What Should You Consider When Buying a Piano?

By: Jack L. Ralston

The piano at home no longer held its pitch so it was donated to the church. That’s the way many churches come to have such a hodgepodge of pianos. Maybe that’s what happened in your church, and you’ve got a problem that needs to be corrected. What can be done about it?

A survey of the piano needs within the church is a good place to begin. The condition of each piano now owned should be assessed and those which are “beyond the pale” should be marked for replacement by proper instruments for making a joyful noise unto the Lord (not just a noise!). The pianos in the music room and sanctuary should be checked as well. The ability of the piano to hold its tune, the proper projection of the tone, and the general condition and the quality of the sound should be checked.

If you are in doubt, have the tuner as well as the musicians check each instrument. If you would be ashamed to have a fine pianist play on your pianos, they probably are candidates for replacement.

A committee should be involved in the selection of church instruments. It is wise to have at least two pianists test a piano before it is purchased. One reason for this is that not all pianists use foot pedals in the same way.

There are four kinds of pianos/keyboard instruments you should know about.

The first is the vertical piano, sometimes called a studio piano. In shopping for a new or used vertical piano the following items should be considered: a full 88-note keyboard; locking fall board; braces for the legs; large casters for easy rolling (or a rubber-wheeled undercarriage); a top which can be propped open; the finish and style of design; the height of the instrument (do you need to be able to see over the top to watch the conductor or see the organist?); the music rack (can it hold several books at a time?).

The second type of piano is the grand piano. The following should be considered: the size desired in length (5’8″ up to 9′); the use of a rubber-wheeled under-carriage which will raise the height of the keyboard but allow the grand to be moved easily across the floor without damaging the carpet or finish; the availability of an adjustable piano stool (particularly important if keyboard is raised); the high and low prop stick for opening the lid; the types of finish and style available to match the place where the grand is to be placed.

The third type is the electronic piano which is actually electro-mechanical. The tone is generally produced by a keyboard-actuated metal bar which has an amplified pickup. Things to consider: the portability of the piano-does it break down into two parts which can be carried easily (use of a hand-truck is recommended over carrying by the installed handles); the use of a self-contained amplifier which will allow the instrument to stand alone without additional equipment; the use of input as well as output plugs so that a microphone can be used with the piano as well as external connection into the church’s sound system. The keys should be full-sized standard keys, the pedal should be sustaining, and the volume, tone and vibrato adjustments should be available for quick and easy changes.

The fourth type of keyboard is the synthesizer which is fully electronic. Think on these things: there should be as many full-sized keys as possible (61 minimum, but 88 would be preferable); rhythm and special effects devices such as the automatic arpeggio should be easily operable; volume and tone controls should be accessible while playing; and the instrument must be tunable to the fixed-tune piano and organ.

General considerations which apply to the quality of the piano if it is a stringed type include the length of the bass strings. Generally, the longer the strings, the better the quality of tone attained. The bass tones should be deep and resonant with the overtones being very rich. Middle tones should be melodic and yet sound good when chords are played in that area. The treble should be bright and silvery but not harsh and metallic.

On the grand piano, the three pedals should be a shifting una corda or soft pedal on the left, a sostenuto pedal rather than just a bass sustaining pedal in the middle, and the standard sustaining (sometimes called the “loud” pedal) on the right.

On a vertical piano, the left pedal should make the sound softer by moving the hanuners closer to the strings without any movement of the keys, the middle pedal may be a bass sustaining pedal, and the right pedal should be the standard sustaining pedal.

When selecting a dealer, check the availability of the particular model you wish to purchase so that it will be possible to play the exact instrument you are purchasing. If it must be special ordered, insist on having the instrument set up in the store so that it may be tested in advance of accepting delivery.

On the purchase of a grand the dealer normally provides an additional charge an in-store tuning and at least two tunings after the delivery (at the interval of six months and one year). With a vertical piano only the tuning in the store and one tuning after delivery are customarily provided.

The price should be negotiated with clear understanding of the delivery tunings, warranty and inclusion of the standard bench. The undercarriages and adjustable benches are generally extra.

Every grand piano needs a fleece-lined cover to protect it against abuse and variations in temperature and humidity. A common practice includes locking the fall board on grand pianos to prevent unauthorized use and damage. With all instruments be sure to protect from excessive heat, coldness and high humidity.

All instruments need regular tuning and adjustment to maintain their best level of performance. Keep a list of problems with the instrument and check after the tuner has worked on the piano to see that the proper repairs have been made.

The piano is the “work horse” of the church music program. In Sunday school rooms, the rehearsal rooms and the sanctuary, this instrument is frequently abused and neglected, but it should not be so.

Children should be encouraged to treat all musical instruments with proper respect, and regular maintenance should be performed on all instruments-even those in the Sunday school classrooms.

Jack L. Ralston is fine arts librarian at CBN University, Virginia Beach, Virginia. He holds the degrees of bachelor and master of music in organ and master of library science. Ralston received his degrees from the Conservatory of Music of Kansas City (now University of Missouri-Kansas City) and George Peabody College (now Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.) He served 20 years as music librarian at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, before joining CBN University in 1980.

(The above material originally appeared in Ministries Magazine.)

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