One of the choices all instrumental musicians need to make is to decide which instrument to get. Pianists have several options, each with their pros and cons. I will list these here:
This is the ultimate instrument almost every pianist aspires to have. This is the instrument concert artists work and perform on. The keyboard mechanism (action) inside grand pianos is the most advanced and has the most tonal control, the quickest repetition (how fast the same key can be played in succession) the most tonal/dynamic range and the most power. The downsides of this instrument are the cost (grand pianos are expensive instruments, ranging from around £3,000 – £80,000) and the size of the instrument can be prohibitive (they range from 5 feet 4 inches to around 9 feet and weigh around 280-500 kg). This means they need to be in a fairly large room with good access to get the instrument into the building. When grand pianos are moved the legs are taken off which can allow them to go through single doors and other narrow spaces sideways. Grand pianos usually have three pedals: Una Corde (soft pedal, left) Sostenuto Pedal (sustains only the notes held when the pedal is depressed, middle) and the Damper Pedal (sustains all notes when the pedal is depressed, right). If a grand piano has only 2 pedals it will have only the Una Corde and Damper pedals. The Una Corde pedal on a grand piano actually moves the entire keyboard mechanism to the side (keys included), so that the hammers hit only two of the three strings per note in the treble, and hit the strings with the softer less-used part of the hammer felt in the bass notes.
Upright pianos were designed to take up much less space than grand pianos and also weigh a lot less, around 180-250 kg. The action is not quite as precise as on a grand piano, the control, repetition, dynamic and tonal range is a bit less and they are not quite as loud as a grand piano (although that can sometimes be a good thing). Upright pianos often have 3 pedals but the middle pedal is very seldom a Sostenuto Pedal. Instead, piano makers usually put in a practice mute. This is a piece of felt that is lowered between the hammers and the strings when the pedal is down. This makes the piano very quiet, which is great for practising late at night or when you don’t want to disturb anyone. Upright pianos cost from around £300 for second hand –£20,000. The Una Corde pedal on an upright piano moves the hammers closer to the strings, which makes the sound a little softer but does not change the colour of the sound as it would on a grand piano. Upright and grand pianos are acoustic pianos and so have a much richer and more natural sound than their electronic cousins. The sound is produced by strings and a wooden soundboard rather than by a set of speakers that the digital piano and keyboard use to make their sound. Most advanced pianists require an acoustic piano.
Digital pianos are essentially advanced keyboards. There is a fair amount of crossover between digital pianos and keyboards these days. Digital pianos have weighted keys, that is, the keys imitate the weight differences in the keys of acoustic pianos (the keys get lighter as you travel right up the keyboard, and heavier when you travel left down the keyboard). Digital pianos are much lighter than acoustic pianos, weighing under 100 kg, and are much more portable, although not as portable as keyboards. Being a digital instrument has advantages such as backing tracks (having other instruments play with you as you play) and also have a huge sound data bank so you can change the sound of your piano to one of many pianos or even other instruments. Digital pianos range from around £900 –£3,000. Digital pianos usually have all 3 pedals. They can be used with headphones which means you can practice on it making very little sound at all.
All of these other instruments have 88 keys as the standard size. Keyboards tend to have less than this, though the more expensive keyboards are similar to digital pianos with 88 keys that are weighted. Sometimes you need to have an amplifier if the keyboard does not have its own speakers, but most of them do have speakers inbuilt. Many keyboards have 61 keys and are not weighted, so they do not have the same feel as an acoustic piano. These smaller keyboards are great for beginners though, especially if you don’t want to invest in an expensive instrument until you know how much it will be played. I myself started out with a small 61 key keyboard and it should be suitable for the first few years of study for the average student. Keyboards often come with no pedal so this must be purchased separately. The Damper pedal (sometimes called ‘Sustain Pedal’) is essential to piano playing so I would strongly advise one is bought as soon as you get the instrument. A Damper Pedal costs around £10 –£25. Keyboards range in price from £250 –£2000.
Other tips when choosing a piano:
- Always get somebody who knows about pianos to try out any instrument you are thinking of purchasing.
- Acoustic pianos have an average life of 60 years, so it is fine to get a second hand piano if it’s in good condition. If you buy a new acoustic piano it takes around 1-3 years to ‘wear it in’ so it will actually start to sound better after it has been played for a year or two.
- Take note of the humidity of the area the piano will housed. Too damp and the keys will start to stick, too dry and the wood can split. Around 40%-60% humidity is optimum for a piano. If your house is really dry you may need to add a potted plant or a little bit of water to the room, or if it’s damp use a dehumidifier. Also, the more stable the climate of the room (lower daily fluctuations in temperature and humidity) the better your piano will stay in tune.
- Acoustic pianos need to be tuned around once per year. This costs around £50 but is essential maintenance. If it is not tuned for a number of years it will tend to go flat and it can be very difficult and expensive to get it back in tune. So it is best and cheaper to keep pianos tuned once a year to protect your investment.
- Digital pianos and keyboards do not need tuning and seldom need any maintenance. Also, they are not affected by humidity.
- Yamaha have a piano that is a cross between a digital piano and an acoustic piano. It is essentially an acoustic piano that you can also plug headphones into and use as a digital piano, disengaging the strings. You can read about it here.
- Digital pianos and keyboards can be bought second hand, but I personally would recommend buying new as the technology is moving ahead fast and the second hand ones are usually not that much cheaper than the new ones.
- Each piano is unique, especially acoustic pianos. Each piano has its own personality, sound and feel to it. Even between the same model of the same piano brand there can be huge differences. One Kawai K-5 can be much better than another Kawai K-5, even though they should be the same theoretically. This is also true of digital pianos, but to a lesser extent. That is why it is so important to play on a wide range of instruments to see which ones you like, or to get someone who knows what they are doing to help you choose.
- A great website for piano related information on a wide range of topics is http://www.pianoworld.com/