Buying a used piano

Someone dear to you has fallen in love with a second hand piano on Gumtree and just can’t resist the purchase. They’ve either always wanted to learn piano or think it would be the perfect piece of furniture. If it’s a piano for a student, consult first with their teacher – often learning on a 5 octave keyboard is sufficient for a few years.

Purchasing the right second hand piano will retain much of its value. If music lessons are abandoned, chances are you can recoup most if not all of the expense (less moving and tuning costs). Alternatively you could be better off with a bonfire.

Be prepared for looking at least three pianos and additional costs of transport and tuning. Pianos are HEAVY, pay a professional to move it for you.

Step 1: check what else you can get for the same price. Yamaha pianos are a good yard stick for comparison. A second hand grand at $5000 may be great for looks but a second hand upright for the same money will probably play better.

Step 2: how old is it? Less than 5 years, expect to pay within a  few thousand of retail. There are many old pianos 1900-1950 in circulation for $200- $1000 that still play well but be careful of paying too much.

Step 3: face to face with the keys. Play every note on the keyboard, lowest to highest and make sure they all work. Also make sure when you let go of the key the note stops playing. Sometimes one or two dampers are not working and require a quick fix by your tuner. The top octave or two of pianos wont have dampers, don’t worry if they continue to ring out. Broken dampers are commonly in the lower or middle register. Check general signs of wear on the outside of the instrument as tell tale of its history. If a piano has had a hard life, it will show first on the outside from broken edging, damaged keys and stains. Check your sustain pedal works – the right one will let the note ring out after hitting and letting go of a key.

Step 4: internal assessment. For a grand piano, fold back the lid that covers the music stand and prop the lid up with the largest stand available. Lift the lid of an upright piano (up the top, not over the keys) and unlock any wooden joinery hidden inside the piano that holds the front cover on. Once the front cover is removed, continue for both grand or upright pianos. Check the hammers that hit the strings for wear and the condition of felts. Older pianos may have signs of mold but this is not a worry if it’s not going to be a performance grade instrument. If keys don’t work, check if hammers are missing or broken. A piano tuner can quickly fix a broken hammer or two. If all the felts, hammers and dampers are perished this could be an expensive fix.  Check all the strings are in reasonable condition (none snapped or rusty). One snapped string is easily replaced.

Step 5: open the cabinet below the keyboard for upright pianos . There is often a latch under the keyboard that will let you pull it open. I look for mouse poo as an indicator. A bit is often expected for an old girl but you don’t want a chewed instrument.

Rule number 1: never buy a piano with an internal wooden frame behind the strings (well over 100 years old). Will never stay in tune. Only buy an iron frame.

Rule number 2: never buy a piano that has lots of missing internal parts, missing keys, any signs of cracks on the sound board (wood behind the frame and strings) or cracks in the iron frame. These damages can be irreparable.

Step 6: make the offer. You get what you pay for but there is wide variation in old models. Looking at three different ones for sale beforehand will help identify the best deal. If theyr’e all bad, wait it out another week or two for other options.

What you should ask before starting music lessons

I often get asked for advice by parents considering music lessons for their children.

There are lots of options for music lessons, the three main questions I would ask:

 – What style of music do you want your children to learn (popular, classical, jazz)? I’d lean towards popular to start with and a  little classical mixed in rather than pure classical (AMEB is usually purely classical).

– Are teachers following AMEB standards or less rigorous training. I prefer less rigorous and encourage love of music first. Kids can do theory exams etc. when they get to high school if need be.

– Is the teacher going to stay in the area? They often seem to move around and stability is important.

 I learnt piano from the local music shop owner Daryl Ingvarson in Geraldton for 6-7 years. He started on short songs to learn the notes using a mixture of simplified classical (ode to joy etc) and popular music. He got me into jazz and I learnt a bit of everything. Most importantly I was introduced to a variety of music and the core skills to play solo piano.  My skills early on weren’t great in theory and I struggled to read music well but my aural was really good and I had a large repertoire from an early age. I changed teacher in year 10  and did 2.5 years classical to do TEE music under Mrs Anne Luk.  This meant theory, scales, sight reading and catch up on what most other kids would have done since starting piano under AMEB. I went on to receive the highest keyboard performance in yr 12 at the local music festival (classical) and highest grade in my class for TEE music.

About 4 years ago I took jazz lessons with Jeff Carroll for a year in East Perth.  He helped refine some of the core techniques for jazz piano.

Maybe 6 months after that I studied classical piano for a year under Eva Korzeniewska in South Perth. She helped refine my technique for higher performance levels and helped me play pieces I would never have thought I could. After a year of intensive practice, I came to understand why concert pianists play for 6 or more hours a day. I am finally happy with my performance level and would need to devote my working life to performance to go further.

Regardless of where you start in piano lessons, it will be a journey. You just need to encourage kids to pursue the styles of music they enjoy and open their mind to new genres.

I suppose provided the first teacher encourages their love of music, how they go about it is less important. Just don’t book them in for weeks of theory straight away – needs to be well balanced.