Buying a Piano: The Best Advice for Finding Your Perfect Instrument
I grew up in a house with a music closet under the staircase to the second floor. My father was an amateur violinist and my mother, an amateur cellist. My father was an inveterate collector; no piece of two-by-four was too small to add to the wood pile, and no violin was ever in too battered shape to be stored awaiting repair. As the years passed, the closet housed my flute from England, and the clarinet my brother played before taking up the violin.
Many instruments came into the house. None ever left. To this day, at any holiday gathering we all play, not because we have remembered to bring our instruments (along with the diaper bags and Christmas presents, children, footballs and strollers), but because there are always instruments in the music closet. But if you did not inherit a music closet, or even a family piano, where do you begin?
Pianos are not as simple to purchase as they used to be.
Before the advent of electronic pianos, the choices were fairly simple: upright piano (now called "vertical") or grand piano. This choice was dictated by space and budget.
The spinet (or "studio"), the smallest upright, takes the least amount of space, is the least expensive, and produces the smallest amount of sound. For the small room and the person not aspiring to be Horowitz, a good spinet may be ideal.
Spinet piano for the home
The standard upright, which is a grand piano on end essentially, is taller, more expensive, and produces a more satisfying tone.
Verticals come in several heights, each having a longer sound board and consequently a larger tone.
Grand pianos come in five sizes, ranging from the baby grand (5 feet 1 inch long) to the concert grand (9 feet long!), and range in price today from approximately $5,500 to over $100,000. (The Steinway piano that we purchased in 1975 for $9,600 retails today for over $70,000.)
Baby grand piano
Concert grand piano
Even at these high-end prices, you may get a poor instrument!
If you are planning to purchase an acoustic piano (that is, non-electric), you should take along a serious pianist whose judgment you trust to play the instrument before you purchase it. As you would take a used car to a mechanic before you purchased it, so should you have a knowledgeable person play the instrument before you make a selection, because
Pianos at the high end of the spectrum are handmade
Quality control on instruments today is not what it used to be
There is a great variation from instrument to instrument
Many professional classical pianists frown at the idea of an electronic piano, but I was married to a conductor who would never be without one. Many electronic pianos today have full key boards (88 keys) and weighted keys (which means that they have action like a piano, not like an organ). Some of them actually have quite good "sampled" piano sound.
3 good reasons to buy an electronic piano
Headsets allow you to practice any time of the day or night
They offer total privacy
Tremendous amount of fun if you get some of the many other digitalized sounds that are available for them (drums, saxophone, strings, choirs, organ, harpsichord, programmed rhythm sections, etc.).
Some parents worry that their children will not practice and will just play with the rock drumbeat. My experience has been, however, that all of the ensuing experimentation is very musical and can be counted as time well spent. In addition, I know of few children who can resist an electronic piano.
Shopping for a keyboard can be a lot of fun!
Two new hybrid pianos have arrived on the scene, which offer an exciting option for the parent who wants an acoustic piano, but would also like to take advantage of advances in technology. Yamaha's Silent Piano is an acoustic upright piano, with a center pedal that can be depressed and locked, thereby turning the piano into a digital piano that can be practiced silently with a headset.
Another hybrid option was a group of pianos that are acoustic, but which have disk players built in. This allowed the piano to be a player-piano when loaded with disks, or a recording piano if a student wished to review what he/she had played. The Yamaha Disklaviar pioneered this technology, but there are few of them around anymore. This technology could also be retrofitted into almost any acoustical piano for about $5,000. Finally, there is the new Yamaha true combination of an acoustic piano with strings that also has a digital component.
The major players in high-end, hand-made acoustic pianos continue to be Steinway and Baldwin. Steinways start at $45,000 for a baby grand and go up to $100,000+ for a concert grand. Used Steinway verticals begin at about $3,000 and used grand pianos at $17,000. Baldwins are similarly priced. Yamahas have been the traditional choice for those seeking a good, but less expensive option. Second-hand pianos can be very good buys, but you need a piano technician to check the action and sound board, either one of which could turn a bargain into a nightmare. There are other pianos being made in Korea and Japan, which are available for less.
"Yamahas have been the traditional choice for those seeking a good, but less expensive option."
The major players in the electronic instrument keyboard field are Yamaha, Korg, Roland, Kurzweil, and Technics. An economy model Kurzweil, with four different sampled sounds (piano, electric piano, organ, and strings), sells for a little more than $1,000. There are also digital pianos that are loaded with full rhythm section, winds, brass, harpsichord, two organs, synthetic sounds, a chorus and much, much more. For those who are self-conscious about the appearance of such an instrument in their living room, Kurzweil did produce a great synthesizer that came in an elegant baby grand Young Chang case with a beefed-up sound system. Unlike acoustical instruments, the choice of an electronic instrument is a matter of finances and sounds. More sounds is usually better, although we have purchased an electronic instrument based solely on its piano sound.
If I had only one instrument in my life, would I purchase an electronic piano?
If money were no object, I would conclude (even after all the fun on the electronic instruments) that I want a Steinway. But if noise or space was a factor, or if I wasn't certain that my child would continue, I would consider an electronic instrument. And, if I were purchasing a second instrument, there is no question that it would be an electronic one. In fact, in our living room, we have two grands, and if you look closely, you would see that one of them has no strings and transforms itself into a full orchestra, a mariachi band, a pipe organ, a harpsichord and a full rhythm section, which my son uses as a metronome when he practices his scales.
Acoustic pianos must be purchased for sound and key action.
Electronic pianos vary little from instrument to instrument, that is, once you have found the model you are looking for. Then, you should simply shop around for the best price from a reputable dealer.
Jordan Kitts is the largest dealer of pianos on the East Coast and offers a wide selection of acoustical, electronic and hybrid pianos, some of which are also for rent.
Steinway in New York provides the best ambiance for the grand purchase.
Always take along a professional to help you make your selection!
P.S. All pianos are not black! The Steinway ebonized (black), mahogany and walnut finishes are the traditional choices, and electronic pianos are available in these wood finishes. If color is an important issue, you may have to wait longer to find the right piano, so start looking early!
Bonnie Ward Simon, BA, MA, M.Ed, M.Phil.,
President of Maestro Classics