HOW ACOUSTIC PIANOS WORK
When an acoustic piano key is pressed, the linked action parts inside the instrument move a felt-covered mallet called a hammer. It turn, it strikes 1-3 metal strings, causing a large wooden soundboard to vibrate. When a key is released, a felt-covered damper, which rises when the key is first held down, falls back on the strings and silences the note.
Notes that have two or three strings tuned exactly alike are called unisons. Middle C, for example, has three. As you move to the left on the keyboard, notes begin to have two strings, and finally, only one.
TYPES OF ACOUSTIC PIANOS
Vertical pianos (incorrectly referred to as “uprights”) are narrow from front to back and have a rectangular shape. Grand pianos are much longer, with a cabinet that curves inward on the right side. They’re preferred for their more open sound, superior key actions, and real una corda (soft) pedal (see “Acoustic Piano Pedals” below).
ACOUSTIC PIANO PEDALS
The damper pedal, on the right, raises all the dampers at the same time. This allows notes that can’t be held down with fingers simultaneously to combine. It also enriches the tone of the notes and makes them louder, because strings that aren’t hit with hammers vibrate in sympathy with those that are.
The una corda (left) pedal, erroneously called the “soft pedal”, functions differently for verticals and grands. On a grand, it moves all the hammers slightly to the right along with the keys. As a result, depending on the note in question, the hammers hit two out three strings, one out of two, or part of single strings. This accounts for why the pedal is referred to as “soft”. In addition, fresher hammer felt is used, which makes the tone mellower. On a vertical piano, the una corda pedal moves the hammers forward and closer to the strings, with no change in felt contact. This produces a less distinct tone change compared to a grand.
The middle pedal on a grand is called sostenuto. It acts like a damper pedal, but only for the notes that were held down just before it is used. As long the pedal stays down, these notes continue to ring without being held down, but others played afterwards are not affected.
ACOUSTIC PIANO SIZES
Vertical piano sizes, in order of increasing height, are: spinet, console, studio and upright/professional. The minimum size we recommend is a studio (~46″), as they have a richer, fuller tone and a better key action than shorter ones.
Grand pianos typically range from 4′ 10″ to over nine feet. When all other factors are relatively equal, longer equals better sound and key touch response. The minimum size grand we recommend is 5’2″, unless one is willing to pay the high price of elite shorter models. (Example: the 5’1″ Steinway S costs about $70,000.)
However, a child will certainly be delighted with even the shortest of grands. Those that have this advantage from Day 1 usually practice more and progress faster. In our experience teaching these students, they also play the piano more artistically and expressively.
NEW VS. USED ACOUSTIC PIANOS
New pianos have with warranties, which are usually 10 years. Given that that pianos have up to 10,000 parts, it’s almost inevitable that the warranty will be needed at some point.
Regarding used pianos, it’s not generally known that they don’t improve with age. Instead, they gradually deteriorate musically and structurally. As just one example, piano strings that are decades-old lose some of their elasticity, which worsens the tone of the instrument.
In any event, avoid cheap/free used pianos, especially spinets, which set your child on a path of low motivation, musical disappointment, and limited achievement.
As an approximation, in the price range of up to $1,000 for verticals and $3,000 for grands, there is a risk that a private-party used piano is in need expensive maintenance or repair. In the worse cases, they cost more to fix than they’re worth.
The solution is to buy used from a reputable dealer. Wells Pianos has one of the best used selections in the Twin Cities, and Jim Laabs Music sells reconditioned Yamahas and Kawais.
Note the difference between dealer-owned used pianos and consignments on dealer sales floors, as the latter are private-party instruments sold “as-is”.
Although dealer-owned used pianos are usually in excellent condition and have warranties, it’s advisable to have the one you want thoroughly inspected by an independent technician.
A digital piano, when combined with an acoustic piano action, is called a hybrid. The action has weights in place of hammers, but all the other parts are the same as acoustics. The advantage of a hybrid is that the student learns the proper acoustic key touch, and the sensitive variables of technique associated with it.