I’ve often been asked about the nuts and bolts of assessing a piano, even before a technician lays his hands on it. (A Registered pro will explore facets of internal assembly while my journey of discovery is intuitively tactile and tonal, forged on behalf of students searching for an alternative to the digital universe.)
The Back Story
Having once sampled a 1980’s era model P22 Yamaha, 45″ high vertical that made an indelibly good impression upon me, I was eager to try out a newer 2000 manufactured model that was advertised Online in the used market. (It would replace a Casio model electronic owned by a prospective student)
By reputation, P-22s have been known to be sturdy, workhorse pianos, often purchased by schools and universities (such as San Jose State). They last a long time, if properly maintained, serviced, and kept in a temperate climate.
With the mindset of a player, sensitive to touch and tone, I set out to candidly evaluate one of these pianos from my emblematic tonal and tactile perspective, detailing the whole keyboard with a methodical approach. (A video is embedded)
First I play chromatics at a very soft dynamic, pp (pianissimo-very soft) to p (piano-soft), working my way toward deeper key levels of loudness. In this endeavor, I learn about any irregularities in note to note progression–discovering neighbor keys that may be out of tonal/touch-wise synch–some “feeling” heavier than others, or having a tinny or metallic voice beside an adjacent note that’s resonant and round.
My inquiries abound: Will some notes jump out where others beside them, fizzle out? Must I over project a weak note to get it to sound like it’s in balance with a neighbor? Or will a few or many, sound tinny or metallic, interspersed at various intervals over the keyboard? Will I find sticking notes, or notes that go blank in a soft entry, but re-ignite with a punch?
What about the tuning? Are the notes in blissful harmony–Not too sharp or flat? Are some warbling? Over-sustaining (without a pedal depression)? Can I play a seamless legato in all ranges? Or does the piano reap a pebble-like set of sounds in one or more ranges?
Decay anyone? Will a chord have a lasting resonance without wavering. (Tested in all registers) How clear is the bass? Is it muddled or sounding tubby? Will the highest octaves shimmer with brightness and resonance? (Are the pedals working as they should?)
Why not test repetitions by rapidly playing the same note with three different fingers at brisk, articulated speed. (Unfortunately, this repetition maneuver and the chord decay test were performed today in my assessment, but not captured on my Cell phone video, though most of my enumerated tasks were.)
In my review, I also made sure to assess the piano with the lid down and separately, with the lid up.
To cap my P22 eval, I played segments of a few pieces of Chopin, Mozart and Beethoven, with a broad if not, exaggerated dynamic palette to test responsiveness.
Not to forget taking a history of the piano. What I gleaned was that the piano had not been played for years, but had been once tuned conscientiously on a yearly basis. The daughter, principle player, participated in the Certificate of Merit program and practiced diligently giving the mid-range the most usage before departing for college. (I conjectured) This might have explained the freshness of the lower bass notes, and the highest octave. (Those hammers were less grooved at the extreme registers) They had the least irregularities.
In the last analysis, it’s in the playing, with each piano treated as an individual, that we come to a decision about its fitness for a student. And whether a pupil is a beginner or at a more advanced level, he/she deserves a well-functioning piano without land mines of imperfection.
Finally, a solid working partnership forged by a teacher, student, and technician is the best way to advance a positive purchase and a promising musical journey forward. A collaborative effort is always necessary and valuable.
A few additional observations
If a piano buyer sends out a tech to check a piano before selecting one that he’s tried himself and dotes upon, it can result in a misleading appraisal.
Technicians may not detail a piano in the way a performing level pianist or teacher will. And conversely a teacher only review, can omit the more mechanical or structural dimension of an instrument.
Many techs play very loudly when tuning, which is part of the process, but they might not study the piano to the level of action regulation detail that a well-developed pianist will.
All in all, it’s a tricky and challenging endeavor that definitely invites a team approach to reap a satisfying outcome.
Here are two of my older, still pertinent blogs on the subject of selecting a piano.