Pianos for the novice pianist
So you have decided to learn the piano as a total beginner but need an instrument to play and practise on? You have a number of options. Your final choice will depend on several factors including your budget, space available, and if relevant, neighbours’ concerns.
The first option is whether you want to buy or hire an instrument. If you feel that you will play for a long time and have enough money to spend, then go and buy one. If you want to see how you get on or if you plan to move home in the near future, then hiring a piano might be preferable. This decision is personal and you are better placed to know which is right for you. However, bear in the mind that most piano retailers will allow you to hire a piano with the option to purchase at the end of the hiring period. What this means is that should you decide that you like the piano that you have hired, and want to buy it at the end of the hiring period, then the retailer will reimburse you all the rental charges that you have already paid. In other words, it will subtract the amount you have spent up until now, to the sale price of the piano. This may affect your decision to buy or hire a piano.
The next decision to make is whether you want a proper acoustic piano or a digital instrument such as an electric keyboard. Your budget and space available will determine your choice to a large extent as real pianos are much more expensive and bigger than keyboards. The advantage of a keyboard is that you can plug in headphones and practise without disturbing others. Some of my students have had problems with neighbours complaining so this is an issue, especially if you live in a city flat. Having said that, if you have the financial means, it is actually possible to install a system with digital sensors to an existing acoustic piano. Yamaha have a technology called the Silent System which can be installed on a real piano. It is equipped with concert grand piano digital samples triggered by sensors mounted on the hammers and keys. You can use your piano as a keyboard with headphones that way. Installing such a system is pricy though (£1K+). Remember also that there will be transport costs associated with the purchase of a piano, whereas a keyboard is usually small and light enough to place in a car.
It is difficult to hire a digital piano as few if any shops offer such a service, but if budget is very tight, you could look at ebay for a second-hand keyboard to buy. I do not advise buying a real acoustic piano off a website without first playing on it. If you want to go for a proper piano, your next decision to make is whether you are interested in an upright piano or a grand piano, which is longer and louder. You will need a lot more space for a grand. The latter varies in sizes from about 4 feet for a baby grand to 10 feet for a concert grand. There are many piano manufacturers ranging from the top of the range brands which are very expensive, for example Steinway & Sons and Fazioli, to medium range ones such as Bechstein, Yamaha, and Bluthner, to the lower range such as Estonia and Baldwin. I recommend a Yamaha or Boston (about £20K for a 6-foot grand), as they are both of excellent quality and value, but each maker has a different feel and sound so the issue is subjective.
Most pianos are sold in specialist piano or music shops, but some people buy them second-hand from an online retailer or from a piano auction. Some people do not realise that piano auctions exist; they can be a great way of finding a bargain. An internet search will reveal if there are piano auctions near you.
A real piano will need to be tuned once or twice a year, depending on how much it is played. Tuning costs around £60 a year (2010 London prices) and takes about 1 hour. So maintaining a piano is not that costly. Digital pianos do not need to be tuned at all.
If you are looking for an electronic instrument whose keyboard resembles an acoustic piano the most, then I would go for a Yahama or Roland digital piano as these brands offer a very realistic and convincing keyboard touch. The feel of the keys will never be as good as a real piano (they are mostly lighter in touch), but it is still a popular choice for beginners.
If you have decided that you want a keyboard, make sure you get a full-size (88 keys) digital piano with a weighted action (touch-sensitive). Most are weighted, unless you go for a synthesizer, which I would not recommend if you are after a realistic piano touch.
Georges Sokol is a professional concert pianist and piano teacher based in central London. He offers piano lessons london and takes on students of all ages and levels. He is normally fully booked, but contact him on his website to check if he has vacancies.
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