You & Your Instrument: Acoustic Pianos
In the first article in this series, we discussed the choice between digital and acoustic pianos. For those considering a digital piano, we included some advice, but as to the purchase of an acoustic piano, we decided that dark art needed its own post.
Are you considering buying your first real piano? Or perhaps upgrading your beloved old clunker with something shiny and new? It’s an exciting prospect, but one with many traps for the unwary. Here’s a little advice about the kinds of pianos you may consider.
Acoustic pianos are usually divided into two categories: the Grand and the Upright. As the name suggests, the Grand is the more ‘upmarket’ and usually the more expensive, but that doesn’t mean that it’s automatically the better choice even if you have the money.
So, other than the size and shape, what’s the real difference between an upright and a grand? Grands generally give a richer, fuller and more musical sound, with deeper bass and sweeter high notes. They will also offer a greater variety of expressive possibilities, with a greater dynamic range (from the softest to the strongest notes) and more ‘colour’. For example, the left pedal (sometimes called the ‘soft’ or ‘una corda’) of a grand works differently to an upright, providing a mellower sound with a softer attack. A grand typically has a somewhat more sensitive touch than an upright, which can take some getting used to, but allows a skilled pianist maximum control of the dynamics, from pianississimo to fortississimo.
Pay a visit to a piano store and compare a good-quality upright with even a mid-range grand. Actually, depending on your playing skills, you may not pick up much difference, but if so, see if you can arrange for a friend who plays well to give you a demo.
The appeal of a grand piano in the living room can tempt the buyer on a limited budget to consider a baby grand. String length (and the length of the soundboard, the ‘loudspeaker’ of the piano) is a major determinant of sound quality, and the short string length of a baby grand can give it a weaker sound than a bigger grand. On the other hand, a good upright will be designed to make the most out of its string length (including the fact that being against a wall can amplify the bass somewhat), and in fact, the biggest uprights may have longer strings than a baby grand. Add to that the extra space a baby grand takes up and you may well find the upright is a better choice.
But let’s say you have the budget for a somewhat bigger grand piano, as well as the space. We’ve implied that bigger is better, but there’s a limit. Bigger grands are really at their best in a large hall where they can fill the space. In even a large domestic space, a very big piano may never have the opportunity to really show its potential. A good piano played with strength is not only louder, but also has, by design, a different kind of sound, bolder and brassier. If it’s too loud for the room at its loudest, you may never experience that expressive character. It’s a bit like only ever driving your Ferrari around the suburbs.
Other reasons you might choose a grand over an upright might be if you plan to record with it, or perhaps if you have a vision of hosting house concerts. And if you’re very serious about your playing, you will probably ultimately reach the expressive limits of an upright. But for most people, a good-quality upright will give years of satisfaction before any upgrade is warranted.
That said, just focusing on uprights doesn’t necessarily reduce your choice that much! There are many sizes and body types, and their sound will vary surprisingly too. Much of this will come down to personal taste. Remember that a piano is usually a long-term investment. Try to project yourself into the future and imagine how its sound, feel and look will appeal to you in several years’ time. That’s not easy to do, although one piece of advice that you can usually count on is that a bigger instrument is likely to offer a richer sound and greater reward as you develop.
Once again, if you have a helpful friend who plays well, I recommend you bring them along to put a few of those babies through their paces. They may be able to offer some advice about how ‘future-proof’ a particular instrument might be. We haven’t met a good pianist who doesn’t relish the prospect of being set free in a room full of beautiful pianos.
Next time, we’ll discuss another important choice: acoustic piano, new or second hand?
Vincent Tarin is a French-born piano technician, graduating from The Itemm Academy, Le Mans as a fully certified piano tuner, working subsequently in Ireland and doing further training in Germany, before settling in Melbourne. He is a member of the BDK guild and a certified concert piano technician, and is experienced in workshop, client service, concert and factory work. In his spare time he loves to play the theremin and musical saw.