10 Piano Buying Tips

October 3, 2017

I recently got a call from a customer that was in a panic.  Their child had just started piano lessons and already wanted to quit. The mom wanted to know if we would be interested in taking their spinet off her hands. 

She didn't want any money since she got it for free, she just wanted it out.  As some of you already know, we don't usually dabble in free or pianos that are sold on Craigslist, but we did go out and look at it. Fortunately, Ray was able to tune it, but it still needs a lot of work.  For now, the tuning is holding, it's playable, and the student is back taking lessons.  But it brings up an interesting trend we see among families of new piano students.

 

Because of the size and expense, most first time piano buyers look for used, inexpensive or free pianos.  The idea is they'll start with something cheap in case the child decides they no longer want to take lessons.  They don't realize this creates the very situation they are trying to avoid.  Most piano teachers have high-quality pianos that are well maintained. When your child goes there for lessons, they're learning on a piano that is stable.  It's always in tune, all the keys work, and there are no humming or buzzing noises. If the piano at home doesn't match the stability of the teacher's piano, there will be issues.  

 

During your child's piano lesson they are not only learning how to play and read music, they are also developing proper ear training and muscle memory.  So, the minute they sit down to play on a piano that doesn't match the tone or stability of their teacher's piano,  they'll know something is wrong.  

 

Older, more experienced students will probably be able to articulate what the problem is, but most new students won't have that skill. They'll just know something isn't right, and here is where the problem starts, they'll think it's them, their ability or lack thereof.  It won't occur to them or their parents that it's the piano.  And the rest is history.  The child becomes frustrated, they don't want to practice, and then the parents get frustrated because the child isn't practicing.  And from there it just continues to unravel.  The parents start wondering why they're even paying for lessons or why they even bought a piano in the first place.  And it usually ends with the child quitting piano lessons altogether.  If you're serious about your child learning how to play piano, you need to set them up for success from the beginning.  That doesn't mean you have to buy the top of the line Steinway grand, but, you also can't think free or super cheap.  As you begin your search for the right piano, here are ten things to keep in mind: 

1.  Yes, you need a piano.  We're asked this question a lot.  If you want your child to take piano lessons, there is just no way around it; they will need a piano. And by piano, we mean acoustic, not electric. While there are some decent electronic keyboards out there, chances are you will have to invest as much for that as you would for a good acoustic piano.  And as good as some electric pianos are, they still won't match the sound or touch of an acoustic piano. Plus, most piano teachers want their students on an acoustic at some point. Also, because technology changes so quickly, electric pianos don't hold their value the way a good acoustic piano will.

2.  The minimum price range. The starting price for a used piano that is in good condition will probably be around $1,000.  You might get lucky and find a something decent around the $500 - $800 range. Just be careful when considering anything less than $500, and always hire an Registered Piano Technician to examine any piano before you buy it.  

3. Stability.  High-quality pianos are stable. Any problems are usually very minor. The parts are in good condition, with little rust or dust, so tunings are more likely to hold.  The maintenance history on these kinds of pianos is excellent, with frequent tunings and they were stored in proper temperature and humidity controlled environments.  And, students that learn and practice on stable pianos are more likely to continue with their lessons.    

4.  Free is not free.  We cannot stress this enough - don't jump at the offer of a free piano. Think of the things you own - what would you sell and what would you give away for free?  Usually, the things we're willing to give away are because we just want it out of the house. Often, those free items need a lot of repair work just to get them close to its original condition.  Take your time when considering a free piano.

5.  Costly Repair Work.  There are usually no warranties on used pianos, and most of them don't come with any guarantees.  The reason for this is old pianos that were not properly stored or maintained are very costly to repair. At the minimum it will need a tuning and a pitch raise which will run you about $200.  While sticky or missing keys are relatively easy to fix, things like hammer filing, new strings, and pin block or soundboard repairs will cost you upwards of $1,000.   And chances are good that a free or cheap piano will need one of those types of repairs.

6.  Patience.  Repairing an old piano is an art form, it's not like fixing a dishwasher.  Take new strings for example - that's something that takes a lot of time and expertise for the technician to do, and that's not even taking into account if one of the strings breaks during the process!  Same goes for hammer filing, pin block repair, and we won't even get into refinishing the case. If you decide to go the route of having your old piano restored, be prepared to wait at least three months before the piano will be fully playable. 

7.  Antiques in the piano world.   Antiques in the piano world are far and few between so don't be swayed by someone selling an "antique piano". Just because it's old doesn't make it an antique. For it to be considered an antique that has any value, it needs to be minimum 100 years old; it usually needs to be a grand, it usually needs to be a Steinway, and it must always be in pristine condition. 

8.  Where to look.  We have nothing against Craigslist, we've sold a few household items on there ourselves, but if you're looking for a high-quality piano, Craigslist is not the place to shop.   While it's always possible to find a good piano on that site, the majority of them have problems.  We've discovered that most of the pianos selling on Craigslist are by someone, who for one reason or another just needs the piano out.  And most of the time those pianos were stored in a garage or basement, which you don't want unless that garage or basement was temperature and humidity controlled.  Find a reputable dealer, or ask your local Registered Piano Technician if they have any used pianos for sale.  

9.  Bring your pianist and teacher with you. When you start shopping for your new piano, bring your little musician and their teacher with you and let them both test the pianos out.   The goal should be for it to come as close as possible to the feel and touch of their teachers piano, assuming the teacher has a high-quality acoustic piano. The teacher will know what you will need, and your child will be excited to be part of the process, and it will motivate them to continue with lessons.

10. Hire an RPT.  We've said it before, and we'll say it again. You need to have an experienced piano technician examine any used piano you are considering buying.  Your RPT will be able to tell you if there are any major problems, and they will give you an honest, objective evaluation of the quality of the piano.  To find a Registered Piano Technician near you, visit  Piano Technicians Guild.

We know that the idea of  buying a piano can be overwhelming.  But, when you commit to the process to find a good one, you will set your child up for music education success!

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