By Steve Cohen
Having sold pianos for more than 50 years, and helped guide thousands of piano shoppers toward wise and well-considered purchases, I’ve also seen my share of costly mistakes. Here are the five most common:
#1: Failure to Think Long-Term
"There are many common misconceptions about buying pianos for young students, and one of them is that a suitable piano can be had for only a few hundred dollars. The truth is that, to progress, young students need better pianos, not worse."
Acquiring a piano for a beginner, who may or may not stick with it, entails financial risk that often inclines parents to buy something cheap just to try it out. Of course, a cheap piano is usually better than none, and a highly motivated student will learn on practically anything. But the average or typical student is likely to lose interest when trying to learn on a piano that has poor tone and inconsistent touch. Learning the basics of reading music, proper fingering, and so forth, is difficult enough without also having to overcome problems caused by a piano that doesn’t sound right and/or has mechanical problems. The concern that the student may lose interest thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Even having a single successful student usually justifies keeping a decent piano in the home for the long term. Parents should ask themselves: How many potential players are in this household? In addition to the child who’s the immediate reason for the piano purchase, might any of the other children, now or to come, be interested? Did Mom and/or Dad play as a child and might want to start again?
With several potential players, odds are that at least one will stick with it, and the piano will be part of the family for decades. In this case, scrimping on an instrument is a big mistake, and over the long term will often end up costing more in repairs and dissatisfaction. Fortunately, with only a modest amount of maintenance, pianos have a life expectancy of 40 to 60 years, making a good-quality new instrument a great investment for those who can afford it. If you’re considering buying a used piano—often the best value—have it examined by a piano technician before purchase, to make sure it suits your long-term needs.
Are the parents buying a piano for an only child, and have no interest in playing themselves? In these situations I ask the child if he or she is excited about learning to play. If the response is something like, “Sure, but I really love soccer,” my advice is to consider renting a good-quality piano with an option to buy it later. (Most piano dealers have rent-to-own programs.) If the child doesn’t take to piano, you can return it at the end of the rental term with no further obligation. And if you decide to buy, the rental payments can be applied to the purchase price.
#2: Shopping Backward
The two biggest constraints on a piano purchase are likely to be budget and space. In truth, both are usually a little more flexible than buyers like to admit, budget less so. Understandably, shoppers look for the best value within their budget. One of the most common mistakes such shoppers make is to compare pianos of the same size, rather than pianos of similar price—a phenomenon I call “shopping backward.” Let me explain.
In today’s world of globalized and computerized manufacturing, virtually all pianos marketed in the West to first-time buyers and/or beginners are very competently made and perfectly suitable for their purpose. In fact, the differences in quality among them are sometimes vanishingly small—but the differences in price can be enormous, depending on where the pianos are made and on the name recognition of the manufacturer among the general public. Differences in performance due to differences in size, however, being based on the physics of piano design, can be great, regardless of brand and price.
Here’s how the “shopping backward” error plays out: A shopper goes to the first dealership and comes to focus on a new Brand X 5′ 3″ grand costing, say, $10,000. For comparison, to make sure they’re making the right decision, the shopper then goes to a second dealership and asks what they have in a 5′ 3″ grand, whereupon they’re shown a Brand Z piano priced at $15,000. It turns out that this instrument sounds somewhat better than the less expensive one, and the shopper, deciding to spend the additional $5,000 for better sound, buys the Brand Z instrument. Sounds good . . . but could actually be a mistake.
What the shopper should have done was to return to the first dealer and ask what they could do for $15,000. Chances are the shopper would then have been shown a larger model of Brand X, perhaps 5′ 8″ or even 6′ 1″, and the difference in tonal performance due to the larger size would have greatly overshadowed whatever difference they’d heard between the two brands in the 5′ 3″ size. The same could be true when comparing uprights that differ in height by 2″ or more.
So, when comparison shopping, compare pianos of similar price, not similar size. After all, you’re not paying 5′ 3″—you’re paying $15,000!
A corollary of the above rule: Once you’ve found the brand and model that appeals to you, always consider that brand’s next larger model—it’s likely a better value, especially in grands under 6′ and in verticals of any height. The sound may be dramatically better at only modestly greater cost.
#3: Buying a Piano Based on Recommendations from Piano Players or Teachers
I realize that this sounds counterintuitive. After all, whom better to ask for advice than a piano teacher or a fine pianist?
Piano teachers are trained and knowledgeable in the fundamentals of teaching others to play. Fine pianists are trained in the technical and expressive skills of playing. But neither group is trained in piano design or construction, nor is either likely to be informed about the rapidly changing piano industry or about piano pricing. Their allegiance to certain brands may be out of date—after all, piano brands come and go, and even some of the best manufacturers make cheaper models in other parts of the world that are not up to the standard on which the companies’ reputations were built, though the names and logos remain unchanged.
One of the more common but misplaced pieces of advice often heard from pianists and teachers is to buy only certain Japanese brands, and not pianos made in Indonesia or China. But most entry-level models offered by these same Japanese companies have for decades been made in Indonesia or China, and even models assembled in Japan often contain components made in Indonesia or China, and they perform and hold up well. Although the Japan-made models probably still have a slight edge in quality, the advice needs to be more nuanced—the best fit for a particular shopper will depend on the specific models being compared, their price differences, and that shopper’s budget, preferences, and plans for the piano’s use.
If a pianist or teacher accompanies you to a piano dealership to help you select a piano, they may be helpful in choosing one that performs well—especially in assessing the piano’s touch, an area in which you may have insufficient experience to judge. But, within certain limits, piano tone is like good ice cream: it comes in many flavors, and each of us will have his or her preference. Even if you think you’re “tone deaf,” chances are that, when comparing pianos side by side, you’ll prefer the sound of one over the other. Do you like a piano with a sound that’s brighter or mellower? Do you prefer a piano with rich and complex harmonics, or one with a crisper, cleaner sound with fewer harmonics? You may not know the answers now, but you will when you hear the pianos. Why buy a piano based on someone else’s tastes?
Even if you plan to get help or advice from a teacher or pianist, you should supplement it with advice from experts who keep up with changes in the piano market, how pianos are designed and made, and how they’re priced. That could include speaking with multiple piano salespeople and piano technicians (though not all technicians are knowledgeable about today’s market), and reading relevant information on pianobuyer.com.
#4: Buying the Salesperson, Not the Piano
If the piano shopper doesn’t play, and doesn’t bring along someone who does, it’s likely that the salesperson will be asked to demonstrate any contending instruments. As discussed in #3, above, tone quality is subjective, and nonplayers need the guidance of a demonstration to evaluate tone and establish preferences.
But keep in mind that, while wanting to help you, the salesperson is there to sell. Sales demonstrations are a great way to establish an emotional connection between the shopper, the salesperson, and the instrument. A salesperson does this by asking preliminary questions, and making an educated guess as to what to play to create a bond between you and the piano. Who doesn’t get misty-eyed when hearing “When You Wish Upon a Star”? After all, most of us fell in love with the Pinocchio story when we were four! And who isn’t moved by hearing an expressive rendition of “Over the Rainbow”? (For Baby Boomers, add in a little Billy Joel, Elton John, or anything from The Phantom of the Opera, and often the sale is made.)
It’s even possible, to some extent, for a salesperson to manipulate the demonstration to favor one piano over another—e.g., a more expensive instrument, or a slow seller—through the choice of music, how loud he or she plays, and so forth. If you sense this is happening, ask the salesperson to play the same pieces of music on all the pianos—or to play only scales, arpeggios, or chords, which are less easily manipulated than entire songs.
A fine player can make even a mediocre piano sound pretty good. Remember, the purpose of the demonstration is to find a piano whose tone you find pleasing, not to show off the salesperson’s talent. After all, the salesperson won’t be coming home with the piano!
#5: Buying a Piano Based on Discounts from List Price
Next to a house or a car, a piano is usually one of the most expensive purchases a household makes—and sometimes it’s even more expensive than those. Yet while the Internet is awash with information about home and auto prices, relatively little reliable information is available about the pricing of pianos. As a result, piano shoppers tend to rely on discounts from list price to gauge how good a deal they’re getting on a new piano. This is a mistake—the list prices themselves are often created by manufacturers based on little more than wishful thinking.
The manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) is a price provided by the manufacturer or distributor and is intended as a starting point from which dealers are expected to discount—only rarely does a customer pay this price. The MSRP is usually figured as a multiple of the wholesale price, but the specific multiple used differs from company to company. For that reason, it’s fruitless to compare prices of different brands by comparing discounts from MSRP. To see why, consider the following scenario: Manufacturer A sells brand A through its dealer A. The wholesale price to the dealer is $2,000, but for the purpose of setting the MSRP, the manufacturer doubles the wholesale price and sets the MSRP at $4,000. Dealer A offers a 25% discount off the MSRP, for a “street price” of $3,000.
Manufacturer B sells brand B through its dealer B. The wholesale price to the dealer is also $2,000, but manufacturer B triples the wholesale price and sets the MSRP at $6,000. Dealer B offers a generous 50% discount, for a street price of, again, $3,000. It’s important to note that there’s nothing about brand B that makes it deserving of a higher MSRP than brand A—how to compute the MSRP is essentially a calculated marketing strategy on the part of the manufacturer.
Although the street price is the same for both pianos, and the deals are actually identical, a customer shopping at both stores and knowing nothing about the wholesale price or how MSRPs are computed is likely to come away with the impression that brand B, with a discount of 50% off $6,000, is a more “valuable” piano and thus a better deal than brand A, with a discount of 25% off $4,000. Other factors aside, which dealer do you think will get the sale?
To overcome this problem, at Piano Buyer we compute a Suggested Maximum Price (SMP) for each model using a multiple of the wholesale price that is identical for every brand. This creates a level playing field from which discount comparisons across brands can be reliably made. The SMP is not a perfect solution to this problem—depending on relative purchasing and negotiating power, one dealer may pay a slightly different wholesale price from another dealer for a given model—but the SMP still makes possible much more accurate comparisons of prices than does the MSRP. More information about this and other piano-pricing issues can be found in the article “About Piano Prices” and in the Piano Buyer Model & Price Supplement.
Steve Cohen was born into the piano business. His grandfather started in the business in 1937, and four of his grandfather’s six sons (Steve’s father and three uncles) eventually founded dealerships as well. Now nearing retirement, Steve has spent his entire adult life running the family business, Jasons Music Center. Steve has also been a consultant to the piano industry, with clients such as Yamaha, Young Chang, and Samick; and is Piano Buyer’s Piano Industry Consultant and Contributing Editor. He can be reached at email@example.com, on Facebook at JasonsMusicCenter, or on LinkedIn at pianoguru.