Know the True Costs Associated with an Acoustic Piano Before You Buy One for a Student

Formerly, we recommended acoustic pianos over digitals to all our students.  Once we started teaching remotely, and observed the poor quality and/or condition of many students’ acoustics, we had an abrupt mind change.

Avoiding either scenario involves considerable expense, as noted below. In short, without adequate financial outlay, both initial and ongoing, an acoustic piano is more of burden to a student than a help.

Expense 1: High purchase price of a good piano.

Some of our remote students’ vertical pianos were either free or cost less than $1000.  In such cases, their tone was dull or otherwise displeasing.  Since producing good tone is a major part of the instruction we provide, and an essential element of the art of music, students with tonally inferior pianos have no chance of success in this respect.

Moreover, a piano with bad tone leads to ongoing student dissatisfaction.  In particular, what’s the point of practicing if everything they play sounds terrible?

Ultimately, this can lead to unwarranted musical failure and quitting lessons prematurely.  If so, all the money spent prior is wasted. 

Of greatest concern is the student having musical talent that remains unrealized.

In contrast, a piano suitable for meaningful, progressively fruitful study should have:

  • an attractive tone ranging in color from mellow to bright, with many distinct colors in between
  • a reasonably wide volume range from very soft to loud, and the ability to articulate clearly when played softly
  • keys/action in good working order, and the ability to respond well to the varied touch of the fingers

Grand pianos are generally beyond the budget set aside for a child’s piano. The remaining acoustic option is a vertical piano.

Those fitting the description above are in the studio size class, measuring ~45″ to ~47″ inches in height. 

The most affordable NEW studio model we’ve found locally is the 46″ Paul A. Schmitt Model 465.  It’s built according to Schmitt Music‘s expert design and materials specifications by Pearl River.  We hand-picked one for a student several years ago that was superb, especially given the price.  Today, the price is about $3,500.

Used Yamaha and Kawai studios are another good choice, but those costing substantially less than a new Paul A. Schmitt 465 are likely to be quite old.  Considering that used pianos don’t have long-term warranties (as new pianos do), expensive repair work may be needed at some point after purchase. Ultimately, this could offset any savings gained by purchasing a used piano.

Shorter console verticals (~40″-44″), in our view, are inferior musically, and thus, a waste of money.  Among new ones we’ve played in the last few years, the tone on left side of the keyboard was quite poor, as was the overall key response to the touch of the fingers. 

At the outset, a new console would be acceptable for a child, but when they’re older and more musically mature, it would not be.  Since the amount of money saved when buying a Schmitt console vs. studio vertical is relatively small, the console model would not be a good long-term investment.

Moreover, contrary to certain console piano advertisements, there’s no such thing as a “starter” or “beginner” piano.  In reality, there are only:

  1. good ones that contribute to musical enjoyment and success
  2. bad ones that limit progress and guarantee eventual disappointment

Thus, the “starter” piano ad pitch is really saying:

“A console is the worst new piano any manufacturer builds in terms of tone quality, volume range and key action response, but hopefully, you won’t notice.” 

Insider Tip: Spinet pianos, less than 40″ tall, sound terrible and have the worst key actions one could imagine. Since they are no longer manufactured, the only ones available are used, and quite old. 

Expense 2: Acoustic pianos for students, whose musical ear is being trained along with their fingers, need frequent tunings.

Most notes on a piano are produced by two or three strings sounding together. Since these string groups are supposed to be perfectly matched in terms of pitch, they’re called unisons. This allows the piano to produce its most beautiful tone for these notes.

On average, remote students’ pianos were tuned once or twice a year. As a result, the unisons were out of tune most of the time. As a result, they discordantly banged and clanged as their inherent beauty of tone was gradually replaced by annoying noise.

Thus, even in cases where the student had a good quality piano, it didn’t sound much better than the cheap/free pianos noted earlier.

In addition, out-of-tune unison notes sound much louder than their neighbors on the keyboard, making it impossible to smoothly control volume (dynamics). 

Apart from being an “ear sore”, a grossly out-of-tune piano causes massive harm to a student’s developing musical ear for pitch and volume/tone control.  That’s three out of the four main attributes of musical sound—pitch, loudness, duration and tone color, that are invalidated on an out-of-tune piano.

Unison drift is typically caused by frequent playing and wide humidity variations in the students’ homes.  Regarding the latter, humidity levels typically vary randomly up and down from 25% in the winter to 60% in the summer.  In Minnesota in particular, major indoor humidity shifts occur during each of the four seasons. 

To avoid all the pitfalls noted above, an acoustic piano for a student should be tuned at least 4 times a year.  As of this writing, a professional tuning is $140, which equates to $560 in yearly tuning expense alone. 

Expense 3: Ongoing voicing and regulation expenses.

If a student practices regularly, their piano’s hammers eventually become excessively hardened from repeatedly striking metal strings.  As a result, the tone of the piano becomes harsh, thin or shrill. 

Since the hardening process affects individual hammers to random degrees, some notes become louder and/or brighter than their neighbors. 

This needs to be corrected with a service called voicing

Second, long-term use of a piano, plus substantial/ongoing humidity fluctuations, throw the key action out of adjustment, causing problems such as double-striking notes, keys that stick, rise too slowly or don’t play at all, dampers that don’t fully silence notes, etc.  (In the case of students with very old/free pianos, some or all of these problems existed when they were purchased/obtained.)

These and other issues need to be addressed with a service called regulation.

Expense 4: Repair costs.

An acoustic piano has nearly 10,000 parts, many of which are moving.  That’s 10,000 things that can go wrong at any moment for no apparent reason. 

These mechanical failures are associated largely with parts made from delicate organic materials such as wood (keys and action parts), wool (hammer and damper felts) and leather (hammer knuckles and back checks).

As an example of the cost involved in this aspect of maintenance, a service call to fix a single key that doesn’t work is over $100.

Conclusion

The combined cost of acoustic piano tunings at three-month intervals, voicing, regulation and repair can rise as high as $800 per year

If parents prefer to avoid this level of expense to keep their student’s acoustic piano in proper working order, we recommend a quality digital instead.

“Quality” includes:

  1. 88 full-size, weighted, progressive hammer action keys that allow for changes in volume
  2. nine-foot concert grand piano note recordings (samples)
  3. a cabinet or frame with a music stand and at least two ATTACHED pedals

and excludes portable keyboards that:

  1. sit on a wobbly “X” stand that can easily fall over onto small children playing nearby
  2. have fewer than 88 keys
  3. have springy, organ-like keys or those smaller than standard
  4. don’t allow for changes in volume
  5. have an outboard, wired damper pedal that slides around the floor, or no damper pedal at all.

Those suitable for meaningful, progressively fruitful study must have:

  • an attractive tone ranging in color from mellow to bright, with many distinct colors in between
  • a reasonably wide volume range from very soft to loud, and the ability to articulate clearly when played softly
  • keys/action in good working order, and the ability to respond well to the varied touch of the fingers

Vertical pianos fitting the description above are in the studio size class, measuring ~44″ to ~47″ inches in height.  Shorter console verticals, in our view, are substantially inferior musically, and thus, a waste of money. 

In particular, and contrary to console piano sales pitches, there’s no such thing as a “starter” or “beginner” piano appropriate for inexperienced players.  In reality, there are only:

  1. good ones that contribute to musical enjoyment and success
  2. bad ones that limit progress and guarantee eventual disappointment

Thus, the “starter” piano sales pitch is really saying:

“A console is the worst new piano any manufacturer builds in terms of tone quality, volume range and key action response, but hopefully, you won’t notice.” 

Insider Tip: The design of a spinet piano, less than 40″ tall, is so poor that they are no longer manufactured. 

Affordable, quality, name-brand studio verticals (Yamaha and Kawai) start at approximately $7,000 new and $4,000 used.  Note that these prices are estimates.  They don’t account for new piano sale pricing, or rare used ones under $4,000 with good tone and actions.

When we began teaching remotely, we discovered that some students’ vertical pianos were either free or cost less than $1000.  In such cases, their tone was dull or otherwise displeasing.  Since producing good tone is a major part of the instruction we provide, and an essential element of the art of music, students with tonally inferior pianos have no chance of success in this respect.

Moreover, a piano with bad tone leads to ongoing student dissatisfaction.  If so, what’s the point of practicing if everything they play sounds terrible?

Ultimately, this can lead to unwarranted musical failure and quitting lessons prematurely.  If so, all the money spent prior is wasted. 

Of greatest concern is the student having musical talent that remains unrealized.

Expense 2: Acoustic pianos for students, whose musical ear is being trained along with their fingers, need more than the recommended one or two tunings per year.

This issue relates mainly to piano notes produced by two or three strings sounding together, which are called unisons

Unison strings are usually tuned to match perfectly, allowing the piano to produce its most beautiful tone.  Once the unison strings for a note no longer closely match, this ideal tone is transformed into annoying noise.

Unison drift is typically caused by frequent playing and wide humidity variations in the students’ homes.  Regarding the latter, humidity levels typically vary randomly up and down from 25% in the winter to 60% in the summer.  In Minnesota in particular, major indoor humidity shifts occur during each of the four seasons. 

In short, tunings once or twice per year are woefully inadequate for a student piano that’s subjected to substantial humidity fluctuations and/or played regularly every week. 

More specifically, as far as 100% on-pitch unisons are concerned, a fresh tuning lasts no more than a month.  

This is not a theoretical scenario, but rather, one we’ve witnessed directly during remote lessons.

In musical terms, once significant unison drift occurs, the piano will discordantly “bang and clang”.  In this respect, such a piano isn’t much better tone-wise than the cheap/free pianos noted earlier.

In addition, out-of-tune unison notes sound much louder than their neighbors on the keyboard, making it impossible to smoothly control volume. 

Apart from being an “ear sore”, a grossly out-of-tune piano causes massive harm to a student’s developing musical ear for pitch and volume/tone control.  That’s three out of the four main attributes of musical sound—pitch, loudness, duration and tone color, that are invalidated on an out-of-tune piano.

To prevent these problems, an acoustic piano for a student should be tuned at least 4 times a year.  As of this writing, a professional tuning is $140, which equates to $560 in yearly tuning expense alone. 

Expense 3: Ongoing voicing and regulation expenses.

If a student practices regularly, their piano’s hammers eventually become excessively hardened from repeatedly striking metal strings.  As a result, the tone of the piano becomes harsh, thin or shrill.  In the worst case we observed years earlier in a private home, the piano sounded as if the hammers were made of metal.

Since the hardening process affects individual hammers to random degrees, some notes become louder and/or brighter than their neighbors. 

This needs to be corrected with a service called voicing

Second, long-term use of a piano plus humidity fluctuations throw the key action out of adjustment, causing problems such as double-striking notes, keys that stick, rise too slowly or don’t play at all, dampers that don’t fully silence notes, etc.  (In the case of a very old/free piano, some or all of these problems existed when they were obtained.)

These and other issues need to be addressed with a service called regulation.

Expense 4: Repair costs.

An acoustic piano has nearly 10,000 parts, most of them moving.  That’s 10,000 things that can go wrong at any moment without any apparent reason. 

These random failures are associated largely with parts made from delicate organic materials such as wood (keys and action parts), wool (hammer) and damper felts) and leather (hammer knuckles and back checks).

As an example of the cost involved in this aspect of maintenance, a service call to fix a single key that doesn’t work is over $100.

Conclusion

The combined cost of acoustic piano tunings at three-month intervals, voicing, regulation and repair can rise as high as $800 per year

If parents prefer to avoid this level of expense to keep their student’s acoustic piano in proper working order, we recommend a quality digital.

“Quality” includes:

  1. 88 full-size, weighted, progressive hammer action keys that allow for changes in volume
  2. nine-foot concert grand piano note recordings (samples)
  3. a cabinet or frame with a music stand and at least two ATTACHED pedals

and excludes portable keyboards that:

  1. sit on a wobbly “X” stand that can easily fall over onto small children playing nearby
  2. have fewer than 88 keys
  3. have springy, organ-like keys or those smaller than standard
  4. don’t allow for changes in volume
  5. have an outboard, wired damper pedal that slides around the floor, or no damper pedal at all.

Click here for specific digital pianos.

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