It’s Not Like Buying a Guitar
A couple of months ago, I got a call from a friend wanting to know if I’d like to go guitar shopping. "Heck yeah,” I said, and we spent most of a Saturday afternoon having a bunch of fun, playing some great instruments, and making the local guitar salespeople miserable. Later that day, my friend returned to one of the stores and bought a gorgeous, handmade guitar. It wasn’t cheap, but both of us thought it well worth the money. I’m sure my friend slept with it that night.
Understand, spending a day like this would not be at all unusual for guitar lovers. All of them I know, amateurs and professionals alike, look forward to instrument shopping. We read about them, subscribe to guitar magazines, talk about them - we get a little geeky about it. …but it’s just the way we are.
I mention this because, in my experience, people don’t seem to feel the same way when it comes to shopping for a piano. In fact, I’ve often seen customers come into a piano store in a bad mood and remain that way for most of the time they’re there. They’ll look around, ask one or two questions, plunk on a few notes, write down some prices and leave with a pained look on their faces. Then, they’ll come back to the store six months later and do the same thing all over again, most of the time in a worse mood than the first time they came in. Some of them never buy anything. For years I’d watch this and wonder, “What’s the deal here?” Why do these folks perceive something that should be quite as such a pain?
Finally, I just started asking them, “You’ve been in three times in the last year and still haven’t bought anything. Do you mind if I ask why?” The response was practically universal: they didn’t feel like they knew enough to make an informed decision. They were bombarded with complicated (often conflicting) claims from salespeople, friends, websites and teachers. Everybody had an opinion and it was almost impossible for them to separate piano facts from piano myth or hype. Suddenly, it all became clear to me: For most people, the piano is a complete mystery.
I realized that people often shop for pianos differently than they do just about anything else. In many cases, the person actually paying for the piano isn’t the person who’s going to play it! Parents shop for their children, spouses shop for their spouses, donors shop for churches and administrators shop for music schools. How could they be excited if they weren’t even going to use the instrument they were purchasing?
More importantly, I believe–even if the purchaser is an experienced player, the relationship between piano and pianist is very different than the relationship between the guitar and guitarist, or the tuba and the, uh... well, whatever you call someone who plays a tuba (I’m pretty sure it’s not “tubist”).
Take my guitar–playing friend, for example. When he shops for a new guitar, he’s looking at something he’s already very familiar with. He’s played the guitar since he was a kid. He changes his guitar’s strings himself and has adjusted the instrument to some extent. He’s even taken one or two apart to see what makes them tick. The guitar isn’t a mystery to him; and the same could be said for the folks that play almost any instrument you can think of, except for pianists, that is.
Few pianists ever explore the instrument’s “mysterious” inner workings. If you were to open a piano’s lid and ask 95% of piano players to name just five of the parts inside, they’d be unable to do it. If a pencil is accidentally dropped into their piano, the average pianist hasn’t the foggiest idea of how to get it out. This isn’t a criticism; it’s just the way things are. Pianos are complicated instruments and learning to tune and service them takes more time than most musicians are willing or able to allocate.
The relationship could be compared more to the one most people have with their automobile–if it needs servicing or repair, most of us don’t even bother raising the hood. We just take it to the garage. We certainly know how to drive it, but we don’t know much about how it works. Imagine how confusing it would be to shop for an automobile if we didn’t even know how to drive it!
When they find themselves standing in a piano store, most people are a ball of confusion. All the pianos have black and white keys; the cabinets look similar. To the untrained ear, they seem to sound about the same. Yet, two pianos of similar size can be separated by thousands of dollars. What the heck’s the difference? It can be intimidating and that’s why some people think shopping for a piano is so unpleasant.
In a similar set of circumstances, I guess I’d be in a bad mood too.
So, I’ve decided to try and de–mystify the piano. In my career, I’ve worked with some of the world’s greatest pianists, piano technicians, piano manufacturers and piano sales professionals. I’ve lectured and written numerous articles on the subject and I believe, without exaggerating, I can claim to be an expert on the piano, its construction and the way the instrument is marketed. I’d like to share some of that expertise with you.
A Short History of the Piano
Bartolomeo Cristofori, an Italian harpsichord maker, invented the piano in the early 1700’s. But a great deal of the piano–its basic shape, string arrangement and keyboard layout had already been invented long before that time. They came directly from the harpsichord. What Cristofori really invented was the piano’s playing mechanism, or action.
Cristofori was one of the finest harpsichord makers in the world, but he realized the instrument had a basic problem–it just didn’t make enough sound. The harpsichord’s action produced sound from a quill that plucked the strings. The plucking force couldn’t be significantly varied, so the harpsichord could only be played at a single, relatively low, volume level. This was a serious drawback for a harpsichordist. The sound of a harpsichord is very nice, but it was hard to express a wide range of emotion on one. No matter how hard or soft it was played, a harpsichord always sounded pretty much the same.
Cristofori decided to mix his beloved harpsichord with the incredibly popular hammer dulcimer and create a new instrument that would be easier to play than the dulcimer, but more expressive than the harpsichord. He called his invention a gravicembalo col piano e forte (a harpsichord that can play soft and loud). This new “piano” (as the public nicknamed it) utilized an action with hammers that struck the strings – giving players tremendous control over volume and expression.
Cristofori’s invention had some problems, however. Early pianos were made almost completely of wood and were unable to effectively withstand the tremendous pull of metal strings at high tension. Tuning was often unstable, and players of the day thought the instruments were rather difficult to play.
In response to these complaints, piano makers began work to improve the instrument throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Johann Silbermann crafted pianofortes for J.S. Bach. Johann Stein and his daughter Nanette Streicher made them for Mozart and Beethoven. Many communities took great pride in the distinctive tone and touch of the pianos built in their regions.
In about 1776, there was a second pivotal development in the piano’s evolution. Sebastian Erard refined Cristofori’s action in a way that made it faster and easier to play. Erard’s action was so effective that modern piano makers still use the same basic design today (Remember that, it’s important).
Despite everyone’s best efforts, however, the piano was far from perfect.
Then in 1853, Henry Steinway and his sons unveiled a new piano design that utilized an incredibly strong, one–piece cast iron plate. This plate allowed Steinway to string his piano at a much higher tension than its predecessors. This modification dramatically improved the piano’s tuning stability and gave it much more power. The new plate also gave the Steinway piano an iconic, curved shape (the very shape today’s grand pianos still use). By bringing the bass strings up and over the tenor strings, Steinway was able to center most of the strings over the middle of the piano’s soundboard – giving the instrument a richness of tone never before achieved. Other piano makers were quick to copy this curved shape and “overstrung” scale. The era of the modern piano was born.
OK, that’s the end of the history lesson and here’s why it’s important: First, remember that the reason Cristofori invented the piano in the first place was to create a keyboard instrument with a great range of volume and tone–in other words, a great range of expression. When a piano has a very limited range of expression–either because it was poorly made, or because it is damaged or worn out– it doesn’t do what a piano is supposed to do and is, for musical purposes, useless and valueless.
The Piano De-Mystified
There are two main types of pianos, Verticals and Grands. Verticals are the pianos placed upright (vertically) against a wall. Grands are the wing or kidney–shaped pianos.
Both verticals and grands come in various sizes. Verticals are measured by their height, grands by their length. These measurements dictate the size of the two most crucial elements of the piano–the length of the strings and the vibrating area of the soundboard. An important point to remember: between two pianos of equal quality, longer strings and a larger soundboard will mean a bigger sound and better tone quality.
There are three modern types of vertical pianos:
Spinets–ranging from 36–39" in height
Consoles–ranging from 40–44" in height
Studios–ranging from 45–52" in height
The depth (about 25") and width (about 58") is roughly the same between the three.
Spinet pianos are no longer made, and that should tell you something. They are mentioned here because they were made right up until the end of the 20th century and a lot of them are still on the used market. Most pianists feel the spinet’s tiny size–which dictates very short strings and a small soundboard–limits it as an effective musical instrument. The small case also forces a compromise in a spinet’s action which makes it less responsive, harder to play and, often, problematic. Of the three vertical types, the spinet is certainly the least desirable.
Note: One of the main reasons spinet pianos are no longer made is the recent availability of inexpensive digital pianos. A digital can certainly be a good choice for a beginner, especially compared to a spinet. I’m not talking about one of these little keyboards you see at the electronic mega–stores, or at the buying clubs. I’m talking about a digital with pedals and an action that mimics that of an acoustic piano. No, I don’t think a digital sounds and plays like a concert grand, but that’s not the point. A good one will sound and play better than about 95% of the spinets left on the market.
Console pianos are the best selling vertical piano because they fit in most home floor plans and feature designer cabinets in every style from cherry French Provincials to sleek, ebony Continentals. Console cases are large enough for a reasonably sized action and soundboard as well as longer strings. Although they usually lack a really “big” sound, they still meet most of the criteria that define an acceptable piano. The console is the piano that most American buyers will buy. It’s a good mix of sound, touch and style at an affordable price.
Studios are, on average, the best of the verticals in terms of sound quality and touch. Because the taller case allows longer string lengths and large soundboard areas, they’re the closest thing to a grand piano you’ll find among uprights. For the advanced musician that hasn’t the space (or money) for a grand, or for anyone that simply wants to buy the best vertical piano possible, this is the piano of choice.
An important point to remember: the only real size difference between verticals is in height. Depth and width are virtually the same. A studio takes up no more floor space than a spinet, so your choice of which vertical to buy will most likely come down to price or styling, not how much room you have.
The image that most often comes to mind when people think of pianos is the big, black, grand piano. Although the word “grand” is usually synonymous with “large,” in the context of “grand piano,” the word refers to the shape of the instrument, not the size.
An important point to remember: you’ll hear many different names used in reference to the sizes of grand pianos: Petite Grand, Baby Grand, Parlor Grand, Music Room Grand, Music Hall Grand, Semi–Concert Grand and Concert Grand. These names are often misused and can be terribly confusing. Baby Grand, for example, means different things to different people. Like “compact car,” it really isn’t a clearly defined size. It’s simpler and clearer to refer to the size of a grand by its length, measured from the front of the keyboard to the end of the tail–5’1", 6’7", 7’0", etc. (Fig.1)
Available space in your home will be a consideration when buying a grand because, unlike verticals, the bigger they are, the more room they consume. Smaller grands, 5’1" to 5’8" are the big sellers these days, and there are some very good ones on the market.
Grands smaller than about 5’ in length suffer from most of the same limitations as spinet pianos–short strings, small soundboards–and they usually sound more like verticals. If you’re interested in that big “grand sound,” you’ll probably want to buy a larger instrument.
The most important factor when choosing a piano, however, is still quality of construction. A high quality small grand will always sound better than a poorly made larger grand. As a matter of fact, a fine vertical often eclipses an inferior grand.
The Good, the Bad and the Average
OK, I’ve harped and harped that the difference in pianos is not in technology, but in quality–the quality of materials and the quality of workmanship used when making the piano. Ok, but, how does one tell if a piano is a well–built instrument?
We can start with a piano’s expected lifetime–its longevity. However, when we talk about how long a piano will last, we’re not usually referring to how long it will be before it breaks down or falls apart, but rather how long it will maintain good tone and touch. Physical longevity is important, but a pianist’s primary concern is how the instrument responds when played.
Here’s a very important point: it will be unusual if anything major “goes wrong” with any piano made today. No matter which one you buy, the keyboard won’t break in half. The legs won’t buckle. The soundboard won’t warp. It just doesn’t happen. In the very unlikely event one of these issues were to take place, it would likely be due to an atypical manufacturing defect and the problem would likely surface in the first few months you owned the piano. That’s why it’s typical of manufacturers to offer warranties of 5, 10, even 15 years! Why not? They know they’re never going to have to pay out a cent on these warranties. So, let’s say you’re offered two pianos; they are exactly the same except one has a 10–year warranty; the other has a 25–year warranty. The one with the 25–year warranty costs $500 more than the one with the 10–year warranty. Buy the one with the 10–year warranty and keep the $500. You’ll never use the extra 15 years, believe me. As a matter of fact, some of the best pianos in the world come with the shortest warranties. This doesn’t indicate a lack of confidence on the part of these manufacturers. They just refuse to participate in sales hype.
The service issues that are more likely to come up with your piano are ones of adjustment–making the piano play correctly and sound good. These adjustments are not typically covered by the factory warranty and making sure they’re taken care of usually has more to do with where you buy your piano than anything else.
Remember: The only real criterion of a piano’s quality is this: Does it sound good, does it play well, and will I go broke servicing it? That’s it! Now, I know what you’re thinking: “If I don’t play the piano, how will I know that?” Trust me, try a few pianos and you’ll detect a difference. Most people think they can’t tell the difference because they’re not offered a difference. If you go into a shop that sells only one brand or one quality level of piano, you certainly won’t be able to tell the difference, because there won’t be any!
Try to shop where you’re offered pianos of different brands and qualities side–by–side. If you don’t play, ask to have someone play them for you. Believe me, you’ll be able to tell the difference.
A third factor is how it looks, but that’s easy. If you think a piano looks good, it does. If ugly pianos are worth less (and they are), it only follows that attractive ones are more valuable. Don’t feel embarrassed to be concerned with the beauty of the instrument. If you’re afraid that beauty and quality are somehow mutually exclusive, don’t be. In this case, you can have your cake and eat it too.
Making Today’s Pianos
Today’s average piano is mass–produced on an assembly line in China, Korea, Indonesia or Japan. …but remember that where the piano is built is nowhere near as important as how the piano is built. A Korean-made piano with premium wood and old-world designs can sound just as good or better than a Japanese-made piano made from particleboard and plastic.
The largest mass-manufacturers make 100,000–250,000 pianos a year and roll a new piano off their assembly lines every few minutes! A mass–produced piano will usually sound OK for 20 to 25 years with average use and proper care. The downside is, it will sound its best when new, then its tone will deteriorate consistently over the course of its lifetime. If it’s in a rigorous or high–use setting (a church or music school, for example) the life expectancy can drop considerably.
By contrast, the best handmade pianos can sound great for the better part of 100 years. Every detail of their construction, from the selection and seasoning of the wood to the final tuning, is overseen and controlled by people, rather than machines. It can take a year or more to make a piano by hand. With proper care, a hand–made piano will maintain high–quality tone and touch for many decades.
Don’t get me wrong, assembly–line production is not necessarily a bad thing. Assembly lines have allowed manufacturers to offer affordable pianos to the general public and there’s nothing wrong with purchasing one. But, mass–produced pianos are not designed to be performance or long–term instruments, no matter how they’re hyped! New ones can make good, affordable instruments, but don’t expect to pass them down to your grandchildren. They won’t sound good for that long. Want proof? Today you can find many examples of fine handmade American instruments by companies like Steinway, Weber, Chickering and Mason and Hamlin made over 100 years ago. You can even find examples of handmade European instruments from Bluthner, Grotrian and Bosendorfer, although there are fewer of these because the American manufacturers typically made a tougher, more heavy–duty piano than the Europeans. Many of these pianos are still in use, playing great and sounding wonderful.
At the same time, there are some mass-manufacturers who, when you read their “history,” claim to have been making pianos since the 1800’s. If so, where are 100–year–old examples of their pianos? I’ve see a lot of pianos in my day, but I’ve never seen one of those.
It’s still true that you get what you pay for and mass–produced pianos simply can’t be compared to those made by hand. A mass–produced automobile may be a nice car for several years; but it would be ludicrous to compare one to a Rolls Royce.
A Piano by Any Other Name
Over the years there have been over 7000 different piano brand names on the market. Some have become well known and well regarded while others have faded into oblivion.
Well known or not, brand name alone is not always an indicator of quality. Most major manufacturers build several different models of pianos, each with varying degrees of quality. They’ll market their best pianos to people concerned primarily with superior quality and they’ll make lower–quality pianos for people that shop with price as their primary concern. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this, but if you get caught up in the hype, you’re likely to pay too much for your piano.
Here’s what I mean: Imagine for a moment that, last night, you saw a famous pianist playing a “Brand Y” piano on TV. This morning, a local piano store advertises a Brand Y piano–perhaps on sale. Your first reaction might be, “Wow, I just saw Mr. Famous Musician playing a Brand Y piano last night, so it must be good, and here’s one on sale! What a deal!”
The problem is, there’s not much chance the two pianos are really the same. Brand Y is likely to have special facilities where they make special pianos for the famous people (usually by hand) and a separate factory for their mass–produced consumer models. Other than the name on the front, Brand Y’s professional model pianos will have virtually nothing in common with their consumer models. It’s a little like watching stock cars zoom around the banked oval at Daytona and thinking, “Gee, I think I’ll go over to my local dealer and get one of those.” NASCAR racers may be called Fords, Chevys or Dodges, but they bear little resemblance to the cars you see in the showrooms.
That’s why it’s hard to compare pianos by brand name alone. The Brand Y company may pay famous professionals a ton of money to play their special, handmade pianos, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they make a better $4000 console than Brand Z. As a matter of fact, you may pay a lot more for a Brand Y piano because they have to pay all those professionals to play their pianos.
Used But Not Used Up
Buying a quality used piano might be a good option for many people. The only problem is finding one. On average, very few of the pianos advertised in the newspaper or on the internet are of even marginal quality. Many used pianos, that were well made instruments when originally purchased, are now practically worthless because they’ve been neglected or abused.
That’s a shame, because a good piano, well cared for, will hold its value extremely well. In fact, it’s not unusual for a better quality, well–cared–for used piano to cost more than a lesser quality new one. And that’s the way it should be.
I highly recommend buying a used piano that has been reconditioned. However, you have to make sure that reconditioning work has actually been done. As I said, many used pianos have been poorly cared for. It will take more than furniture polish and a vacuum cleaner to put them back in good working order. They’ll require some tender loving care and expertise by someone that knows what they’re doing. A store that claims its used pianos are reconditioned, but has no shop in which this work could have been performed, should be suspect. Make the store back up its claims by supplying a substantial, written, parts and labor warranty that also covers minor adjustments.
A used or reconditioned piano shouldn’t be confused with a rebuilt one. Rebuilding is, practically, the complete remanufacturing of an instrument. A quality rebuilding job is a work of art that, when done correctly by a skilled craftsman, essentially makes an old piano new again. The talent and experience of the rebuilder is critical. This is not an inexpensive process; and it should be compared to the cost of a new instrument rather than a used one.
An important point to remember: I saw a classified ad recently for a “completely rebuilt” grand piano. I expected this piano was not truly rebuilt because the $2500 asking price was ridiculously low, but I took a look at it anyway (hey, you never know, right?). I was correct. Yes, there’d been some cosmetic work done to the piano; it had been restrung and the hammers had been filed, but that’s a far cry from “completely rebuilt.” I don’t think the seller was trying to cheat anyone, she just didn’t know what she was talking about. Make sure, before you even think about buying a “rebuilt” piano, you have a qualified technician look it over to make sure the seller’s claims are not embellished or mistaken.
Which One Should I buy?
Getting good, informed advice on your piano purchase is, admittedly, difficult. Many people have a friend or acquaintance that plays. They naturally assume that, if their friend plays the piano, he or she must know something about pianos. You know what they say about assuming. Remember, few piano players truly know much about their instrument.
Still, if you ask many players what kind of piano you should buy, they are very likely to launch into a lengthy and passionate soliloquy on the merits of various piano brands. It’s important to know that many of their comments may be based on limited experience, mistaken information, hearsay and folk tales. You’ve probably heard that “A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Make sure the advice you receive on pianos is good advice, based on fact.
Here’s a test you can use: If someone comments, for or against, a certain brand, question them a little further (remember that most companies make several, different–quality models.) Ask them to be specific as to which particular models of that brand are good. If they seem to know little about current models, they probably don’t know as much as they think they do. This is especially true online.
So, to whom do you listen? When you talk to people, assume little and listen to the person or persons who seem to have the best technical knowledge–not just sales talk, but real information about pianos in general, how they work and what the meaningful differences between them are. If someone can’t explain it to you so that it makes a little sense, it’s probably not clear to him or her either.
Intuition can be very valuable as well. If you feel you have it, use it to tell you who’s interested in you and your concerns and who only wants to promote their own agenda. Remember that the only real measure of quality in a piano is how it’s made–the quality of materials and quality of workmanship.
Service: The Ghost in the Machine!
This might surprise you, but no new piano is really finished when it leaves the factory. All pianos have very complicated mechanisms that require delicate technical work to assure that they achieve whatever potential they have. It’s up to the dealer that sells the piano to make sure that all of these critical adjustments are made. After the piano is in your home, it will need a few adjustments and it’s important that they can be made in a timely manner by a competent technician.
Quality pianos can also be voiced and regulated by a qualified technician. That is, the tone and touch of the piano can be adjusted somewhat to suit the individual taste of the player. Just how much, depends on the piano. The better the piano, the more it can be adjusted. Having your piano properly voiced and regulated can greatly increase the quality of its sound and performance and make it a more enjoyable piano to play. Many dealers don’t even mention this to their customers because they don’t employ technicians with the ability to perform these services. They just hope you won’t bring it up.
No one would consider buying a new car from a dealer that didn’t have a service department, but people do it with pianos all the time. It doesn’t take much expertise to take a piano out of a box and send it to your home. If a store claims to offer service, ask to see the shop. If there isn’t one, the store probably “farms out” its repairs, usually to the lowest bidder. If you buy online or from a dealer without a shop, you’re taking a risk. Often, the money you “saved” would be money you’d gladly spend for the service your piano will need to reach its maximum potential and lifespan.
“Mom, It’s Time To Make Me Practice!”
Remember that quality always pays off in the long run. Pianists, especially students, must have an instrument that functions properly if even the most basic results are expected of them.
There’s no shortage of old, cheap pianos, languishing in basements, garages and online. Most could be purchased for practically nothing. If beginners could really learn to play on pianos like these, dealers could buy them by the truck load, re–sell them to parents, then wait a few months until everyone came back to buy good quality instruments. It would be a no–brainer. (Remember, we’re online too. Most of the pianos you see online are pianos the local dealers rejected.)
Parents sometimes buy an old, beat–up piano for their beginners in the theory that, when their child “learns to play,” they’ll buy a better one. That’s like putting an adult size 10 pair of shoes on a 1–year–old and saying, “When he learns to walk, I’ll get him some shoes that fit.” The problem is, it just doesn’t work that way. When their piano doesn’t work properly or sound good, beginners become frustrated – even if they can’t properly or accurately articulate their frustration. Most in this situation give up in the first year.
After the child has given up, the parent is often relieved that a minimum of money was spent. This entirely misses the point that something of greater value was lost: the joy of making music. It can’t be stressed enough that a beginner is practically doomed to failure if given a sub–standard piano on which to learn.
Have you ever heard anyone say that they were sorry they learned to play the piano? Never! The overwhelming number of people who took lessons, then quit, regret it later on. They would give anything if their parents had encouraged them to stick with their music lessons when they were young.
If you’re a parent, think ahead a bit for your child. If they can just be encouraged and made aware of what they’re accomplishing, in the long run they’ll be glad they stuck with it, and they’ll thank you for your support.
Long–term Investment, Long Lasting Value!
Piano selection should be thought of as a long–term investment. If selected properly and cared for, quality pianos appreciate in value, and become family treasures - passed on and enjoyed through several generations. So, if you’re going to buy a piano, buy a good one, make it an important part of your home and offer encouragement to those who play it. That’s the real investment you make, and the one that pays the highest dividends, year after year after year.
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