Gone Chopin. Be Bach in a minuet.
December 21, 2007 3:18 PM   Subscribe

Hello, hive! Advice sought for acquiring, moving, and maintaining a used piano, and in getting my 12-year-old son set up with lessons.

My 12-year-old son is finally expressing his innate love for, and talent in, music by starting to teach himself how to play various things on our 60-key touch-sensitive keyboard. As a Christmas present to my son, my parents have agreed to cover the costs of moving a piano to our apartment. So we're looking for a used (or free) one. I figure, for space reasons, we'd be looking for an upright. We're also a family of limited financial means, so economy is an issue. So: questions, questions...

Acquiring a used piano:
- Where's the best place to look for used pianos? What should I expect to pay for what level of quality? Free pianos: yay or neigh?
- What should I be looking at in determining whether a piano is solid, or is going to become so much scrap wood? Some people I've asked say, "Make sure ths soundboard is good." Which is good advice, I suppose, but I wouldn't know the soundboard from the elbow. What about the hammers, the keys, the pedals, the undercarriage, the tires?

Moving the piano:
- How much should I expect to pay a moving company to haul one of them suckers?
- If, instead, I got a U-haul and two or three friends, would this be not such a good idea, or would it be do-able, given that we pay attention to X, Y, and Z?

Maintenance of a piano:
- I understand that whenever a piano is moved, you should get it tuned. How often afterward?
- What else will we need to do to keep a piano in good shape?

Lessons for the kid: My son's teaching himself, and is learning quickly, by watching instruction videos via YouTube. We don't want him to fall into bad habits, technique-wise, and we want him to learn how to read music. My son is a very friendly kid, "ADHD," learns well when self-motivated, rebels when pressured. Like most other 12-year-old-boys.
- What qualities should I look for in a piano teacher?
- There are plenty of colleges around our area (Boston/Cambridge), and I assume there are many students looking to give lessons for an xtra buck. Is this a good, cheap alternative to getting a "pro"?
- If we want to start him on lessons without having a real piano (i.e., using a pedal-less, non-weighted-key, touch sensitive 60-key Yamaha), would we be shooting our son in the foot?

So there you go. Am I forgetting anything? (I must be.) Your collective experiences have shed light on so many things, so thank you in advance for your insight. And happy holidays!
posted by not_on_display to Grab Bag (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Damn it, I HAVE a piano! But you don't live in Florida. Seriously, it was my grandmother's, we don't play, we have had it for years, and would already have gotten rid of it but we would like it to go to someone who will use it. It needs tuning and all that, but it would be free. If you know anyone in Florida, Mefi Mail me, okay?
posted by misha at 3:46 PM on December 21, 2007

I acquired a free piano through a friend of the family about three years ago. It cost less than $200 to hire professional piano movers to transport it about five miles across town (this is with about six steps out of the old house and three steps into the new house, and a very tight turn in the new house). It definitely needed a professional tune after the move, but it probably needed that beforehand. I feel that the ~300 bucks to move and tune it was well spent, given the piano was free.

About two years ago, facing a cross-country move, I offered the piano as "free" on Craigslist. I got an instant deluge of responses, but most of the responders had no idea what was involved in moving a piano. One woman actually asked if she'd be able to get it in her sedan.

I wound up giving it to a young, recent music-school grad, who showed up with a U-Haul conversion van, a couple of friends, and a father who clearly thought the whole exercise was idiotic but was sweetly supportive of his son. Between the five they got it out of the house, down our steps and lifted it into the van with no apparent damage to themselves or the piano (though I suspect the piano would *really* need a tune after that). I have no idea how they fared on the other end.

If I were doing it again, I think I would require that the person receiving the free piano hire professional movers. If they'd have dropped the piano or hurt themselves in the process it would have been awful. I certainly don't want anyone to throw their back out, and if the piano broke halfway out the door they could have walked away and left us with the mess. I'd strongly suggest you look at hiring a mover...you can get quotes in advance to get an idea of what the damage would be.
posted by handful of rain at 3:51 PM on December 21, 2007

Craigslist is a good place to look for cheap or free pianos. You'll also probably need to have it tuned.

It's great that your son is taking an interest in this. One of the best ways you can help (other than finding a good teacher) is to make sure he's exposed to a lot of piano music. My parents never listened to piano music when I was a kid taking lessons, and only in my mid-20's did I discover a lot of music that would have really made a difference if I'd heard it when I was 12. (for me, it was Chopin and Gershwin... but that's a matter of taste)

Chances are your local public library has a good selection of free music, and another good resource for music discovery is http://www.last.fm
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 4:10 PM on December 21, 2007

Best answer: I went to the Boston Conservatory, and I seem to remember every once in a while they'd have a kind of piano giveaway -- the old practice room pianos that were being "retired" would be available to the public just for the cost of hauling them away. I don't know if they still do this, but it's worth checking into -- Berklee School of Music, Boston Conservatory, New England Conservatory, BU, Emerson... they all might have soon-to-be-retired practice room pianos to be had (groan) for a song (sorry).

In terms of actually buying a piano, check out "The Piano Book" by Larry Fine (and its annual supplement, with updated info). It's a must-have for anyone thinking of buying.

And in terms of lessons, yes, when you call the conservatories/music schools about pianos, you can ask about students teaching. Though I will say that not all amazing pianists are amazing teachers -- many of the students studying there are getting performance degrees and may have little teaching experience. It's worth googling to see if there are local community music schools in areas near you, or asking at your son's school -- if there is a music teacher at the school, that person may be a great resource; if you are friendly with the parents of your son's friends, you might ask around about teachers that way, too.

Another way to go is to walk into your local music store -- a piano store, or anyplace that sells musical instruments -- and ask the folks there your questions. They should be able to hook you up with teachers, tuners, and other info.

Hope that helps!
posted by mothershock at 5:44 PM on December 21, 2007

I took piano lessons for 10 years. I am not a pro, but I can play fairly well. I rarely had an opportunity to play during my nomadic days of college and grad school. But when I finally settled down into a house two years ago, I got a free piano through Freecycle. It was an older upright that had been painted canary yellow (yikes) and had a few chipped keys. The sound was nice, though, so I decided to take it home.

I went to pick up the piano with four strong friends and a U-Haul. We took two dollies (the ones that are square-ish) and put them under the piano. Then we backed the U-Haul right up to the guy's front door and made a ramp from the guy's doorstep to the truck with a piece of strong plywood. We rolled the piano into the truck, covered it with moving blankets, and strapped it to the wall of the truck. Unloading was the same thing in reverse. It was surprisingly easy, and the piano suffered no harm. If the piano is going from the ground-level floor of one house to the ground-level floor of another, then I would highly recommend this method.

I wouldn't worry too much about being able to judge the quality of the piano like an expert. When you're testing it out, compare it with recordings of piano music you're heard before. If it sounds good to you and your son, then it's probably a decent piano. You can ask the owner to open the various lids so you can peek at the insides. If nothing looks cracked, rusted, or worn-out, then the piano will probably last you several years.

The frequency of piano-tuning will depend on how much you use it. When I was a kid, my brother and I each practiced an hour a day, and my parents had our piano tuned about once every 6 months.
posted by sotalia at 5:59 PM on December 21, 2007

If I were looking and could afford it, I'd look for a good electric piano. They are not cheap buy you don't have to pay for tuning, they are very easy to move and if you get a good one, it's going to sound better and play better than your typical free upright. I think you'd be talking in the $500-$2k range, and you definitely get what you pay for.

My friend has an older Yamaha Clavinova, and it plays ok and sounds ok. Not like a real piano but very much playable and it's always in tune. I love a nice old upright too, but you may find that a lot of the ones you are going to get are going to be borderline useless.

Also remember that you may end up with a free piano that needs major work. I'd do some research about pianos. I dont' know a ton, but I grew up with a spinet (very short piano), and it totally sucked. The strings are not long enough to make a good sound. So taller is generally better in an upright.

Also, as the above poster said, moving a piano can be VERY dangerous. I think I've done it once, and it was totally hairy. I think there is some piano mover story about how several people died moving a piano, not sure if it's true, probably not, but you could see how it could happen easily. If you are dealing with stairs, I'd be really leary of it.

Think about it this way, free piano + $400 to move (taking a guess) + $400 in repairs (another wild guess) = something like this?

With no risk of iminent death and you can move it easily next time you move.
posted by sully75 at 6:06 PM on December 21, 2007

I dont' want to negate what sotalia said, but if I was going to move a piano, I would definitely not have plywood involved in the process. It has no lateral strength and it could bust in half, leaving you with a broken piano on the ground and hopefully nobody underneath it.
posted by sully75 at 6:08 PM on December 21, 2007

We had a grand in our house growing up in New Jersey. We had it tuned a month ot two after the heat was turned on in the fall and a month or two after it was turned off and started to get humid.

Keep the piano away from direct light to keep it in tune longer and out of heinously humid places (like basements).

My dad and some friends moved the grand and cracked the sound board. Game over. Use piano movers.

My parents found music teachers by word of mouth.
posted by plinth at 6:15 PM on December 21, 2007

sully75, thanks for the correction...thinking back on it, it was probably not plywood that we used, but some other kind of strong wood.
posted by sotalia at 6:24 PM on December 21, 2007

Best answer: For a teacher, try the Community Music Center of Boston, or another community music schools. These places will place your child with a teacher they figure will be a good match, rather than you doing hit-or-miss through friends' recommendations. If the Boston one is not close to you, you can find one in your area here (as well as the philosophy of community music/arts schools.) In addition to good placement philosophies, they might also have scholarship or discount opportunities, group lessons and other ways to help with costs. Your son will also get to meet other boys his age in music. (Get the feeling I'm into these places? But really, they're great.)
posted by nax at 7:00 PM on December 21, 2007

Oh, and I forgot: If you're getting a used piano, try out every single key to make sure none of them "sticks" (stays down after you press it).
posted by sotalia at 7:00 PM on December 21, 2007

Try Craigslist. My boyfriend just sold of a great console piano in on the New York Craigslist for $50. It was in great mechanical condition, but had quite a few scratches and stains on the finish, and also needed to be tuned. He's moving, and just need to get it out of the apartment, so we set a low price and had several people interested. The first person who came played it and paid on the spot. He hired movers to get it the next day, but I have no idea for how much.

It's coming up the end of the month, so it might be a good time to look.
posted by kimdog at 7:37 PM on December 21, 2007

Best answer: If you think your son is going to be decent, or might want to study piano in the future, I'd say the top priority is getting him on something that feels as real as possible. There are some digital pianos with a decent feel to them, but a real piano is thousands of times better than a cheap plastic keyboard that will teach him bad habits. If he wants to be good, he has to learn -- deep, ingrained muscle memory, as soon as possible -- how to touch a piano.

Make sure the action is good. Sticky things, whether pedals or keys, are hard to fix. Open the top and then press the keys; even if you don't hear a sound, that might be because the string's been removed (not that hard to fix), so look for a jumping motion inside, and make sure the key rises again without a problem.

A U-Haul and a couple of beefy friends will move a full-size upright, but I wouldn't bet on a grand. Plan on buying these friends lots of beer or pizza or whatever you usually reimburse "thanks for helping with that miserable task" friends with. When my family moved, I was pretty young, but as far as I remember the only technique used was "HUP HUP HUP" -- no plywood or anything, just a couple of big guys who woke up really sore for a few days. This is definitely not the world's greatest idea, but it's cheap, and it has a good chance of working as long as you have enough beefy friends who want to prove they're big, strong tough guys.

Expect to have the piano tuned about twice a year. If/when your son gets more into it, you'll probably be fooling around with humidifiers and heaters, which will have an effect on the tuning. But for a beginner, have it tuned after it's moved and gets settled in, and about six months after that. If you miss a tuning, it's not the end of the world. Also, if you're pretty sure about a piano but aren't totally sure it's free of major defects, you can hire a tuner to come along with you and check it out.

Students can be great teachers. A lot of the time schools will have bulletin boards or mailing lists or some other way of telling music majors about available situations. I would want a music major, a junior or senior if an undergrad. You definitely want him/her to teach your son how to read music as well as how to play. Ideally, theory would be included, but this pretty much has to involve homework so that's not going to be too popular. Also, not all great musicians are great teachers, obviously -- and not all good teachers get along with all students. If after a couple of sessions you think it's a mismatch, don't be afraid to keep looking. I would guess you should expect to pay $20/hour or more, for an hourly lesson once a week.

Lessons are better than no lessons, but realistic action is better than a totally fake keyboard. Your son can definitely start learning theory and learning to read music now, but I would hold off on lots of practice time until he's on something that feels like it should.

Other notes:
- Wait until after Christmas -- you do not want to be doing this in the next few days. Don't rush the process. It's also generally not a great idea to buy big-ticket items right before Christmas, when the sellers can see you coming.
- Seconding qxntpqbbbqxl on exposing your kid to all different kinds of music. My brother wouldn't touch his clarinet until he got into jazz. For your kid, it may be ragtime that gets him to love the piano.
posted by booksandlibretti at 12:28 AM on December 22, 2007

As far as teachers and music, I would second everyone else saying that exposing him to something other than classical music is a very good idea. I would say, even, that maybe putting the priority not on classical music but on something else (Jazz/klezmer/songs he likes/Cape Breton-all of which are huge in Boston) would be a good thing. Those musics teach someone to meet strangers and play. Classical music, you can only play with other classical musicians. I found that part frustrating.
posted by sully75 at 5:41 AM on December 22, 2007

I started taking lessons when I was about 5 years old (now 24) and my parents purchased an upright for it. Now, years later I have a digital piano and could care less about the "real" upright and here is why: digital pianos do not need tuning, are easy to move and you can use headphones with them. If you get a good digital piano there is little difference between it and an acoustic piano. I currently have a Yamaha p-150. Pricier than a free upright + moving costs, but if you consider all the upkeep that is required of a traditional piano, it is worth it. On this and other good/ideal digital pianos, they have full 88-keys that are weighted to feel just like a piano, and include foot pedals. This is not something you'll find in a department or warehouse store - can only be found through a music store or something like Craigslist.

As far as lessons, I'm not sure where all you could go to find teachers, but I think a MIX of classical and jazz would be ideal. I grew up only playing classical music, which was great for learning how to read music and certainly helped me in learning other instruments, but jazz is just more fun, and I wish I had started to learn it sooner.
posted by pontouf at 9:07 AM on December 22, 2007

I'd echo Pontouf about being able to practice with headphones. That could be great for everyone. Your son would be able to practice in a private way, which I think is really important, and you wouldn't have to hear it all the time. You might want to, but the option is there. I think it would be cool for him to be able to zone out.

The other thing is that as you start to spend more on an electric piano, they start to mimic a real piano very well, and they start to sound like a really really really good piano.
posted by sully75 at 10:14 AM on December 22, 2007

Best answer: Oh - missed that you were in Boston - if you're looking for piano movers, my brother (a concert pianist) swears by Deathwish. They moved his full-sized grand for him.
posted by plinth at 7:39 PM on December 22, 2007

Response by poster: followup:
We finally got my family-heirloom piano a few weeks ago -- a Baldwin Acrosonic console from the 1940's. It's beautiful. I'm now looking into lessons for both my son and myself; maybe group lessons. I may do an AskMe about that. Thanks to everyone for your suggestions!
posted by not_on_display at 8:20 PM on March 21, 2008

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