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Your First Piano - What To Know

Updated: Mar 21, 2023

Are you a beginner pianist?


Excellent! You've taken the first steps on a journey that is going to bring so much joy to you and others.


HOWEVER...


You do require one significant investment in order to carry this through; a piano!


Perhaps you're fortuitous enough to have inherited a stunning older model and this is the reason you are inclined to learn and - if so - that's wonderful, but let's assume that this is a bit of a hunch you have and you don't have and never have had a piano before.


Jack Mitchell Smith piano buying what to look for Macclesfield pianist
My first piano was not what I expected!


Let's explore what we need:



Digital vs. Acoustic



There are many arguments that the beginner pianist can throw both for an against both digital and acoustic pianos, and the simple fact is that technological advancement has allowed for digital pianos of more recent years to be so frighteningly close to the real thing that you would be forgiven for assuming it wouldn't make a difference. HOWEVER, approach with caution:


Remember - if you learn on an acoustic piano, you can translate this to digital, but if you learn on a digital you may not necessarily get good results from translating your skills to an acoustic (at least, it will take time to readjust).


Let's explore;



Digital Piano



A digital piano is a wonderful thing, but there are pros and cons.



Digital Piano Pros



  • Digital pianos use samples of real pianos, meaning that for a much more affordable price than a real piano you can have a piano in your own home.

  • In addition to being more affordable, they are often much less spacious than their acoustic counterparts. You can, of course, purchase digital pianos that are in impressive frames but because they don't require all the intricate workings inside, electric grand pianos are usually shorter and electric uprights are usually shallower. If you are still stuck for space, you can get digital pianos in frames that are very narrow / shallow - and for absolute ease you can purchase a stage piano. Stage pianos are like piano size (i.e. 88 key) keyboards that sit on a stand rather than having a frame. This takes up even less space, allows for easy assembly and dis-assembly if not in use and allows for ease of transportation.

  • You can program a digital piano to be responsive to your touch. Pianos respond dynamically according to how hard or soft you hit the keys, and different pianists have different approaches when playing. If you play gently, you might not want a loud sound to come out. You can alter the dynamic according to what you want to hear.

  • Digital pianos have headphone slots - practice any time of day or night!

  • Digital pianos are fairly self sufficient. That is to say, they do not need tuning and do not respond to any environmental change such as where they are positioned in a room etc.


Digital Piano Cons



  • Digital pianos have a wonderful selection of sounds and effects which can really enhance performance. However, this can be hugely distracting to a beginner pianist who may be tempted to use some of these to make their performances sound better. On translating this to an acoustic piano, their ear may instead find their digital piano sounds preferable. An acoustic piano in a room, for example, may not give any reverb, and so the beginner may feel the tone is a little flat compared to what they are used to.

  • Digital sustain is yet to be perfected. A digital sustain pedal acts like an on / off switch as opposed to being able to control the type and length of sustain by using gradual depression thanks to the lever action of an acoustic piano. Similarly, acoustic piano sustain is considerably longer than that of a digital, meaning that learning on a digital piano may result in a less confident pedal action from a beginner because they don't need to raise it so often to 'clean up' any residual sustain.



Acoustic Piano



An acoustic piano is, of course, the dream. But similarly, there too are pros and cons.



Acoustic Piano Pros



  • The potential of sound on an acoustic piano is rather limitless. Whilst it is all definitely a 'piano', you are able to control the sound by using delicate finger and pedal work - something that cannot be achieved on a digital piano.

  • The natural dynamic of a volume - whilst it could be considered a con depending on your neighbours - is a major plus for getting the most out of your performance. When you play an acoustic piano loudly you can feel the vibrations running through you and this helps you connect best with the music you are performing. As per the previous point, an acoustic piano reacts in similar ways to how you play it too - playing an acoustic piano is influenced hugely by vibration - literally!



Acoustic Piano Cons



  • The biggest con is the expense. This is not just the expense of an acoustic piano to begin with, but the maintenance on top also adds up. Tuning may only be an annual thing in fairness, but if your tuner only focuses on pitching the strings then you may be missing some important things that might get you later. The interior of a piano is extremely intricate, and having to replace or repair something that could have been picked up on sooner would likely cost more than a replacement chipboard for a digital piano, for example.


Cosmetics



Pianos look beautiful, and there are so many available on the market.


Chances are if you're looking to invest in a piano you have an idea of what you want.


Typical pianos are black, white or brown - and they can all look beautiful. Some have a lovely, glossy finish, whereas some are wooden.


On the art of cosmetics, I would urge you to bear two things in mind:


  1. You will enjoy playing more on a piano that you enjoy looking at, HOWEVER

  2. The practical benefit of your piano should take priority.



Top Tips for Choosing Your Piano



There are many tips for choosing your piano, but here I'd like to advise you of the most important;



Go to a Shop



This sounds obvious, but the simple fact of the matter is that you will not be able to gauge how well the piano plays and responds to you if you don't go and try it out. You may have your heart set on a specific one, but seek it out in a shop first before you make any rash decisions. You don't want to be stuck with it.



Play the Same Things



When you go round the pianos, make sure you perform the same things on each one. It's SO tempting (speaking from experience) to be wowed by how softly or loudly a piano responds to your touch, and to think "oh, such-and-such would sound beautiful on this" and proceeds to play. This is fine if you do, but don't make the mistake of doing so at the expense of everything else you're trying. You should have a selection of two or three pieces to play between - each one with a distinctly different characteristic to the other two. This way, you won't make the wrong decision based around the piano sounding wonderful...for one piece of music.



Play High, Play Low



It's so tempting to stay around the centre of the piano when you play, and to play music that is centralised. It may or may not come as a surprise that nine times out of ten, this area of the piano sound great. It sounds good with two hands, close harmony, compound harmony. But quite often you can lose a lot of clarity in the notes in the lower register (this is why Bösendorfers are so expensive - they don't!), and lose a lot of sweetness as you get in to the higher register (they get 'plinky'). Make sure you explore the full range of the keyboard and settle on a piano that suits you.



Ignore the Pedals



Well, OK - don't ignore them. It's important to understand how they affect the sound of the piano and that they are comfortable playing for you. But make sure one of your pieces is not overly dependent on the pedals (in particular the sustain pedal!) - allow for the notes of the piano to speak for themselves. If something doesn't quite seem right, you don't want to settle for a piano that requires pedal work to masquerade its problems!



Ask the Assistant(s)



It's highly unlikely you'll be going round a piano shop without being taken round by an assistant - or at the very least with an assistant or two subtly hovering - watching - ready to pounce. But here's the thing - they are usually pianists themselves (obviously!), and one things that pianists can tell is when a fellow pianist enjoys playing an instrument. If there is a connection between you and a piano, they'll see it. And trust me, they won't say it for the sake of a sale! Any reputable piano / music store will be honest and, if you don't feel you're having any luck, they will be able to point you in the right direction. They are, after all, experts.



 

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