Friday, August 16, 2013

How to Buy a Piano

Although our Let's Play Music program is very piano-intensive, we don't use them during the entire first year.  That means you've got a whole year to shop around and get ready!

The minimum requirements for your Let's Play Music experience are:
  • The piano or keyboard must have full-sized keys.  Your child will build muscle-memory reaching the exact distance between 2, 3, 4 or more keys - those distances are exact.
  • The piano or keyboard must have at least 5 octaves (61 keys).  Your child will have enough range to play everything in the LPM curriculum.
Electric keyboards are used by most teachers in class.  If you choose to purchase one for home, they can be found at yard sales, on Craigslist, at black Friday sales, and at many stores.
  • Since keyboards don't need tuning, you probably won't run into a "bad" used one, but it is a good idea to download a free pitch pipe for your smartphone and check that the keyboard is tuned.
  • The 'master tune frequency' should be at 440 Hz. On some keyboards this can be changed and make your keyboard seem out of tune.  Some keyboards also have transpose functions or pitch bender wheels or joysticks- if these get damaged, your keyboard will be out of tune.
  • Although rare, a faulty cable could change the power delivered (and resulting sound) resulting in an out-of-tune keyboard.
  • In our classes we rarely use the myriad of fun programmable functions, except in 3rd year when playing ensemble pieces like "Song of Joy".  So choose a keyboard that makes you happy.
Digital Keyboard

Keep in mind, however, that a better piano is more likely to be exciting for your child to play, and you may want to start with something better, or upgrade after the Green or Yellow semester.  Most families choose an upright for their first acoustic piano and only upgrade to a grand piano years later if the need arises.

The largest of the uprights is the studio piano, which is 44 inches or taller.  Slightly shorter uprights, 39 to 42 inches tall, are referred to as consoles.  Spinets, 36-37 inches high, do not have great sound and have an inferior action configuration to consoles and studios.

  • Make a point of visiting reputable showrooms to play some low, medium, and high chords and scales on various pianos- notice the different tone (mellow, bright, loud, soft) produced by each piano.  Tonal preference is very subjective and your opinion and budget matter more than the expert's when making a choice. 
  • Also take notice of the touch (the movement and resistance as you press down) of the keys on various models.  This will be dramatically different from the electric keyboards.  Find a touch that is pleasing.
  • Once you've narrowed it down to 2-3 choices, be sure to have your child test drive the pianos and help you choose which one is exciting to him.  You're in this together!  If he is already in Green or Yellow semester, he can play several songs on each piano to get a feel for them.
If you love the idea of the acoustic piano, but want to buy a used piano, be aware that it is possible to get stuck with a bad piano.  Remember some tips from the piano technician's guild
  • Buy a used piano from a dealer if possible (reconditioned, with a warranty)
  • If buying from a private seller, coordinate to have a piano tech guide you and check for problems (just as you would have a used car checked by a mechanic!)
  • Beware of: single keys that are out of tune, single keys that seem to be playing 2 notes, buzzing or rattling sounds, plastic components, or deep grooves in the hammers.
  • Beware of "free" or extremely cheap pianos- they likely have serious problems that would be expensive to repair in order to provide an enjoyable and quality instrument.
One final instrument you might consider is a digital piano.  With a full keyboard (81 keys),  touch sensitivity that mimics acoustic pianos, and pretty great sound, digital pianos are becoming very popular.  They add lightweight portability and relieve the need for tuning.  When your musician becomes very accomplished in years to come, he will still likely desire a switch to an acoustic piano.
  • Sample the digital piano both with and without headphones on to see how it sounds each way.  The option of playing with headphones can be a very attractive bonus!
  • Test the touch of the keys - do they feel like an acoustic piano?  Is the sound sensitive to how hard or fast you strike the key? After striking a key, does the sound reverberate for a few moments (like a piano) or stop immediately (like an electric keyboard)?
  • Play a glissando.  How many notes can play simultaneously, and do you notice notes dropping?
  • Does the sustain pedal have differing levels of sensitivity or is it just on/off?
Whichever style of instrument you decide to purchase, be sure to have it ready before Green semester lesson 1, set up in a comfortable and easily-accessible place in the house.  Your child will be practicing at least 5 times each week, so build excitement by making the instrument and the surroundings inviting and uncluttered.  If the process of buying an instrument seems daunting, your local dealer may also rent pianos and digital pianos so you can fall in love with your instrument before making the commitment.  Good Luck!

-Gina Weibel, MS
Let's Play Music Teacher

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