Piano tuner John Murphy hears many sad stories. "People spend €100 or €200, or get a free piano, but realise afterwards there's little can be done with it, or the cost of repairs is more than its value. It's a minefield. Sometimes people don't understand what they're walking into."
There comes a stage in many a home when the acquisition of a piano raises its head. Perhaps for a child starting (or getting serious about) lessons, or an adult deciding to seize the day or act on a bucket list item.
A piano can be many things: a time-enduring musical instrument; a beautiful piece of furniture; the repository of hopes and dreams. Choosing one is more complex than it seems, not least because moving pianos is awkward, and expensive, and not to be undertaken lightly.
John Murphy, the man behind the popular public pianos at Pearse and Heuston train stations, is evangelical about people making the right choices, and urges those buying a piano privately to have a tuner check it out first if they’re buying one privately.
From a retail perspective, Adrian Thornton of Thornton Pianos, which has sold 13,000 pianos in its 50 years, says "A lot of customers are trying to establish the interest of a player, typically a child, and they tend to put the cart before the horse. They don't expect kids to achieve. They buy a second-hand piano for a nine year old for two grand because they don't want to lose too much on it, because the child might give it up. It's that attitude and lack of support that kills the interest, not buying the wrong piano."
New or second-hand?
In most shops, prices start at €1,500 for a good quality, guaranteed second-hand piano. Basic new pianos start at €3,500. Thornton says most children don’t progress beyond the standard that piano can bring you to – around grade 4. The average family will have a piano for 10-12 years, before selling it, often back to the shop where they bought it.
Thornton’s experience is that a properly maintained new piano will lose half its value within three years, before settling; after 10 years, it will retain roughly the same value.
The lesson seems to be that whatever your budget, as Thornton puts it, "you get more piano for your money second hand" on a reconditioned, guaranteed piano. He instances a good condition 1984 Kawai in stock for €4,250; it would be €9,600 new. That same €5,000 would get you a lot less quality in a new piano.
The typical second-hand piano is at least 20 years old. “I’d call that a young piano,” says Thornton. “A properly designed instrument is built to give 100 years of service.” The youngest piano he has is a 15-year-old Bechstein, and the oldest a 1924 Steck grand piano (both reconditioned, with a five-year guarantee). They are very different pianos. The Steck is €5,000; the Bechstein €30,000; a new Steck would be €25,000-30,000, whereas an entry-level Bechstein about €90,000. “It’s like a car showroom – they are the same thing, but different standards.” Entry level new Yamahas start about €3,600; but you could get a more substantial reconditioned piano for €3,000-4,000.
Despite this, new pianos do sell. “Some people will always buy new,” says Thornton.
Where to look for a piano:
If you know what you want, online sites can be useful; but never buy a piano sight unseen – get a qualified piano tuner or technician take a good look. Tuner John Murphy regularly checks out pianos, and can even offer initial assessments from photographs.
Most reputable piano shops sell both new and reconditioned pianos, with the advantage of advice and guidance, as well as confidence about the piano’s condition and guarantee.
Factors to consider
- Look at how much you can afford. Weigh up new vs second-hand from a reputable piano shop vs sourcing privately second-hand.
- Consider your home and space: an apartment or house, will the piano be upstairs, is noise an issue (you can get silent systems), how much space do you have? Generally, a larger piano will sound better than a smaller instrument.
- Choose a location without radiators, windows and fires. Pianos near or in front of any of them will expand and contract as temperature and humidity changes, and eventually the piano will be untunable.
Also, beware of underfloor heating, as it dries pianos out. Murphy has seen seven- or eight-year-old instruments in a bad state because of underfloor heating. Thornton describes its effect as like “cooking the Sunday roast for days at the lowest setting, so that it has shrivelled to nothing and you can’t eat it”.
- As well as wooden finishes, gloss black is popular, and other colour finishes are also available.
- Ongoing costs: A piano needs tuning, usually once a year, averaging €80-130, but it’s vital the tuner knows what they’re doing. Digital pianos don’t need tuning.
- Everybody agrees a bad piano or one that isn’t in tune is counterproductive; starting a beginner on an inferior piano is a recipe for failure.
Looking at a piano
Look at where the piano is made, its pitch and its style of action, and get a good tuner to check it out.
The Germans still dominate piano names – Blüthner, Steinway, Bechstein, Schimmel, Grotrian Steinweg – but lower-cost Asian piano manufacturers are coming up on the inside, and most pianos are now built in enormous Asian factories, with China making the largest number of new pianos. Some other makers to look out for include Ritmüller, Bösendorfer, Fazioli, Mason and Hamlin, Stuart and Sons, Cavendish, John Broadwood, Brinsmead, Petrof and Japanese makers Yamaha and Kawai.
While some very old pianos are not worth repairing, some are very well made, particularly good German makes. “You could be very lucky and find one under €300,” says Murphy. “But you’re likely to need to spend considerably more.”
Newer upright pianos are overstrung and underdamped (referring to stringing layout and position of the dampers) and anything else is probably a no-no. It’s also important a piano is tuned to concert pitch.
It’s stating the obvious, but the player should try the piano to see if they like the feel, tone and action.
Thornton reckons the critical things in maintaining a learner’s interest are genuine interest, a good teacher, a reliable shop and a good quality piano. He observes “the youngest in a family may go the furthest” with piano, because of long exposure to siblings practising.
The quality of the instrument impacts on the player’s enthusiasm: if you sound good, you naturally want to play more – and the more you play, the better you become.
Thorntonpianos.ie. Tuner John Murphy 086 0652132 or pianotuner.ie. Flanagans. ie. Pianosplus.ie. Advice: pianotuner.org.uk/en/Your-Piano/What-to-look-for-when-buying-a-second-hand-piano