Saturday, February 16, 2002

Piano buying basics

In getting to know their used Wurlitzer grand, a family learns the hard way

By Michelle Day
Enquirer contributor

        The piano technician struck the keys of my newly purchased Wurlitzer grand piano. Plink, plink, plink — plink, plink, plink — pliiiiink. Ouch. I cringed. My new possession was so out of tune that it evoked a reaction not unlike fingernails across a chalkboard.

[photo] Zach Day, 9, and his brother Josh, 12, of Villa Hills at the used grand piano their parents bought for them.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        The piano's previous owners didn't care about its musical qualities. They'd acquired the instrument about 20 years ago as a piece of furniture for their century-old home on Cincinnati's east side. They'd never tried to play it, let alone have it tuned.

        Was leaving a piano untouched for almost two decades a good thing or a bad thing?

        The technician lifted the piano lid and scrutinized the insides. “You must have found this at a garage sale or in somebody's basement,” he said. The disapproving tone of his voice worried me. Was the tuning trouble serious? Would the technician find other major problems? How much money was this piano really worth?

        These were reasonable questions, ones any piano shopper should ask. But I was asking them too late. I had already paid for the piano and had it moved into my family room. I wanted the technician to tell me I had found a rare bargain. But as I watched him pluck keys and tweak strings, I realized he might tell me I had acquired a piece of junk.

        Musicians like to compare shopping for a piano to buying a car. Both cars and pianos are expensive, complex purchases. Smart piano shoppers, like smart car buyers, take precautions to ensure they are making a good investment.

        I wasn't a smart piano shopper. As a result, I faced buyer's remorse. But you can learn from my mistakes. Belatedly, I have done my research on how to shop for a piano. I've interviewed piano technicians, searched the Web and studied the book hailed as the premier resource on piano shopping, The Piano Book: Buying and Owning a New or Used Piano (Brookside Press; $27.95) by Larry Fine. Follow me through my family's experience, and perhaps your piano shopping will be remorse-free.

       The experiment

        The notion of buying a piano came when our older son began pestering us for lessons. We decided to start our budding Mozart on a 61-key electronic keyboard. (A full piano has 88 keys.) The reason for our choice? The keyboard was cheaper, about $200.

        Though he swore he would practice faithfully and frequently if we bought him a baby grand, my husband and I were skeptical. We wanted a demonstration of our son's dedication to scale and finger drill exercises before we invested in a more expensive instrument. We made a deal that if young Mozart stuck out a full year on the keyboard, we'd start shopping for a full-size acoustic piano.

Determining the age
        The Web site will check the age of your piano for a $3 fee. Just enter the serial number and the name of the manufacturer. The site also has links to manufacturers' Web sites, which often provide the same information for free.
        Since Baldwin bought Wurlitzer in 1988, we were able to find our piano's age through Baldwin's Web site,
Background research
        • The Piano Education Page, produced by the non-profit West Mesa Music Teachers Association based in Rio Rancho, N.M., offers more than 600 pages of free information for teachers, students and parents of students of the piano on its Web site
        • offers more than 1,000 pages of information on pianos, including forums for piano teachers and students, along with tuners and technicians; resources for buying, selling, tuning and moving pianos; advice on piano care and more.
        • The Piano Technician's Guild operates, which provides links to information on buying a used piano.
        • For information on Larry Fine's The Piano Book: Buying and Owning a New or Used Piano, visit the Web site
        The arrangement worked pretty well. During the early months of piano lessons, students don't use the full keyboard. And our son seemed to adjust easily to the differences in the feel of the computer-like instrument at home and the acoustic piano he played during lessons. But piano experts see problems with electronic keyboards as a long-term choice for children learning piano.

        “Digital pianos are fun toys, but they don't feel like a real piano, and they're just kind of a passing whim,” said Jack Krefting, owner of a piano showroom and rebuilding company in Ludlow and a former technical editor for Piano Technician's Journal. “Piano teachers will tell you that if your child is practicing on a digital or a keyboard, that you need to get this child on a real piano.”

        And soon enough, the electric keyboard lost its allure at our house, and the requests for a “real” piano became more intense. We started shopping.

       Focusing the search

        Pianos come in all shapes and sizes, from the 36-inch-tall spinet, a short vertical piano with the strings running perpendicular to the floor, to the 9 1/2-foot-long concert grand, which has strings running parallel to the floor.

        We focused our search on 5- to 6-foot grand pianos.

        I now know that experts recommend you buy a piano as large as your space and budget allow because the longer strings on a larger piano generally produce a better sound.

        Mr. Fine's book recommends: “If you can, buy a grand piano at least 6 feet long or a vertical at least 48 inches tall, but in no case should you buy a grand less than 5 feet or a vertical under 40 inches.”

        Our reasons for seeking a grand piano had little to do with tonal quality. We liked the elegant looks of the grand better than the less formal vertical styles, and we had the floor space and high ceilings to accommodate a larger piano.

        We began our search at piano stores, but soon determined that new grands were too pricey for our budget. They started at $6,000 for models from China and Japan and climbed to $50,000 and higher for top names such as Steinway. Soon, we shifted to scanning newspaper classifieds.

       The find

        After several weeks of searching, I spotted an intriguing ad for a Wurlitzer baby grand. Frankly, the price is what intrigued me — $1,000 — but I was more encouraged when I talked to one of the owners on the phone. She told me the piano was beautiful and in wonderful shape, but she thought it was a little out of tune because nobody had played it in years. I arranged to see it that afternoon.

        This is one point where I could have been a smarter shopper. I asked the owners many questions about the Wurlitzer's history, care and use. (So far, so good.) But I hadn't done enough homework to spot problems in the information they gave me. For instance, the owners estimated the piano's age at 25-35 years. I believe they were telling me what they thought was true. But I later found out they were off by more than five decades.

        I now know that you don't have to rely on vague estimates from uninformed sellers to determine the age of a piano. All pianos have a serial number. With that number and the name of the manufacturer, you can find out the exact year a piano was made. Turns out Wurlitzer manufactured our piano in 1916.

        As a novice piano shopper, I also didn't have a clear idea of potential signs of old-piano trouble.

        “You can tell a lot about a piano by the way it looks,” Mr. Krefting said. “If it has a lot of scratches and dings and circles from drinks or vases of flowers, then it's been in a situation where it was not well cared for.”

        Also, look at the keyboard, he said. The keys should be level. If they're not, it could be a sign of damage.

        Under the piano lid, look for symmetry. Broken strings and replacement parts are “warning signs that this piano has had a hard life,” Mr. Krefting said.

        Frankly, I was too blinded by the Wurlitzer's low price to notice many scratches and dings. But my ear told me the screeching sound could be a problem.

        To my credit, I sought a more experienced pianist's opinion. My son's piano teacher, a pianist for more than 30 years and an occasional piano tuner, determined the piano to be in surprisingly good shape. Eager to close the deal before it got away, I wrote a check and called the movers.

        In hindsight, I realize a smart shopper would have taken the extra precaution of seeking a full-time piano technician's opinion. Technicians generally charge $50-$60 for this service, but their expertise can be well worth the cost.

        Major piano repairs, such as replacing the pinblock, the laminated hardwood plank that holds the tuning pins, usually cost several thousand dollars and are seldom worth the the cost, unless the piano is a top brand name or has significant sentimental value, said Eric Wolfley, head piano technician at the University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music.

        “You want a piano that's in good shape mechanically,” said Mr. Wolfley, drawing on the car comparison again.

        “The general guideline to go by to keep yourself out of trouble is don't buy a cheap piano because cheap pianos aren't cheap,” he said. “For the most part, that $200 old upright needs hundreds if not thousands of dollars worth of work to make it work properly.

        “You don't buy a car that's up on blocks unless you're a mechanic.”

        Expecting children to learn to play on a cheap piano with sticky keys and broken pedals also is a mistake, Mr. Wolfley said.

        “They won't like it because the piano will sound horrible, and they won't be able to develop their technique because it's not functioning properly,” he said.

        “Buy the best piano you can afford. It will hold the value the best. There is a pretty good correlation between how much you spend and what you get.”

       Determining a price

        In The Piano Book, Mr. Fine says every piano has two values: an informed value and an ignorant value.

        “The informed value takes into account the technical quality and condition of the piano,” Mr. Fine writes. The ignorant value is based “primarily on how the piano case looks (if even that). Unfortunately, the ignorant value is more often than not what the piano actually sells for.”

        From surveys of piano technicians across the country, Mr. Fine has compiled average sale prices for used pianos, depending on their age and manufacturer. But, the author cautions that the numbers are for reference only and the best source of information is the piano tuner-technician.

       Life with the Wurlitzer

        By now you're probably wondering whether the Wurlitzer turned out to be a rare bargain or a piece of junk.

        I've decided it's somewhere in between. The sellers dropped the price to $650. According to Mr. Fine's estimates, that amount is within the average range for a pre-1930, average brand grand piano. I didn't get a steal, and I probably didn't get ripped off either.

        More importantly, young Mozart and his younger brother, Beethoven, are satisfied with their piano. They even practice regularly — well, semi-regularly.

        A piano technician, Tom Blank, who works with his father, William, at Blank's Piano Service, tuned our piano the other day. The Wurlitzer holds its tune pretty well, despite its age and some damage humidity damage, he said. His encouraging words prompted me to ask another question.

        I found experts who said pianos have different dispositions. Did Mr. Blank believe in piano personalities?

        “Oh yeah,” he said. “They take on a personality all their own. They each have their own feel and tone quality. I can get inspired to play something by the way the piano sounds.

        “If I'm tuning a 100-year-old upright, it makes me think of ragtime,” he said, playing a little bit of Joplin. “But on a Steinway grand, I think more of Chopin.”

        I had to ask: What do you think of when you play our Wurlitzer?

        He grinned, paused and seemed to choose his words carefully.

        “Hymns,” he finally said, pounding out a brief rendition of “Amazing Grace.” “It reminds me of a piano that's been in an old church.”

        At least he didn't choose “Junkyard Blues.”


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