Thursday, May 7, 2009

Buying piano objectives by Digitus

When you buy a piano you are trying to satisfy three objectives:
Good tone and touch
Meet a budget
Have access to a piano tech who can help you keep the piano in good shapeI'll give two answers, a short one and a long one.The Short AnswerSet your budget at somewhere between $6,000 and $12,000. More is better. Get a piano from Yamaha, Kawai or Hailun that meets your budget. If you have deep pockets then you need to read the long answer.The Long AnswerThe first two objectives are often mutually exclusive, but it is possible to find a good compromise. But you MUST do your homework.If you haven't already got Larry Fine's Piano Book please do so ASAP. It condenses into one volume all the essential things you need to know about how pianos work, how to care for them (though variations are needed for a tropical climate), and how to at least be able to inspect a piano to determine its general physical condition. It also gives a rundown of all the brands available in North America. Obviously a large subset of those brands are also available here in Singapore, and that's why the book is still valuable in the local context. There are two things about the Piano Book that you need to keep in mind.First, the prices in the Piano Book are valid only for the U.S. Nevertheless you can still use them as a very rough guide to relative pricing differences in Singapore. It doesn’t always work. For example, Steinway pianos in the U.S. are made in their factory in Astoria, NY. Steinway pianos in Singapore come from the Hamburg factory, and their prices are significantly higher than the equivalent NY Steinway models. Also, some models that a manufacturer offers in the U.S. aren’t available in Singapore, and vice versa.Second, the piano categories (referred to in the piano world as ‘tiers’) must not be taken as the Gospel Truth. Even Larry Fine himself warns against that, but many people seem to think that he is the God of Pianos and therefore what he says must be so. Nevertheless, the Piano Book’s categorization is still useful because it gives an idea of how a manufacturer stands in relation to all other brands. It may not be entirely accurate and is subjective to a point, but there is nothing else out there that even comes close to bringing some structure and sanity to the task of buying a piano.After having been suitably educated, you then start making the rounds of the dealers and playing on on as many pianos as you can, good and bad. That’s if you are looking for a new piano. If you are in the market for a second-hand piano then you will have to also scan the newspaper classifieds, supermarket bulletin boards, etc. It is useful to set yourself a budget to start with, and have an idea of how much upward flex you have. What many, many piano buyers (including myself) have found is that piano shopping is Very Bad (TM) for your wallet.Beginners are not the only people new to pianos. Many expert players (yes including teachers), are also new to pianos. Why do I say this? Well, if all you’ve ever had exposure to was the upright (on which you clawed your way up to Grade 8 or ABRSM diploma) and the examination piano, then you are new to pianos. In other words you have not had exposure to a good range of what’s available, from the very best (in Larry Fine’s Tier 1), to the inexpensive mass market brands (in Tier 4).Therefore, in order to make an informed choice, you need a baseline from which you can reference and compare other pianos as you do your search. You can use any piano or brand as your baseline, but I strongly suggest that you pick a brand from Tier 1 or a good one from Tier 2. Even better (if your skin is thick enough, heheh) is to sample as many pianos from the Tier 1 & 2 brands as you can find. None, I repeat, none of the brands are intended to sound or feel alike. There will even be variations within a brand. And there will be variation between different pianos of the same model, though this is generally less, particularly from the large, high-quality mass market manufacturers.So, the idea is to work your way down the brands in the Piano Book’s tiers until you find a piano that meets your budget and has the most agreeable tone and touch for you at that price.I am almost certain that at some point in your search you will toy with the idea of increasing your budget by some big number! I did. Twice -- once for an upright and once for a grand piano! But please be sensible OK? Don’t sell the dog, spouse, kids, and home just to get the piano of your dreams. A more modestly priced piano can still be a tremendous instrument to play on if it has been properly prepped and tuned.So, now that you are about to embark on your top-down piano search, you run up against your first problem. Not all of the Tier 1 brands are represented , even though their web sites may list one or more dealers. Then, of the Tier 1 brands that are really represented, not all their models are available for demo here. But that’s OK if all you want is a reference point.If you are buying a Tier 1 piano then there are two ways around this: buy sight unseen, or visit the factory. Buying sight unseen is not for the faint-hearted, and you must have enough trust and confidence in the manufacturer’s ability to deliver a piano with their signature tone and touch. The tech then must be skillful enough to be able to do fine adjustments to the voice to suit the buyer. The tech must also be competent enough to be able to troubleshoot and fix all but the most serious problems that might arise.And then the next problem - not all dealers of Tier 1 and even Tier 2 pianos properly prep nor tune their showroom units. That’s a shame. It’s like walking into the a car showroom and going for a test-drive in a car with under-inflated tires, wrong octane petrol in the tank and engine not firing on all cylinders. Also, showrooms can be acoustically dreadful. Some are so acoustically dead that the piano sounds dull and lifeless. Some are so ‘live’ that you get aurally fatigued after playing for 5 or 10 minutes. You’ll have to try to compensate mentally for the showroom acoustics.To assess a piano's tone, one of the best ways is to have someone else play the piano while you step away from it. The piano bench is actually not where you hear the piano’s full and true tone. Typically the piano store will have at least one person who can play a bit for you. If they don't then bring along a friend who can!As for the piano's touch, well you have to prepare a fixed set of tests and play it yourself at every piano that you are looking at. The Piano Book has some suggestions. You can also add things like pieces you have already learned. Don't feel shy about playing even if you are a beginner. It's not an ego contest. Everybody had to start somewhere, even the flashy player showing off his/her skills in the showroom. If the sales rep treats you like dirt or you feel that he/she is trying to do a hard-sell job on you, just walk out. You have choices.You may ask how a beginner with very basic keyboard skills can tell what's good and bad about a piano's touch. Actually, its not that critical. Touch becomes really critical only when you reach higher skill levels, where the successful execution of difficult passages can depend on the quality of the piano's action. But it really doesn't hurt to try to educate your fingers as early and as often as possible. Many piano owners, including expert players, still visit showrooms to play on other pianos. It's a sickness! As for piano inspections, you must do them if you are buying a second-hand piano from a private seller. Also ask about the piano’s history. There just aren’t many piano techs that you can confidently engage to assess a piano for you, so you’d better learn how to do it yourself. The Piano Book give you some useful tips about this. If you are buying the piano (new or second-hand) from a dealer, then you’ll just have to trust that the dealer has prepped and/or repaired the piano properly, and that the warranty means something.The third objective is kind of hard to meet in Singapore because there is only a handful of very good techs here. Otherwise, the general level of piano tech expertise here is only just adequate, even within the largest piano dealers/agents. I know this statement is offensive to piano techs in Singapore, but that has been my experience, and also the experience of other piano owners that I know. It's not that they are willfully mediocre, but because the level and quality of training here is just not comparable to what is available in the U.S. and Europe.Fortunately, pianos from the established and reputable brands are usually well-made. If you look after them properly and nothing bad happens within the first couple of years then they are likely to last for years, decades even. If you require access to better techs than what your dealer can provide then you can always ask for recommendations in this forum.The piano trade in Singapore seems to be particularly vicious compared to say in the North American continent and Europe. The market is small, popularity of the piano is falling, and there are too many dealers. As a result, some dealers resort unnecessarily to ‘creative’ sales and marketing tactics that are sometimes downright distasteful (such as bad-mouthing other brands and dealers). Be wary of a dealer that does this instead of selling his or her pianos on their own merits. Actually if I hear Dealer A saying bad things about Dealer B and the brands that he carries, my instinct would be to go and check out the competition! I did, and I ended up buying my grand piano from Dealer B and I could not be happier with my choice. To me, if a dealer is saying bad things about another dealer or another brand, it tells me that the dealer is afraid of his competition. If he wasn't then there is no need to try to shoot down the competition. So it is in your own self-interests to forearm yourself with enough knowledge about the piano before you open your wallet. At the very least you must have a basic understanding of how a piano’s mechanicals work and something about the maufacturers and brands that are available.

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