There is nothing quite like a good piano to fill a home with beautiful music. The piano is called the king of instruments for good reason. I don’t think that I have ever known a really top-level musician who did not have some keyboard skills, no matter if they played guitar, violin, trumpet, bass or even drums! The 88 note piano is the foundation of western music. Because of the graphic nature of the keyboard – black and white keys – it is easier to teach music theory on a keyboard than any other instrument. It is also the easiest instrument on which to arrange and compose orchestral music.
But, when it comes to buying a piano, how do you choose the right piano? I have a lot of experience with this. I not only play piano but I’ve worked in six music stores including two piano stores and I am a part time piano appraiser. It would probably be arrogant for me to say you should take what I say as Gospel but, well, yeah you probably should.
First, you would never ever buy a car without looking at the odometer, taking it out for a spin on the highway, checking the dipstick to make sure that there is no water in the oil and maybe even having your mechanic go through it but there is this strange assumption that people have that if an object is in the general shape of a piano, makes noise and doesn’t look like it has been through a NATO airstrike that it is probably good enough for kids to learn to play on. Nope. There are literally hundreds of thousands if not millions of piano shaped objects out there that have little value other than firewood. Sound harsh? It’s true. Most pianos were originally designed for a useful life of 40 years before rebuilding. There are many pianos in American homes today that are over 100 years old, that haven’t even been tuned in thirty years and parents are still forcing their kids to learn on them. I think that is a subtle kind of Machiavellian torture. Strings lose their brilliance, hammers wear out, soundboards lose their crown, dampers get hard, actions get sloppy and pin blocks lose their grip. A piano is, after all, a musical machine and machines wear out. The only moving parts on a violin are the pegs but there are literally thousands of moving parts in a piano. Believe it or not, even if a piano is never played it will not last forever. Pianos are made from organic materials like wood, felt, ivory and leather and these materials get old and loose their vitality. The crowned wood soundboard of a piano is subject to over a1000 lbs of down-bearing from the strings throughout its entire lifetime and when a soundboard goes flat so does the sound of the piano. The answer would seem to be to have the piano rebuilt but here is the catch. It is usually less expensive to buy a new piano than to have an old piano completely rebuilt. The exception would be if you own a world class piano like a Fazioli, Grotrian, Steinway, Bluthner or Bosendorfer, then the $8000 to $15,000+ you would invest would make sense.
The answer then, for most people, is to buy a new piano or at least one built post-Watergate. All things being equal newer is better. Pianos do not improve with age like violins and guitars. A famous Steinway technician once said that, “the best day in the life of a piano is its first.” That is a bit extreme but he was trying to make a point. My own experience is that pianos start losing their vitality after about fifteen or twenty years but it is a slow process so even a thirty year old piano can have some life left in it if it is cared for. This would be a good place to discuss pianos with sentimental value. More than any other piece of furniture, people seem to imbue old pianos with a seemingly mystical and magical quality like they were sprinkled with fairy dust. We tell our children that, “your great grandfather Simon Artichoke gave your grandmother Bernice Pudding that piano when she was nine years old. We’ve been waiting all these years to pass it on to you.” Never mind that it sounds like an explosion in a cuckoo clock factory and plays like driving a truck. This is what I tell people. Our memories are not of an object like a piano. Our memories are of the loved one who played the instrument. If the best family vacation that we ever had was going to Yellowstone Park we don’t enshrine the mini-van that got us there. We should remember the people and events.
Next installment, we will begin the actual process of choosing a piano. Keep practicing!