Freeway Music — Columbia, SC’s Premier Music School

“This one looks nice!” Setting the Stage for Piano Purchasing Prowess by David J. Pacific

There are over 6,000 names of pianos and you’re looking for just one piano. How?

As far as musicians go, when it comes to what instrument we get to play on, people who play piano really don’t have much say in the matter. Think about it: violinists get to choose their violin, flutists their flute, and even singers are born being able to sing and are then trained. Pianists? Well, we get thrown out onto a stage, often on an unfamiliar piano, and do our best. When we begin piano, it is usually on a piano that was inherited or a small keyboard. There comes a time, however, when a parent of a student or a budding pianist needs to welcome a quality instrument into their life. Considering cost, quality, and sound in a sea of pianos can be daunting, but can be managed if you know where to go and what to avoid doing along the way.

What Usually Happens and Why

The most likely first stop is Craigslist or some other re-selling vendor. After searching through countless pianos, you find one that looks nice, probably is a brand you’ve heard of, matches the decor of your home, and then begin Googling the make and model of the piano. You come across such words as spruce soundboard, solid copper-wound bass strings, cantilevered bass bridge and then some history about the company and its glory days in the early and middle part of the twentieth century or how they are re-imagining the instrument for the 21st century. It’s all very interesting, but remarkably untrue.

Taking into account the shear volume of used pianos on the market, it is important to remember that the United States was the world’s largest manufacturer of pianos for the majority of the twentieth century. Even overseas companies came to our country to produce their instruments and utilize our bounties of forests and foundries. Both the opening of trade with China and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Nixon administration saw to the end of the height of piano construction in the United States, but the damage was done: the market was flooded with low cost, low quality instruments and the good, major manufacturers, save one, fled this country or sold their names and patents to off shore interests around the 1980s.

Pianos are comprised of over 12,000 parts and every single one of them has a (often strange) name. Each key can be composed of 40-60 parts depending on the piano and there are more myths about pianos than practically any other instrument. The fact is, piano construction is so hard to understand, immersed in so much history, and the instrument pioneered by so few companies, that there are degree programs exclusive to the maintenance, construction, and history of pianos. Further, the actual appearance of the piano does not matter at all as far as the actual instrument is concerned.

The Perpetual Myths

Those 12,000 parts are mostly on the inside and that’s where it gets complicated. As hard as it is to admit, most pianists and teachers don’t even know how their or any piano is built. I didn’t. Or at least, I didn’t until I began working in the industry and became immersed and educated by one of the above mentioned schools. There was a time when graduate students were required to take course work on how a piano works and in some programs scattered around the country this is still true. By and large, however, most pianists perpetuate the myths about pianos that are imparted to them by their teachers, those very teachers are carrying on myths heard from their own teachers, and the cycle continues until the myths become accepted.

Where did these myths come from? Marketing. Marketing against competitors in the twentieth century. Take for instance the term, ‘baby grand.’ There is no such thing as a ‘baby grand.’ There are grand pianos and the term ‘grand’ refers to the shape, scale design, and key geometry of the instrument. The term ‘baby grand’ was coined in the 1920s when manufacturers were selling too many upright pianos to immigrant populations who were now establishing themselves. The manufacturers wanted to ‘shrink’ the size of the piano in the mind to sell more grand pianos and the term stuck. There are, in fact, so many names, makes, and models of pianos that there is book listing all 6,000+ of them and their dates of manufacture.

Where To Find Information

As hard as it is to believe, the worst thing you can do when selecting a piano is do your own research and, specifically, do your own research online. There are so many myths, names, and marketing terms running rampant, so many people claiming to be experts online, that you can walk away confused and give up selecting a piano entirely. To give you an example, lets take the term ‘spruce soundboard.’ Almost every piano has a spruce sound board; however, the term ‘spruce soundboard’ and the term ‘solid spruce soundboard’ are completely different. The former is used in very low quality pianos (the bulk of pianos out there) and uses a high grade veneer on top of low-grade spruce, where as ‘solid spruce soundboard’ refers to a single high grade of spruce being shaped as a single layer. The soundboard, by far, is what makes a piano, a piano and, without it, there would be no piano sound. It is, in essence, the speaker of the piano and the most important component in sound production.

There are really only two places to turn when looking for a piano: a registered technician or a dealership. It is always better to purchase a new instrument rather than a used one. Those 12,000 parts break and a warranty means you can get the same part for the piano at no cost. Most times, dealerships will even give you parts outside the warranty. Plus, many offer incentives to upgrade your piano later for all of your money back and also stock quality, used inventory. Also, the salesmen are typically the most well educated persons when it comes to construction and quality. Believe it or not, they really do want to help you find the right piano, probably know your teacher quite well, and are actively helping to enhance piano in your community.

When considering a private purchase of a piano you found online, you need to find a registered technician by going online to the Piano Technicians Guild, entering your zip code, and locating a technician in your community. It is very important to use a technician and not a tuner, which may also mean if you are replacing your current piano, this may not be the person who tunes your instrument. A technician has studied piano construction and maintenance and has apprenticed for years before opening their own business. A tuner can take a six week course, an online Youtube video series, or use an iPad app to tune a piano and call themselves a tuner after some practice. Once you’ve found a technician and a used piano you like and have discussed it with the technician, make an appointment to bring the technician with you. The technician will be the one to tell you if the piano is worth purchasing.

Finally, to prove the point of why an authority is needed when purchasing a piano, consider a current major manufacturer of pianos whose name you likely know, but who I will not refer to by name. This company currently manufacturers six new lines of upright pianos and every one of them has the brand’s name on it, save one, but they’re all different even though many look the same. They are manufactured in different countries, use different woods, are all entirely different quality levels, but have the same name on them. Complicating things further, some of these new pianos use the model identifiers the company used for pianos in the 1980s which were better quality instruments then, but have lost much of their value now, and are completely different from the ones being made today.

You may be left wondering what I recommend for pianos. Considering that only ten percent of students who begin on a used acoustic piano progress to the second level of their lesson series, I don’t recommend a piano at all. I recommend a digital piano, which is completely different than a keyboard and another post entirely.

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