Particular About Pianos: Tips on buying the best

Written by: Simonette Berry

The first time I sat at a piano at age nine, I didn’t know a note of music. After six years of ballet lessons and seemingly glorious recitals, my parents forced me to change course and study music, to my utter horror. Didn’t they get it? I was destined to be a famous prima ballerina like Anna Pavlova! I wanted to live forever in a tutu and leap across stages.

Very reluctantly, I began taking piano lessons from a serious, no-nonsense teacher who would crack a pencil across my hands when I missed a single note. Despite this, I eventually grew to relish the daily discipline of practicing scales.

Five years later, at age 14, I was performing piano for Broadway musicals at school with the ULL orchestra, competing statewide, and taking pipe organ lessons at the college with a very demanding, phenomenal university professor. Despite his steadfast goal of sending me to Juilliard for the organ, I jumped ship. The piano was my true love. Besides, it made me popular at parties. I became grateful for that harsh (and wise) parental intervention, as my tutu gathered dust in the closet.

After graduating from high school, I moved to New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, armed with dreams and a scholarship to Loyola’s College of Music. I would spend four to six hours a night practicing on the funky old upright pianos on campus. It was during those four years while performing recitals on concert grand pianos that I fell head over heels for Steinways.

Having played every kind of piano imaginable over the past few decades, I still feel there is nothing comparable to a Steinway and Sons piano. In north Louisiana, the best place to find a great Steinway is at Pendley Piano Gallery (5803 Youree Drive; 318-219-1900); in south Louisiana, it is Hall Piano (901 David Drive in Metairie; 
504-733-8863).

When those who play piano professionally are asked which piano is the best one in the world today, the answer is inevitably a Steinway. According to Grammy award-winning Emanuel Ax, one of the best known concert pianists of the 21st century, “When one plays a Steinway, there is a warmth and nobility in the sound that is unequalled by any other instrument.”

Buying a piano is a major investment, much like buying a car. You may want to consider purchasing one that will increase in value rather than devaluate. Steinway pianos, which are made by hand by master craftsmen in limited numbers, are great investments. I have been told that my own, beloved Steinway has tripled in value since it was purchased over 30 years ago.

“They only make around 7,000 Steinways worldwide each year,” says James Pendley, manager of Pendley Piano Gallery. “Each one is made by hand over a period of one year, so none of the pianos are the same. From an investment standpoint, the value of your Steinway will go up.”

There are many things to consider when purchasing a piano, from the space you have in your home to the interest and level of the person who will be playing it. Pendley continues, “For children who are beginning to study piano, most parents purchase a vertical piano for a child who may or may not continue to play, because they are less expensive.” Pendley Piano Gallery offers Steinway verticals (uprights), baby grands, and various styles of grand pianos, from new to used, and they also offer rent-to-own Steinways. Whoever purchases a piano there gets free delivery (which can be costly) and free tuning upon delivery.

A console is the most popular of the vertical pianos. Many piano teachers recommend that young beginners should learn on an acoustic vertical piano, and most will advise strongly against a digital piano. My grandmother, a pianist, treated me to a new console piano for my bedroom when I first started taking lessons, even though we had a baby grand in our home. It proved to be a wise move.

There are four types of vertical pianos, based on height: console, spinet, studio, and upright. I advise against a spinet because of the indirect “drop action” design. Try at least for a console, 42 inches or higher. Of course, the tonal quality of a Steinway grand piano cannot be matched. Larger soundboards and longer strings produce greater volume and resonance of tone.

If you have to move your piano at some point, go with only the best movers, because disasters can happen; I learned that lesson the hard way. I recommend using Kid Gloves Inc. (601 S. Galvez Street in New Orleans, 504-309-6894), which is the largest specialty moving company in this region of the country, with a great reputation. The 23-year-old company runs trucks nationwide. They are piano moving experts, and can also move antiques, fine art, chandeliers, and accessories. You can rest assured that your piano will be moved exactly right, which is a great comfort if you love your piano as much I love mine. Owning a piano and learning to play is a joy that can last a lifetime.