Piano Lessons by Nancy Frase

   Discovering your unique path to musical achievement





So often, I am asked how one should go about acquiring a piano for home use.  People want to balance budget with quality.  They don't want to give their children a piano of such poor quality that it negatively impacts their children's musical education.  Yet, pianos can be so prohibitively expensive.  So, I'll pass along what I usually tell people.


Basically, you have two options.  One option is a traditional acoustic piano -- that is the very heavy (several hundred pounds) kind of piano with a whole bank of strings and hammers inside of it.  Acoustic pianos are much like cars -- you get what you pay for.  If you purchase an upscale piano (which can run far into the tens of thousands of dollars), you can expect it to have a long life (50-100 years) of exceptional quality performance.  If you purchase an economical piano (which can be as inexpensive as $500 for a new one), you can expect a reasonable life (10-50 years) of reasonable performance.


If you purchase a used piano, it is usually better to purchase it from a reputable dealer or from someone you trust who can accurately assess the age, condition and quality of the piano -- just as is the case with used cars.  For example, what appears to be a great deal on "craig's list" for $100 (or FREE!!) can end up being a money pit.  You have to think about the cost of moving it (hundreds of dollars with professional movers, pizza and beer if your friends help you), and the cost of repairing the door frames, walls and floors that are damaged en route to the new location.


Then comes the tuning, maintenance and repairs.  The move itself, and then the difference between environments (temperature, humidity, etc.) from one location to the next usually cause a piano to go dramatically out of tune.  After a move, when the piano tuner arrives, it can be expected that he will have to tune it more than once in that first visit.  In fact, sometimes the move can be so traumatic to the piano that multiple tunings are needed in the next several visits.


Usually, a piano should be tuned every 6-12 months.  This varies depending upon the amount of use, the age/condition of the piano (older and lesser-quality pianos tend to go out of tune quicker) and the harshness of the environment (dramatic changes in temperature or humidity and the lack of humidity are harder on pianos).  Also, the trauma resulting from a move may cause the second tuning after the move to be required within 3-6 months.


It is important to keep a piano in tune if it is being used by someone learning to play -- the student is learning to identify individual pitches, and relationships among pitches, by listening to the piano he or she uses most.  If the strings are significantly off-pitch, the student tends to develop a poor quality foundation for his or her musical education.


An appointment with a professional piano tuner usually runs between $75 and $200, depending on how out-of-tune the strings are and how many repairs are needed.  If the piano is in very poor condition, it may be impossible for the tuner to get the piano in tune, or for it to stay in tune longer than a few days.  If the strings are bad, is usually runs about $40 to repair one set of strings -- and there are 88 sets of strings.  If the sound board is cracked or warped, it costs several thousand dollars to replace the board -- usually, it is cheaper to just get another piano.  Then you have to deal with the cost of disposing of the "junked" piano -- I guess you could put it on "craig's list" for FREE! and find some other poor sucker . . . (Not really!)


So, that brings us to option #2: digital piano keyboards.  For beginner and intermediate students, this may be the best way to go.  With used keyboards, it usually holds true that, if all the keys work on the keyboard, then the keyboard is in good working order.  Either the individual keys function, or they don't.  If they all work and the keyboard doesn't look too beat-up overall, then you're usually good to go.  It just about that simple.


Furthermore, digital keyboards are lightweight (30-50 pounds) and portable -- you can haul them in the average car because the keyboard separates from the stand, and the stand is usually collapsible.  And, they don't require tuning because there are no strings to tune -- it consists of digital on-off switches.  Digital connections are not affected by reasonable temperature and humidity fluctuations.  The only maintenance required is the same as is needed for keeping the average stereo in good working condition . . . keep it in a clean, dry environment and don't bang it around.


Digital keyboards run from dirt cheap (free!) to very expensive (tens of thousands of dollars).  They usually include all kinds of fancy extras . . . which are fun but not really necessary when it comes to learning how to play the piano.  There are a few keys features that should be on any keyboard being used in support of piano lessons.


First, the keyboard should have the full 88-key keyboard.  An acoustic piano has 88-keys (including both black and white keys); therefore, it is good to match that as closely as possible.  The next best thing would be 76 keys -- followed by 61 keys.  Anything smaller than that would be suitable only for the first few months of lessons.


Next, the individual keys should be full-sized (the same size as those on an acoustic piano).


Then, the keyboard should have the ability to attach a "sustain" pedal -- it is even better if it has the ability to support a set of two or even three pedals (each pedal has a special purpose, although the sustain pedal is most important).


And, the keyboard should sound like a piano -- at least to some extent -- as opposed to sounding like an organ or an electronic jukebox.


Finally, and (I think) most importantly, the keys should be "weighted".  In an acoustic piano, striking a key causes a hammer to swing around and strike a string (or set of strings), which generates sound.  Therefore, the pianist feels a weighted-ness or heaviness when striking a key.  This is a result of having to do the work of moving that hammer.  Since digital pianos have no hammers, the weight has to be created by artificial means.


On a digital piano, the key ideally feels "heavy" when you strike it, as opposed to having no resistance -- and that when you strike it hard, the resulting note is louder, and when you strike it lightly, the resulting note is softer.  This is in contrast to keyboards with individual keys that are either "on" or "off", nothing in between.


Some other phrases often used in relation to this weighted-ness are: graded-action, progressive hammer action, lightly weighted, heavily weighted, semi weighted, etc.


There are varying degrees to all of this weighted-ness.  The higher quality keyboards will have a heavier feel to them and will be more sensitive to variances in touch (as is true in acoustic pianos).  For beginner and early intermediate students, moderate resistance and sensitivity is sufficient.


So, in closing, let me say one thing in defense of acoustic pianos . . . there is just nothing like the feel and the sound of a "real" piano.  Acoustic pianos can be a pain to take care of properly.  However, if you can afford the time and money required, they are well worth it.  The digital world provides a great alternative, but there just ain't nothing like the real thing.  If you are lucky enough to have access to a quality acoustic piano, consider yourself very blessed.