Pay the Piper

So you want to play a musical instrument?

You think you'd like to learn the piano? We tell you the advantages and pitfalls, where to buy one, how to get lessons, what it will cost - everything you need to know

Why play an instrument?
What instrument to play
How to buy an instrument
Other costs
Where to get lessons
How much progress will I make?
Doing your practice
Music exams
Upgrading your instrument
Finding opportunities to play
Switching instruments
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The Piano

Family: Percussion
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!

If 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 music-making.
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 left.
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 Yamaha CLP120 and a Roland HP3e recently, both costing about £1,100, 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!
We recommend a look at The Virtual Piano Shop, a really excellent website which will give you hours of informative pleasure. It includes advice on how to go about buying a piano, advertisements for second-hand instruments from £100 upwards, addresses of piano shops, specialist piano movers, piano teachers, piano tuners, information about different makes of piano - everything you could possibly want to know. One thing we particularly like is the "star-ratings" they give to all the different makes of piano.
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 The Rough Guide to Piano; there is also The 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 How to play piano, First book of the piano, How to play the piano despite years of lessons, The Very Young Pianist (for children, obviously) and Carpentier's Piano Method which is suitable for slightly older beginners.
If you'd like to hear just how wonderful the piano can sound, this 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 good
• 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 world
• Very few good pianists enjoy playing electric pianos


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Copyright © David Bramhall 2005