean up the instrument, make the metal parts shine, polish the wood and in general tidy up the appearance of an otherwise useless piano and then place a high price on the instrument. There has always been a sense of ‘the higher the price the better quality’, this is not the case. When it comes to second-hand pianos you need to “do your homework”. Its like buying a second-hand car!! You need to get the advise of someone in the industry like a Qualified Piano Tuner, or a Piano Teacher who knows what to look out for. One of the pianos to try and avoid is the “over-damper” pianos. These usually have problems with the damper mechanism and have been found to be a lot of hassle to repair by tuners and technicians.
Be aware that there are a lot of second-hand pianos being imported from Asia and you really need to “proceed with caution” on these. You will probably be told that they are great pianos, excellent condition, etc. But, consider if they are all that they are made out to be, why did the Music School, University, etc. in Asia decide to replace these pianos? Also, the comment by the salesperson, “they have not had much use!” is something you need to think about. Remember that about 75% of these pianos have come from a Music School, University, etc. and are from 5 years to 20 years old and have countless students practicing on them for maybe up to 14 hours a day over every day of the year for 5-20 years. That’s a lot of work that these pianos have been receiving and it makes you wonder if over this time if they have been properly maintained and serviced.
There are some good models coming in to Australia as second-hand Imported Pianos and these are from homes and have been used as private pianos. When purchasing any of these instruments from a store or a private piano tuner selling these types of pianos is to make sure that they have some type of warranty which include the pin block, frame, soundboard. The person selling these instruments should be able to place a 5 year warranty on the above. Also make sure that the piano is tuned in your home after delivery, this is usually done about 1 week after delivery with a new piano and should also be done with a piano that is second-hand.
Why maintain a piano?The piano is a highly developed and complicated piece of equipment. It contains about 240 different lengths of high tensioned wire. These lengths of wire make up to 85 to 88 notes spread across the music tonal range. For each note there exists a mechanism which in the upright piano contains up to 14 different moving parts and in a grand piano up to 22 moving parts per note. This means that there is around 2000 moving parts in a piano! Since the piano must be maintained at a specific tension to achieve a good musical sound the matter of maintenance becomes an ongoing process. If you play the piano several hours a day and work to a performance standard you may need to have your piano tuned frequently. This could be mean that your piano would need to be tuned 5-6 times a year, or more!! A finely tuned and functioning instrument will make practice and performance much easier and encourage students to practice more because their instrument is performing at its best. It will also give you peace of mind that your investment in the piano will last. Having the piano maintained will ensure that it will always be performing at its best and will stand the test of time. You should realize that a piano will never stay in tune, no matter what brand it is or if it is an upright or a grand. However, a piano that is manufactured to a high standard and using better materials will stay in tune for longer periods. Also keep in mind that a new piano will require several tunings throughout the first 2 years. This is usually every 3-4 months until the strings and pin block have time to ‘wear in’ and settle down.
Does the brand name make a difference?
The answer has changed a great deal over the years. Brand names do not really make a great deal of difference when it comes to buying a new piano. When it comes to buying a 2nd hand piano which has had many birthdays (30+), the brand name will make a HUGE difference in the quality of the instrument and also the purchase price. In regard to new pianos most brands have a model (usually the height is the model number, 121cm 108cm, 115cm, etc.), and you will find that all brand names have a model in the same height. The price is usually around the same or maybe $500.00-1000.00 difference. The difference in price does not mean that the more expensive one is any better or is going to last any longer or not less tunings each year. Warranty varies on new pianos from 3-5 years, to 10 years to a Lifetime Warranty. The longer the warranty the better off you will be because the manufacture is willing to provide a warranty like this to their instrument, which means they are certain that the piano will be fault free for the warranty period. The only advice really when it comes to buying a new piano is to shop around and be sure you purchase a well known brand name from an authorised piano dealer. If in doubt talk to your piano tuner or call the importers of the product and talk to them.
The best advice is to… get advice!
Acoustic or Digital?This is really a matter of preference. With today's digital pianos becoming better and better it is very hard to make judgment between digital and acoustic. I guess the best way to work out which is best for you is to think like this…An acoustic piano is essentially the same instrument that has been around for about 300 years. Music was and is still composed for the piano and for piano performance with orchestras, concert halls, etc. It is a pure instrument and always will be. The digital piano however has a multitude of instruments and drum samples with disk drives, etc. It is more like a computer with a keyboard!! It is an excellent composition tool with various voices like, piano, strings, brass & woodwind sounds and of course the rhythm unit and disk drive to save your work. You can then transfer your work to a computer and using MIDI software printout your composition as a musical score. The digital piano is also great for the younger student providing all these features to help keep their interest in learning the piano. So, as you can see either acoustic or digital, you need to work out which is best for you and what you see to be long-term value for yourself and your family. Although acoustic pianos have been around for 300 years, the digital models change with technology about 12-18 months. So, the digital piano you buy today will be out dated usually within 1-2 years.
Conclusion...A piano purchased today will always be a piano. Unlike the digital piano where the features are increasing and becoming more impressive each year as technology gets better and better. You will not see on an Acoustic Piano a rhythm unit (drum machine), auto chords, display screens like the star ship enterprise, or a blender or even a milkshake maker! The piano is a “true” instrument that requires dedication and determination to master. It takes years of lessons, practice and a belief in oneself of achieving an ability to be able to perform on such a majestic instrument.
Before purchasing any piano keep the following points in mind and your purchase should then be a happy one!
This article was written by Paul J. Kenny and featured in the Nov/Dec 2001 edition of "Australian Music Teachers Magazine".
(National Manager Alex. Steinbach/Samick Pianos 2001).
Article Copyright © 2001 by Paul J. Kenny.