If you’ve been following our blog, you’ve probably noticed that this topic comes up from time to time. …and while I’ve tried to recommend a number of digital instruments over the years, some of you have brought it to my attention that I’ve never discussed an ideal acoustic piano for your church. As usual, different folks have different opinions, but I’ve been a worship leader for almost 15 years and I’ve been in the piano business for even longer than that. Hopefully, my combined experience will help you cut through the sales hype and find the perfect worship piano for your church.
As always, please feel free to comment below if you have any thoughts or questions. I take the time to respond to everyone.
Maybe your worship setting isn’t best served by a digital instrument. Whether you follow a strict liturgy or you prefer hymnsongs on a Sunday morning, the right acoustic piano can greatly enhance your worship experience. “What is an acoustic piano,” you ask? Quite simply, it’s a piano you don’t plug in. …and like its digital counterparts, there are some things that don’t thrill me about many of the options available on the market today. Again. Everyone has their favorite brands and you can find “informed” opinions growing on every tree, but here are five basic things I think most worship leaders would agree are NOT desirable for a worship piano:
- It will not stay in tune. I don’t have the space here to go into detail about what causes a piano to go out of tune, but there are a ton of common reasons. The three most common, are: Construction, Environment and Lack of Maintenance. Poor quality pianos are made out of particleboard and plastic. …and, like those furniture kits you buy from big box stores, they aren’t designed to last. If your budget doesn’t allow for a decent, all-wood instrument, then you should get a digital piano instead. It will perform better and last longer anyway. No piano, however, can stay in tune when subjected to dramatic changes in temperature and humidity. If you turn your heat/AC on and off throughout the week, you are killing your worship instrument. Either store it in a climate controlled room or replace it with a digital piano. Think of wood just like a dry sponge. What happens when you add moisture? What happens to the sponge if it gets TOO dry? The same will happen to your piano. Finally, very few churches have an adequate maintenance budget for their worship instrument. Acoustic pianos in a church setting should be tuned at least once every 3 months. If played heavily, it’s not uncommon for them to require action adjustments and voicing (re-shaping the hammers to provide a more desirable tone) every couple of years. There is no point in purchasing a fine worship instrument if you’re just going to neglect it once it is delivered.
- It doesn’t sound good. In general, a church sanctuary is one of the most hostile environments an acoustic piano can live in. Aside from the tuning concerns listed above, church pianos tend to get far more use than do home pianos and, thus, they can quickly become bright (or “tinny”) sounding due to a hardening of the hammer felt where it impacts the strings. Especially if the piano doesn’t use Abel or Renner hammers, it can be difficult to keep the piano sounding its best. Many manufacturers use particularly soft or hard hammers (depending on their tone recipe) and each come with their own set of problems. Hard hammers are naturally prone to harshness. Soft hammers can sound dull (or “muddy”) if not properly prepared and often require much more work to maintain the desired tone. Soundboards (which function as the piano’s amplifier) can lose their clarity and projection in hostile environments – especially if they are not properly supported or are made of inferior (or inadequately seasoned) wood.
- It sounds horrible through the PA System. Unless you have a professional sound technician with a degree in piano acoustics and a SUPER expensive, custom piano microphone package, your piano is going to sound AWFUL if you “mic” it. Traditional microphones are not designed to pick up the wide range of frequencies that acoustic pianos produce. Thus, when you put a microphone into the piano, it immediately ruins the depth and clarity of your piano’s tone. NEVER mic a piano. Make sure you purchase an instrument that is big enough to naturally project all the way to the back of your sanctuary. …and keep in mind that it will have to cut through a choir and any other instruments you are using much like concert grands do at classical music concerts. If you can’t make this happen for any reason, you are much better off purchasing a good digital instrument and running it directly into your PA system. (…and before you send me hate mail on this one, know this: professional musicians like Elton John, Jim Brickman, Michael W. Smith, Chris Tomlin and Paul McCartney use acoustic pianos with digital implants on tour. The piano sound you are hearing comes from a chip – NOT a microphone. It’s a digital piano sound.)
- Parts began to fail almost immediately. In all honesty, this usually happens because the piano selection committee under bought and/or your worship instrument desperately needs replacement. If you are looking at a grand piano for under $12,000 US or an upright piano for under $4000 US, you are probably considering an inadequate instrument. Once again, “Good Stewardship” isn’t about buying cheap, inadequate equipment. It’s about getting the best possible value on tools that will further your ministry. Low-grade pianos are often sold as “cheaper” alternatives to more expensive pianos. Unfortunately, many of them are made of composite materials and not REAL wood. Thus, they just don’t hold up in the demanding church environment. I’ve seen pianos fail in the first year! Ignore the brands that focus on the famous people they pay to play their pianos and zero in on a piano’s core construction. THAT is what you’re paying for and that is where you can determine a piano’s real value.
- It’s very hard to move. If you plan to move your piano around the building or if you move it every week, then you should consider a grand piano dolly. This will protect your piano’s leg joints and prevent horrible accidents over time. That said, your piano should have high quality casters that are wide enough for you to easily re-position the instrument as needed. A piano with casters that won’t roll is not just an annoyance – it’s a danger to itself. If the casters lock up while you push, it’s easy to break a piano leg or leg joint right before service. …and you’d be surprised how often that happens.
Believe it or not, finding a good acoustic piano can be more complicated than finding a digital instrument. Each brand has its own recipe (or “scale design”) and much of selection process comes down to personal preference. Just remember that basic things like brilliance and key touch are adjustable. The trick is finding the instrument with the construction features you want at a price that fits your budget.
How does your piano stack up? Does it give you the performance you need or are you secretly hoping the Lord will take it Home soon? If the noise your piano is making no longer qualifies as “joyful,” it might be time to upgrade. Here are a few “key” considerations for your next worship piano:
- Get the right size piano for your worship space. There is a reason that professional pianists almost always play on concert grand pianos. Bigger is often better (when considering instruments of comparable quality). Don’t sacrifice quality just to get a huge grand, but try to get the biggest high quality piano you can afford. Your goal should be to get rich, lyric sound all the way to the back of your worship space without using a microphone or PA system.
- Focus on quality – not brand name. Too many people develop an irrational devotion to a single brand of instruments (in many cases because they are familiar with an old instrument from that manufacturer). You should operate under the assumption that every brand of piano built today has made at least a few significant changes since 2013. Judge worship instrument candidates by their construction and quality of materials – not by someone’s “favorite brand name.” Here are some “must have” features on a worship piano:
- Solid Spruce Soundboard. (The best woods are Sitka and Bavarian White Spruce.)
- Fully-Notched Spruce Ribs. (These support the soundboard’s shape and help transfer sound waves across the soundboard’s wood grain.)
- All Wood Action. (I am sure I’ll get some flak for this one because some “piano mechanics” out there love the ABS composite parts (another term for “fancy plastic”) a few manufacturers are including in their piano actions. …but the truth is: ABS has been around in some form for a long time and most of the major manufacturers who have tried it have long since gone back to wood. Wood has its flaws, but it feels better to the performer… and since the rest of the piano is wood anyway… I recommend you stick with an all-wood action.
- Abel or Renner Hammers with T-Fasteners. These “medium hard” hammers are easy to adjust and maintain for a much longer period than their softer (or harder) competition. Most of the best pianos in the World use one of these two brands. The T-fasteners help maintain the hammer’s shape and provide counter-tension at the hammer’s shoulder for better “bounce” and tonal projection.
- Hard Maple Pin Block. Good quality (all wood), pianos are made with multi-directional, hard-maple tuning pin blocks. These (combined with cut thread, premium steel tuning pins) cost a bit more, but keep the piano in tune much longer.
- Expanded or “Wide” Tail Design [Grand Piano Only]. The wider tail helps center the bass strings across the heart of the soundboard – giving the piano a HUGE boost in the lower register. It also gives a larger soundboard – improving the piano’s overall projection.
- Quarter-Sawn Wood Parts. We all know the best part of a watermelon is the heart, right? Well, just around the center of a tree is what we call the heartwood. This is THE best quality wood for keys, action frames and action components. It lasts longer and better resists environmental changes.
- Adjustable Artist Bench. A performance piano requires a performance bench. Make sure your instrument (grand or upright) comes with an adjustable artist bench so it can ideally suit all your church musicians.
- Double or Wide Casters. For both safety and convenience reasons, make sure your piano can be easily re-positioned as needed. This will really matter to you someday…
- Establish an adequate maintenance budget. No piano will survive long in a worship setting without regular maintenance. Work with your technician to develop a reasonable annual service budget for your piano. Plan to tune it at least once every three months and include some extra money for unexpected adjustments.
- Consider climate control solutions. Most professional venues have a small, climate-controlled “bedroom” for their performance instruments. This room is meticulously maintained at a constant temperature and humidity to prolong the life and the performance of their pianos. If this is not feasible for your church, do whatever you can to stabilize your piano’s environment. You may even consider a humidity control system if your piano will be subjected to extreme variances in temperature and humidity.
- Look for the best value – not the best price. For the most part, the Piano Industry is a “get what you pay for” industry. If you budget for a cheap baby grand, you’re going to get a poor-quality instrument that won’t last long in your space. If you buy a 20-year old used piano, you might save some money, but you’ll have to replace that piano much sooner and you may have to do more to it to get the performance you want. This is your primary worship instrument. It’s worth spending a bit more money to get a much better piano. However, it is also true that – due to their success in recent years – some manufacturers have begun to capitalize on their brand fame. This means you pay more for a piano with a famous brand name than you would for an instrument with the same construction (or better in some cases) from a lesser-known brand. If you can afford a bigger piano without sacrificing quality, you should consider the lesser-known brand name instead. If you’re uncertain, engage a technician to help you decide.
- Build a relationship with your piano provider. I took this idea right out of “Chicken Soup for the Soul” and it’s great advice. Good piano dealers (like us) do a lot of homework to find pianos that represent the best value at different performance levels. They can be a source of tremendous insight and support throughout your piano selection process. Some dealers (like us) even offer turn-key fundraising programs to help you get the very best tool for your ministry. Find a dealer with a great reputation and an in-house service team who can work closely with you to select and service your worship piano. The right relationship can save you a lot of money later.
- Get the accessories you need. Unless you’re moving your piano around quite a bit, you probably don’t need a moving cover or piano dolly. Just get a good dust cover, a proper cleaning kit and an adjustable artist bench. Most pianos designed for institutions will have built-in locks.
Once you have considered these things, you’re ready to visit a piano store and play some pianos. This cannot be adequately accomplished online. If you’re going to spend the money for a nice acoustic worship instrument, you owe it to yourself to try the piano in person. It’s a good idea to take a piano technician with you or work through a dealership that has in-house service technicians who can take the piano you’re considering apart and demonstrate its quality. Anyone can tell you their pianos are great. Make your dealer show you how their pianos are built to last in the challenging worship environment. …and don’t worry too much about where your piano is built. Acoustic piano brands have all changed in recent years and most pianos are built in China or Indonesia. That is not necessarily a bad thing either. The economy has been rough on piano manufacturers and they have all had to adjust to survive. Focus entirely on a piano’s construction and you’ll get the best instrument for your budget.
Now on to my recommendations…
If you’re considering a grand piano for your church, I can’t recommend the Brodmann PE-228 highly enough. It and its smaller sibling (the PE-187) are truly IDEAL worship pianos. In fact, I think you will be hard pressed to find any piano (at ANY price) that can match Brodmann’s incredible bass. Both the 228 and 187 have consistently stunned first-time players with the power and depth they offer. I wish I could describe the experience in words…
Designed by the legendary Austrian piano manufacturer, Bösendorfer, Brodmann was created with a cutting-edge, global manufacturing concept that offers the same construction features as brands like Steinway and Yamaha without the super-premium price tag. If you’re not yet familiar with this new brand, you owe it to yourself to seek one out and play it. Most of the critical components (like the soundboard, ribs, inner rim and hammers) come from German manufacturers with hundreds of years of experience. Other parts are sourced from the US, Sweden, the UK and Austria with final assembly in China. This allows Brodmann to purchase premium components in bulk without having to pay for a dedicated factory and have the assembly done in a low-cost labor market. The savings are incredible… and so are the pianos.
If you’re considering an upright piano, my next suggestion may surprise you. I recommend the Baldwin Hamilton studio – the most famous upright piano in the World.
Like every other piano builder, Baldwin went through some hard times in the last couple of decades. Thankfully, they have found new life as part of the Nashville-based Gibson family of instruments. Under Gibson’s leadership, Baldwin re-hired several of the original Cincinnati factory team to help redesign and relaunch “America’s Favorite Piano.” The new instruments also rely on a global manufactoring concept, but most of their parts are sourced from the US and Germany with final assembly done in China’s low-cost labor market. The Baldwin design team now claims these new pianos are the finest Baldwin instruments made since the Cincinnati plant – and that is really saying something.
The Hamilton studio is a ruggedly-made piano with tremendous clarity and warmth. Designed specifically for schools and churches, it is the ideal worship instrument for smaller spaces. It’s also perfect for rehearsal spaces and lesson rooms. If you haven’t played one of the new Baldwin pianos yet, you should give them a try. We have carried everything from Steinway, Yamaha and Kawai to Pearl River and Hardman Peck… and I can tell you from experience that the Baldwin Hamilton studio is THE best “Quality for the Dollar” upright out there.
Come to Gist and play one today. I’d love to see you!
No matter what your needs, I hope these blogs have been helpful to you. It’s a joy and a blessing to speak with you all from time to time and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your questions and comments. You work a very hard job. If there is anything I can do to help you and your ministry, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Thanks for reading and God bless!