Key to Piano-Buying: Before Spending Cash, Sound Out an Expert

From Reuters

Buying a piano is a complex art. The quest for the right instrument can be as personal as buying a house. As an investment, a well-treated piano tends to retain value. And in terms of potential pleasure and satisfaction, its dividends are nearly limitless.

Undeniably, some things the potential purchaser of a piano must take into account are practical. How much can a person afford to spend? A few hundred dollars or tens of thousands? Should one buy an instrument outright or try to rent it first? Should one buy a new instrument from a showroom or search the classifieds for a used one? Is the piano for a professional or a beginning piano student?

Aesthetic and spiritual considerations also play a part in the purchase. Does the buyer want an instrument that will lend beauty and a sense of permanence to the home? Does the buyer want the instrument to signal--to children or close friends--a commitment to music and culture at home?

Irene Edelman, a piano teacher on the faculty of Mannes College's Music Preparatory division in New York, advises parents against buying a grand piano for a child who has just begun piano lessons. "Don't go into a store and buy something for $1,500 or $2,000," she says. "Look in the newspapers for classified ads or on the bulletin boards of music schools for an instrument for several hundred dollars."

For many people, space is also a consideration. An upright piano, which stands against a wall, takes less space than a grand piano. Edelman says she likes Steinway or Yamaha uprights but notes that other manufacturers also make good instruments. One of her students recently bought "a pretty good Baldwin upright for only $800."

Luck is useful, and persistence is necessary when searching for a good instrument at a good price.

A comparison between buying a used piano and a used car is unromantic, but apt in some respects, experts say. Just as one should ask one's mechanic to check a used car, ask someone knowledgeable to examine the piano you are considering.

"If you don't know anything, bring a technician with you," said Manhattan piano teacher Eve Wolf. "The piano should be in good physical shape. The sounding board (the board forming the upper portion of the piano's resonant chamber) should not be cracked."

Mark Pakman, a faculty member at the Manhattan School of Music and New Jersey's Montclair State University, agreed. After you have taken the time necessary to find an instrument with a pleasing sound, you should enlist the help of a professional technician to examine the piano. The technician should evaluate what kind of repairs the piano might need and when, said Pakman. "Sometimes a piano has cracks; its condition might not be suitable."

If you are buying a new piano, know your budget but be a little flexible, advises Bruce Nidd, sales manager at Piano Piano, a piano store located near Carnegie Hall in Manhattan.

"Most people come in hoping to spend less than they will eventually spend," Nidd said. "The style and finish of the piano may make a difference in its price."

Piano Piano has rental arrangements for people whose children are just starting piano lessons. But Nidd said buyers should beware of many rental plans because while the monthly payments can often be directed toward a purchase later, they are frequently applied to the piano's full list price, denying the buyer the opportunity to buy at a sale price.

For at least two experts, the question of what piano to buy for a young child reveals the crux of what buying a piano is all about.

Franz Mohr, who in his 30 years as chief technician for Steinway & Sons helped choose instruments for musical giants like Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubenstein, said people often ask him why they should buy the best piano they can afford for a child whose commitment to music lessons is still unknown.

"For me, whether you are professional or not, whether you are young or old, you should play the best piano you can," Mohr said. "The problem with starting with a cheap piano is that a piano has to inspire. It has to have an excellent tone. Youngsters have wonderful hearing, and if you give them an excellent piano and a good teacher, they will do much better."

Wolf, the teacher, agreed, saying people should buy the most beautiful instrument they can afford.

"A piano is something very beautiful and inspiring to have in your home, and it's much more likely that someone--an adult or a child--will study music if it's there," she said.

Wolf believes renting a piano can send the wrong message.

"People have to make a commitment to the piano and part of the commitment is buying it," she said. "Parents cannot give a child the message, 'Produce in a year, or else we're getting rid of the piano.' A year is not enough to judge. Parents have to transmit the idea to the child that they are buying a piano because they want music in their home."

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