A “REAL” PIANO IS PREFERABLE TO AN ELECTRONIC KEYBOARD

All students who progress beyond the first few weeks are expected to upgrade to an acoustic piano or, less preferably, a keyboard with 88 weighted keys, stand, and pedal. A poor practice instrument is a drag on students’ skills and motivation from day one. To maximize the chances of long-term success, invest in the best quality instrument you can, as soon as you can.

WEIGHTED KEYS

The most important feature to look for is “weighted keys,” which are essential to the development of finger-working muscles and a technique of controlled attack that will work on all instruments. Weighted keys are actually not weighted, but spring-loaded so that they feel “heavy” as on a real piano. “Graded hammer action” is a marketing and technical term meaning that lower keys are slightly heavier than higher keys. This is a desirable feature and in the past a feature that separated higher quality instruments from budget models. “Semi weighted” means unweighted, at least for our purposes.

A FULL-SIZE KEYBOARD IS 88 KEYS

Any product with less than 61 keys is either a toy or something intended for use with a computer. The biggest problem with less-than-full-size keyboards is not really the smaller size (beginners rarely use the highest and lowest notes) but the lack of good-quality weighted keys. You’ll rarely if ever find good-quality weighted keys on less-than-full-sized keyboard. Do not be concerned about the space difference: an 88-key instrument will be no more than 14 inches wider than a 61 key instrument. All 88-key instruments (including vertical acoustic pianos) are essentially the same width and take up the same amount of floor space.

OTHER FEATURES

Recording capability is very useful but not absolutely essential; likewise with a built-in metronome; a dual-headphone jack is also nice. Other common electronic keyboard features such as internal memory, sound banks, and the like can be fun but are unnecessary for basic musical and technical development.

DIGITAL VS ACOUSTIC

An electronic keyboard is, at best, a poor substitute for a real piano. When a student learns to play on an acoustic instrument, they have the potential to learn how to manipulate a complex machine that can produce infinite gradations of tone and expression; when a student learns to play on a digital piano, they are pressing a button which activates a sensor. (A tiny market segment seeks to bridge this divide: so-called “hybrid” digital pianos which replicate the entire action of an upright acoustic piano and replace the usual touch-sensors with more sophisticated optical sensors. These instruments come closer to the feel of an acoustic instrument; they also cost just as much as an acoustic instrument.) Let’s be honest: if you are trying to learn classical music on a digital keyboard or vintage spinet, your instrument is limiting your progress…tremendously. With the wide range of pianos and price ranges, often a decent used vertical (or “upright”) piano can be purchased for not much more than a decent 88-key digital keyboard. Carefully compare used and new digital and acoustic instruments in your price range: you’ll likely find you can get a quality acoustic instrument for a price you can afford. A worn old upright—if in good condition—is preferable to a new digital keyboard. Again, don’t worry about the size of the instrument: it a vertical piano takes up exactly the same amount of floor space as a full-size digital keyboard.

VERTICAL PIANOS

Spinets (36”); Consoles (41”); Studios (45”); and Uprights/Professional/full-sized (50”). Measurements are approximate and refer to the height of the piano from floor to top. Spinets and consoles were for many decades very popular entry-level home pianos; very few have been made since 1990 as the low-cost segment of the market has shifted to digital keyboards, for good reason. If you can get an old spinet or console for free, or close, it could make a good starter piano, but in other cases, these should be avoided. As for the difference between studios and uprights: all things being equal, taller is better. But any of these types, new or used, are suitable for beginner and intermediate students if the instrument is in good condition.

GRAND PIANOS

A good grand piano over 5’9” is a major improvement over an upright. The cost of a decent grand is more than that of a comparable upright, but it’s perhaps not much as some people imagine. If you have the space and the means for a grand piano, by all means, rest assured that a good grand may outlive your children, will not lose value to the same extent that ordinary consumer products do, and will be superior in touch, reliability, and tone quality to most uprights. Avoid grands under 5’4”; consider instead a full-size upright. The term “baby grand” is not a reliable indicator of a piano’s size; find out a piano’s true size by measuring the length from end to end.

EDUCATE YOURSELF

You can’t rely on brand names, and if you’re purchasing a good acoustic piano, you’ll making a substantial investment. It’s not unlike buying a car…but most people are much more comfortable comparing cars than pianos! In addition to many web resources, I recommend The Piano Book by Larry Fine. Invest a little bit of time learning about the different choices within your market segment; you’ll be more able to evaluate information you get from dealers and more confident as you begin to narrow your options and make choices.

RETAILERS AND THEIR GIMMICKS

If you’re buying anything with 88 keys, go to a dedicated piano (or perhaps pro-audio) dealer. Skip the mass retailers (Best Buy, Costco). Most manufacturers distribute their instruments exclusively through a single retailer in a given geographic area. This means that prices are higher than they might otherwise be, and your options for shopping around are restricted—at least for new instruments. As with buying a car, check prices (Craigslist, out-of-town dealers). Most dealers list prices that are rather high, with the expectation that they will be bargained down somewhat. Be aware that the potential for negotiation varies not only from dealer to dealer, but from brand to brand. If the dealer won’t negotiate and/or their prices are not close to what you’re expecting, find another dealer, or consider a different brand.

TRADE UP CREDITS

Don’t be tempted by an offer of 100% trade-up value. If you are buying a quality acoustic piano, it is highly unlikely that you will ever attempt to use trade-up credits; even if you do use them, the chances that they will save you much money are very small: a good piano will retain much of its value, and dealers looking to make a sale are apt to be generous with the trade-in allowance, regardless of where you purchased the instrument.

BRANDING IN THE MODERN ERA

With very few exceptions (most notably Steinway), “American” brands don’t mean much anymore. Some Japanese and Korean manufactures at one time made pianos in U.S. factories; most “American” brand names come from Korea or China (and sometimes Japan). Some European-sounding names actually come from Europe, many come from Asia. One sometimes-overlooked piece of information you may wish to consider when evaluating a piano is finding out where and when it was made. For example: a piano made in China in 1995 is almost certainly to be avoided, but a piano made in China in 2010 might be a good bargain buy.

UNIVERSITY SALES

Just another sales trick. You may or may not find a good deal. You should also be aware that universities don’t always take care of their instruments as well as you might think; quality varies. The pressure to buy is higher than at a regular retail store. Go and look, but be wary.

GET A WARRANTY

If you’re buying from a dealer or technician, your piano should come with a one-year warranty, regardless of whether it is new or used. Decline any deals that do not include this minimum level of protection.

BUY USED

The used market is far more competitive than the new market; consider good-condition used instruments whenever possible. You can usually get a much better deal buying a piano from a private individual than you can from a dealer; such transactions are also more risky for the buyer. It is usually unwise to buy from a private individual without having a trusted friend with some keyboard skills test out the piano first—and really it’s best to hire an experienced technician to examine the instrument before you commit. Expect to pay $100-$250 for this service; it’s money well spent. If you’re looking at the bottom end of the private market (free to a few hundred dollars) you may indeed get lucky and find a hidden gem, but you also need to be ok with the possibility that you’ll be junking the instrument and upgrading at some unknown point down the road.

YOU CAN DO IT!

Unlike most consumer products, a piano is an investment for a lifetime—take your time, and good luck!

ADDENDUM: SO HOW MUCH IS THIS GOING TO COST?

It’s almost impossible to give good pricing advice, but I’ll try to do so anyway! All prices discussed concern my personal experience with the Washington, DC-area market in the 2005-2016 time range. The price ranges on the market are truly staggering and range from free to well over $100,000!

ACOUSTIC INSTRUMENTS FROM DEALERS Used upright pianos of any quality go for $3000 and up. Used grand pianos start at around $7000. New pianos of any quality start at $5000 for uprights and $11,000 for grands. In general, you should be skeptical of fire-sale prices. If your budget sends you looking for cheaper new instruments, consider looking at used pianos. Usually you can get a better instrument for your money in the used market. 30 years old is only middle-aged for a piano. Remember these are starting prices for legitimate instruments—quality increases with higher prices (at least at reputable dealers) and the point of diminishing returns doesn’t really start to be a factor until you reach at least triple the prices listed above.

- ACOUSTIC INSTRUMENTS FROM PRIVATE SELLERS You can usually get a used acoustic piano from a private seller for about ½ the dealer prices listed above. Usually, you’ll have to pay for moving and tuning.

- DIGITAL KEYBOARDS The cheapest full-size digital keyboards start around $600; quality increases significantly as you pass the $1000 mark. The law of diminishing returns kicks in around $2000 and anything over $3000 is way more keyboard than you need (with the exception of a “hybrid” digital). Buying a used keyboard from a private seller is considerably less risky than buying an acoustic instrument from an individual because it’s easier for you, the consumer, to test it out. If all keys work and seem to be of even weight (that is, you don’t find any heavy or sticky keys) and the speakers produce a good sound without distortion or static, you’re probably ok. It’s also a lot easier to price a used digital than an acoustic—just plug the make and model into Google and you’ll get an idea of both its new and used value within a few minutes. You can usually expect to pay between 1/3 and 2/3 of the cost of a new keyboard depending on the age of the instrument. Used prices at dealers will be higher. Don’t bother with a used digital instrument over 15 years old.

Copyright 2016 by Andrew Horowitz

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