Buying your first piano is a monumental achievement; in many ways, a validation that you’re dedicated to the world of music for recreation or for profession. Nowadays, the choices between various piano manufacturers and piano types is extensive, and invites a new level of research and knowledge even before you perfect your craft. This is my introductory journey into buying a piano.
Historically, Piano purchases were largely limited to the the Acoustic variance, the complexity of which far outweighs this general posting. However, over the past 20 years (arguably more), Piano manufacturers have worked hard to create lower cost, digital variations that provide portability and extendability that mirrors the quality of it’s mechanical counterparts.
While most experts (albeit Professional Pianists, Manufacturers, and Technicians alike) readily admit that the digital piano, while close, has yet to mirror the exact nuances and realism of the mechanical piano… they’re fairly close to the untrained professional (even more so in the high end models). Often times only limited by the sheer lack of mechanical oddities that often make acoustic pianos uniquely human from device to device.
The question for me was: What is the best practice piano for a beginning player, with a small physical footprint, a realistic weighted keyboard, and at a decent, initial, investment?
My research began modestly: Google. Rightly so, everyone from home grown practitioners to Yamaha University certified technicians (very little info online, but suffice it to say that dealers & technicians must attend a Yamaha University course to be licensed as a representative- apparently requiring enough knowledge to assemble a mechanical piano) have used the web as a forum for the decision. Here are a handful of excellent resources that helped build my own decision to venture out and feel/hear the differences between a Digital & Acoustic Piano, I suggest to, at minimum, brush through them- you’ll find their theories are similar:
Of course, while researching, I sent all this information to my prospective PIano Teacher, and described my expectations while asking her advice. Without divulging too much detail, suffice it to say she was sympathetic to my research, but clearly noted that digital pianos stay a keyboard: regardless of their technical prowess, there will be a limitation sometime in my studies. This weighed heavily on my final decision (rightly so, her interests are keeping me learning) not only based on the lifelong, professional knowledge she has, but also with the sincerity only a teacher can deliver. As a result, It was something I openly addressed to every prospective seller I met, and made it a point that any purchase must clearly make her not hate me.
Albeit generalized, the gist in all of this information is simple: understand that a digital piano provides many technical benefits, but differs greatly from a traditional piano, and at some level, that is a weakness. Be clear on what you’re looking to accomplish, and weigh those points accordingly.
But although I understood those differences, I’ve never really felt or heard a digital piano before. What processes did these companies employ to get as close as possible to the real thing? Surely, organizations such as Yamaha, founded by Torakusu Yamaha (son of a Samurai, watchmaker who taught himself the mechanics of organs and pianos only to become one of it’s greatest builders), would be hard bet that their digital pianos have to reflect the quality of their acoustic division?
I’d be right. Yamaha’s Musical division created the Yamaha Advanced Sound Technology: suffice it to say, they took high quality recordings of their prized pianos, weighted the keys of digital to match the variations of an acoustic, and mirrored the keys of a traditional piano. Yamaha’s Musical site provides a thorough video reference for each level of technology and piano, via it’s video technology guide. That, accompanied with it’s Digital Piano page, was enough to spark my interest in their competitors and finding myself some face to face time.
Now that I was strong on the technical concepts of why, I wanted to hear how it sounded compared to an acoustic piano and specifically I’d narrowed it down to an Upright Acoustic (rent or own) or a Digital (own). YouTube has their fair share of quality videos, most specifically Kraft Music, an online musical instrument dealer, has a slew of videos on their YouTube page for brief demonstration of the differences. Still, interesting, but not enough to make a final decision, I needed an in-store visit.
CraigsList is well known in the Bay Area as the go-to place for second-hand business, and I started my efforts there while I contacted the retail stores. Unfortunately, every attempt at following up with a seller ended up in either a missed appointment, or a lack of follow-up, and although there seemed to be excellent options available, after 2 weeks of discussions, I lost faith in CraigsList. It could very well be the timing too: I’m purchasing right during the busy back-to-school season, and if anyone’s buying a beginning piano, adults, I’m guessing, are not the majority.
Ebay had an excellent selection of Digital Pianos, but Acoustic models were limited to local shipping only (probably for good reason), and since I wasn’t comfortable in that choice yet, I decided to pass for now.
Sherman Clay was first on my list for a drive-by, located only 2 blocks from my apartment and 4 blocks from my office, I assumed this place would be ripe for an ongoing business relationship. I brought my Senior Designer, Scott Shearer, along to give the impression of a Piano Technician. The sales representative was courteous and thoughtful- their new pianos beautiful Steinway’s and Boston’s, both Grand and Upright, but on the high end of the purchase spectrum, and not a smart first purchase for me. Their used piano’s, hunkered down in the basement, ranged from a $2000 1987 Yamaha Upright, complete with 8 keys with chunks missing from them (with what looked to be dirt or mold on the soundboard) to $5500 Boston’s with less than a year warranty. Their selection of rental pianos were even more lackluster, in far worse shape then many of the Piano’s I had seen in my High School years. I decided Steinway did not have the beginning pianist in their target demographic.
Guitar Center was the second visit, and my initial assumptions proved true: their vision of piano’s are digital studio tools rather than realistic recreations. No acoustics were on site, and the Yamaha Digital Piano they had available was the YDP 223: an excellent tool, but designed by the Keyboard division of Yamaha, and not in the far end grade of the Digital Pianos. They did have a set of Casio (which felt cheap and sounded as if they were in a metal box) and Roland (which felt very good, but because they don’t have an acoustic division, I was concerned about their sincerity in mimicking a realistic piano), but nothing more, and Sheryl & I left within 20 minutes of our visit.
Music Exchange was the final stop, and the shop I had the most hope. Throughout the week I had been emailing retailers, and only Music Exchange‘s Manager Alissa Gaerte responded to my inquiries… not once, but 5 times. She answered every question I had regarding quality of the devices, compared the sound on electronic and acoustic models, and provided honest, realistic advice that mirrored the other professionals I had spoken with throughout the week. It was the first time in the past two weeks, next to my instructor, I felt an honest response to my questions, and I took her advice that day. I purchased the Yamaha CLP 330, at what seems to be the fair negotiated price in the market with deals, including an offer to upgrade in the next year if I’m not satisfied (applying the cost accordingly). I purchased at noon on Friday, the Piano was put together, and delivered to my apartment 7am Saturday morning. I made a great contact with Alissa Gaerte, found a great piano, and she found a life long client that has an interest in upgrading his toys more often than he should.
Right off the bat, I can tell the physical keyboard different, but for now it’s excellent compared with other piano’s I’ve tested. The bass keys feel heavier than the treble keys, each kicking back accordingly and providing different variations of sensitivity to pressure (including the pedals). Lucky for Sheryl (and probably me), the headset adapter I picked up from Cole Hardware works perfectly with my iPhone earbuds (upgrading soon, I can notice the audible loss in them), allowing me to practice Hanon Exercises #1. The USB adapter allows me to brush up on my sheet music via GarageBand, as well as record myself should I want to torture my family with audible emails.
May it be the resurgence of music in my life, or the joy of a technological marvel to a geek, this piano has survived 6 hours of beating 30 hours, and it’s done so in stride. So far, it’s been a worthwhile first purchase, but I’ll post my progress as I continue to forge ahead. If you have questions, I welcome your comments and emails.
The iPosture is a handy tool to keep your posture sound while you play. I’ll admit the subtle vibration has thrown me off randomly, but it has improved my stature, and given me more comfort for longer play.