Apple Valley Guitar and Piano Academy
Piano Buying Guide
PLAY BEFORE YOU BUY
We recommend playing any instrument before it is delivered to your home. The reason: each brand/model has a different tone quality at various points along the keyboard, and a different feel when pressing the keys.
ORIGIN OF THE PIANO
The piano was invented by Cristofori in the late 1600s. His main achievement was individual keys that play at many different volume levels. Thus, his invention was often referred to as the "fortepiano", which means "loud soft" in Italian. (In some cases, the words were reversed to equal "pianoforte". Eventually, this was reduced to the modern name "piano".)
In turn, the primary objective of piano lessons--apart from learning to press the keys properly--is control of volume. Indications to do so appear even in beginner music, such as "f" (loud) and "p" (soft).
Therefore, all piano academy students should have a home instrument with variable-volume keys.
KEYBOARD INSTRUMENT TYPES
There are two types of keyboard instruments used for formal piano lessons: acoustic and electronic ("digital").
When an acoustic piano key is pressed down, it triggers movement of an internal action. The action moves a felt-covered hammer that strikes 1-3 metal strings simultaneously, causing a wooden soundboard to vibrate. At the same time, a felt-covered damper lifts off the string/s. When the key is released, the damper falls back down and silences the note.
An acoustic piano has a damper pedal that raises all the dampers at once. This allows strings that are not immediately struck by hammers to vibrate along with the notes that are currently played. The result is a rich, atmospheric sound referred to as damper pedal resonance. As the pedal is pressed further and further towards the floor, the effect intensifies. Overall, it is so important that the famous concert pianist Anton Rubinstein called it "the soul of the piano".
A damper pedal also allows a series of notes to sustain and combine after they've been released by the fingers. This feature is often used to play "arpeggio songs", where the hands across a wide range of the keyboard.
The soundboard of a vertical ("upright") piano is perpendicular to the floor and enclosed on the near side. Grand piano soundboards are horizontal and exposed to the air on both sides, which allows for wider sound dispersion.
Grands also have a better key action with longer internal keysticks, faster key repetition, gravity-based reset, and a true "soft" or una corda pedal that moves the whole keyboard slightly to the right for a mellower tone.
Thus, grand pianos are preferred over verticals unless limited space is a factor in the home, or their price exceeds the parents' budget. (Starter verticals are about 1/3 to 1/2 the price of the smallest grands by the same manufacturer.)
Digital pianos produce sound by playing pre-recorded notes through speakers as each key is pressed.
Damper pedal resonance on a digital piano is simulated with electronics as opposed to the real string/soundboard vibrations of an acoustic. In the case of many digital models, it can only be turned on or off rather than varying in intensity. Better quality digitals, like acoustics, have a variable damper pedal, which should be considered an essential feature for any piano student.
PIANO ACTION "WEIGHT"
Avoid pianos with keys that are heavy or difficult to press, as this can lead to chronic pain in the muscles that control the fingers.
The claim that heavy keys improve "control" is irrelevant if you can't play due to injuries or chronic discomfort. Also, numerous legendary concert pianists like Vladimir Horowitz had the actions of their pianos lightened.
SHOULD YOU BUY AN ACOUSTIC OR DIGITAL PIANO ?
A digital piano is an inexpensive alternative until your child demonstrates the interest to continue lessons over the long term.
While it's always best to start with an acoustic, full-featured digitals are adequate for beginners learning the basic aspects of key technique and volume/tone control.
However, the eventual goal of lessons is learning to play an acoustic piano, whose key feel, volume/touch control, tone qualities, and damper pedal resonance are substantially different than a digital. Therefore, beyond the second year of lessons, we recommend a new studio-size vertical piano, such as the Paul A. Schmitt 46", available at Schmitt Music in Burnsville.
Privately-owned acoustic pianos older than 20 years may appear to be bargains--until you discover the extensive work they need to function properly and produce a pleasing tone. In addition, some may not hold a tune very well. If so, the money spent on them is wasted. Therefore, a technician should inspect any used piano of interest, and provide an estimate of needed adjustments, maintenance or repairs. At minimum, with older privately-owned pianos, expect to pay for 1-2 tunings, softening and/or shaping of the hammers, and adjustment of the key action (regulation).
Used digitals are usually out of date technologically. In contrast, the price of new ones goes down steadily every year while the sound quality and features improve.
Note: No used instrument has a warranty when purchased from a private party, and repairing any type of piano can be expensive.
Electronic pianos that play at only one volume level and/or have small keys are universally considered unacceptable for students taking piano lessons. It's better to delay enrollment until purchase of the minimum digital piano configuration below is possible.
MINIMUM DIGITAL PIANO FEATURES
Feature 1. 88 full-size keys
Feature 2. Velocity sensitive keys that can change volume from soft to loud
Feature 3. Weighted keys (not "springy" as found on toy/cheap keyboards)
To prepare students for playing an actual piano, we recommend hammer action keys. This feature essentially coincides with "weighted keys", and often, the term weighted hammer action is used instead.
Feature 4. A damper pedal.
First-year music for children occasionally requires use of the damper pedal. Thus, digitals without one are not adequate.
Digitals with onboard pedals built into the overall structure of the instrument or on optional "pedal boards" are essential because they are located in the same stable position as those on acoustic pianos.
We don't recommend damper pedals attached with cables to the keyboard, as they easily move around the floor, causing problems with pedaling technique.
As noted earlier, choose a digital with a variable damper pedal if at all possible.
These are necessary so the student can easily see their music. Therefore, make sure any digital piano you select has one built in, or allows the possibility of a stable add-on.
DIGITAL PIANO CONFIGURATIONS: CONSOLE VS. STAGE
Digital pianos manufactured with built-in legs are what we call "console" configurations, as they are similar in appearance to acoustic console pianos. Apart from a few exceptions, console digitals are the only type that have the preferred onboard damper pedal.
Typical "stage" pianos are just a keyboard with speakers, and sit on a separate "X" stand. They are easy to knock over, and can cause serious injury to babies and toddlers in the vicinity. They're not recommended unless they have the five features above and can be upgraded by adding vertical legs and a pedal board. One example is the Casio PX-160. However, its stability is less than a heavier one-piece console.
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