Piano on a Budget
September 19, 2008 8:02 AM   Subscribe

Our children are taking piano lessons. They need a piano. We don't know what we're doing.

Our kids, ages 5 and 8, started piano lessons this week. We need to buy them an acoustic piano for practice at home.

My partner and I have no idea what we're doing. We don't know how to shop for a piano. We have never played a musical instrument. We would like to buy something used, with a price tag of $500 dollars or less. Is this reasonable or realistic?

I know to avoid stuck and chipped keys, but what else?

I saw an ad today for "BALDWIN PIANO Acrosonic. Excellent condition. $500" Another ad stated, "Kimball upright piano, good condition, $150" I have no idea what this means. I know nothing about brands. If I went into a home to see these pianos I wouldn't have a clue as what to look for.

We aren't considering electronic keyboards because the instructor is against them. We aren't against upgrading to a nicer piano in the future, but for now, we need something adequate for them to practice on.

Also, what are your views on children learning and loving music if their parents don't know diddly? We listen to a wide variety of music and we sing (poorly), but that's where it ends. We have never played an instrument and do not know how to read music. We (I) have some anxiety about our kids being able to practice and learn effectively when we don't know the first thing about music. We did sit in on the first lesson ,and we'll probably sit in on a few more (the instructor prefers it this way), so we do feel somewhat comfortable helping them with posture, finger placement, etc., for practice at home.

Any advice appreciated. We need a piano and we're clueless!
posted by Fairchild to Shopping (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
FWIW, at 5 and 8, I'd absolutely go electronic- I realize the instructor is against them, but it's certainly possible to get a decent keyboard to get them started, and upgrade in a few years when they are actually committed to playing. You can certainly get a fine keyboard for $500, but a high quality piano seems like a stretch. My kids are about the same age, and as much as I would have preferred a real upright, the cost / benefit was completely out of whack.

There are other expenses to consider with an acoustic piano- moving can be expensive, and you will almost certainly need to spend a hundred bucks or so to get a piano tuner in to get the piano playable again- a cheap piano probably hasn't been maintained for a long time.

At this age, enthusiasm, support, and (occassional) policing to get them to practice count for far more than experience. You guys will be fine- the teacher's job is to help them with their fingers.
posted by jenkinsEar at 8:16 AM on September 19, 2008

I don't know where you are geographically, but in Philadelphia there's a Craigslist listing for a free piano at least a couple of times per month. That's how we got ours. We just had to move it, which was a matter of getting a couple of strong guys and a truck. (One of those guys was me, but it would have been someone else had the move not been first floor --> first floor.)
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 8:28 AM on September 19, 2008

I'm afraid I can't give much advice on buying a piano. However, in my experience with other instruments, the market for used musical instruments is usually pretty efficient. Price usually does correlate with quality.

I will comment on bringing up your kids to be musical. Ideally I'd reccommend that one or both of you learns with them. Not necessarily piano, but any other instrument that helps you to learn the basics of music theory to help them. Seeing you practicing your instrument can be good motivation for them to practice, too. I know that time and cost constraints can make this impossible though.

Most importantly, music really has to be fun! Play or sing along with your kids occasionally to make playing seem less like a chore. If their only experience of music is lessons and practicing, it'll just be like another school subject rather than learning to improve at something they can enjoy. Along that line, your local orchestra / music school probably has occasional open days or events where kids and parents can hear and maybe try lots of different instruments and musical styles. I loved going to these when I was a kid and they helped me to realise that music is more than bashing out excercise pieces on an old piano.

Finally, you sound like the parents of a friend of mine. His parents don't play any instruments or sing much, but he's one of the most talented and technically proficient musicians I've ever met. He and his siblings definately have a surfit of raw talent, but a big(ger?) factor is simply the fact that they've grown up to love playing and do so at every opportunity.
posted by metaBugs at 8:28 AM on September 19, 2008

Yeah, I would push back on the acoustic issue. My mom is still mad at me about that piano she bought.

On the other hand, if you absolutely must, you can probably get one for free or nearly so on Craigslist if you pay the moving and tuning. I think my mother eventually started accosting passersby and offering to pay them to take the damn thing away.

I would be wary of rigid piano teachers. You want one who wants your kids to learn to love to play, not one who insists there is only One True Way to learn. I had that teacher, and she was crazy as a loon, and probably had a whole lot to do with my mother's $5000 dustcatcher.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:31 AM on September 19, 2008

I wouldn't get them a piano yet... first make sure they are really going to pursue it. Seconding they should start with a keyboard at first. Then if it's something that looks like it's going to become a part of your lives I'd start researching. Go to a store that sells used pianos and window shop. Ask questions. Learn about what you're buying as if you're buying a car. Find out what piano experts recommend and know without making an immediate purchase.

Secondly, I'd call some music shops and see if they can recommend a great piano tuner. A good piano tuner is the same as having a good mechanic. (Even though my piano is only valuable on a sentimental level, it's old and unremarkable, my piano tuner also works for the LA philharmonic so I know it's in the best care and shape it possibly could be. I know he treats my crappy little spinet upright the same as if it was Elton John's baby grand.) Once you find someone good, tell them you're looking into buying a piano for your kids. See if he/she would be willing to help you find a good one. By this I mean not necessarily that they're going to find you a piano (although they might know where to point you), but you can ask him his thoughts on what kind of piano you should be looking for and then you can start looking on craigslist for things. Ask the tuner what kinds of questions you should be asking the seller, and ask them. Take a look at a few of the pianos if you're ready. And if you want to arrange to pay the tuner to look at the piano before you purchase it (same as with a car), you can do that too. You don't want to buy a piano and then find out after you've paid to have it hauled to your home that it needs all of the flanges replaced or something.

Moral of the story, don't rush into it. Unless you plan to get rid of it when your kids are done with lessons, think of this is a long-term major furniture investment. I've been hauling my piano around since college, back when the only other furniture I owned were a mattress and lawn chairs in the living room. Back then I could put nearly all of my possessions in my Ford Escort yet I had to save up to hire a mover for my piano. 20 years later I just moved it again, and it always makes my move more work because of the movers you have to hire (a lot of people don't know how to move a piano so you have to hire people with the right dolly and they charge you more). But if you use it, having a piano rocks WAY more than a keyboard ever could... so it's worth it! :)
posted by miss lynnster at 8:47 AM on September 19, 2008

We recently went through this for our daughters, and we ended up renting a piano from a local music store. It's relatively inexpensive ($30-40) per month, and paid for delivery both ways up front (so to return it, we just have to call them up). We ended up with a much better piano than we would have gotten from Craigslist, and since it's a rented piano things like periodic tuning etc are included.

The instructor being against electronic keyboards is reasonable; unless you buy a *really* expensive one, it won't have the same feel as an acoustic piano.
posted by AaronRaphael at 8:49 AM on September 19, 2008

Absolutely the most important thing in this equation is not the instrument - it is the teacher. Get a teacher that is awesome with kids - DO NOT get one that is mean, it'll turn your kids off to music in a really bad way. If they don't want to practice and generally don't like lessons you need to find a different teacher or talk to the one you've got about what's not working.

That being said, if you want your kids to play an electric keyboard get them a keyboard. If however, you want them to play the piano, buy them a piano. They're both great instruments, but they are not the same thing - especially at that price point. Opinions vary on this, that is mine and I feel strongly about it.

There are plenty of okay used acoustic pianos out there - craigslist is good. But, you can also ask a piano teacher if they know anyone that is looking to get rid of a piano, they're a great resource for that sometimes. Also, ask your teacher about their preferred tuner, they will know the best and cheapest in your area.

Here is an askme question about what to look for when buying a used piano (with your same $500 buget).
posted by Craig at 8:51 AM on September 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Piano hire? I'd recommend my uncle, but I'm guessing you're not in Western Australia. There has to be someone else in the world who will deliver, tune and pick up pianos.
posted by scruss at 8:55 AM on September 19, 2008

Acoustic pianos are very nice. You can get an electronic piano with weighted keys and digitally sampled Steinway sound that looks and feels great. It is not the same as an acoustic piano, but it does not need tuning, and that is very nice.

The thing about older unmaintained pianos is that sometimes:
*the sound board has cracked--you will hear a buzz from this, very unsettling, sometimes quite subtle, but unsettling still. This piano should be avoided.
*some of the keys go out of tune immediately--they slip. This can be repaired ($$$).
*the felts (look inside; you'll see them) are worn out and or missing) These can be replaced (more $$$)
*the "action" needs repair--some keys don't play at all--the little wooden arms that cause the hammers to strike the keys can break. This can be repaired. ($$$)

Now, that being said, when you go to look at the "excellent condition" piano advertised, they may mean that it looks nice, not that it is in "excellent playing condition". You may find the $5000 piano the mother of the person above bought--which would be a great deal. Or you may find something that was played to death by some deceased relative. I like the Craig's list idea.

After many years of playing pianos, and being the only person to actually have lost a piano in moving, I now have a Yamaha Clavinova, which I dearly love, especially the not ever having to tune it thing. I live in a climate that would be unkind to an acoustic piano, but between you, me and the lampost, there is nothing better than a good acoustic piano. And you can play it when the power goes out.

If money were no object I would get the Yamaha acoustic upright that has the player piano option. You can get recordings of famous pianists which will then play on your acoustic piano in your living room!
posted by Yimji at 8:58 AM on September 19, 2008

Oh, also, don't worry about not knowing anything about music, it doesn't matter. Just take an interest and always be encouraging and supportive. Notice when they've made progress on a song. It's hard work and a little encouragement will help to lite that fire inside them. Both parents should be attending EVERY performance they ever have. It's important, take time off work if you have to. It's really all about attitude rather than skill. Make this something fun and let them know you're really proud of them.
posted by Craig at 9:01 AM on September 19, 2008

You may get very lucky and find a used acoustic cheap; keep in mind you may be out $500 just with tuning and moving. Can you take a piano savvy friend along to look at instruments? At the very least play each key to make sure it sounds and doesn't stick.
If you go digital, you DO need 88 weighted keys, the ability to play loud and soft, and hopefully a sustain pedal. That will run you $500 at a minimum. But I'd rather play a decent digital than take my chances on a badly maintained acoustic with a cracked soundboard or rusted strings.
posted by Jeanne at 9:17 AM on September 19, 2008

I've heard trained pianinsts say that a clavinova is good, so I reckon it would be fine for kids starting out.
posted by Not Supplied at 9:23 AM on September 19, 2008

I used to be a piano restorer and fixer and tuner. A lot of the kids' musical horizon does in fact rest on the instrument, despite what Craig said. A great looking "thing" that has an enormous and inviting sound is FANTASTIC for kids. There are a handful of factors at play here: what kind, size, and looks of the "thing" that goes into your house? how permanent will the thing be in your house? where are you/ what's the weather and the piano market like? how will a piano relate to your home life generally? how much money to spend? and YES! can you get a good tuner who knows how to make these engineering marvels come up to snuff.

Some of what Yimji said is good; some is not quite right. If only "one note" on a piano goes wacky out of tune, you do not have a tuning problem; you have a wrest-plank problem. Pianos constantly are going wholesale out of tune. Sometimes only slightly. etc. etc. etc.

Piano buying advice may go better with a nice long phone chat. I'd be happy to do that. Or else, ask more questions, and I'll keep my eye on this question-thread.
posted by yazi at 9:26 AM on September 19, 2008

For the record, I grew up in a house with both a keyboard and an acoustic from when I was little (my mother was a semi-lapsed player, and learned to play myself when I was nine or so. I doubt I would have stuck with the instrument as long as I did (had to quit when we moved overseas, because I couldn't find the time and teachers for both piano and violin, and preferred violin) if we hadn't had the piano. The keyboard? Fun as heck to play with, but it was basically a toy. The piano, now, that was for the music.

Obviously, since I was a little kid I don't know much about the logistics of piano purchase, but I would definitely look into a rental if you can - best way to see if your kids will be into this for the long haul.
posted by bettafish at 10:20 AM on September 19, 2008

In addition to the great advice you have already received above, I will add two things:

Contact the music department of your nearest college or university, explaining to the administrator who answers the phone that you are starting piano lessons for your kids and are looking for resources for purchasing a piano. Ask if the office or the piano instructors could provide assistance or resources. Sometimes universities sell pianos from their rehearsal rooms for a good price, often in bulk. The music department might even have a list of piano teachers in your area who are reputable, including their own students, who survive on giving piano lessons and might be a better fit for your kids than someone who reminds them of Miss Viola Swamp.

Also, if you have a piano in your home, it is a living piece of furniture. When it's played, the room comes alive in a way that electronic keyboards and their measly speakers just can't replicate. You might even find yourself sitting down at that well-crafted wooden beast and seeing how your hands feel when they come in contact with it's keys. I can think of few things as satisfying as the rumblings of a piano's low register up close. I don't have one, but when I visit family, all of whom have pianos in their homes, one of the first things that I do is sit down and play something I know from heart.
posted by billtron at 10:22 AM on September 19, 2008

Also, what are your views on children learning and loving music if their parents don't know diddly? We listen to a wide variety of music and we sing (poorly), but that's where it ends. We have never played an instrument and do not know how to read music. We (I) have some anxiety about our kids being able to practice and learn effectively when we don't know the first thing about music.

You're interested and enthusiastic -- that's enough. You don't need to be musicians to appreciate the music that you play, right?

And hey, you've got a great way to play with your kids by asking them to "teach" you what they learned. Not only does explaining things to someone else help the ex plainer understand better, but it sure is fun to turn the tables on your parents when you're a kid and get to be the expert.
posted by desuetude at 10:28 AM on September 19, 2008

If you do get electronic make very sure you get weighted keys.
posted by konolia at 10:31 AM on September 19, 2008

"Buying" a used piano is not really a very good idea. Moving a piano is difficult, and it is even harder to move a piano without damaging it. And when it gets where it's going, it'll need to be tuned, which will cost more than what you're seeing to buy the piano. For most pianos people should be paying you to take it away, not the other way around.

I strongly advise you to get a Yahama Clavinova, the best one that fits in your price range. These are electronic pianos that feel and sound like real pianos. At age 5 and 8 there is no need to go for the Bosendorfer.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:28 AM on September 19, 2008

Lotsa good advice above. Take a knowledgeable person to evaluate prospective pianos. A small plus for the weighted-keys keyboard: The amount of practice steadily increases. x two kids. Earphones and volume control may keep the family and neighbors sane.

Kids don't always immediately exhibit ability. Some kids plod for two years and suddenly blossom. Pre-schoolers progress rapidly, 'cause they have all day to practice. Then the kid starts school and the music goes poof. Soccer, a job, other distractions: poof.

When I was a teen, I had a leg in and out of casts and braces for two years. With no major distractions I progressed rapidly. So, besides an inspiring teacher and a decent instrument, one way to help your kids stick with music is to break their legs. Or otherwise help them set priorities.

Help them find accessible inspiration. It may be cheesy, but if they are energized by (ugh) Music Box Dancer, follow that vein. Ask here or elsewhere for listening suggestions for your drive-time.
posted by gregoreo at 12:16 PM on September 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Piano Book by Larry Fine. That is all.
posted by flug at 1:22 PM on September 19, 2008

Electronic keyboards are to pianos as inflatable love dolls are to women.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 1:33 PM on September 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Bring along an expert when you go to look at a used piano. Go to the Piano Technicians Guild website and find a local RPT (registered piano technician) to evaluate the piano for you. They can tell you if a $500 piano needs $2,000 of work. For $75 or so (depending on where you are) you can save yourself from a 500 pound paperweight and get a great deal. (Seconding The Piano Book - great resource)

If you choose to buy an electronic piano, absolutely get weighted keys. The "feel" is very different.

Just be the cheering section for your children. I am thrilled to have gotten to the point where I get to applaud my daughter's music and not just her effort! I don't play any instruments but I am a great audience...
posted by firelizard at 1:36 PM on September 19, 2008

Best answer: Nobody's a bigger supporter of "real" pianos than I am. But you have to face the fact that if you are spending less than about $1000 the perfectly decent electronic piano you can buy in that range will probably be a better practice instrument than the junky used piano you're likely to come across.

Definitely DO NOT buy a crappy "electronic keyboard". The type of instrument you are looking at it more usually going to be billed as a "digital piano". For example, any of the digital pianos listed on this page would be perfectly decent (not a recommendation of this retailer or any specific instrument listed there, just the first typical example I came across on Google.

What you are looking for:

* 88 keys
* weighted action; they should be spending their advertising & saleperson's time & effort telling you how much like a "real piano" it is (which it isn't of course, but you're looking for the type of instrument where they are at least making a respectable effort)
* built-in speakers (plus headphone capability)
* "real" pedals (ie, look like a regular brass piano pedal, not some crappy cheap electronic plastic thing that just sits on the floor)
* probably will have 6 or 8 sounds, at least a couple of which will be different types of grand piano, concert grand piano, acoustic piano, or something of the sort. If it has some hundreds of different sounds or tones you should start to worry it is more of an "electronic toy" than a digital piano, which is what you want.
* Due to the weighted action and full set of 88 keys it will fairly heavy & bulky. If you can just pick it up with one hand, get very worried that is a cheap electronic toy. The type of thing you want will have a fair bit of heft to it--like one person could probably lift/move it but unless that person is real big & strong two could handle it a lot easier.

Your budget might not be $1000 for a digital piano, but keep in mind that you're looking at $100/month minimum for a kid in piano lessons, so looking at that (plus books, time, other expenses) the piano itself is maybe 1/4 of the total investment over the first couple of years.

Also keep in mind that if you buy a $500 used piano you're probably looking at $100/year in tuning (minimum) plus maybe $200-300/yr extra in adjustment, voicing, other maintenance, etc. Of course you can just leave all that out & make do without, but in that case the digital piano (which doesn't require that kind of maintenance at least when new) is *definitely* going to work/sound better. Point is, $1000 for the digital piano, which includes all needed tuning & maintenance for the first 5 years or so (none needed) is really the same price range as $500 used acoustic piano (which needs regular tuning/maintenance).

In light of full disclosure, I should mention that if you buy a $500 "real" piano (or $1000 or $5000 or $20000 or whatever) that is in decent shape to start with, and then take good care of it, maintain it, tune it, etc. then you will probably be able to sell it when you are done with for just about the same price you bought it for. A digital piano, by contrast, is going to be worn out after about 5-10 years max (depending on usage) and at the end of that period you are going to throw it in the garbage can--it will be worth exactly $0.

In sum: This type of digital piano, which you should be able to get for around $1000 or maybe less, is a perfectly serviceable practice piano for a student's first couple of years and will be a useful thing to have around after that--say if the student wants to practice duets or concertos that take two pianos, or wants to practice late nights or early mornings when the headphone thing helps the rest of the household feel happier.

After a couple of years if the student is still serious then you are probably looking at buying a piano more in the $2000-$5000 range (or more if you can afford) and that instrument will put the electronic gadget to shame. But for the beginning student & in the <>
(A "console" piano is an upright that is fairly small (short) and light. They are smaller, cheaper, lighter, and much easier to move than a full-sized upright but they also sound a work a fair bit worse. Again, read The Piano Book to find out about the different types of pianos, what they are good for and not good for, price ranges, piano purchase tips, etc.)
posted by flug at 3:17 PM on September 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you so much for these excellent answers. I read them aloud with my husband. We feel better prepared.

Hopefully I will mark this question as resolved very soon. I'll also give an update.

Thanks again to everyone. I sincerely appreciate it and have learned a lot.
posted by Fairchild at 6:00 PM on September 19, 2008

Don't buy an electronic piano, especially not for child beginners. They have to learn what a piano feels like in order to learn to play it properly. No matter how close the technology comes, it will simply never feel like a piano. As someone upthread said, a piano is a piece of living furniture. It adds warmth to a home just by existing. So if you can afford a regular piano (and make sure you're getting all 88 keys! Don't buy a spinet!), then get one. Who knows--you might wind up learning to play yourself!
posted by tzikeh at 2:35 PM on September 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

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