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Buying a piano
By DiAnne Crown

There's a world of sound in a fine piano, and a world of piano choices on the market. New or used, upright or grand, what make, what size, what finish? Fortunately, central Illinois is home to experienced retailers, teachers and technicians who can help guide the shopping experience.

According to David Horine, owner of Horine's Pianos Plus in Bloomington, the first considerations are tone, touch and durability, not size or budget.

"Get the biggest piano you can afford," Horine says. Longer strings and a larger sound board (box) produce a more sustained, clear, resonant sound. "The tone is better. It has body and soul. That's what people really like."

Tone is the "singing quality" of a piano, Horine says. The longer, thinner strings of taller uprights and larger grands have more ability to vibrate. By contrast, Horine says spinet strings are stiff. "They're short, fat, chunky and don't produce much sound."

Touch is the feel of the piano keys when played. The keys should not wobble loosely. The mechanism should be even across all 88 keys. The resistance should be comfortable.

Without enough resistance, Horine says, it's hard to control the dynamics of the music.

Touch preferences are personal and vary significantly across brands and even similar models, so it is important to try out each piano in person.

"Even two pianos of the same brand, same make and made on the same day will have a different touch," Horine says. "So when you select your piano, write down the serial number and make sure that piano is delivered."

Durability is harder for an amateur to assess. Horine likes the three Steinway lines, Steinway, Boston and Essex for the construction, materials and craftsmanship. In particular, he likes the one-piece, bent-wood, hard rock maple rim and case and cautions customers not to purchase pianos that contain plastic and other synthetic parts.

But not everyone agrees on that point.

Dwight Denzer is a local tuner and registered piano technician, a designation achieved only after passing a series of  tests by the Piano Technician Guild. Although he doesn't necessarily recommend Kawai pianos for everyone, Denzer doesn't rule them out just because they contain plastic parts.

"It's not your grandfather's plastic," Denzer says. "This is very strong polystyrene that offers extreme dimensional stability."

In fact, Denzer says, one of the early, highly respected grand piano and vertical piano manufacturers of the late 1800s, Wessell, Nickel & Gross, has just released a line of (polystyrene) grand piano replacement parts, "very high-tech stuff."

Once a customer has found the right combination of features, then it's time for "the money part," as Horine calls it. "Especially today, we need to get the best value out of our money. Start by comparing the features that you like across (various) brands. Look at the best. Why is it the best? Then get something as close as you can that's in your budget."

Sizes and prices

There are three sizes of upright piano, Horine says. The spinet, which Horine does not recommend, is 36 inches tall. Console uprights are 42 to 44 inches tall, and studio uprights are 45 to 52 inches tall.

Grand pianos generally range from just over five feet to nine feet long.

New Steinway grands range from approximately $45,000 to $120,000. Bostons are about 40 percent less than Steinways, Essex pianos are about 40 percent less than Bostons, says Horine. But all Steinways are a good value, he adds, because they hold or appreciate in value and the Steinway Promise assures customers they'll receive full trade-in value.

WUIS music director Karl Scroggin just purchased a Boston upright piano from Horine. He had been playing an electronic keyboard at home for his own enjoyment and education.

"It's a gorgeous, gorgeous instrument. And my piano-playing is actually getting better, too, which is the bottom line." Playing a good acoustic piano, Scroggin says, "makes all the difference in the world. It increases the willingness to sit down and practice, to really play musically, and builds strength in your fingers in a way that a flimsy keyboard can't do."

As for uprights, Horine says about $5,000, $3,500 on sale, "will put a really nice piano in your home, with a full factory 10-year warranty, and two tunings in your home for the first year."

A good upright may be a better value than a lower grade or smaller grand," says Evans Brittin, a retired school music teacher, longtime area musician, and well-known piano tuner and technician. A good studio piano has the tone and power as good or better than any baby grand. Some of the taller 54-inch uprights will sound as good as a parlor grand."

One main difference between a good, tall upright and a comparable grand, Brittin says, is the soft pedal. On a grand piano, the keyboard shifts when the soft pedal is pressed, which means the hammer only hits two of the three strings for each note. On an upright, the soft pedal simply moves the hammer closer to the strings.

Brittin also says a spinet is not a good value. "The sound isn't as good, and the indirect action is sluggish. There are a lot of extra moving parts; a spinet will never be as fast as a taller upright."   

Denzer likes three other makes in addition to the more widely recognized and respected name brands. "Charles Walter makes a good piano. It's a fairly new brand, made for about 20 years now, and available in Champaign," Denzer says. "It's a very well-made vertical piano, about 46 inches tall. They build one basic model and a dozen different cases. They concentrate on really refining the workings (at their) factory in Elkhart, Ind. They have found the right balance of hands-on craftsmanship and tooling." Two other brands Denzer mentions are made in Czechoslovakia, the Petrof and the Bohemia.

"This is an investment for you, your children and their children. You're going to live with that piano. Get what you want," Horine says. "Statistics show that people don't usually trade up. They think they will, but they don't. Usually, you have one shot to do it right."

But that doesn't mean you have to purchase a new piano. There are many good privately owned pianos that can be purchased for a fraction of the price of a new instrument. The most important part to shopping in the used market is finding a good technician to evaluate the piano, Horine says.

Digital or acoustic?

There is no comparison between an acoustic and a digital keyboard, Brittin says. "Keyboards are used successfully in large venues where they're amplified, says Brittin.

It has a lot to do with the direction of the sound. A digital keyboard's sound is directed through two speakers, whereas an acoustic piano's sound "comes out in all directions," Brittin says. It's a fuller sound.

Veteran piano teacher and area performer Marilyn Brittin discourages starting children on a digital keyboard. "They (children) don't develop finger strength, except on the really expensive models. The inexpensive, $200-$400 keyboards have a soft touch, more like an organ."

"If I were stranded on a desert island," Horine says, "I would want an acoustic piano. It's a whole orchestra."  

Living with your new piano

Whatever you purchase, regular maintenance will protect your investment and improve the playing and listening experience.

A qualified technician can not only tune the piano, but is trained to make necessary repairs correctly. Brittin suggests having a tuner/technician come every six months to clean and tune the piano, regulate all moving parts and shape and voice the hammers. The best thing the homeowner can do between tunings is keep the home's humidity level.

People think they're not supposed to put the piano on an outside wall, or tune it as soon as it's moved, and so on, Brittin says. But it's really all about humidity. "Dry air is the death knell for pianos," Horine says.

Denzer adds a word about the piano's pitch. The international standard is A440. Piano strings are designed for that pitch, so they'll sound their best, and all brass and woodwind instruments are built to play at that pitch, so you'll be able to play with other instruments when your piano is tuned to concert pitch.

 


Stay in tune

 

 

Story published Friday, May 1, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 3 )

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