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What things are important to consider in the purchase of a piano?

Most times that these questions arise it is due to an inexperienced parent trying to make a good decision for their student/child. Sometimes it is an adult who always wanted to learn how to play. No matter the reason, it is important to have good information in order to make a good decision on the purchase of an item that can make or break your efforts in the study of piano playing.

The piano is often going to remain in your family home for a good many years and as such is not only a musical instrument but also a piece of fine furniture. The level of ability or desire is also an important consideration when selecting a piano for your use. The piano which may seem “just fine” right now might only serve to handicap the learning when skills improve over time. Here there is a choice to make. Should I purchase a very high end piano now in the hopes that the efforts will continue long enough to justify the expenditure? Or should I purchase one now to get started and plan on incremental upgrades as the lessons continue? I hope to sufficiently address all these concerns in the effort of this piece.

It should be noted that typically pianos seem to hold their value fairly well over time. It needs to be noted that nothing lasts forever and that pianos do have expected life spans. Most of the time during a pianos lifespan you can usually sell for roughly what you paid for the instrument later in its life. The caveat is the drop from the brand new price just like a car loses value once removed from the showroom floor. After that, the value seems to stay fairly level. That usually makes it a much more attractive investment. Once the price point is arrived at based upon budget or perceived interest, ability, or future ability, more questions need to be addressed during the selection of your next prized possession.

An important consideration and one often overlooked by this writer is the furniture aspect of the piano you hope to buy. Does it look good with your other furniture selections in either style or color? There are many furniture styles and at least an equal amount of personal tastes. Many would find their senses of style offended by a home full of furniture with Queen Anne furniture legs only to introduce a piano with Italian Provincial style. Truthfully these concerns are not only beyond the scope of this writing but also beyond the capabilities of the individual writing it! That being said, it is a concern for some and while there may be some whose only concern is the musical aspect of the piece, others may be far more concerned with the style or color of the piece introduced into a family home. Color seems a self- explanatory concern, but it should also be noted that there are not only differences in sheen but also whether the item is of closed or open grain appearance. Closed grain refers to filling the grain voids with a product prior to finishing. This will have the effect of the surface being as smooth and as flat as a piece of glass. Years ago, this was special and unique to the piano industry and was called a “piano finish”.

Upright or grand? Assuming there is space for either, the criteria would then be ones of sound quality and response. The sound quality is usually better and bigger in a grand piano. Most grands (even baby grands) have a larger soundboard and long strings than almost any upright. This equates into a more powerful sound. Not only that, but in a grand piano the soundboard has open air with which to transfer the sound vibrations from both the bottom and the top of the board. This is, naturally, more efficient and helps to perceive the grand or baby grand to be a more powerful instrument. Further differences include the key and hammer action in either. The uprights range in size from a spinet, to a console, to a studio, and finally a full sized upright. The listing just mentioned is in graduated size from smallest to largest. I often like to remind folks that the footprint of any of those sizes is roughly the same. The difference is primarily in height. A taller instrument will not only have longer strings and a larger soundboard but it will also have a much better key and hammer action. This is often due to the geometries involved in making something fit into a smaller cabinet. An upright piano has what is called a single escapement action vs. a double escapement action in a grand (usually). Suffice it to say that a grand with double escapement action will be both twice as sensitive and twice as fast. This is a perceivable difference to any player. As one’s skills improve and ever more challenging pieces are attempted these differences are both needed and noticeable. One of the worst things that we see in this industry is a potentially talented player who quits because the instrument will not do what the player asks it to.

I have often mentioned in my travels that I would prefer to see someone owning a high quality upright rather than a poor quality grand. I mention this to balance the scales (so to speak) as opposed to what you have read so far. I don’t want any reader to feel that if they don’t have a grand or baby grand that they are somehow short changed or that they will never achieve an appreciable musical growth because of it. There are a great many upright or vertical pianos that are perfectly acceptable musical instruments that can take a serious student all the way up and through conservatory level. A great many concert level performers have uprights in places like New York city where the apartment/condo or dwelling size simply will not accommodate a grand or even baby grand. This is not in any way a detriment. Perhaps the best way that I can explain it is that there are nuances and qualities in a grand that are simply not possible in an upright, but to practice and enjoy an upright is never a bad thing.

I have, throughout this piece, been aware that I am using the terms grand a baby grand almost synonymously. This is not the case. Grands graduate in size just like uprights do. Anything under 6 feet in length has the adjective “baby” attached to the word grand. This measurement is taken in a straight line between the front, keyboard side, of the piano to the very end of the tail opposite the keys. When a piano measures 6 feet or larger it is called a grand. Once a piano reaches 7 feet or longer in length it is usually called a concert grand since that size is most often used in a hall and placed on a stage. I have heard other modifiers used such as Parlor grand or even Baijou grand which I refer to as salesmen’s terms. They aren’t particularly descriptive of any specific quality of the instrument and are therefore meaningless to me.

Like anything manufactured deterioration occurs over time. As such, nothing lasts forever. Most all pianos eventually reach a point which we call “beyond economical repair”. Nothing is beyond repair, you understand. It just gets to the point where you are throwing your money away trying to keep it alive. A piano’s age can be learned through its serial number. This is the only way. I have had many a customer who has exclaimed that their instrument is from the mid to late 1800’s. When asked how they know that I will hear that it’s is “printed” right on the gold plate. These are patent dates for a particular aspect of the piano and have nothing to do with its age. The serial number is often found around or near the tuning pins and is usually a 5 or a 6 digit number. Newer pianos will use a alpha numeric numbering system. Younger is generally better and you should generally try to find a piano of higher quality rather than low quality. I remember once being told that “I can’t afford to buy cheap”. This means that a cheap item will need to be replaced much sooner and will cause more grief during ownership than a high quality item will during it’s entire life. Age and quality of manufacture are very important things to consider when looking for a piano to purchase.

In summary to this effort to impart information to you, I would like to offer a shameless plug. It is a good idea to have the instrument you choose inspected prior to purchase. I have even found pianos freshly uncrated that have issues. I usually suggest that folks look and look and then look some more. Once you reach the one you feel all warm and fuzzy about, call me out to look at it. This will hopefully insure that you have a fine musical instrument that you can hand down through the family for generations! Any questions? Feel free to ask!

Respectively,

Greg Newell
Greg’s Piano Forte’

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