Instrument Purchase and Care

What Instrument to Buy?

There is much to consider when purchasing an instrument, since budget, quality, aesthetic preferences, touch preferences, and more all need to be considered. The following comes from my own personal experience. People's opinions and tastes vary. It is wise to seek a range of advice and find what is best for you.

Beginners Pianos:

Often people begin piano lessons without being sure they will want to continue. A piano is an investment. A piano worth purchasing costs at least five thousand dollars. The questions is, then, what do you do until you know?

A simple keyboard will suffice while students learn to find their way around and read notes. For a younger child, this could be for 3 to 6 months. (However, the development of technique is disadvantaged as instrument functions between piano and keyboard are actually opposite. An older student will definitely suffer if more than a few weeks are spent playing a keyboard.) Yet, if you must 'try out', obtain the cheapest keyboard you can find, so long as it has standard sized keys, and look to replace it as soon as possible. Cheap keyboards can often be bought at Kmart, Target and other department stores. But, keep in mind the detrimental impact of the keyboard - move on as soon as possible!

Once you are ready to commit to lessons, it is important to obtain a useful instrument urgently. Purchasing a cheap instrument will end up a waste of money (a poor sounding and playing instrument that you will quickly outgrow or that will be detrimental to musical development). A cheap student piano will cost more through the need to upgrade - assuming you are serious about your commitment. Besides an outright purchase of a piano, there are two reasonable options: hire purchase of an electric piano or lease with purchase option of a new acoustic piano. It is worth getting the best you can afford financially and that will fit within your environment.

Electric Pianos:

Electric pianos have much to offer. They allow for a variety of sounds, have internal metronomes, have headphone jacks for quiet practice and never need tuning. They are also much easier to move around and maintain. However, an intermediate student (after two to five years’ playing) will notice the differences between a good electronic piano and an acoustic piano. For this reason, expect to buy an acoustic after a few years even if you buy a good electronic piano.

Nevertheless, it can be worth having the two types of pianos because they offer different features and fulfil different purposes. It can be ideal for an advanced student to spend time on an electric, using headphones for privacy and household peace, in addition to time on the acoustic, maintaining touch and technique and developing interpretation and dynamic range in pieces.

Similar to the piano, it is not worthwhile buying a cheap electric piano, as you will need to upgrade in a short time. The electric piano must have three fixable pedals and hammer key weighting. The minimum you should spend on an electric piano is $2,000. An electric piano at this price will be far better than an acoustic for the same price.

Acoustic Pianos:

A $6 000 acoustic piano (new price) is acceptable for piano players until intermediate levels. There are some very good Australian brands now on the market. However, tone quality and response are seriously sacrificed until around $9 000. Many shops are now selling on EBay, and this can often be a place to pick up a better deal - after checking in person for your preferred instrument brand. Ideally, purchase a new piano with a minimum height of 126 cm. Such an option should suit through the grades and even provide some support for associate diploma level. Better instruments contribute to the development of better pianists in terms of technique and musicality.

New instruments vary in the quality of the internal workings and strings, strength of the frame and the resonance of the soundboard. Some have more resonant low notes or chirpier high notes. Sound preference is personal choice. Stiffness and weight of the keys also varies. It is recommended that the keys be not too stiff or too loose. A new piano needs a year to settle into tuning and its environment, with tuning attended to every 3 to 6 months. They often have mechanical issues in the first year that a good importer should willingly repair for free if appropriately approached.

Second hand pianos:

Before investing any money into a second hand piano, check that the strings are free of rust and the felts are free of mildew. Make sure the pedals are easy to use. The keys should be secure, not too loose, and depress consistently in depth and by using the same amount of pressure. Watch out for hammers and felts that are worn out around the middle of the piano. Check that all the keys return to their original position after release and that the sound cuts off consistently across the keys after release. Be careful buying a second hand piano, especially an older one. Students will rarely find these satisfying for more than a few years. Adavances in modern technology and piano construction mean new pianos are far better designed than second hand pianos. However, a careful purchase with $4 000- $5 000 can score a good second hand piano or a useless new student piano.

Instrument Care

An electric piano requires only the standard care of a piece of sensitive electronic equipment (i.e. avoid extremes of temperatures, keep closed when not in use, do not clean with chemicals, keep away from fluids, etc).

An acoustic piano is much more sensitive to its environment and requires at least annual tuning even in perfect conditions, even if under used. Temperature variations and high humidity will cause an instrument to go out of tune more quickly, requiring four to six-monthly tuning. Humidity needs to be stabilised at around 42%. High humidity will rust the strings and pins, cause the soundboard to rot, produce mildew on the felts and cause the keys to stick. Low humidity will make the piano flat and the soundboard will become brittle and crack. Do not keep your piano near the kitchen or bathroom, near windows, heaters / fireplaces, air-conditioning vents, near a skylight or other source of direct light, or against an outside wall.

Pianos do not go out of tune at the same rate across the range of notes – usually, the middle notes lose tune more quickly because this is where the soundboard is most flexible. This means that a pianist trying to play a piano that is overdue for tuning will be unable to hear and understand the music they are trying to play. A student with good aural skills will find playing frustrating and stressful, even if they do not recognise the cause – they will just know it “doesn’t sound right”. No degree of effort can make an out of tune piano “sound right”. An out of tune piano will inhibit the musical development of all students.