Buying A Piano

I've worked at a retail piano store for a little over a year, so I've been fortunate enough to be present while families and musicians go through the process of buying a new piano.  

First of all, pianos are very personal.  There are wood colored pianos, ebony, high polish, matte, grand pianos, verticals (also called upright pianos) hybrid pianos and digital pianos.  There are very bright sounding pianos, and very mellow pianos, hand crafted instruments from Europe, and mass-production pianos from the booming economies of Asia.  There are as many varieties of pianos as there are unique personalities that need one.

So where do you start?  First, consider why you are getting a piano, and be ready to answer this question if you are planning to visit a retail store.  Are you a performer, piano teacher, or a venue?  You will likely be concerned most with the quality of the sound or reliability of the instrument.  If the piano is for a beginner, you may look at discount upright pianos or digitals that can peak the interest of a young child.  And to those buyers, don't look for discount grand pianos.  To me, it seems that there is no such thing as a discount grand.  There are certain expectations from a baby grand piano, and in order to get anything of quality, you will likely spend as much or more on a discounted baby grand than a brand new upright piano from a reputable company.

Next, consider space.  Do you have a parlor or music room that can fit a grand piano?  Well, how big is a piano?  Most pianos, grand or upright, are roughly five feet wide.  Modern baby grands are also about five feet long from the front of the keyboard to the back of the tail.  A parlor grand is about six feet long and this is the size where a significant increase in sound quality occurs.  The longer the strings, the richer the sound..  A semi concert grand is around seven feet long and usually found in clubs, recording studios and universities.  A concert grand piano is nine feet long and found in grand halls and concert stages. They all stand on three legs along the sides or middle of a room or stage, preferably away from heat or cool air vents.

If you don't have room for a grand piano, consider an upright piano.  As a guideline, the taller the piano is, the better the sound will be.  Very short pianos have tubby sounding notes in the bass and octaves that may sound off.  This can not be designed out of a piano, it's just a fact that technicians and musicians have to live with.  If you want a better sounding instrument, you'll have to spend a little more and get one that's taller.  If you are a budget shopper or a first time buyer, a short piano may be best for you, but know that if your child really loves playing the piano, you may upgrade within 5-10 years.  With this in mind, ask your dealer about trade-ins or trade-ups.  Most dealers will offer something like a 10 year trade-up, which you're receive a full credit in the amount you paid for your first piano to use toward your next piano.  Usually the second has to be twice the value of the first.  

Quality digital pianos start at around $2000, have weighted keys and a variety of sounds to choose from.  The Yamaha Clavinova is a standard in high quality digital pianos.  As you move up the model chain, they will feature different designs like using wooden keys instead of plastic, and an increase in speaker quality.  Also, the most basic Clavinova doesn't have a display to show you what voice you're on, but as soon as you move up to the next model, it will feature that convenience.  

A hybrid piano has the key mechanism of a wooden acoustic action, but without strings and hammers.  This means that you have the real touch of a true acoustic piano, and it will never go out of tune.  The sound is modeled after grand pianos and amplified through speakers or headphones!   This type of piano is perfect for those who like to practice in privacy and those with close neighbors. 

Piano performance is a lifelong investment.  If you choose a digital, most likely you will purchase an acoustic piano in the future.  If you buy an acoustic piano, it will need regular tuning and upkeep.  And if you're ever not sure if you're getting the right instrument, just ask for the help of piano teachers or a technician.

Piano Appointment Etiquette

On appointment day you should expect the piano tuner to arrive on time.  If you are the first appointment of the day, your technician may arrive at the exact moment agreed upon.  I start at either 9 am or 9:30 am.  I can honestly say that I'm never off by more than 10 minutes, usually due to unexpected traffic.  The other appointments are trickier to be that accurate.  Unforeseen repairs or tuning conditions can make the previous appointment run longer.  I like to space my tunings out by 2.5 hours when the customers live in the same town.  Again, I'm rarely late, but if it's going to happen, I always call to let my customers know that it's going to happen.

When the tuner arrives, he or she should be cheerful.  This is because we love our job!  I can't think of a single time when I arrived and I didn't want to be there to help a customer with their piano.

You may ask them to remove their shoes, and I expect all tuners in the city to be ready to do so.  The occasions that I like to have my shoes on are when I'm tuning an upright piano over a new hardwood floor.  The floor is too slippery under my bare socks, and a secure posture is important to technique.  My mother lives in Vermont, and there is a sort of culture and expectation of a little dirt around the house, so I can appreciate that the "shoe rule" doesn't apply to all geographical regions.

The first thing you, as the piano owner, should prepare for is the technician to open the piano, so you should remove anything from the top before they get there.  Usually the lid of the piano is home to music books, pencils, children's toys, pictures in frames, sculptures, lamps, etc.  If you don't remove this stuff, the tuner will have to do it, and their fear is that something will get damaged.  Even when I arrive and there are things on the piano, I kindly ask that they remove everything because I won't know where to put it. 

The tech will need to take the front panel off to get access to the strings, action, and tuning pins.  This should be done with care by the technician.  If he or she doesn't seem to know how to get the parts off, give them a minute.  All pianos were created differently, and sometimes it's not obvious how to remove the parts.  But if it takes more than 5 full minutes, this might be a red flag that they are green, or just don't have the proper training.

Piano tuning takes an incredible amount of concentration.  A tuner listens to the relationship of two strings played together and adjusts one string, listening for a very small variation in frequency.  It's expected that there is near silence while they are doing their work.  Loud conversations, television, and vacuuming is not recommended.  Sometimes people like to have the plumber, HVAC tech, cleaning crews and the piano tuner all scheduled on the same day since they may have to be home from work to let everyone in.  Resist this urge!!  I can't tune properly while there is so much auditory interference.

The worst thing you can do while a technician is tuning your piano is wash the dishes.  The sounds of a faucet and sharp clanging of porcelain, glass and metal are infinitely distracting.  It's possible to tune a piano while these things are happening, but don't expect to record your hit single afterwards.

The appointment carries on though, and around 1.5 hours later they should be done.  I usually play a few chords of songs that I would like to master, and that's the cue that the tuning is finished.  The piano get's closed up and I briefly discuss when to expect to tune the piano again.  As I've said before, your ear is the best judge as to when you should make an appointment.  

Thanks are exchanged, as well as a polite handshake, and the fee for the work performed.  I expect that services are paid for at the end of the visit in the form of a check or cash.  Some tuners use a credit card service on their smart phone like square reader, although I'm not sure how well that has caught on yet.  I don't like to carry receipts, but prefer to email a copy to the customer if it is requested.  Ask for their business card, and if you're happy with their work, refer them to a friend, music teacher, or on a website!

Pitch Correction

What is a pitch correction?  In short, when a piano tuner comes over for an appointment, he or she can fine tune the piano in one tuning when the piano is close to pitch.  If it's not close, than it takes two tunings to get it right.  That first tuning is the pitch correction.  Both tunings happen at the same visit.  So why can't it be tuned accurately on the first tuning?

Your piano has over 230 strings stretching from the pin block down to a bridge and anchored onto the cast iron plate.  The tension of the strings is applied directly onto the bridge in order to create the sound you hear when you play a note.  But the bridge can be anywhere from three feet long and seven feet long. 

When the piano is very flat, and the technician turns the tuning pin to adjusts the pitch, this new tension creates a new force of bearing across the bridge.  Imagine a tight rope stretched between two trees with a little slack in the wire.  You stand on the rope close to one tree and the rest of the wire tightens because of your force bearing down.  Now imagine your friend stands on the wire close to the other tree.  Their force (in this case, applied by weight and gravity) will add more tension to the wire, and it makes your body rise up a little.

So now we can envision the tight rope is the bridge of the piano, and when there is no one on it the pitch is 435.  When the tuner tightens the bass notes to 441, that represents the first person standing on the wire.  When the second person stands on the wire at 441, your pitch drops to ~440.  So when the whole piano is tuned, its nearly impossible to accurately tune the whole instrument to 440, so they adjust the pitch to be a little sharp in one pass to get the piano roughly in tune.  Once its at pitch, they can fine tune it and make it sound like a piano again.

Lastly, you may wonder why your piano needs to be tuned to A440.  When the strings are all tightened to the right pitch, it creates around 20 tons of pressure bearing down on the soundboard.  The soundboard of a piano isn't flat, it's slightly arched, or crowned, sort of like a contact lens.  Pianos are engineered around the assumption that the pitch will be A440, and so they put more crown in the soundboard to settle at the correct shape when the strings are pulled tight.  And when the pitch starts to go down, or flat, than there isn't the right amount of pressure against the board and the sound isn't generated in a way that is desirable.  So your instrument should be brought up to the right pitch.  

Also, if the piano is a teaching instrument, when it's flat, the student learns the incorrect sound from that piano and makes it difficult to practice on other pianos because the sound is very odd.  When you want to sing with the piano, or play other instruments, it makes it very difficult to play together.  The piano will sound flat unless all the other instruments, including the voice, are tuned down to the piano. 

Cleaning your piano

I always tell families that the best way to keep their piano clean is not to let it get it dirty.  This means instructing everyone to wash their hands before piano practice.  Not only is this good hygiene, but if you couple it with putting your child in charge of cleaning the piano, they will develop a sense of responsibility that can't be found with a cheap toy or video game.

If you have a new piano with a shiny finish, it is probably polyester.  These piano finishes are the most durable and easiest to maintain, as they are treated very similar to glass.  Polyester is very hard and very thick, rounded on the edges, reflective like a mirror, and not so prone to cracking.  Cory piano polish is what we use to clean and remove dirt or fingerprints from a piano.  We use it in combination with microfiber detailing cloths found readily on amazon.com.  Just spray one or two pumps onto the cloth, not directly onto the piano, and gently rub away dirt in the area you want to clean.  Move in a circular pattern until you have cleaned the whole area or case part, then flip the cloth over to a dry spot and gently polish again.  Once the finger prints are cleaned away, then all there is to do on a weekly basis is dust.  If severe damage or cracking occurs, this finish is the most difficult to repair, and you'll want to find a technician who specializes in polyester repair.

If the piano is matte, and I'm talking about flat like the eggshell style water-based house paints, then all you need to do is a gentle cleaning with a slightly dampened microfiber detailing cloth.  These finishes are usually the thinnest but show scratches.  If damaged, they are the easiest to repair.  Many of our clients will touch-up scratches themselves, and even piano movers are skilled in repairing a matte finish.

The last basic finish is the satin hand-rubbed traditional piano finish.  This is a semi-durable finish, slightly prone to scratching, and very difficult to maintain like new.  Cory does supply a satin piano polish, but honestly, once you get finger print oils on your piano, they never really go away unless you resurface the part.  I learned in the trenches of a piano rebuilding shop how difficult it is to achieve this beautiful finish.  Lacquer is sprayed and leveled many times to build up the thickness of the finish.  Different grits of steel wool combined with lubricants and rubbed in exactly parallel lines for hours give you a very beautiful, semi-reflective, sparkling finish.  Believe me, if you have OCD, this is going to give you trouble.  The best thing is to use a piano cover and keep your hands on the keys.  If a satin hand-rubbed finish is scratched or dinged, it is easily repaired by a knowledgable technician.  

Vacuuming your piano is recommended, but it is also a specialized art.  Most people never clean behind their instrument, so if you have purchased a used piano, we recommend you have your technician do a cleaning to the whole instrument, front, back, insides and under the keys.  Cleanings take between 1 hour and 6 hours, it all depends on what environment the piano was in, and how old it is.

Lastly, you can clean the key tops with a damp cloth, but it's best to have your piano technician do it every few tunings.  He or she should remove the case parts so they can clean the back part of the white key that is hiding under the red felt, and the sides of the black keys.  That is where the dirt likes to hide.  This takes, on average, 20 minutes, but ask for an estimate for severely stained keys.