Friday, June 17, 2011

Tip Nine: Play the best you can afford.

This is the ninth installment in our series of articles on hidden or obscure strategies for improving musicianship. These strategies are not intended to be a substitute for (I dislike this word) "practicing." To the contrary. Spending time playing your instrument is mightily important.

But think of these 22 ideas as strategies you can use in addition to your time in the woodshed. How does one find a label for these strategies? Subconscious? Metaphysical? Whatever word you want to use, go ahead. It's just that these ideas are not often presented to you as part of a musical instrument learning regimen. For earlier articles, check our blog archive.

It stands to reason you want to select a high quality instrument, both as a beginner and an advanced musician. This is more critical for some instruments than it is for others.

Take the guitar. You don't want to start a student on a bad guitar. Some guitars, due to warped necks and a host of other problems, are simply unplayable. They physically cause pain to the finger tips. They don't sound good.

And the worst thing is, a beginning student doesn't know the difference. We teachers understand that music students need to be motivated or they won't advance. The musical challenges are great enough as it is, we don't need extra roadblocks like a subpar instrument to derail a student's progress.

A quality instrument doesn't guarantee a student will become successful, but a bad instrument can adversely affect even the most gifted and motivated of students.

The guitar may be an extreme example, but the same principal applies to piano students. A bad piano may not directly cause blisters and carpal tunnel syndrome, but it could have some serious negative effects.

So do you need to run out and buy your six year old a nine foot Steinway? The Steinway salesman may disagree, but the answer to that is no. Then how do you tell a good piano from a bad one?

Everything else being equal, a grand piano is usually better than a vertical piano. Start with that. What, you can't afford a grand piano (or you don't have the room)? Okay, a vertical will do. Now the rule is, the longer the strings, the better. Thus, (again, all other things being equal) an upright piano would be better than a spinet. In fact a spinet should be your last choice (but don't completely count it out).

There are actually a couple of sizes in between spinet and upright. Just above spinet is console. A lot of the smaller Japanese pianos are in this category. Above console is studio (these are institutional pianos, made mostly for schools, churches, libraries, and the like).

The next consideration: how well has the piano been maintained over its life? Was it tuned once a year like it should or once every three presidential administrations? Is it in tune now (reasonably)? Do all the keys work? Any obvious flaws with the frame or the sounding board?

Then there are the subjective evaluations. How does it sound? How does it play? If you are not a piano player yourself, you'll probably need to get an outside opinion if you're shopping around.

I myself started on a crappy spinet. It was all my parents could afford. I still have it. Then as an adult I got an old used upright. Later when I turned pro I got a really nice (for a spinet) spinet. I got that so I could move it around, and take it to gigs. I still have that one too. Then I finally got a nice medium sized grand piano which I really love.

But the grand piano spoiled me. I go back and play the two spinets, and I wonder how I ever survived playing them. People know me as being really cheap in a lot of areas. But I never cheap out on a musical instrument. They are just too important.

So if it's for your child, get the best instrument you can afford. They won't appreciate it early on, but they'll be statistically more inclined to stay with music with something of quality to play on. And they'll thank you later.

As for yourself. You're going to want the best if nothing else than for pride of ownership. Psychology 101 tells us the bigger the investment, the more you'll play. The more you play, the better you get. The better you get plus the better the quality of the instrument, the better you sound overall.

A more expensive instrument may even be more economical in the long run. If you compute the cost in terms of dollars per hour spent playing, a more expensive instrument may actually be cheaper than a cheaper one. Of course there's things like resale value and trade in value to consider too, but we don't even need to count that.

Buy the best. You and your children deserve it.


  1. I agree that using good instruments is vital in a musicians life. But, we also have to remember, that you can get a high-quality instrument, for cheap, or even free....sometimes just at the price of moving it from a home or church. Don't look at the most expensive instrument as having to be the best, look at the higher quality, for the cheaper price. Places like Craiglist or Ebay often have cheap instruments (nice quality) for cheap. Buy the best, yes, of course, but the best doesn't mean you have to spend the best part of your bank account. Use wisdom, and frugality. :) Thanks!

  2. Thank you for sharing the article. The quality of the musical instrument plays an important part to motivate the player. You sometimes see parents purchase an outdated instrument for their children as a first instrument - very soon, the children will not be too interested with continuing the piano lessons and you start wondering why?

    Renting a piano could be a good option.

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