Buying a piano

April 27, 2014 at 04:49 PM · I'm finally moving into a house that's got enough room for a grand piano. I don't really play the piano myself, though, so the piano is going to be used mostly for accompanying, and for chamber music.

I'd like to get a piano that has a good touch, and a sensitivity of response that allows it to sound good at the lower volumes required to accompany, as well as the more full-bodied sound for group chamber music. It's going into a big room (a big basement rec room), so size is not an issue. I figure I'd prefer the sound of a grand, but an upright is fine too.

Anyone have suggestions for what I should look for?

Unfortunately, right now, what I really love the touch and sound of is a Mason and Hamlin 7-foot BB grand, or a Steinway model M (or better yet, a model O at 5'10"). These are so expensive, though, that for sheer delight I think I'd be happier buying a better bow. ;-)

Replies (27)

April 27, 2014 at 05:23 PM · ...size might still be an issue...will it fit down your basement stairs for example?

I bought a small apartment sized upright for my daughter...measured it and the doorways...and even after taking off the door jamb, it still didn't fit through the doorway (into the practice room). It's just a 1/4" too wide.

Now it's in her living room...and she has no sofa...lol.

April 27, 2014 at 07:09 PM · I have a Yamaha baby grand. Yamaha's are well made and you get alot for the price. If you don't play yourself, ask one of your piano playing friends to accompany you shopping.

April 27, 2014 at 08:51 PM · Yamahas have a really heavy clunky action, Steinways have one of the lightest smoothest actions, don't know about the other brands. A fully restored antique might be quite a bit cheaper than a new one, however antiques have a brighter, more complex sound which you either love or hate.

April 27, 2014 at 09:15 PM · Ask your pianist friends to recommend a high level piano tuner/technician and ask that person to find a used instrument that fits your needs. You can get a great instrument for half or less what you would pay for a new one. And the old instruments are often better than the new ones.

April 28, 2014 at 10:17 PM · We have a 1927 Steinway M for our shop. $5000 from Craigslist plus $15000 for a total restoration except for the soundboard, which was mostly fine as is) and we have a GREAT piano. Well worth it and everyone who plays here loves it.

April 29, 2014 at 01:07 AM · My sister is a pianist/teacher in Towson and may have some recommendations for brands, sizes, and retailers. You may contact her through her teaching website, www.pianoprodigies.com

April 29, 2014 at 06:27 AM · There are excellent pianos from many different makers, but the main issue is that the instrument is in good condition and well-regulated (just tuning is not enough). Many people have poor experiences with certain brands, but many times that just arises because they've only played really bad examples.

My wife and I own a 6' Kawai and it is an excellent instrument, very responsive with a clear, resonant, tone. My sister had a Yamaha that was also very good, a very consistent sound throughout all the registers and not clunky in the slightest. I teach at an All-Steinway School and we've got some fabulous pianos...while the model D is certainly not economical, there are options from their Boston line (made for them to their specs by Kawai in Japan) that are quite good for a fraction of the cost.

I have a Boston GP-178 PE, which is a 5'10" grand in my classroom, which gets a heavy workout every weekday in my chamber music courses and for private lessons with our piano program. It's a very good value for the cost...about a third of the equivalent NY Steinway, and it has a bit of that nice dark, smooth, sound. :)

April 29, 2014 at 01:22 PM · Hi Lydia,

Congrats on your house and upcoming piano purchase. You will absolutely love having a great piano available for accompaniment and chamber music.

It is important to get in touch with (and make friends with) a reputable and knowledgeable piano technician. There is a "piano technicians guild" which might be able to guide you. They should help to guide you in your search, be it new or used.

Another important thing is sizing it properly for the room. Unlike a violin, the piano will stay in one place and can be picked based on size (and size of sound).

11 years ago I purchased a new Yamaha C3 that both my technician and accompanists adore.

There are two levels of Yamaha, and the lower series (G I think) didn't impress me with their action or sound.

Good luck!

April 30, 2014 at 12:15 PM · Beckstein is a wonderful piano for chamber music.

Andy

April 30, 2014 at 01:30 PM · I second Andy's suggestion, if only because the piano we had at home when I was a lad, and learned on, was a Bechstein grand.

May 4, 2014 at 02:53 PM · A piano which has great response, clear ringing notes in the high reaches, deep rich bass is my preference as a pianist.

My piano is a second hand Yamaha upright - and im finding now that although it has a deep resonant rich bass and twinkly higher register, the middle C range to the left is loud, but to the right is soft, so I'm having trouble bringing out melodies and trying to control the left hand - I'm overcompensating by playing too hard on the right and too soft on the left. So the lesson is to ensure uniformity of sound across the length of the whole keyboard. Also make sure the pedals don't squeak if you're getting a 2nd hand ...

I personally find Yamaha uprights harsh, and Yamaha grands bright and slightly harsh. Response tends to be a bit heavier in the keys

Once I played a full steinway D which was very bright, but the response was beautiful and sensitive - of course, too big for a home (it was overpowering the cellist I was playing with in Beethoven Triple concerto) and also the orchestra at some points despite me playing very lightly! (this was a community orchestra performance so I'm giving myself some slack ;) )

I like Kawai (find them gentle and twinkly), and of course love Steinway (but affordability is an issue).

Baldwins are also my favourite, they tend to be deeper and resonant, more well rounded than kawai or yamaha of the same length

The smaller the grand piano, the smaller the sound, also the bass would not be as deep or resonant as a longer grand.

Accoustically, the piano sound should be suitable to the room/house - if the sound is too 'big' it will overpower all other instruments. Grand pianos tend to project to the back of the room, whereas string instruments will sound softer towards the back of the room (in a big room).

Lastly, take into account style and personal taste = colour and style matching your room/house furniture and wall colour =)

May 4, 2014 at 04:12 PM · Thanks, everyone.

I ended up buying a refurbished early-1990s Steinway "L". Quite a lot more expensive than I had originally been planning on, but my husband turned out to be really, really picky about what he wanted in the sound of a piano.

May 4, 2014 at 05:59 PM · The mason and hamlin is a good choice. I realize you made your purchase of the Steinway, but others may still be following. Just thought I would mention Estonia as a very good quality piano for what you pay. Hubby was right to be picky. :)

May 5, 2014 at 01:39 AM · We looked at a very fine Estonia too, which I actually liked a lot (and was considerably less expensive). But my husband didn't like the sound nearly as much -- he found the tone to be less rich and complex than the couple of Steinways we looked at.

May 5, 2014 at 12:31 PM · I see that Lydia bought a piano already - and congratulations! But here are some thoughts for others:

Some good suggestions already, - esp. re trying it with a pianist, playing some of a sonata, etc. and if you love it, getting a tuner/technicion to check it out.

Keep in mind though, that chamber music is not just one thing. Yes, you needn't be concerned about finding a piano that would meet the needs of a soloist practicing a Rachmanninov concerto. But say, a piano trio by Haydn or Mozart, and one by Brahms or Tchaikovsky are rather different propositions. So you have to compromise and average a bit. I'd say a piano with richness, fullness, warmth and complexity would go well with most chamber music. As to a grand piano drowning out string musicians, I'd say that this has more to do with the sensitivity or insensitivity of the pianist.

I feel that Yamahas tend to be well-made, even and reliable. But also monochromatic and a little hollow. Older, well-restored pianos can indeed be a better bet. Rather than brighter, they tend in my experience to be darker and more complex. Even if well-restored, a really old piano may be quirky in its action and response. This may bother some pianists while others may take it in their stride.

I am the proud and lucky owner of a Knabe grand ( a little over 6') from 1896! The sound is clear, yet warm and complex, with a great bass sonority - and it sounds excellent in chamber music! While not to everyone's taste, it is to me, a wonderful and beautiful piece of Victorian furniture as well, with carvings on its legs, a filigreed music rack, and a finish of a deep honey color on its oak casing. As it came w.o. its original bench, I commissioned and helped design a beautiful bench to match. I bought it from a piano restorer, and still checked it out with a pianist and tuner.

May 6, 2014 at 12:21 AM · I'll second Gene's recommendation for a Boston Baby grand. Brilliant tone, very well made, very responsive action, Steinway pedigree.

May 6, 2014 at 03:22 AM · Raphael, I've played Knabe pianos and they can be quite fine instruments. There's absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying a piano as beautiful furniture in addition to it being a fine instrument.

But sorry Leon, I can't speak very highly of Boston baby grands. I don't think they're half the piano of a Steinway. I also think a full-sized studio upright can sound as good as a baby grand (often the sound board is the same size in both).

I'm a jazz pianist so I like a piano with a light-and-smooth action and a fairly bright (rather than rich and mellow) sound, that's why I drift toward Yamahas and Estonias. Steinways, Bechsteins, and Mason & Hamlins are more mellow. I played an Estonia 9-footer in a shop in Philly several years ago and I was in love with it, that piano played itself. But I am such an anomaly -- I bought a house I could actually afford, which unfortunately means it does not have room for more than an upright, so I bought the Yamaha U3 from the same dealer that had the Estonia.

If the pianist is sensitive, as Raphael says, there is no problem with strings getting drowned out. I just saw the Vanbrugh Quartet perform with a local professional pianist, and it was an absolutely lovely and beautifully balanced performance of the Dvorak piano quintet.

I don't think it's entirely about the pianist though. I think the performance space matters too, and if you've have a normal-sized living room with a 15-ton Boesendorfer in the corner, you could have issues with the string players not only getting drowned out but going deaf too.

May 6, 2014 at 09:21 AM · As a pianist, I'm sliiiiightly offended by the discussions on the sensitivity of the pianist... you do realise unlike string instruments there is a limit to how softly you can touch the keys - and una corda may not be the best for all soft passages,

However, objectively, to continue the discussions about piano sound and the room accoustics, I have been in a big hall where a Grand (not sure what model - could not see, but I suspect 8 foot? 9?) was used, and the Firebird Trio was performing live for my local radio station.I was sitting at the back of a large hall, at the Australian National Academy of Music base (ANAM) - South Melbourne Town Hall

The event: 3MBS Schubert Marathon

The venue: South Melbourne Town Hall

Photos of inside the hall:

Front of hall

Back of hall

All three members are excellent soloists (look them up on google). However, from the back of the hall I could mostly only hear the piano, and not much of the cello or violin. I struggled to hear the strings. The page turner who is my piano teacher, later said the balance sounded fine from her spot

It also seems those at the front closer to the musicians felt the balance was alright when talking to the audience.

I think this "overpowering effect" is to do with both the piano (not sure what model but it looks like its definitely > 7 foot) and the hall size - it was a large echoey hall. It was recorded live so if I could find the recordings it would be interesting to know what it sounded like.

Paul - I'm interested to know the size of the hall/room that the quartet performed in?

May 6, 2014 at 10:54 AM · Any opinions on Petrof pianos? They are made in the Czech Republic.

May 6, 2014 at 11:27 AM · Siew Ching, the venue was Radford University's Covington Center, where the hall seats 350. I don't think there's a hall in the world where the sound is independent of where you sit. I think if you are sitting in a spot where you can see the strings of the piano in the reflection from the underside of the lid, you're doomed to hear mostly piano. Intelligent performers will have someone with good ears sit in the most expensive seats for a sound check. Many years ago, while in college, I was asked to play the piano so that the pianist could do her own sound check walking around the hall, and that is how I ended up playing for Marian McPartland.

Smiley, I'd love to try those Petrof pianos. My general sense is that stuff made in Eastern Europe is very often of good quality and priced fairly. The Estonia is an example, and we know there are good violins coming from that region. Of course there are exceptions (the Yugo car, for example).

May 6, 2014 at 11:42 AM · Thanks Paul! wow - adding that to my mental knowledgebase about reflection and seating location. I dont remember seeing the reflection from where i was seating. i was on the extreme left facing stage, more towards the violinist's side

my first piano was on of those upright Petrofs - the short ones. I think mine has a slightly brighter sound than my current Yamaha, but was variable due to the tropical climate, on very humid days it was muted, on dryer days sounded better - i have not played it in about 10 years as it was sold, and can't really remember. I'm probably not the best person for opinion on Petrofs....

May 6, 2014 at 12:45 PM · Yes, everything is a factor in the balance, including the piano itself, the placement, the degree of lid opening, the room or hall, where a particular listener is seated, and the way the music is written. But absolutely, the pianist is a major factor. I'm saying this as a professional chamber musician, orchestral player (who was part of an orchestra the other night that drowned out a violin soloist) and a soloist, myself. Many otherwise wonderful pianists simply play too loudly in chamber music, and that's a fact.

It's especially tricky in a piano trio. In a piano quintet there are re-enforcements! Heifetz and Rubinstein argued bitterly about this at a recording session. (Piatigorsgy sat it out!) H. said that R. was way too loud and R said that he was just fine. When they listened to the playbacks, the balance actually sounded pretty good. "See?" said R. It turned out that in climactic passages, the recording engineers simply turned off R.'s mike! In the Stern-Rose-Istomin trio, R. and I got into it over the same issue after one performance. So the next performance, I. petulantly played everything too soft and colorless - which was so unprofessional.

I did a mini tour last summer that included the challenging Mendelssohn D minor trio. At rehearsals, the pianist never failed to call me on any rhythmic mistakes, and I had to tell her a number of times that she was too loud. (Our arguments were pretty mild compared to what I've heard from many other chamber groups besides the famous ones cited above, and we got along just fine outside the rehearsals.) At our final performance, the last movement was the best we ever played it - full of fire and excitement. BUT, the pianist often got so carried away that I had to change about 75% of my bowings on the spot just to cut through!

Sometimes the way the music is written and scored is the problem, too - e.g. sonatas of Brahms and Franck; the Barber concerto and Chausson Poeme (where I was part of the guilty orchestra above). But all the more so, w.o. quite walking on egg shells, you have to be sensitive to the dynamic limits of your instrument or section and those of what you're working with. A violin is not a trumpet; a cello is not a trombone. Balance is a constant adjustment.

May 6, 2014 at 01:23 PM · Haha - Raphael, your example is hilarious! how do you know of these things ;)... does make one feel human after all if even the pros argue over these same things

Mendelssohn in D minor for piano is quite dramatic - big chords and exciting harmonies, and its easy to get too excited. Yes agree balance is always changing and an issue and also dependent on the group and/or accoustics etc - one of those things which is hard to learn unless by experiencing it. :)

Sorry to Lydia as having committed to a piano, this discussion may be going off topic and probably warrant another thread

May 6, 2014 at 06:21 PM · Paul, the Boston that I play on is a great instrument, and sounds terrific (and so say other more accomplished pianists that have played it as well). You may not personally like Boston (and that's your prerogative), but comparing a Boston to a Steinway is a bit silly: a well maintained Steinway will be superior (in quality and price).

Besides, don't you think it is the player that should decide what is best for them?

I will agree with you in congratulating Lydia, though. Lydia, congratulations on your new (to you) Steinway! I'm sure you will have many happy years of glorious music.

May 6, 2014 at 10:06 PM · Hi Siew. I've done and do so much reading that I don't always remember the source, which is the case for the moment with that specific Heifetz-Rubinstein conflict. [Edit: Just did some research in my library, and no wonder why I couldn't pinpoint the source of the story: it's in 3 different books! But the source comes from Charles O'Connell in his memoir, "The Other Side of the Record". He was a major record producer for RCA in the 40's and 50's, and worked with some of the legendary names in the business. I mis-remembered certain details. It was before Piatagorsky. While Heifetz and Rubinstein had their share of conflicts, this particular one was between Rubinstein and the great cellist, Feuermann, in the recording of the Beethoven "Archduke". In take after take, R. was too loud in a certain spot and refused to budge, saying "my part is marked Fortissimo, and that's how I'm going to play it." F. was completely justified to be furious, but O'Connell took him aside and said "please don't fight wih R.; I'll make it work. And indeed, he went into the control booth and told the engineer to turn off R.'s mike in that spot.] But I do remember reading the the story of the Rose-Istomin conflict in a biography of Rose [by Sreven Honigberg].

It was interesting for me to compare that whole account of that trio (not just that incident) with the account that Isaac Stern gave of their trio in his memoir, "My First 79 years". Oddly enough, the Rose account was more stern, and the Stern account was more - rose-y!

May 7, 2014 at 03:18 PM · Hmm...being primarily a pianist, I will say that a good accompanist is difficult to find. Most pianists don't realize how weird they are as musicians. The instrument itself has gone through many revisions since Cristofori's designs, increasing power each time, while other instruments, such as the violin, have stayed pretty much the same. Music written for piano and violin often end up out of balance when the pianist uses conventional solo dynamics. Furthermore, pianists can have a respectable repertoire without ever playing with anyone else or looking at a conductor. If they ever play with anyone else, it's likely all about me! me! me! I'm front and center and I can overpower an entire section with my little finger; the whole orchestra with 4 fingers. Even the conductor follows me.

And so when they're assigned (as is usually the case, TBH) to accompany more normal instruments, they don't know how to listen, go with the flow, or balance dynamics.

May 7, 2014 at 09:18 PM · Please see my edit in the previous post.

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