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How a Piano Works

A little bit (but not too much) of technical information about the piano is useful to have while shopping for one. Important words are in bold font.
Apiano can be thought of as comprising four elements: mechanical, acoustical, structural, and cabinetry.Mechanical: When you press a piano key (usually 88 in number), the motion of your finger is transmitted through a series of levers and springs to a felt-covered wooden hammer that strikes the strings to set them vibrating. This complex system of keys, hammers, levers, and springs is known as the action. Also, when you press a key, a felt damper resting against each string lifts off, allowing the string to vibrate. When you let the key up, the damper returns to its resting place, stopping the string’s vibration. Pedals, usually three in number, are connected to the action and dampers via trapwork levers, and serve specialized functions such as sustaining and softening the sound. The right-foot pedal is called the damper or sustain pedal; it lifts all the dampers off all the strings, allowing the strings to ring sympathetically. The left-foot, soft pedal (on a grand piano, the una corda pedal) softens the sound. The function of the middle pedal varies depending on the type and price level of the piano (more on that later). As a sostenuto pedal, it selectively sustains notes or groups of notes, a function required only rarely in a small percentage of classical compositions. Other possible functions for the middle pedal include a damper pedal for the bass notes only, and a mute pedal that reduces the sound volume by about half.Acoustical: Piano strings are made of steel wire for the higher-sounding notes (treble), and steel wire wrapped with copper for the lower-sounding notes (bass). They are graduated in thickness, length, and tension, and strung tightly across the structural framework of the piano. Each note has one, two, or three strings associated with it. Each such set of strings is known as a unison because all the strings in a set sound the same note. The strings lie across narrow hardwood bridges that transmit their vibrations to a wooden soundboard, usually made of spruce. The relatively large area of the soundboard amplifies what would otherwise be a rather weak sound and broadcasts the sound to the ears. The dimensions, arrangement, and positioning of all the acoustical elements in a piano is known as the piano’s scale design. The scale design varies with the model and is a major determinant of the piano’s tone.Structural: The strings are strung across a gold- or bronze-colored plate (sometimes called a frame or harp) of cast iron, which is bolted to a substantial wooden framework. This heavy-duty structure is necessary to support the many tons of tension exerted by all the taut strings. A vertical, or upright, piano is one in which this structure stands vertically, and is most commonly placed against a wall. A grand piano is one in which this structure lies horizontally. In a vertical piano, the wooden framework consists of vertical back posts and connecting cross beams; in a grand, wooden beams and the familiar curved rim comprise the framework. One end of each string is anchored to the plate toward the rear of a grand or the bottom of a vertical piano. The other end is coiled around a tuning pin embedded in a laminated hardwood pinblock hidden under the plate at the front (grand) or top (vertical). A piano is tuned by turning each tuning pin with a special tool to make very slight adjustments in the tension of its string, and thus to the string’s frequency of vibration, or pitch.Cabinetry: The piano’s cabinet (vertical) or case (grand) provides aesthetic beauty and some additional structural support. A grand piano’s rim is part of both the wooden structural framework and the case. Accessory parts, such as the music desk and lid, are both functional and aesthetic in purpose.Although the acoustical and structural elements have been described separately, in fact the plate, wooden framework, soundboard, bridges, and strings form a single integrated unit called the strung back. A piano, then, consists of a strung back, an action, and a cabinet or case.
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Piano Buying Basics: Introduction

An acoustic (traditional) piano can be one of the most expensive — and difficult — purchases most households will ever make. Why so difficult?

Lack of qualified advice. A person who sets out to buy a piano is unlikely to have a social support network of family and friends who are knowledgeable about pianos to serve as advisors, as they might if buying a car, house, or kitchen appliance. A “modern” piano is essentially a 19th-century creation about which few people know very much, and about which much of what they think they know may not be accurate or current. Even music teachers and experienced players often know little about piano construction or the rapidly changing state of piano manufacturing, often relying on their past experience with certain brands, most of which have changed significantly over the years.Confusing array of choices. Acoustic pianos are marketed nationally in the United States under some 70 different brand names from a dozen countries (plus dozens of additional names marketed locally), with thousands of models available in dozens of furniture styles and finishes — and that’s just new pianos! Add in more than a century’s worth of used pianos under thousands of brand names in an almost infinite variety of conditions of disrepair and restoration. Just thinking about it can make one dizzy.Value for the money unclear. New pianos vary in price from Kshs. 450,000 to Kshs. 4,000,000. But unlike many other consumer items, whose differences can be measured or are readily apparent, most pianos, regardless of price, look very similar and do pretty much the same thing: they’re shiny and black (or a wood color), play 88 notes, and have three pedals. The features advertised are often abstract, misleading, or difficult to see or understand. For this reason, it’s often not clear just what you’re getting for your money. This can lead to decision-making paralysis.Confusing sales practices. While many piano salespeople do an honest and admirable job of guiding their customers through this maze, a significant minority — using lies, tricky pricing games, and false accusations against competing dealers and brands — make the proverbial used-car salesman look like a saint. And once you get through haggling over price — the norm in the piano business — you may be ready for a trip to a Middle East bazaar.

Shopping Advice: Dealing With Technical Issues

As you shop for a piano, you’ll likely be bombarded with a great deal of technical jargon—after all, the piano is a complicated instrument. But don’t allow yourself to be confused or intimidated. Although some technical information can be useful and interesting, extensive familiarity with technical issues usually isn’t essential to a successful piano-shopping experience, especially when buying a new piano. (A little greater familiarity may be advisable when buying a used or restored instrument.)Most technical information you’ll come across relates to how the manufacturer designed the instrument. You should focus on how the instrument sounds, feels, and looks, not how it got that way. In addition, technical features are often taken out of context and manipulated by advertising and salespeople—the real differences in quality are often in subtleties of design and construction that don’t make good ad copy.

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What Size?

Both uprights and grands come in a wide variety of sizes. The important thing to know here is that size is directly related to musical quality. Although many other factors also contribute to tonal quality, all else being equal, the longer strings of larger pianos, especially in the bass and midrange sections, give off a deeper, truer, more consonant tonal quality than the strings of smaller pianos. The treble and bass blend better and the result is more pleasing to the ear. Also, longer grands usually have longer keys that generally allow superior control of musical expression than shorter grands. Therefore, it’s best to buy the largest piano you can afford and have space for. Small differences in size between models are more significant in smaller pianos than in larger ones. However, a difference in size of only an inch or so is not generally significant, as it could be merely due to a larger cabinet or case.

Verticals

Vertical pianos are measured by their height
Upright pianos are measured from the floor to the top of the piano. Verticals less than 40″ tall are known as spinets. They were very popular in the post–World War II period, but in recent years have nearly died out. Verticals from 40″ to about 43″ or 44″ are called consoles. Spinet and console actions must be compromised somewhat in size or placement within the piano to fit them into pianos of this size. The tone is also compromised by the shorter strings and smaller soundboard. For this reason, manufacturers concentrate on the furniture component of spinets and consoles and make them in a variety of decorator styles. They are suitable for buyers whose piano needs are casual, or for beginning students, and for those who simply want a nice-looking piece of furniture in the home. Once students progress to an intermediate or advanced stage, they are likely to need a larger instrument.Studio pianos, from about 44″ to 47″, are more serious instruments. They are called studios because they are commonly found in the practice rooms of music schools. Manufacturers make them in both attractive furniture styles for the home and in functional, durable, but aesthetically bland styles for school and other institutional use. If you don’t require attractive furniture, you may save money by buying the school style. In fact, many buyers prefer the simple lines of the institutional models.Verticals about 48″ and taller, called uprights, are the best musically. New ones top out at about 52″, but in the early part of the 20th century they were made even taller. The tallest verticals take up no more floor space than the shortest ones, but some buyers may find the taller models too massive for their taste. Most uprights are made in an attractive, black, traditional or institutional style, but are also available with exotic veneers, inlays, and other touches of elegance.The width of a vertical piano is usually a little under five feet and the depth around two feet; however, these dimensions are not significantly related to musical quality.

Grands

Grand pianos are measured by their length
Grand pianos are measured with the lid closed from the very front of the piano (keyboard end) to the very back (the tail).  Lengths start at 4′ 6″ and go to over 10′ (even longer in some experimental models). Widths are usually around 5′ and heights around 3′, but only the length has a bearing on musical quality.Grands less than 5′ long are the musical equivalent of spinets and consoles; that is, they are musically compromised and are mainly sold as pieces of furniture. Grands between about 5′ and 5½’ are very popular. Although slightly compromised, they can reasonably serve both musical and furniture functions and are available in many furniture styles. (By the way, piano professionals prefer the term small grand to baby grand. Although there is no exact definition, a small grand is generally one less than about 5½’ long.) Above 5½’, pianos rapidly improve, becoming professional quality at about 6′. Pianos intended for the home or serious professional top out at about 7′ or 7½’. These sizes may also satisfy the needs of smaller concert venues. Larger venues require concert grands, usually about 9′ long.When considering what size of piano is right for your home, don’t forget to add two to three feet to the length of a grand or the depth of a vertical for the piano bench and pianist. Shoppers tend to underestimate what will fit and buy smaller pianos than necessary. Sometimes, the next-size-larger instrument can give you a great deal of tonal improvement at little additional cost. Dealers can usually lend you templates corresponding to different piano sizes to lay down on your floor so you can measure what will fit.
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Upright or Grand?

Probably the most basic decision to make when buying a piano — and one you may have made already — is whether to buy an upright or a grand piano. The following describes some of the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Upright Piano Advantages

  • Takes up less space, can fit into corners
  • Lower cost
  • Easier to move

Upright Piano Disadvantages

  • Sound tends to bounce back into player’s face, making subtle control of musical expression more difficult.
  • Action is not as advanced as grand; repetition of notes is slower and less reliable in most cases, and damping is sometimes less efficient.
  • Keys are shorter than on grands, making subtle control of musical expression more difficult.
  • Cabinetwork is usually less elegant and less impressive.

Upright pianos are suitable for those with simpler musical needs, or where budget and space constraints preclude buying a grand. Despite the disadvantages noted above, some of the larger, more expensive verticals do musically rival smaller, less expensive grands. They may be a good choice where space is at a premium but a more subtle control of musical expression is desired.

Grand Piano Advantages

  • Sound develops in a more aesthetically pleasing manner by bouncing off nearby surfaces and blending before reaching player’s ears, making it easier to control musical expression.
  • More sophisticated action than in a vertical. Grand action has a repetition lever to aid in the speed and reliability of repetition of notes, and is gravity-assisted, rather than dependent on arti-ficial contrivances (springs, straps) to return hammers to rest.
  • Longer keys provide better leverage, allowing for significantly greater control of musical expression.
  • Casework is usually more elegant and aesthetically pleasing.

Grand Piano Disadvantages

  • Takes up more space
  • Higher cost
  • Harder to move
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New or Used

The next choice you’ll have to make is whether to buy new or used. The market for used pianos is several times the size of the market for new ones. Let’s look at the merits of each choice:

New Piano Advantages

  • Manufacturer’s warranty
  • Little chance of hidden defects
  • Lower maintenance costs
  • Easier to shop for
  • Usually more local choices
  • Longer piano life expectancy
  • Greater peace of mind after purchasing

New Piano Disadvantages

  • Higher upfront cost
  • Significant depreciation loss if resold within first few years
  • Limited choice of attractive older styles and finishes

Used Piano Advantages

  • Lower upfront cost
  • Greater choice of attractive older styles and finishes Can be more fun and interesting to shop for (if you like shopping for old things)
  • Restorer may detail instrument to an extent that rivals new piano
  • Piano likely to be already significantly depreciated, resulting in little or no loss if resold

Used Piano Disadvantages

  • No manufacturer’s warranty (though there may be a dealer’s or restorer’s warranty)
  • Greater chance of hidden defects (unless completely restored)
  • Higher maintenance costs (unless completely restored)
  • Shorter piano life expectancy (unless completely restored)
  • Can be maddeningly difficult and confusing to shop for
  • Need to pay technician to examine and appraise it
  • Possible need to size up restorer’s ability to do a good job

Despite the longer list of disadvantages, most people buy used because of the lower upfront cost and because they feel they can manage the risks involved. The most important rule by far in managing risk is to have the piano professionally examined and appraised by a piano technician prior to purchase. This is especially important when buying from a private-party seller because there is no warranty, but it can also be done for peace of mind when buying from a professional seller, particularly if the piano is over ten years old. This will cost between Kshs. 150,000 and Kshs. 300,000 and is well worth the money. If you don’t already have a piano technician you trust, Perzina Pianos kenya have professional technicians who will handle you piano technicalities in a professional manner

It helps to remember that a new piano becomes “used” the moment it is first sold. Although junk certainly exists, used pianos actually come in a bewildering variety of conditions and situations, many of which can be quite attractive, musically and financially. However, pianos offered for a few hundred dollars or for free on websites such as Craigslist are usually a very poor option. They almost invariably need a great deal of work to bring them into playable condition, and are not worth the considerable cost of moving them. See also our article “Advice About Used Pianos For Parents of Young Beginning Piano Students” for a list of brands of used piano probably best avoided.

The subject of used pianos is vast. The Piano Book has a chapter devoted to it, including how to do your own preliminary technical examination of a piano. A summary of the most important information, including a description of the most common types of used pianos, where to find them, and how much to pay, can be found in the article “Buying a Used or Restored Piano” elsewhere in this issue. See also our archive of past feature articles for additional articles about buying a used or restored piano.

Buying a Restored Piano

A subset of used pianos consists of instruments that have been professionally restored. The complete restoration of a piano is known as rebuilding. There is no universally agreed-on definition of what is included in a rebuilding job, so you have to ask specifically what has been done. A minimal partial restoration is called reconditioning — often just cleaning up the piano, replacing a few parts, tuning, and adjusting the action as needed. Upright pianos are almost never completely rebuilt because the cost cannot be recouped in the sale price. However, upright pianos are frequently reconditioned.

Buying a used or restored piano is generally more difficult than buying a new one because, in addition to making judgments about the underlying quality of the instrument, you also must make judgments about its condition or about the skill and trustworthiness of the restorer — there’s a greater concern about being burned if you make a mistake. Some find this too stressful or time-consuming. Others find the hunt fascinating, and end up discovering, in their community or online, an entire world of piano buffs, and piano technical and historical trivia.

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Rent or Buy?

If the piano is being purchased for a beginner, there is a significant possibility that he or she will not stick with playing the piano. To handle this and other “high-risk” situations, most dealers offer a rental/purchase program. In the typical program, the dealer would rent you the piano you are considering purchasing for up to six months. You would pay round-trip moving expenses upfront, usually Kshs. 40,000 to Kshs. 60,000, plus a monthly rental fee, typically Kshs. 10,000 to Kshs. 15,000 for an upright piano. (Rental/purchase programs do not usually apply to grand pianos.) Should you decide to buy the piano at any time before the end of the six-month term, all money paid up to that point would be applied to the purchase. Otherwise, you would return the piano and be under no further obligation.

Two pieces of advice here: First, make sure you rent the piano you ultimately wish to buy, or at least rent from the dealer who has that piano, and not simply the piano or dealer with the lowest rental rate — if you eventually decide to buy from a different dealer, you’ll forfeit the rental payments already made to the first dealer. However, if you decide to buy a different piano from the same dealer from whom you rented, it’s possible that dealer would agree to apply some or all of the rental payments to the new piano — but check on this in advance.

Second, clarify issues of price before you decide whether to rent or buy. Specifically, find out whether you’ll be allowed to apply the rental payments toward, for example, today’s sale price, rather than toward the regular price six months from now — or conversely, if you’ll be held to today’s price should there be a sale six months from now. Keep in mind, however, that a “sale” is generally a reduction in price designed to entice you to buy now.

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