Buying a Piano
WHERE TO BEGIN?
Buying a piano can be overwhelming because it is a major investment.
There are basically four main choices: an acoustic piano, digital piano, full size keyboard, or a smaller keyboard. Let me begin by defining a few terms, most of which will apply only to acoustic pianos.
Number of keys: a full piano, acoustic or digital, should have 88 black and white keys, and they should all work!
Hammers: the wool felt pieces shaped like small hammers that strike the strings and produce the sounds.
Dampers: the small felt pieces that go back in place to prevent the strings from sounding.
Touch Sensitive: this refers to the volume of sound that is produced. If your fingers play the keys slowly or with less weight, the sound produced will be softer. If your fingers play the keys quickly, with more weight, you will have a louder sound.
Weighted keys: the resistance the fingers feel when pushing down on a key. Weighted keys are very important because students develop finger strength based on their instrument having weighted keys. This allows students to develop good technique.
Number of pedals: acoustic (and most digital pianos) come with three pedals, each of which has a different function. The right hand pedal is referred to as the sustain or the damper pedal because on an acoustic piano, the dampers (the felt that stops the strings from vibrating) come off to allow the strings to vibrate, or make sound, then come back on and stop the strings from vibrating once you let go of the pedal. Dampers also come off one at a time as you play individual keys. This allows the hammer to strike the string(s). Some notes require only one string to make one sound, while others require two or three strings. There is one damper no matter how many strings make the individual sound, and that damper should come back to stop the sound as soon as the key is let go, or as soon as the damper pedal is released.
The left hand pedal is called the soft pedal, or una corda pedal, because when you depress it, the sounds produced are softer.
The middle pedal on a grand piano is called the sostenuto pedal. It sustains only certain sounds by allowing one or more dampers to stay off of those specified strings while the dampers operate as usual on the rest of the strings. This pedal is usually only found on a grand piano, and on some digital pianos. If an upright piano has a middle pedal, it will sometimes operate a felt which comes between the hammers and the strings, muting the sound.
Grand Piano and Upright Piano
An acoustic piano, refers to the traditional instrument we think of as a piano. It has 88 keys, 2 or 3 pedals, as well as touch sensitive and weighted keys. It should be tuned a minimum of once per year.
1. Grand Piano: is the kind you will find in many churches and concert halls, and is more expensive than an upright piano. The hammers are placed below the strings, and because gravity is working in helping the hammers come down once the key is played, the response time to play the same key again is faster than an upright piano, where the hammers travel horizontally to the strings. The price goes up depending on the company that manufactures the piano, the length of the instrument, and the fanciness of the wood case. A Baby Grand is less than 6 feet in length, whereas a full Grand Piano is 6 feet or longer.
2. Upright Piano: The strings are strung vertically instead of horizontally. It looks like the name implies - the back of the instrument where the strings are placed comes in different heights, and the taller the instrument, the longer the bass strings and the better sound it will produce. The hammers are placed in front of the strings, and move horizontally towards the back of the piano to strike the strings, then quickly release to come back to their original position ready to play again. It took a long time to develop the quick play/release action needed for an upright piano, and that is why all the earliest pianos were Grand Pianos, with strings stretching out away from the player.
The price varies depending on the company that manufactures it, the quality of the parts, the height of the instrument, and the outside of the piano (the furniture you see). Many pianos used to be available in various styles of furniture, and the fancier the furniture, the more the cost of the instrument, even though the inside might be the same as another less expensive model. These options are no longer popular, and the vast majority of newer pianos are only available in black.
The height and length of the instrument refers to the length of the strings. The longer the strings, the better the sound, and the higher the price. That’s why a Concert Grand Piano measures nine feet long, compared to a Baby Grand Piano which ranges from five feet to just under six feet, and a Grand Piano, which measures from just under six feet to nine feet. Another factor is the length of the key bed, from the front of the key to the very back. Entry level pianos often have a shorter key bed, which also affects the response when playing.
For Upright Pianos, the range of heights is as follows:
Full size upright: 48”- 60” tall
Studio: 43”- 47” tall
Console (apartment size): 40” - 43” tall
Spinet: 36” - 39” tall (not recommended)
A full-size upright piano is sometimes called an upright grand. This is an incorrect name because a grand piano has a different hammer action than an upright piano. When people refer to an upright as an upright grand, they mean that the length of the strings is the same as the length of the strings on a six-foot grand. The direction the strings are strung and where the hammers and dampers are located are completely different.
The development of electric keyboards and digital pianos has come a long way, and these instruments come in a wide range of prices and with many interesting options. This option has allowed many students to begin studying with an instrument that costs less, and it’s understandable why so many families begin by buying a digital piano as the first instrument for their child. I often get calls from a family enquiring about lessons, only to be told that they have already purchased a digital piano. Many teachers teach on digital pianos, and recommend them for their students.
A digital piano looks like an upright piano, only generally shorter in height. They also have 88 keys, and 2 or 3 pedals. Sounds are produced electronically, and the instrument is electric. Digital pianos do not need to be tuned. The quality of sound produced by a digital piano, while it will always be in tune, depends on how much you spend on the instrument to begin with. Even the most expensive digital instrument will be reproducing a sound that doesn’t come close to what a good acoustic piano will be able to produce. An acoustic piano responds to the touch of the player in ways that a digital is unable to. While students can begin studying with a digital instrument, their ability to listen to the full range of a sound (the beginning, middle and end), which is such an important part of their musical development, is hindered. Not all digital pianos are created equal, and these are some of the questions you should ask when shopping for one of these:
What is the quality of sound it produces? What quality of speakers are in that particular model?
Is the action of the keys not only touch sensitive and weighted, but of good quality?
Are the pedals attached, or a separate unit that plugs in?
Can the instrument be repaired?
Can the instrument be traded in, and if so, for how long?
The quality of sound produced by a digital piano, while it will always be in tune, depends on how much you spend on the instrument to begin with. Be aware that a good acoustic piano will retain its value, whereas a digital piano will depreciate every year you own it, just like other electronic equipment. For the closest approximation to a good acoustic piano, I would recommend Roland Digital Pianos, both for their touch sensitivity, weighted keys, and the sounds of the instruments. They come in a range of prices, and even the entry level Roland Digital Pianos will have decent sound and good weighted keys.
Stands and stools have to be purchased separately. A sustain pedal can be purchased separately, as long as there is a spot where it can plug in. Does not need to be tuned. Keyboards come in various lengths: 61 keys, 76 keys, and 88 keys. While all keyboards have volume controls, most do not have weighted keys, and some don’t even have touch response. If you buy a high-end keyboard with 88 weighted keys, it will probably be as much of an investment as a good entry-level digital piano. Because it sits on a stand, it won’t be as stable for the student to play compared to a digital or acoustic piano.
CAN I START LESSONS ON A KEYBOARD?
The simple answer is yes - though I do not recommend it. While you can learn basic notes and rhythms on a keyboard, you will not be able to develop the proper musculature to play a piano. You will also lack the necessary control over loud and soft sounds. It is like learning to drive in a golf cart instead of a car - the controls may be in the same place, but you have none of the same feel. A high percentage of students who begin on keyboards or inexpensive digital pianos get frustrated and quit within the first few years of piano study.
WHY ARE TOUCH SENSITIVE AND WEIGHTED KEYS SO IMPORTANT?
Making music is about much more than playing the correct notes in the correct amount of time. The dynamics, or expression we put into music, makes it exciting. On a non-touch-sensitive keyboard, it will be impossible to learn how to do this. On a touch-sensitive keyboard, you can put in the dynamics, or expression by touch, but if the keys are not weighted, or not fully weighted, finger strength is not developed. A fully weighted acoustic piano, allows both: musical expression and development of finger strength, and to a lesser degree a digital piano.
ACOUSTIC VERSUS DIGITAL
A good quality digital instrument is a better start than an old acoustic piano that has sloppy action, needs repairs, and possibly can’t stay in tune. However, there are many used acoustic pianos that are great starter instruments. The sounds from a digital piano will never match the sounds of a good acoustic piano because sound is a living thing and the parts of an acoustic piano, the real wood, strings, dampers, etc. all work together to create a resonant sound that is impossible to replicate digitally. The more you pay for a digital piano, the better it will sound, but keep in mind the steep depreciation.
WHAT DO I OWN?
I was fortunate to be able to buy a 60” tall full size studio upright piano before I started teaching, and I have played and taught on that instrument for many years. I have also owned two top-of-the-line Roland Digital Pianos for use as a second instrument in my studio. I sold the first one before I moved to Cochrane and bought the second one once my studio was up and running here in Cochrane. I’ve since sold that digital instrument a couple of years ago when I was finally able to realize a long held dream of owning a grand piano.
DOES ONE TYPE OF INSTRUMENT HOLD ITS VALUE BETTER THAN ANOTHER?
Generally, a good acoustic piano will not depreciate in value the way keyboards and digital pianos do. If you decide to upgrade one acoustic piano for a better one, chances are that you will not lose on your initial investment as long as you bought wisely the first time. Keyboards and digital pianos are lumped into the same category as any other electronic equipment: today’s newest model is tomorrow’s discontinued item, and it depreciates in value from the moment you buy it. In terms of dollar for dollar, you may pay more for a good acoustic piano, but it will be a better investment of your money. If you purchase your digital piano new, many stores will allow you to trade it in, and put the cost of your investment towards upgrading to an acoustic piano, but there is usually a short window of time when you can do this.
If you are buying this instrument for yourself or your child with a view to taking lessons, spend the most you can afford to get the best sounding instrument for the money you have available.
Most instruments include a bench, but some do not. The height of the bench is very important: a student’s arms should be at the same height as the keyboard or slightly higher, as proper technique cannot be developed if the students is sitting too low. For this reason, I recommend an adjustable bench. There are many types and styles available, at varying price points. One option is by a company called Exemplar Furniture Group, manufactured in Saskatchewan. They ship worldwide, and their website is www.exemplarfg.ca
A light placed on the top of the piano will allow students to see clearly in all lighting conditions.
If the student’s feet to do touch the floor, a small foot stool is important, as good technique begins with having the whole body grounded from the feet up. A pedal extender will allow students to use the pedals while maintaining correct posture.
While a beginner student will not need a metronome on a regular basis for a while, there are certain times when one will be useful. You can purchase a metronome or download one of the many free apps that are available.