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.]
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.
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
New vs. Used
Digital vs. Acoustic
Traditional Acoustic vs. Acoustic with Record/Playback/Computer Features
The 21st-century classroom is quite different from its predecessors. Wall charts have been replaced by projectors and screens or flat-panel monitors. Chalkboards and whiteboards have given way to “smart,” interactive whiteboards. Phonographs, CD players, and DVD players have been made obsolete by mobile devices that wirelessly send sound to speakers and visual information to large display devices. In some classrooms, professors can even transmit visual information directly to students’ iPads in real time.
The potential benefit of all this technology is better communication between teacher and students. Today, there is general recognition that any class of students comprises people who embody a variety of learning styles: visual, aural, kinesthetic, cerebral, and more. The teacher is tasked with the responsibility of reaching all of them simultaneously.
How does a piano fit into this new educational scene?
In addition to being used for piano lessons, pianos are traditionally used to play musical examples in classes (music history, theory, composition), accompany the choir, facilitate instrumental and vocal lessons, and more. Technology-equipped acoustic and digital pianos can be used in all of these ways, yet potentially offer so much more.
Imagine a music theory class. Of course, the teacher can show prepared examples using an app such as PowerPoint—but what about addressing educational issues on the fly?
With a technology-equipped piano and an appropriate app, the professor can sit at the keyboard and play a musical example, and on the classroom’s large display screen the class will instantly see the result, beautifully notated, even analyzed. By doing nothing more than just playing the piano, the professor can now address multiple learning styles in real time by putting sound into the air, graphics on the display, and creating an instant analysis.
These kinds of scenarios are made possible by a form of electronic musical communication known as Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI). Virtually all pianos and keyboards that include any kind of electronics offer MIDI communication with music apps running on laptops and mobile devices. As you might expect, the computing device can be connected to the audio-visual resources in the room. You can even modernize a traditional acoustic piano by installing a MIDI strip under its keys.
Many kinds of applications are available when a technology-equipped piano is brought into the equation. Imagine:
a piano that can be connected to another piano via the Internet for the purpose of long-distance lessons, concerts, and master classes
an instrument that can record and play back a student’s performance, or play selections from a library of pre-recorded performances for study purposes
an instrument that can accompany vocalists, string players, or wind players as they practice—even when a pianist is unavailable
a piano that functions as an interactive composition tool
a piano that can be used with score-following software to rehearse a concerto with a virtual orchestra that follows the soloist
The piano has a history of more than 300 years of technological change and innovation, and new technologies are rapidly becoming integral parts of our musical landscape. You can expect that any piano you buy today will last for a long time; in making your selection, be sure to consider the many educational opportunities that can arise when you take advantage of modern advances in piano technology.
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 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
Grand 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
Lid and fallboard locks
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.
New vs. Used
Excellent acoustic pianos that are well maintained should last for decades. Given this fact, should your institution consider purchasing used instruments and thus save some money? If this is something you’re considering, read “Buying a Used or Restored Piano” in this issue before continuing. When comparing a used piano to a new one, consult a trusted piano technician to get a sense of the used instrument’s condition and remaining useful life. Then amortize the cost of the pianos, including expected repair costs, over their expected lifetimes to determine which is the better value.
If considering a used acoustic piano with embedded electronics, such as an electronic player piano, be careful to avoid purchasing an instrument whose technology is so obsolete that you can’t use it productively. On the other hand, if your intention is to use a player piano’s MIDI features mostly in conjunction with a computer, you do have one protection against obsolescence on your side: Although MIDI has been around since 1982, it’s still an industry standard that works well and shows no sign of disappearing in the near future. Accordingly, you can continue to upgrade the features of an older MIDI piano merely by upgrading the software you use on your computer.
Acoustic vs. Digital
Digital pianos continue to improve every year, and the benefits realized for every dollar spent on a digital piano continue to grow with advances in technology.
Here are some examples of institutional situations in which a digital piano is generally the preferred instrument:
Class piano, where students and teachers wear headsets and the teacher controls the flow of sound in the room with a lab controller
Multipurpose computer/keyboard labs where students need to work independently on theory, composition, and performance projects without disturbing others in the room
A church that features a so-called “contemporary service” in which the keyboard player needs an instrument with lots of on-board sounds, registrations, and automatic accompaniments
In other situations, the preferred choice may not be so obvious. For example, if a school has a practice room largely used by singers and instrumentalists (not pianists), should you supply a digital piano or a vertical?
When weighing these and similar questions, keep in mind:
In an institutional setting, a typical, well-maintained acoustic piano has a life expectancy of 20 to 40 years; a higher-quality instrument might last 30 to 50 years. Because the digital piano is a relatively recent invention, we can’t be as certain how long they will last in an institutional setting. A reasonable estimate for a good-quality digital instrument might be 10 to 20 years. However, digital instruments are subject to a rapid rate of technological advance that may eventually limit the instrument’s usefulness, even though it still functions. On the other hand, the digital piano won’t need tuning, and may go for years before it needs any other maintenance.
Some digital pianos are simply a substitute for the acoustic equivalent. Others have additional features that may be highly desirable, such as connectivity to a computer, orchestral voices, and record and playback features.
Some acoustic pianos are also available with digital-piano–like features, such as record and playback, and Internet and computer connectivity. If your choice comes down to an acoustic piano (for its traditional piano features of touch and tone) and a digital piano (for its embedded technologies), you may need to consider a hybrid digital/acoustic instrument. (See the article on Hybrid Pianos in this issue of Piano Buyer.)
Assessing Pianos Before Purchase
Assessing digital pianos is a relatively straightforward matter. You simply play and compare the features of various makes and models and make your selection. If you choose Model X, it doesn’t matter if you take possession of the actual floor model that you tried: All Model X digital pianos will be the same.
Acoustic pianos are a different animal. There is more variation among pianos of the same model from a given manufacturer. However, it is important to note that some manufacturers have a reputation for producing uniformly similar instruments, while others have a reputation for producing more individually distinctive instruments.
If you’re purchasing a single acoustic piano or a small number of acoustic pianos, you can and should take the opportunity to audition each one of them and make your selection carefully. If you’re purchasing a concert or other very large grand, you may need to travel to the manufacturer’s national showroom in order to make your selection. If so, factor the cost of the trip into your budget. In some situations it may be possible to audition a large grand in the space in which you intend to use it. This will give you an opportunity to know for sure that you’re making the right decision. On the other hand, if you’re purchasing a dozen practice room upright pianos, or are completely replacing your inventory of instruments, it’s more practical to audition just a sample of each model and make your purchase decision on that basis.
Keep in mind that any fine acoustic piano can be adjusted within certain parameters by a concert-quality technician. If a piano sounds too bright when it is uncrated, skilled needling of the hammers can result in a noticeable mellowing of the sound. Similarly, a new action may require some additional adjustment (called regulation) to provide you with a keyboard that is optimally responsive.
Loan Programs: An Alternative to Purchasing
Often, institutions find themselves needing to acquire a number of pianos at one time. Perhaps the institution needs to replace a large number of aging instruments or to furnish a newly expanded facility or program — or a school may want to acquire a number of new instruments each year to demonstrate to prospective students that it has a music program of high quality. Such situations can pose a budgetary dilemma — the simultaneous purchase of even a few pianos can cause fiscal stress. Fortunately, relief is sometimes available in the form of a school loan program.
On the surface, a school loan program may seem too good to be true: free pianos, loaned for an academic year. At the end of the year, the pianos are sold. More free pianos the next year.
In truth, a school loan program can work only when it makes sense for both the school and the local dealer. (Although the manufacturer may be a participant in the program, the contract is normally with the local dealer.) Both sides of the agreement have obligations to the other.
For example, a school may receive any of the following, depending on the structure of the program:
Free or very-low-cost use of a significant number of pianos
Free tuning and maintenance
Name association with a prestigious manufacturer
A school may also have any of these obligations:
Liability for damage
Tuning and maintenance costs
Requirement to purchase a certain percentage of the instruments
Requirement to supply an alumni mailing list to the dealer for advertising purposes
Requirement to provide space for an end-of-year piano sale
When evaluating a loan program, it’s generally a good idea to consider:
The quality of the dealership that stands behind the program
The appropriateness of the mix of pianos offered
The school’s vulnerability if the program were to be discontinued by the dealership after the current year
That last point is a key issue. What happens if you replace your inventory of old pianos with loaned instruments and the loan program becomes unavailable the next year? Suddenly and unexpectedly, you are faced with having to buy replacement instruments.
Generally speaking, it is a good idea to include with your loan program a purchase component so that you are building your inventory of quality instruments over the course of the loan.
Preparation, Tuning, and Maintenance
All pianos require maintenance, and acoustic pianos more than digitals. New acoustic pianos need to be properly prepared before they’re deployed. All acoustic pianos should be tuned regularly, and regulated as needed. Acoustic pianos with record and playback systems also may need periodic calibration of their embedded systems. See the accompanying article for more information on the maintenance of acoustic pianos in institutions.
Who Should Make the Purchase Decision?
As the foregoing discussion suggests, there are many intersecting practical, artistic, and financial factors to be considered when making an institutional purchase of a piano or group of pianos. This raises the question: Who should make the purchase decision? No single answer fits all situations. By tradition, a church’s decision-making process may be handled by the music director, the pastor or priest, or perhaps by a lay committee. In a school of music, decisions may be delegated to the chair of the piano department, the chair of the music department, the dean of fine arts, or some other individual or faculty committee.
In many instances, well-intentioned individuals with no knowledge of pianos find themselves having to make a final decision. It is important that those involved in the process commit themselves to understanding the intersecting issues, and bring into the decision-making process appropriate people from the artistic, technical, and/or financial sides. At a minimum, that means the piano technician, and the most advanced, or most frequent, professional users. If a digital-technology–based instrument is being considered, someone should be involved who can speak to those technical issues as well. A department chair who has not actually used the technology in question may or may not be in a position to evaluate it.
Negotiating a Purchase
Before negotiating a price or sending a proposal out to bid, it’s usually a good idea to do some price research. This can be tricky, however.
For example, if you or someone you know simply calls up a dealer and asks for a price, you’re unlikely to be told the lower “institutional price” that you might ultimately get. Some dealers are reluctant to quote prices over the phone, or are prohibited by their suppliers from doing so. Others will refuse to quote a price if they know that the purchase will ultimately go out to bid.
Your institutional purchase may benefit the dealer or manufacturer in ways other than the profit from the sale. Therefore, when discussing your possible purchase, don’t hesitate to mention:
How prominently positioned the instruments will be in your institution or in the community
How many students or audience members will come in contact with the instruments on a regular basis
How often you or your institution is asked for purchase recommendations
How musically influential your institution is in the surrounding community
The bottom line is this: You won’t know what the final price will be until an official representative of your institution actually sits down with the dealer principal or until bids are awarded. Before you reach that point, however, and for planning purposes, you can make discreet inquiries and put together some estimates. As a rule of thumb, and only for the purposes of budgeting, if you subtract 10% to 15% from the dealer’s “sale” price, you will likely come close to the institutional price.
If you represent a school that’s required to send purchase requests out to bid, you may not have much of a role to play in negotiating a price. However, the way in which you word your bid will have a lot to do with the bids that you receive and the instruments that the bidding rules will compel you to purchase.
For example, if you really want Brand X with features A, B, and C, be sure to write your bid description so that it describes — within acceptable guidelines — the instrument that you wish to purchase, and rules out instruments that don’t fit your needs. If your bid description is loosely written, you may receive low bids for instruments that don’t meet your requirements.
Because pianos can last a very long time, any piano-buying decisions you make today for your institution can have consequences for a generation or more. Therefore, it pays to take the time to think carefully about your institution’s present and future needs, to budget sufficient funds for purchase and maintenance, and to consult with individuals both within and outside your institution who may have special expertise or be affected by your decision. If you take the time to do this properly, then your constituents — be they students, faculty, worshippers, or concert-goers — will enjoy the fruits of your work for years to come.
George Litterst (www.georgelitterst.com) is a nationally known music educator, clinician, author, performer, and developer of music software. In the last role, Mr. Litterst is co-author of the intelligent accompaniment program Home Concert Xtreme, the electronic music-blackboard program Classroom Maestro, and the long-distance teaching program Internet MIDI, all from TimeWarp Technologies (www.timewarptech.com).