Category Archives: Pianos

How Classical Pianists Can Benefit From Digital Keyboards

We’ve talked about this before: For a classical pianist, a digital piano is in no way a substitute for a traditional acoustic piano.

But despite the tendency of piano teachers to faint at the thought of using a digital piano to play Beethoven, the fact is that lots of kids are learning on digital keyboards. So let’s look at the bright side today: Classical pianists who have electronic keyboards can actually find many ways to benefit from their features when practicing.

Benefits of Digital Pianos for Classical Pianists and Students

So yes, we know: A good quality grand piano or baby grand piano is essential for a serious  classical pianist. However, a digital piano has some surprising uses in a classical music studio, including experimenting with voices and evaluating technique.

  • Even Action: The action of a digital keyboard is so even that it reveals any irregularities in the pianist’s technique, especially in fast even passages. This is evident when the pianist records a selection, using the recording function available in most digital keyboards. Very few acoustic pianos have such even action, especially at the lower prices.
  • Precision: It doesn’t take as much pressure for a key to go down on a digital piano, activating the electronics that make a noise. Practicing on such a sensitive keyboard makes pianists more careful and more accurate, because it forces them to avoid sloppily hooking onto and grabbing a second note when making moves, playing chords, or handling fast technical passages. 
  • Playing and Practicing Duet Parts: Using the keyboard’s metronome and recording capability, the pianist can play and record one voice at a time, then play another part over it. .
  • Experimenting with Sound. Try using the keyboard’s many voices. Melodic lines played by different instrument voices will suggest different ways to conceive, shape, and phrase: the phrase. A piece of music sounds very different when played by a trumpet, flute, or harpsichord.
  • Voicings: Play a Bach piece using the organ voicing, the harpsichord voicing, and other piano voicings. Play a Two-part Invention using the digital piano’s split voice function, i.e.: play the piece using one instrument voice in the bass and another instrument voice in the treble.
  • Composing: Keyboards can be used in tandem with computers for composing. Compositions can be played into the keyboard and notated by the computer.
  • Head-phones: For young musicians, city dwellers, and those sharing living quarters with room-mates, a digital keyboard can be used for late-night practice in an apartment.
  • Price and Value: A digital piano suitable for use as a classical instrument runs $1000 – $3000; sometimes more. The cheapest new acoustic uprights start at about $3000; at this price, many pianists feel that the digital keyboard plays better and gives more value.

Limitations of Digital Keyboards for Classical Pianists

The main problems with a digital keyboard are the touch and tone, including the lack of overtones.

  • Action: Digital pianos lack the feel of a “real” piano. The closest most get (even with so called “weighted grand piano hammer action”) is mimicking the feel of an inexpensive upright. This makes them a poor substitute when it comes to dynamic control and voicing.
  • Tone: Closely related is the problem of tones and overtones: Digital piano sounds are recorded. The recordings mimic and copy the overtones of a piano, but the overtones themselves don’t exist. In an acoustic piano, overtones sound in relation to other notes. The sounds a pianist gets on an acoustic instrument, especially when pedaling, are completely different than what is available from a digital keyboard.
  • Pedaling Issues: Subtleties are lost on a digital piano. On a digital, the pedals go on or off. On an acoustic piano, there are several gradations in between.
  • Heft and Weight: It’s a different experience to sit down at an acoustic piano and put true arm weight into a big concert piece. It’s difficult to put the same physicality into a lightweight instrument that moves around when it is played too hard.

The bottom line: A digital piano is not a substitute for an acoustic piano. But while digital pianos are not used in classical performances, they can be a useful addition to the classical pianist’s music room.

For more information: Acoustic Pianos versus Digital Pianos.

Buying a Used Piano: Problems, Issues, Prices, Advantages

It happens every year: Little Bobby is playing on a cheap keyboard, and mom and dad (and piano teacher, too!) think he’s ready for an upgrade to a real acoustic piano. (Here are some thoughts on acoustic versus digital pianos). Luckily, or so they think, they see an ad in the local advertising newspaper. All they have to do is pick it up and it’s theirs.

Two weeks, a failed tuning, and a world of disappointment later, guess who is placing an add in the paper begging someone to take the instrument off their hands?

Buying a used piano can work, but there are some considerations to take into account before you write the check.

Used Versus New Pianos

Obviously, new pianos come with big advantages: There no secret history of bad maintenance and mechanical problems. The piano comes with a guarantee. It probably even comes with a free tuning when you first get it delivered.

And all that comes with a gigantic price tag; Indeed, a fine new grand piano can cost as much as a fine car.

Used pianos can be a good solution. While top brand pianos such as Steinway, Bechstein, and Bosendorfer retain their value (and thus their price) over time (if they are well maintained), most pianos depreciate. The problem is that you may be buying someone else’s problems. And, just as with buying a used car, the fact that this is an expensive purchase means that there is someone awfully eager to sell it to you. The advice you get may be not entirely forthright, or even honest.

The biggest issue with buying a used piano is its condition. Pianos are incredibly complex mechanical machines with hundreds of hidden moving parts. A crack in a piece of wood no bigger than a safety pin can render an entire key unusable. And as a non-technician, you will never even know where to look.

But all that said, if you can find a good piano technician (ask the local piano teachers for references) to look at the piano for you, you might find that a used piano is a good deal.

How to Buy a Used Piano

Prices of used pianos can vary tremendously depending on make, manufacturer, the age of the piano, how it has been maintained, and how desperate the owner is to get rid of it.

When doing your research, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Go to a local piano store to get a benchmark, and expect to pay less from a private seller. (But also realize that maintenance issues may be more of a problem).
  • When visiting stores, play lots of instruments to get a feel for different sonorities and touches.
  • Ask a piano teacher for advice. Piano students quit, or upgrade their instruments, and sometimes a former student’s instrument may be for sale.
  • Be sure you know what you are looking at and considering buying. A spinet is different from a console, even if the two are only a few inches different in size. A large upright may be better than a grand. Educate yourself about types and brands of pianos before you shop.
  • Never buy sight unseen: If it’s a Craigslist piano or a piano advertised in your local ad newspaper, go to see it.

When checking out the piano, consider the following:

  • Ask about tunings and maintenance. Pianos should be tuned twice a year, although in practicality, once is a year is probably the most you can expect most people to spring for. A piano that has not been tuned in many years is more than likely no longer going to be able to hold its tune.
  • Ask about any restoration or mechanical work that has been done to the piano (new action, soundboard repairs, new strings, etc.)
  • Ask where the piano has been stored or kept: If it has been near a heater or a window, it may have been damaged by heat and light.
  • Don’t commit to a piano before you have had a chance to play it in tune with any annoying clicks and dings in the action repaired. Don’t trust promises that it will be “as good as new” when they tune it after you buy it. See for yourself.
  • Cracks in the soundboard are not (contrary to common myth) a deal breaker, but cracks in the pinblock are.
  • If you’re serious about an instrument, ask a technician to see the piano with you. (You’ll have to pay for this service, of course.)
  • If buying from a store, ask what parts of the piano will be guaranteed. Most stores include a tuning with the purchase price. 

Buying a used piano is not for the faint of heart. But used pianos, even those that need considerable work and repairs, can be very good deals if you find the right instrument, and if you have it checked out by a competent and honest technician before you buy it. For more information, check prices and brands with the Blue Book of Pianos and read The Piano Book: Buying and Owning a New or Used Piano, by Larry Fine.

Buying an Acoustic Piano: A Grand Piano versus an Upright Piano?

It used to be that every middle class home (and a lot of working class homes, too) had a piano. The grander the home the grander the piano. But the black beast has lost ground to the popular, folky, easier-to-play, easier-to-buy and easier-to-transport guitar.  Guitars outsell pianos. And for that matter, digital pianos outsell acoustics, seducing parents and kids with their flashy “teaching ” features, not to mention hundreds of sounds and settings.

Even so, there is something iconic about having a piano in the living room of your home. A real piano, by which we mean an acoustic instrument — the kind you don’t plug in!

In choosing a piano, size and budget are two of the biggest concerns. And they tend to be related: In  pianos, bigger is better, and it’s also more expensive.

Grand Pianos

The shiny, usually black, monster instrument standing alone in full glory on a concert stage is the gold standard for pianists. Grand pianos have their strings strung horizontally across a soundboard. All other things being equal, the bigger the soundboard, the richer the sound — and the richer the price tag.

A grand piano is certainly the most musically attractive choice — if, that is, someone can actually play, or is very serious about learning. According to the 2011 Blue Book of Pianos the cheapest class of new grand pianos starts at around $6000. Depending on make and size, mid-range grand pianos run between $10,0000 and $20,0000. New premium brand-name pianos such as Steinway start at around $45,000 and top out at well above $100,000.

Grand pianos are very loosely described by size, and each manufacturer has slight differences in the precise measurements. But there is no fundamental difference in piano action among grand pianos: The main difference is in the size of the soundboard, which affects the sound. Of course, there are massive differences in workmanship and materials among the various brands.

For example, Steinway’s grand pianos fall into the following categories:

  • The Model A. This 5’1″ long piano (measured from from edge of the keyboard to the end of the piano) is what is usually called a small baby grand. While some A-sized baby grands have a lovely tone, the sound is often thinner. Indeed, large large vertical upright pianos actually have a larger soundboard. If you are in the market for an A-sized model, check out full-sized uprights by premium makers, as well.
  • Model M: The 5’7″ Model M is usually referred to as a baby grand. This is a common piano size for smaller private homes.
  • Model L (also Model O, which is almost the same, and which is no longer made): These 5″11″ models are usually called parlor grands. This is a common size for homes, high school recital halls, and practice rooms at conservatories.
  • Model A: At 6’2″, this is the premium size for a home piano and for conservatory pianos.
  • Model B: The 7′ small concert grand is appropriate for smaller concert halls, and may be found in very large homes.
  • Model D: The 9-foot concert grand is the piano that you find in symphony halls

Upright (or Vertical) Pianos

Upright pianos are more convenient if for no other reason than they don’t take up nearly as much space as their grand and portentous cousins. And they are considerably cheaper. But convenience comes at another cost: The sound and feel of an upright piano is very different than that of a grand. (However, the best uprights can compete favorably against smaller, cheaper grands).

One of the differences is the action. The hammers hit the strings vertically, not horizontally, so the feel of the action is very different. Piano actions on uprights tend to be much lighter, and, unless it’s a full-sized upright, the sound can be both small and tinny.

  • Spinets: Spinets are the smallest of the upright pianos. They are usually under 40 inches tall, and as a result, the action is located below the keyboard, making it harder for a technician to make repairs. Spinets have gone out of fashion and are no longer made or sold new, but you can find them on the used market. Expect to pay between $500 and $800 for a piano in good condition.
  • Consoles. At 40 – 43 inches tall, a console may be only a few inches taller than its little sibling, but those few inches make a difference. These are the most popular upright pianos, mostly because of their price. (Plus they don’t visually overwhelm small rooms.) New entry-level consoles start at around $3000, but better models can go as high as $10,000.
  • Studio pianos: At 44 – 48 inches, these would be the pianos most likely to be found in small practice rooms and school music studios. Starting prices on mid-range models are $8,0000 – $15,0000
  • Upright Pianos: Think about the old honky-tonk piano in a silent movie: That’s what we’re talking about here. At 48 inches and above, these pianos take up a lot of wall space. They can sometimes compete with smaller grands, especially if they are by premium manufacturers. Expect to pay $10,000 – $20,000, depending on the make.

At these prices, who can afford to learn to play the piano? That’s a good question, and it’s one reason why continual piano maintenance is so important. Beyond that, parents of prospective students have a few other options: renting, buying a used piano, or considering an electronic keyboard, at least for the first couple of years.

The important thing is that the piano be a pleasure to play: A good instrument helps a pianist develop sensitivity and touch, and helps a student become a better musician.

Edited to add: As per Annie’s comments below a used piano is a viable alternative. Check out these tips on buying or selling a used piano.

Buying or Selling a Used Piano? Call a Piano Tuner First

A friend pointed me to a Criag’s List ad: “Guitar for Sale. May Need tuning.”

We had a good laugh over that: How clueless can someone be? But in the world of used piano sales, that ad — so funny and unusual for a guitar — is the norm. The normal course of events, it seems, is that people buy pianos, abandon the attempt to learn them, use them as picture stands and plant display areas for 10 years, never tune them… then offer them for sale.

But after several years, a piano that is never played and never tuned may actually be unable to be tuned. Untuned pianos are not instruments: They are pieces of furniture.

So: Some bottom-line advice — Never try to buy or sell an untuned piano.

How Often to Tune a Piano 

Ideally, pianos should be tuned whenever they fall out of tune. Professional technicians suggest FOUR times a year, but in reality, most people don’t tune their pianos more than once a year, which is probably the minimum to maintain it so it is playable. Twice a year is a much better schedule, especially in climates with wide swings of temperature and humidity.

Why tune a piano that isn’t played? Pianos are not static instruments: They are made of moving wooden parts, which change with changing conditions. These changes cause tension to change, wood to swell,  adjoining pieces to rub against each other, and parts to crack — even if the instrument isn’t played. If an unplayed, untuned piano is then played, some of this damage may cause other problems to occur. When an instrument is tuned, it gets a regular “check-up” and minor problems can be fixed before they become major problems.  

Piano strings exert literally tons of tension on the tuning pins and the pin block, and this tension needs to be correct and constant. An untuned piano will slowly lose tension, and when it is re-tuned, the pinblock may be unable to hold that tension. Result: the piano slips right back out of tune. Another possible problem: Strings that are not tuned may become so set in their position that they break when tightened.

If you haven’t tuned your piano in a long time, it may need to be tuned twice (a “double tuning”). The first tuning is a rough tuning that brings the strings up to the general tonal neighborhood they are supposed to be in, and the second tuning is a finer tuning. Sometimes, the process can be done in one day, but it’s not a bad idea to let the piano sit between tunings to get the strings used to the new tension. 

Piano Tuners versus Piano Technicians

There is a difference between a tuner and a technician. Most tuners can handle minor technical problems, but they may not be able to handle major problems. Most technicians can also tune, but some prefer working on technical problems and refer tuning jobs to tuners. If you are evaluating a piano, or having a piano tuned that hasn’t been tuned for many years, be sure to consult a qualified technician. The Piano Technician’s Guild has a list, sorted geographically. These experts can detect problems that may not be obvious, even to an excellent pianist or a piano teacher.

A piano costs thousands — sometime many thousands — of dollars. Tunings cost about $75 – $100 depending on your location and the extent of the work needed. This small investment can keep your piano working and suitable for resale.

And if you are thinking of buying a used piano that hasn’t been tuned in years, ask that the seller tune it, then bring along a technician to evaluate it for you. This will save you the trouble of buying and moving a piano that may turn out to be nothing more than a piece of furniture. 

Acoustic Pianos Versus Digital Pianos: Which to Buy?

There is no getting around this bottom-line fact: A traditional acoustic piano is an instrument of beauty. It can out-sing a full symphony orchestra; it has complex overtones; it has an organic feel and sound. But there’s no getting around the downsides either: The black beast is big, heavy, expensive, and takes a lot of upkeep.

A digital keyboard might not be able to outshout an orchestra, but it can copy the sounds of one (not to mention the sound of a piano). Also on the bright side: it’s less expensive, light, movable, and doesn’t need tuning.

Which Kind of Piano is Better?

Choosing a piano depends on a number of factors. Consider:

  • For gigging with a rock band? (digital)
  • For a child’s practice? (either could work)
  • For a serious classical musician? (acoustic)
  • For an apartment dweller who needs to practice late at night?  (digital)
  • For a composer who wants to experiment with lots of sounds and voices? (digital)


Cost and Care Considerations when Buying an Acoustic Upright or Grand Piano

The great classics were written for the acoustic piano and can best be realized on an instrument that the great composers would recognize. So many piano teachers strongly encourage the purchase of an acoustic piano; some insist on it.

In practical matters — cost, portability, versatility —  the heavy, expensive acoustic piano loses ground  to the digital. But the acoustic piano has a certain sound and feel that simply cannot be duplicated by a digital instrument. For the development of proper hand position, finger strength and dynamic control, acoustic pianos are essential. Digital pianos offer neither the resistance nor the response of an acoustic piano. Advanced students cannot learn how to work with a piano’s sonorities by playing on an instrument that merely mimics them. Pianists are unanimous about this: No concert pianists currently perform classical music on digital instruments.

  • Cost of new acoustic pianos: Upright pianos start at around $3000: Good student uprights run $5000 – $8000. Grand pianos start at around $10,000 and, with name brands such as Steinway or Bosendorfer, can run upwards of $100,000 — clearly not an appropriate or even possible purchase if the user is a six-year old beginner.
  • Price of used pianos: Used pianos can be found in retail shops for less than half the price of new pianos. They can also be found when people move or are disposing of estates for far less. Always bring a qualified piano technician when looking at a used piano.
  • Acoustic pianos must live away from windows, sunlight, and heating vents: No exceptions!
  • Acoustic pianos are extremely vulnerable to changes in temperature and humidity and in a volatile climate, they may need frequent repair work.
  • Acoustic pianos should be tuned twice a year.
  • If properly maintained, acoustic pianos hold their value and may even appreciate.

The verdict: Acoustic pianos are expensive, require maintenance and space, and are completely inconvenient when it comes to moving. But people still fall in love with fine acoustic pianos. And that is not going to change.

Basic Facts and Features about Buying Digital Pianos

Digital pianos are also known as electronic keyboards or synthesizers. If the keyboard is a synthesizer, it usually has a full range of sounds, including percussion tracks and sound effects A digital piano typically has fewer sounds and effects; its design is more concerned with achieving a piano-like feel and sound; it may even (sometimes) have a baby-grand piano look. Good synthesizers have both good piano-like quality and the full complement of synthesizer sounds. To be used as a substitute piano, a keyboard should have 88 weighted keys, touch control, and a pedal.

Digital pianos start at under $100; for that, you get an instrument with very limited use and poor sound and feel. They range up to more than $5000. Synthesizers with good piano tone and feel are available in the $1000 – $3000 range. Name brands (with a long history) include Yamaha, Casio, Roland, Kawai, and Technics.
Digital piano benefits include:

  • Multiple instrument voices, which can be used for composing and gigging. A split keyboard lets the pianist play one voice with one hand, and a different voice with the other.
  • Rhythm tracks and built in metronomes.
  • Transposing buttons for use in gigging situations.
  • Maintenance-free operation (mostly). Digital pianos don’t need to be tuned, and are not subject to the tone and wood damage problems that affect acoustic pianos suffering from changes in humidity and temperature. However, when something does go wrong, it can be hard to find someone to fix an electronic piano.
  • Upgradable with new software.
  • Attractive and easy; can be good choices for young children’s piano practice, because kids are likely to be intrigued by the multiple sounds and possibilities.
  • Ear phones allow pianists to practice any time, anywhere there is an electrical outlet.
  • Recording capability for practicing one hand against the other, or checking a performance.
  • Computer compatibility for composing and learning software.
  • Better overall piano sound, feel, and reliability at $1000 to $3000 price-point.
  • Likely to depreciate more quickly than a well-maintained acoustic piano.

The choice between an acoustic piano and a digital piano will be affected by budget, the kind of music, and gigging and traveling requirements. Many keyboard players and pianists ultimately end up with both a traditional piano and a digital keyboard. Or two.