So you’ve contacted a good piano teacher and decided he or she is the right fit for your needs. You are all excited about starting your musical journey and cannot wait to get going.
Surely your piano teacher has asked you whether you have a piano at home to do your daily practice, since it is essential that you stick to a consistent routine in order to make progress and get good value for your time and money.
Choosing a piano is an important decision, especially if you are serious about learning to play. There are many different types of pianos available, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages. In this blog post, I will give you guidance for choosing the right piano for your needs. I will cover the different types of pianos available and the factors to consider when making a purchase.
The three deciding factors
When making a purchase for a piano there are three main factors to hold into consideration:
- Available space
- Musical goal
Budget varies with the financial capabilities of an individual or family, and is usually the point which concerns most people, since pianos have a reputation for being expensive instruments. However the cost of a starter instrument can vary by a vast margin, since pianos come from being completely free (giveaway or inherited pianos, keyboards coming out from the attic, previously bought instruments which haven’t been played in years or even decades) to costing several thousands or even tens of thousands. Ultimately the question of budget is something to be discussed on a case-by-case basis. It’s worth mentioning that most if not all piano outlets offer a rent-to-buy or trade-in options.
When evaluating the choice of an instrument, the available space in the home is also an important point, which is to be considered along designating a practice nest: is the piano going to be placed in the main living area, in a separate practice room, in the child’s own room, etc? Pianos come in several sizes to accommodate most living arrangements.
Finally the musical goal needs to be considered. Usually most people walk into piano lessons with a half-formed idea of what their musical goal might be like (“I wish to relax at the piano after a day’s work” or “I wish to be able to play few tunes”) and the teacher will help clarify and focus these goals along the way. In the event that the musical goal is clear right at the outset, an informed choice of instrument can be made: for example if one wants to bash a few chords to sing along, then the 60 years old overstrung piano inherited by a relative might do just fine for the time being. However if a family is making plans for a particularly musically gifted child to embark in a music career as a concert pianist, then a high quality instrument must be sought.
Acoustic, “Real” pianos
Let’s start with the real thing: acoustic pianos.
Budget: an acoustic piano can be as cheap as free (inherited, already purchased in the past, a giveaway from a school or friend, etc.) or cost in the order of the tens of thousands and anything in between. Good, shop guaranteed second hand pianos can be obtained starting at around €1500 at the time of writing. I think the sweet spot for a second hand, store guaranteed piano from a reputable brand is around the €4500 mark for a 15 or 20 years old instrument. Free or very cheap giveaway pianos can be hit-and-miss: more often than not they are untunable or beyond any reconditioning attempt. Not long ago an old friend of mine from the Czech Republic sent me a video of a piano he acquired practically for free and he definitely got lucky, the sound was reasonably good and almost lacking the “Wild west saloon” out of tune type of sound that those very old instrument will develop over time. If you can afford a good pre-owned, store guaranteed piano, that is the best option. If you stumble by a free or very cheap instrument it’s best to get it checked beforehand by your teacher or a piano tuning professional, to make sure it’s at least worth the hassle of transporting it to your place.
Available space: pianos come in different sizes and to suit most budgets, however the main distinction is between upright and grand pianos.
A grand piano is what is usually seen in concert halls, and even they come in different sizes: baby, grand and concert. For home use the most popular choice of the grand variety is the baby grand measuring 6″ or less in length, usually taking center stage in a spacious living area.
The upright piano is the most popular choice for a starter instrument: its vertical design means they can be accommodated more easily in the average sized home, and some less tall, less deep models will allow for even more flexibility. The subject of placing the piano in a home to create an inviting and effective practice nest will be dealt with in a separate article; for now let’s say that an upright piano can find its place in various parts of a home: the living area, a separate studio or practice room, the children’s room, etc.
Musical goal: an acoustic piano will suit any musical goal, from the hobbyist to the aspiring professional; however the more ambitious the goal, the better quality the piano should be. A young, budding gifted musician should be given the best quality instrument his or her family can afford, in order to help develop proper technique, avoid the problems which will arise due to the employment of a lower quality piano, and encourage the production of good tone and sound right from the start.
Next, let’s examine the digital options.
A digital piano, as the name suggests, produces its sound not by hitting strings with soft hammers like an acoustic one does, but by electronically reproducing the sound of a real piano. The faithfulness of the sound along with the feel of a real piano keyboard are the two main characteristics to look for when a digital instrument is being considered. While I can suggest the keywords to look for when browsing for an instrument or what to ask the sales person at the shop, the best thing to do is to try out a few instruments before buying, better still if you piano teacher can come along with you or assist you with the choice.
When choosing a digital piano you want it to have hammer action, i.e. keyboard action designed to simulate the feel of a real piano, with keys feeling somewhat “Heavy”; better still a graded hammer action, where the keys are heavier towards the bottom of the keyboard (left side) and lighter at the top (right side). Hammer action is usually referred to as “Weighted keys” in most product descriptions, however you need to make 100% sure that the instrument you are looking at has at least hammer action and it’s not just velocity sensitive, meaning the keys respond differently to harder or softer playing, which hammer action does invariably. Synthesisers and pro keyboards are velocity sensitive but might not have hammer action and just feature soft keys. If all of that sounds confusing that’s one more reason to ask your piano teacher to assist you with this very important purchase, or leave a comment and I’ll be glad to help if I can.
Digital pianos come assembled in a housing or cabinet which makes them look more like an upright piano, however not as tall since there are no strings or soundboard inside. They have two or most often three piano-like pedals and built in speakers.
A more compact type of digital piano, and also more economical when tech specifications are comparable, is the stage piano, which looks more like a keyboard, needs to be mounted on a stand and usually has one switch type pedal connected via jack cable.
Let’s now have a look at the deciding factors.
Budget: a quality, new instrument from a reputable brand starts at around the €380 mark for a stage piano at the time of writing, making it a cost-effective solution for the eager beginner who wants to give it a try without taking too much of a risk for something that might or might not catch on. Coming up to the €800 mark we find the first digital pianos with their own housing or cabinet.
Available space: homing a digital or stage piano is when this distinction comes into play. A stage piano is practical when it comes to transportation and setting up, since it’s basically a big keyboard on a stand; however the look of it might stand out unpleasantly in a living room or elsewhere in the home where interior decor takes a priority. Therefore if blending in is a factor and a slightly higher budget is available, a good looking digital with a solid housing might be the better option. If, however, the practice nest is going to be setup in a room where there’s no need to blend in with existing furniture or decor, and / or budget is slightly lower, a good stage piano and stand will do very fine.
Musical goal: a good quality stage or digital will serve you well for years, even decades. As I always say: buy good, buy once. A hobbyist will get satisfaction from a reliable instrument, and the aspiring pro will get a good start on a proper hammer action and velocity sensitive keyboard without having to invest thousands at the very start. Having said that, anyone looking to achieve pro-grade piano proficiency should consider upgrading to a good quality acoustic instrument down the line, in order to truly work on tone production, proper pedalling and the finest nuances of piano playing which cannot be addressed on a digital instrument.
I hope this blog post has helped you to learn more about choosing a piano. If you have any further questions, please leave a comment below and I will be happy to help. Best of luck in your musical journey.