By Joanie Brittingham
Professional musicians of all kinds, including pianists, piano teachers, classroom music teachers, singers, actors who perform in musicals, coaches, church and temple music directors, and accompanists, use the piano as their primary instrument. To the professional's detriment, our educational institutions and conservatories seldom include curricula on the piano's design, structure, care, and maintenance. Limited budgets for freelance musicians or those working for non-profit arts or education entities leave many professionals at a loss when it comes time to buy an instrument or stuck with a subpar piano for their daily work.
Not every professional musician will be playing a concert grand on a major stage like Carnegie Hall. Still, everyday music work at schools, theaters, opera houses, places of worship, and home and professional teaching studios is no less important to our culture and well-being as humans. In fact, it is how most people engage in music in their communities, raising the stakes of owning a good piano. If you are a working musician, I suggest doing a lot of homework before purchasing a piano. Making an informed purchase will enhance your career and allow you to do your best work in your musical community.
Pianists and singers do not receive education about maintaining their instruments like other instrumentalists. For example, most string players know how to restring their instruments, but many professional musicians don't know the first thing about basic piano maintenance and structure or how these things impact their everyday work. Take some time to fill this education gap before making a piano purchase.
If you are in school, find the technician for your department's instruments, and ask for a tour of their shop, or ask your department chair if the technician can schedule a "learn the piano" workshop. Piano technicians can access the inner workings of a piano and explain how the approximately 12,000 parts of the piano work and what technicians do to make the piano perform at its best. If you are not tied to a university, ask your technician if they can talk you through the piano or if the local chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild can host a workshop for professional musicians. Look for rebuilding shops near you and ask if they are willing to give you a tour. You'll have the opportunity to ask seasoned professionals questions about how the instrument works, which will give you greater depth as an artist or educator.
If you are a teacher, sharing that knowledge with your students is especially important. Not just technique and music theory need to be instilled at an early age. Knowledge of the piano as an instrument makes you stand out as an educator, whether in a private studio or classroom. It also presents opportunities for cross-disciplinary learning in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) focused modules.
Know Which Pianos to Avoid
Many developments in piano technology occurred in the 20th and now in the 21st century. The used market, in particular, is littered with mid-century instruments designed to be cheaply mass-produced at the expense of musical quality. You must be aware of these potential problems if you are considering a used piano. Avoid spinets and free pianos. Spinets, long out of production, were mediocre pianos when they were new decades ago and aren't recommended even for beginner piano students. I often describe spinets to my clients as the "Ikea" of pianos – they were selected at the time of purchase as an inexpensive and portable solution. However, Ikea furniture should not be restored, rebuilt, and passed down to another generation because the quality does not sustain long-term use. If you are a private instructor, you should know that a spinet does not prepare your students adequately for any modern piano's touch, feel, and sound.
A low-quality piano for any musician will limit musical growth and ability. For example, a mezzo-soprano told me she owns a spinet she got for free from Craigslist. It's a low-quality piano, and her technician tells her each time it is tuned, "Well, I did the best I can, but this instrument is on its way out." She believes this instrument to be "good enough" since she only uses it to reference her notes, which are in the middle of the piano. However, the piano's upper register, unstable on this particular piano, is essential for the overtones singers hear. Although her perception of this may be minimal, she's actually practicing with incorrectly beating overtones. This can become a serious problem when singers commit inaccurate pitches to muscle memory and then go to rehearsal on a better piano or a sitzprobe with an orchestra. A word of caution to my fellow singers: If your singing is in tune with your piano and you receive notes about tuning from the conductor in the orchestra rehearsals, the problem is less likely to be your ears and more likely that you are practicing on a bad instrument. The adage "practice makes permanent" is a reality that can damage your professional reputation.
While musicians, in general, tend to be very budget conscious, when it comes to piano purchases, there's a difference between being a savvy shopper and being cheap. If music is your livelihood, and there's no such thing as "too nice" a piano for your work. Buying a piano is much like buying a car: the cost is comparable, but a well-maintained, quality piano should last many years longer than a vehicle. Even if you are "just" using it to learn pitches for regional musicals or for teaching elementary school students, your contributions to the community are important, and you deserve a quality instrument that will enable you to do your best work.
Understand Your Everyday Piano Usage
When determining a piano budget, it is helpful to think about how you will use your piano on a daily basis. Much like a car's mileage, the age and condition of the piano will matter significantly to your daily work. Below are some questions to ask yourself - and a qualified technician - that can help narrow down the type of piano you need. From there, you can find an instrument that fits your budget. Finding a technician you trust before buying a piano is always helpful. They can steer you toward better instruments and help you apply language to the sound and feel you need or want to find in a piano. Become friends with your technician–they love professional musicians and want you to have the highest-performing instrument possible.
How many hours per day will this piano be in use?
Pianos used for 1-2 hours a day don't need to be tuned or regulated as frequently as those used 8-12 hours a day. A college practice room piano wears out parts and diminishes in quality much more quickly than a home piano that sees only a few hours of practice or teaching per day. Calculate how many hours you need the piano per day, week, and month, and talk to your technician about the best maintenance schedule. Manufacturers recommend tuning 2-4 times per year, depending on usage. Most technicians state that average home pianos must be regulated every 5-10 years. More frequent regulation and even adjustments made at every tuning appointment might be necessary for professional musicians. Include the costs and frequency of care in your budgeting. A piano that is not maintained is akin to buying a brand-new car and skipping oil changes. The car will never run at the capacity it can and should. While your piano is unlikely to explode from missing service, it can lead to tuning stability problems and, eventually, string breakage and other costly repair issues.
What kind of sound do I like?
No piano is ideal for both Mozart and Wagner. Some pianos have a bright tone, while others have a more mellow tone. If you are practicing or performing a variety of repertoire, look for a piano that lies somewhere in the tonal middle ground, but most importantly, choose a piano with the tone that you like. This is the instrument you must hear the most, so make sure it's something you enjoy. Jot down some words to describe your ideal tone; bright, clear, dark, mellow, rich. Specific brands and models fulfill these preferences better than others.
The tone or timbre of an instrument is something that a technician can adjust. Regardless of the specific tone you want in your piano, the tone quality should be even and predictable throughout the instrument. As instruments age, the hammer felt becomes worn and packed down. Planning for voicing as part of the instrument's maintenance can keep the piano's tone sounding the way you prefer.
What kind of touch do I want?
The feel of the piano is the secondary consideration, but very important for pianists and singers of all skill levels. You should have a predictable response from each key. In older pianos, the middle of the keyboard will have a less responsive touch simply from use over time. Regulation of the instrument is an essential service from your piano technician that can mitigate these problems as they develop over time and intense use.
Are you using it to learn pitches, accompany students, or make home recordings?
Make a list of your most frequent types of use for the piano. Both technicians and piano dealers can direct you to pianos best suited for your needs within the budget parameters you decide. Uprights and grands can be used for various needs as long as they are serviced regularly. For home recordings, a hybrid piano may be worth considering, as they offer the playing experience of an acoustic instrument but also allow you to record without the need for microphones.
What kind of space will the piano live in?
The acoustical experiences of a piano will differ according to the space in which you put it. A larger grand will sound wonderful in a concert hall but can sound muffled in a small living room or second bedroom. A smaller upright can sound tinny in a mid-sized band room or choir room but sounds perfect in a home studio. You may dream of having a Bösendorfer concert grand, but if you live in an apartment on the 35th floor, it may be too powerful for the space and create problems with your neighbors when you practice. You may need two pianos for your students, and the available space means they must be very close to one another. No matter where you put the piano, a major consideration is its proximity to a heating element. Being too close to a heater can void the warranty of a new piano and cause stability problems and dryness that can lead to cracks or damage.
Whatever your professional needs may be, consider all of these elements as you revise your budget. "Free" is not a budget and is unrealistic for professional musicians - both for purchasing and maintaining an instrument, whether acoustic or digital. Piano rentals or rent-to-buy instruments are options. For unionized performers, actor and musician credit unions have instrument loans with low-interest rates that can make piano ownership affordable. Many piano shops also have payment plan options for instrument purchases. No matter what you decide, a carefully considered piano purchase will yield years of high-level music-making for the professional musician.
Note By Note: The Making of Steinway Model L1037 is a fantastic documentary about Steinway's manufacturing process.
For a detailed view of a piano action, view these worksheets.
Visit Actors Federal Credit Union for information on instrument loans.
Joanie Brittingham is the editor of Classical Singer Magazine. She is a piano technician in the New York City metro area, who has studied at the New York School of Piano Tuning and is currently studying at the Butler School of Piano Technology. She is a member of the Piano Technicians Guild and serves on the Teacher Relations Committee. Brittingham is also an active performer and has been praised for her “dramatic versatility” (Opera News), “lovely soprano” (New York Times) and “captivating stage presence” (New York Classical Review). Brittingham has performed at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, and Symphony Space and with Riverside Theatre, the New Ohio Theatre, Chelsea Opera, the New Works Festival with OPERA America, and American Lyric Theatre.