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The Definitive Piano Buying Guide for

Buying New, Used, and Restored Acoustic Pianos and Digital Pianos

Fall 2016 Edition

Buying Pianos for an Institution

Buying Pianos for an Institution

George F. Litterst

[This article assumes you are already familiar with the basics of piano-shopping (see "Piano Buying Basics" and other appropriate articles in this publication), and treats only those aspects of the subject that are specific to the institutional setting. — Ed.]

Institutional Basics

Piano World Institutions vary so widely in size, makeup, and needs that it is impossible to cover in a single article all the variables that might apply. For example, the studio of a graduate-school piano professor might be 12 feet square, carpeted, and cluttered with bookshelves, desk, and chairs, but still needs a performance-grade instrument. A church sanctuary — often a carpeted, irregularly shaped room with a raised dais and filled with pews, glass windows, and lots of sound-absorbing people — needs a piano that can accompany the choir, be heard throughout a huge room, and also be used as a solo instrument for visiting artists. A school may need dozens of pianos for everything from tiny practice cubicles to a concert hall.

However, regardless of whether you're purchasing a piano for a church, school, performance space, or another institutional location, you need to start with some basic questions that will help identify the piano (or pianos) that are appropriate for your situation.

For example:

  • Who will use the piano — beginners, advanced players, or concert artists?
  • How often will the piano be played — in the occasional concert, or for 18 hours per day of intense student practice?
  • How will the piano be used — lessons for graduate students? church services? recordings?
  • Will the piano's location be fixed, or will it be moved often?
  • In what size room will it primarily be used?

After answering these questions, this article will help you establish some basic parameters, including:

  • Grand vs. Vertical
  • Size
  • New vs. Used
  • Digital vs. Acoustic
  • Traditional Acoustic vs. Acoustic with Record/Playback/Computer Features

Budget

Once you've narrowed down the parameters of your ideal instrument or group of instruments, you need to consider your budget. In doing so, it's best to remember that quality instruments properly maintained will last a long time. Accordingly, it's best to view the cost of each instrument not as a one-time expense, but as a total expense amortized over the life of the instrument.

When figuring out the true annual cost of an instrument:

  • Spread out the instrument's purchase price over the span of its working life
  • Factor in the cost of money, that is, the interest you would pay if you were to finance the purchase (even if you don't actually plan to finance it)

Include costs of tuning (typically three to four times a year, but far more often for performance instruments), regulation, and repairs

When you figure the cost of an instrument this way, you may even discover that certain more expensive instruments are more affordable than you thought.

Once you've determined your budget, and the size and other features of the instruments you desire, you can use the online searchable database accessible through the electronic version of this publication to assist you in finding the specific brands and models that will fulfill your needs.

Grand vs. Vertical

Many situations are adequately served by vertical pianos, including:

  • Practice rooms where the piano is used primarily by, or to accompany, non-pianist musicians
  • Places where there is no room for a grand
  • Instruments that are not used for intense playing or difficult literature

A number of features of vertical pianos are commonly sought by institutional buyers:

  • Locks on fallboard and tops
  • A music desk long enough to hold multiple sheets of music or a score
  • Toe-block leg construction with double-wheel casters — particularly important if the piano will be moved often
  • Heavy-duty back-post and plate assembly for better tuning stability
  • Climate-control systems
  • Protective covers

Yamaha P22Grand pianos, however, have keys, actions, and tonal qualities that are more appropriate for practicing and performing advanced literature, and are therefore preferred in situations where they are largely used by piano majors or performing pianists. Grands are preferred by piano majors even for small practice rooms, because the students use these instruments primarily to develop advanced technical facility, something that's almost impossible to do on vertical pianos. Commonly sought features of grands are:

  • Mounting on a piano truck (a specialized platform on wheels) for moving the piano easily and safely
  • Protective covers to avoid damage to the finish
  • Climate-control systems
  • Lid and fallboard locks

Size

Carefully consider the size of your space. You can easily spend too much on a piano if it's larger than the space requires, and you can easily waste your money if you purchase an undersized instrument. For more information about how room acoustics might affect the size of instrument you should purchase, see "Ten Ways to Voice a Room," elsewhere in this issue.

Of course, the tonal quality and touch of the instrument are related, in large part, to its size. If you're purchasing pianos for teaching studios in which artist faculty are instructing graduate piano majors, or for practice rooms used primarily by piano majors, there may be musical reasons for choosing larger grands despite the fact that the spaces are small. You'll be able to capture most of the advantages of a larger grand's longer keys with an instrument six to six-and-a-half feet long. Any longer will be overkill for a small teaching studio or practice room. A larger teaching studio may be able to accommodate and make good use of a seven-foot grand. The size of the piano is much less important in the training of beginning pianists or non-pianist musicians. There, other factors, such as the size of the room, will be the dominant considerations.

Vertical pianos made for institutions are almost always at least 45 inches tall. Smaller verticals may have inferior actions and tone, and cabinetry that is more prone to breakage. Verticals taller than about 48 inches are probably unnecessary for most small studio and practice rooms, but may be appropriate in larger spaces where a larger sound is needed but a grand is out of the question.

A special problem often occurs when a house of worship or small recital venue with limited funds tries to make do with a grand piano that's too small for the space. The pianist will tend to play much harder than normal, and overuse the sustain pedal, in an effort to make the piano heard at the back of the sanctuary or hall, causing strings and hammers to break and pedal systems to wear out prematurely. Generally, a small- to medium-size sanctuary will require a grand six to seven feet long to adequately fill the hall with sound, but this can vary greatly depending on the size of the hall, its acoustics, how large an audience is typically present, whether the piano is being used as a solo instrument or to accompany others, and whether the sound is amplified. A piano dealer can help sort out these issues and recommend an appropriate instrument.

MODERN TECHNOLOGY
Both digital and acoustic pianos are available with a variety of modern technologies. Do you need:
  • A piano that can be connected to another piano over the Internet for the purpose of long-distance lessons, concerts, and master classes?
  • An instrument that, for study purposes, can record and play back a student's performance, or play selections from a library of pre-recorded performances?
  • An instrument that can accompany a vocalist, or string player or wind player, when they practice—even if a pianist isn't available?
  • A piano that connects to a computer and can function as an interactive composition tool?
  • A piano that can be used with score-following software so that the player can enjoy automatic page-turning, or rehearse a concerto with an electronic orchestra that follows the soloist?
The piano has a history of more than 300 years of technological change and innovation. New technologies are ever more rapidly becoming integral parts of our musical landscape. You want the piano that you purchase today to last for a long time. In making your selection, therefore, be sure to consider your current and future technological needs.

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