All about musical instruments - menu page
Pay the Piper
Cost: anything from £100 to £30,000!
Best age to start: 6 years upwards
Easy to start? Progress will always be slow, so much patience needed.
It's worth it, though!
there is such a thing as the King of the Instruments, the piano is it.
In terms of versatility, power and expressiveness no other instrument
can match it. There is almost no type of music that cannot be played
effectively on the piano if you know how; in a piano concerto one
soloist can take on, and beat (if that's the right word!) an entire
symphony orchestra of maybe 100 players, and not for nothing is the
piano's real name the "pianoforte" (Italian for "soft-loud").
Every serious musician should be able to play the piano at least a
bit. In our experience, most of them can.
It has its drawbacks, of course. A good piano is very expensive to
buy, it takes up a lot of room in your lounge, playing it can be an
arduous and solitary pursuit, and it is difficult to put it in your
pocket. If playing with other people is something you value - and the
social side of music is very important to most young people - other
instruments might be better for you.
It is also hard to play. The difficulty of reading two staves of
music in two different clefs should not be underestimated, and the
coordination required to use both hands equally well is extraordinary.
The really surprising thing is that so many people manage it! You
should expect progress to be slower than on most other instruments. On
the other hand, you can start at a very young age indeed - we know
people who have started at 4 or 5 years old quite successfully.
While the piano is used sometimes in an orchestra, and frequently in
jazz bands, you have to be a pretty advanced player. While you are
plodding your way through Grades 2, 3, 4 and 5 you will find the piano
a solitary instrument offering few if any opportunities for group
Once you have bought a piano, the only normal expense you can expect
is having it tuned. This will cost between £30 and £50 each
time, but unless your piano is very old, or lives in a constantly
varying temperature, or gets moved frequently or is hammered
unmercifully, you should be able to get away with having it tuned only
once a year. However, if you have bought a very old piano in poor
condition, repairs can be prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, pianos
are robust instruments and many old ones are excellent despite being
60 years old or more.
A very basic small upright piano costs, new, upwards of £1,000.
A really posh grand piano (like the one in our illustration) can run
into many tens of thousands. Fortunately there are always plenty of
second-hand pianos on the market, and you can pick one up for as
little as £100 or £200 if you're lucky. You could try
contacting the local schools or education authority - just at present
many schools are getting rid of their pianos and relacing them with
electric ones. This is a grave mistake on their part and they
shouldn't be doing it, but it does mean you might be able to find a
reasonable quality instrument at a knock-down price.
However, it is essential to have some advice when looking at
second-hand pianos. You need to talk to someone who can recognise the
reputable makes, and can play the instrument before you buy it to make
sure it is working properly and is in tune. Don't buy a piano that
isn't in tune. You may think that you can always get the piano tuner
in, but there's probably a good reason why it isn't in tune and that
reason could be expensive. Your local piano-tuner could be your best
friend when buying a piano. He won't find it at all strange to be
asked to go and look at a piano and advise you whether to buy it or
not. You'll have to pay him, of course.
If you are offered at a reasonable price a piano made by Steinway,
Bechstein or Blüthner, it's either a fake or a bargain, and there
aren't many fakes around. Take a chance and snap it up.
Inside the piano, apart from the very complex but basically primitive
(mainly wooden) mechanism that transfers the movement of the keys and
pedals to the strings, you should find a heavy cast-iron frame across
which the strings are stretched mainly in pairs and threes. This frame
is often painted gold. The strings may cross over each other, or may
just go straight across. If a piano doesn't have an iron frame, don't
buy it. Very old pianos had wooden frames and these are now too old
and potentially decrepit to consider. Fortunately there are very few
You may be tempted by the idea of buying an electric piano. These can
be just as expensive as a cheap real piano, but of course they are far
more portable and they take up much less space. When you hear the
salesman demonstrating in the shop, they sound marvelous. They have
digitally-produced sound indistinguishable from the real thing, they
have touch-sensitive keys which mimic the exact feel of a normal
piano, and of course they come with all sorts of bells and whistles
that normal pianos don't have. Just the job, you'd think.
Well, no. Not really. With little fear of contradiction we can say
that most pianists, even mediocre ones, hate electronic pianos. In
fact most of us would rather play on a grotty, out-of-tune,
poorly-maintained old village-hall nag of a piano with several keys
missing than on the most up-to-date and expensive Roland Electronic
Piano or Yamaha Clavinova. Excellent though these instruments are (and
they are, they really are), we still don't LIKE them. No-one knows
why, but somehow one can never play at one's best on them, and it's
never an enjoyable experience. All the pianists we know (and trust us,
we know a lot of them) agree: if you want to be a real pianist, play a
real piano. Sorry, Mr.Roland and Mr.Yamaha, but there it is. That's
our story and we're sticking to it.
However, if you really must have a digital piano, it's
generally agreed that the best makes by far are Roland and Yamaha -
we've played a Roland and a Yamaha Clavinova recently, both costing
about £800, and found them very impressive indeed. You should
consider a "home piano" type (one with a solid console base)
rather than a "portable" or "stage" piano with a
metal stand - although pop musicians don't seem to mind their
keyboards wobbling about as they play, most of us ordinary mortals
find it rather disconcerting!
By the way, it says at the top of this page that the piano is a
Percussion instrument. This is not a typing error. Despite the fact
that it has strings inside, the sound is made by felt-covered hammers
striking those strings and this makes it, theoretically, a percussion
instrument. Strange but true.
To learn more about playing the piano, try
Rough Guide to Piano; there is also
Rough Guide to Keyboards & Electric Piano. We don't
recommend trying to learn the piano without a teacher, but if you must
do it, here are some books that might help. You can buy them online at
discounted prices by clicking the links. They are
to play piano,
book of the piano,
to play the piano despite years of lessons,
The Very Young Pianist (for children, obviously) and
Piano Method which is suitable for slightly older beginners.
If you'd like to hear just how wonderful the piano can sound,
double CD contains many of the most famous works in the piano
repertoire played by some of the greatest performers of the 20th
Century. Quite cheap, too.
Expensive instrument unless you're brave enough to buy
second-hand. Get advice, though
Hard to start
Easy to find a teacher
Poor opportunities for group music-making until you're very
Damage is rare, but repairs can be very expensive indeed
Impossible to transport - definitely not a social instrument
Possibly the most versatile and expressive instrument in the
Very few good pianists enjoy playing electric pianos