Choosing and Caring for an Instrument

About choosing an instrument:

You have decided to give your child the gift of music and have embarked on a very exciting and rewarding journey. The second most important decision that you will now make is the choice of an instrument for your child.

There are many different options available to you and the number of instruments and choices out there is staggering. If you’d like a recommendation that is more specific than the information given below, please contact me at (778)294-2945 or email me @

A good acoustic piano is a must. An acoustic piano is essential to the development of finger strength and the acquisition of solid technique. The sound and touch of an acoustic piano is superior to that of a digital piano. An acoustic piano is a “real” instrument with “real” strings and a “real” piano action.

No matter how good a digital instrument is, its sound and touch is still just an approximation of an acoustic piano. In the long run, a digital instrument would most likely impede the development of finger musculature, finger strength, and the acquisition of proper piano technique.

I have purchased many pianos over the years and would be more than happy to assist you in choosing an instrument that best serves your particular needs.

Choosing an instrument: Additional information from The Piano Book by Larry Fine
Chapter Two: Buying a Piano: An Orientation

Initial Considerations
There are a few basic points you need to consider before beginning that search for the right instrument. These considerations will assist you in determining your needs and in taking stock of what resources you have available to meet those needs.

Proficiency Level
If you (or whoever will be the primary user) are a beginner, you may not want to invest a lot of money in your first piano. But resist the temptation to pick up an old “klunker.” It’s difficult enough to learn to play an instrument without having to deal with problems within the instrument itself, such as squeaks, rattles, and keys that stick or otherwise don’t work properly. Children, especially, get discouraged easily by such annoyances and will be quick to comment on how different their piano at home is from their teacher’s piano. In addition to sapping your motivation, this kind of piano may also sap your bank account with the necessity for extra tunings and frequent repairs. In my experience, in fact, some of the pianos that have been the most expensive in the long run were initially obtained for free or “just for the moving” because nobody would pay anything for them. Little did the recipients of these “gifts” know what they were in for!

In general, it’s a good idea to buy a piano of slightly higher quality than you think you deserve and then grow into it. If there are several pianists in the family, aim your purchase toward the most advanced. You’ll be more motivated to learn because the piano will be more fun to play and also because you will have made more of an investment. Pianos tend to be excellent investments. If your attempts to learn to play don’t work out, chances are good that you can sell the piano for close to what you paid for it, provided that you chose wisely to begin with and maintained it properly.

A vertical piano is about 5 feet wide and about 2 by 2 ½ feet deep. Add to this about 2 more feet for the piano bench and room to sit at it. That makes a total of 5 feet wide by about 4 ½ feet deep that should be allowed for a vertical piano, not including any space on the sides that you may want to leave. The height of a vertical piano makes no difference in the floor area needed.

The width of a grand piano is also about 5 feet. The length will vary from 4 ½ to 9 ½ feet, depending on which you choose to buy (5 to 7 feet is best for most homes), and again, add 2 feet for pianist and bench. These dimensions indicate the least amount of floor space allowable. Grand pianos, especially, may need more space for aesthetic reasons; verticals can more easily be tucked into corners.

When planning the layout of your room, don’t forget to take into account sources of heat and cold. Since they respond very readily to temperature and humidity changes and extremes, pianos should be placed well away from radiators, heating vents, direct sunlight, drafty windows and doors, woodstoves, fireplaces, and so on. Failure to heed this warning will, at the very least, make it difficult to keep the piano in tune. At worst it could lead to premature structural damage to the instrument.

Money is the biggest factor preventing people from getting the piano they want, and is the one about which potential buyers are the most naïve. Piano prices vary widely according to size, brand, condition, location, and so on, but very generally speaking, a used old upright in half decent shape purchased from a private owner might cost from $300 to $800, while a used grand in similar condition could run from $1,500 to $3,000. Used verticals of more recent origin, or older verticals that have had significant repairs, could be priced at $1,000 to $2,000, younger or better-quality grands from $2,500 to $5,000 (much more for a Steinway and certain other fine makes). New verticals of reasonably good quality begin at about $3,000, new grands at about $7,000 (and soar upward to astronomical figures). The days when a good old upright could be had just for moving it are largely gone. While it’s true that people still do sometimes find spectacular bargains, it’s also true that for every person who pays $200 for a Steinway grand, at least a dozen others pay $2,000 for a piece of junk.

I strongly suggest that if you can’t afford to buy a reasonably good-quality piano now and can’t arrange a loan or credit plan, then save up for the piano you want rather than temporarily settling for a poor one. A poor-quality piano will cost you more in the long run for maintenance and repairs and will rob you of your enthusiasm, as mentioned before. While you’re saving, see if you can arrange to use the piano at a friend’s, a school, or a church, or rent a practice studio. You might also consider renting a piano on a plan that permits you to apply some of the rental payments toward purchase later on.

Don’t forget to set aside money for moving, tuning, and other maintenance. Generally a budget of about $150 to $250 a year will suffice for tuning and maintaining a piano in good condition in the home. Pianos in schools and other institutions may require two or three times this amount (though they rarely get it), depending on the extent of their use and abuse. If you buy a used piano, it may initially require a larger expenditure to bring it into normal operating condition before this budget can apply. If you can’t afford to maintain your piano, you really can’t afford to buy one.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting a good-quality instrument to look nice too, but if your major reason for buying a piano is for its value as furniture, let’s be honest about it. There’s definitely a portion of the piano industry that thrives on selling worthless instruments inside beautiful cases. You’ll be an easy mark for them if your primary interest is in a piece of furniture. Of course, there are some legitimate questions to ask about the piano’s cabinet; for instance, how solid is the construction? How durable is its finish? But some of the pianos that come in the cutest decorator styles score very low on these points, and you may find yourself having to decide just how important it really is to you that a piano fit in with your present furnishings.

Caring for an Instrument

The resource below provides a thorough overview of how to care for your piano.

Chapter 7 of The Piano Book by Larry Fine
“A Beginners Guide to Piano Servicing”

A piano actually contains some ten thousand parts – many of them quite delicate – and needs much more servicing than most people realize. To maintain your piano in top condition, you should attend to its servicing with the same kind of diligence and thoroughness that you would with any other major purchase, such as an automobile. And as with an automobile, if you can’t afford to service your piano, you really can’t afford to buy it.

Tuning is the most basic kind of piano maintenance there is, yet it is perennially misunderstood. What is tuning? Why do pianos go out of tune? How often and when should my piano be tuned? How can I minimize its going out of tune? These are some of the questions we will endeavor to answer here.

What Is Tuning?
More than two hundred strings in a piano are stretched at high tension across a cast-iron frame, one end of each string being attached to a hitch pin and the other end coiled around a tuning pin. The pitch of each string when vibrating depends, among other things, on the tension at which it’s stretched. By turning the tuning pin, the tension can be tightened or slackened, and thus the pitch altered, according to the wishes of the tuner, who performs this operation with a socket wrench confusingly called “tuning hammer”.  Tuning, then, means adjusting the tension of each of the piano strings, using a tuning hammer to turn the tuning pins, so that the pitch of each string sounds pleasingly in harmony with every other string according to certain known acoustical laws and aesthetic rules and customs. Note that whereas most tuners are also capable of providing other kinds of piano maintenance, tuning, properly speaking, is only the operation defined above, and does not include repairs and adjustments, fixing squeaky pedals, cleaning, and so on, as is often thought to be the case.

Why Do Pianos Go Out of Tune?
By far, the most important factor causing pianos to go out of tune is the change in humidity from season to season that occurs in most temperate climates, affecting all pianos, good and bad, new and old, played and unplayed. The soundboard, glued down around its perimeter and bellied like a diaphragm in the center, swells up with moisture in the humid season and pushes up on the strings via the bridges on which the strings rest. This causes the strings to be stretched at a higher tension, raising their pitch. In the dry season, the opposite happens. The soundboard releases its moisture to the air and subsides, releasing the pressure on the strings, which then fall in pitch. Unfortunately, the strings don’t rise and fall in pitch by exactly the same amount at the same time. The process is more random than that, with the result that the strings no longer sound in harmony with one another and need retuning.

To make matters worse, the change in pitch tends to be most pronounced in the tenor and low treble areas of the piano, whose bridges are located on the flexible centre area of the soundboard. It’s not at all unusual to find that the high treble and low bass, whose bridges are located near the more stable perimeter of the soundboard, have remained virtually unchanged in pitch despite a huge change in the center. Any octaves or chords that, for example, span the bass and tenor at these times will sound especially out of tune.

If the piano has been properly tuned, moderate playing will not, by itself, have a large effect on the tuning. Rather, its effect is to accelerate whatever changes in tuning are happening due to humidity fluctuations. A vibrating string more easily slides over its friction points than a stationary one, and thus is more apt to go randomly out of tune when its tension is being altered by the movement of the soundboard. Obviously, the harder and more frequently the piano is played, the faster this process will happen. But an unplayed piano will still go out of tune with the seasons.

Although all pianos go out of tune, some do so more than others. Some pianos, including some very well-made ones, have soundboards that are very responsive to humidity changes and go through large seasonal variations in pitch. Other pianos, particularly some of the cheaper spinets and consoles, have weak structures that actually twist slightly from season to season or even while the pianos are being tuned, making stable tunings all but impossible. These pianos go out of tune chaotically, in addition to showing large seasonal variations in pitch.

How Often and When Should I Have My Piano Tuned?
When to tune your piano obviously depends on your local climate and how responsive your piano is to humidity changes. But, in general, you should avoid times of rapid humidity change and seek times when the humidity will be stable for a reasonable length of time. Turning the heat on in the house in the fall and winter, then off again in the spring, both cause major indoor humidity changes, and in each case it may take several months before the piano soundboard fully stabilizes again at the new humidity level.

A piano tuned in April or May when the heat is turned off in the house will probably be out of tune by late June. If it is tuned in late June or July, it may well hold its tune until October or later, depending on when the heat is turned on for the winter (although sometimes extreme humidity in August will do it in). If you have the piano tuned right after the heat is turned on, say in October or November, the piano will almost certainly be out of tune by Christmas. But if you wait until after the holidays (and of course, everyone wants it tuned for the holidays), it will probably hold pretty well until April or even May. In my experience, most accusations of tuner incompetence occur in November or December, and then to a lesser degree in June, and are caused not by the tuner at all, but by poor timing of the tuning with the seasonal changes.

If you have the piano tuned four or more times a year, you don’t have to worry too much about the “right” time to tune it. Any seasonal tuning changes will be corrected soon enough. It’s those who tune their pianos twice a year who have a problem. For these people, there will be at least two times per year when the piano is noticeably out of tune but when it will not yet be the right time to tune it. If you are in this group, you will have to decide then whether to go ahead and have it tuned—knowing it may go out of tune within a month or so— or to suffer until the “right” time. At those times of year, I try to inform customers who call for a tuning about the consequences of having the piano tuned then, and let them decide how badly they want it done.

There is an additional problem for the twice-a-year people. The times of rapid humidity change—spring and fall—are also the times of most moderate indoor humidity levels, while the times of stable humidity—summer and winter—are the times of most extreme humidity levels. The pitch of the middle range of the piano follows the humidity changes and is therefore most sharp and flat at the “recommended” tuning times.  Pianos tuned at these times may have to undergo large pitch changes to bring them back to standard pitch. As any tuner can tell you, large pitch changes are the bane of stable tuning, as structural forces within the piano tend to make a piano tuning creep back in the direction from which it was moved. Pianos showing large seasonal pitch variations may require extra tuning work, at greater expense, and may not stay in tune as well. Thus, ironically, the tuning times recommended in response to climatic factors are the least recommended times in relation to structural stability and vice versa. Unfortunately, there is no solution to this problem except to have the piano tuned more often.

If you tune the piano only once a year, you should do it at the same time each year so the tuner will not have to make much pitch adjustment. Some pianos actually go back into almost perfect tune each year around the anniversary of their tuning – but don’t count on this happening.

How often you have the piano tuned will depend not only on the piano and the humidity inside your house, but also on your ear – how much out-of-tuneness you notice and can tolerate – and on your budget. Four times a year is ideal, but impractical for most folks. The “official line” is twice a year. Where the piano is rarely used, once a year may suffice, but less than that is not recommended. The average cost of a piano tuning is currently from eighty-five to one hundred dollars, depending on where you live. The cost could be higher if a “double tuning” (a rough tuning followed by a fine tuning) is required to compensate for large seasonal variations in pitch, or if for some other reason the piano was not at standard pitch. In some areas of the country, a double tuning is required almost every time a piano is tuned. New pianos (or pianos that have been re-strung) may need to be tuned more frequently the first year or so as the new strings continue to stretch.

You may legitimately ask how important it is to have a piano tuned; that is, will harm be done to the instrument if it isn’t tuned? This is a subject piano technicians don’t discuss much. When they do, they offer a variety of pseudoscientific explanations to convince their customers (or themselves) of the necessity for tuning. The truth, as I see it, is that in most cases, no harm will be done. The harm is mostly to one’s aesthetics—an out-of-tune piano can be painful to listen to. It can also be discouraging and distracting to a student. In the extreme case where a piano is being tuned after, say, twenty years of neglect, raising the pitch of the piano back to standard pitch will entail a good deal of extra work and could result in some broken strings or split bridges, but I’m not convinced that these problems wouldn’t have occurred anyway, and possibly sooner, if the piano had been maintained. Raising the pitch of a piano can also alter the positions of the strings in relation to their bearing points introducing tonal irregularities (false beats), but this can often be corrected, in any case is not what I would call “harmful”. Suggestions that the piano will be structurally harmed if it is not precisely at standard pitch and in tune are, in my opinion, spurious. *

Humidity and Pianos
When you consider that a piano is made largely of wood, it’s not surprising that the subject of humidity plays such an important role in piano technology.

Relative Humidity
Relative humidity is a measurement, expressed as a percentage, of the amount of water vapor in the air compared to the maxi mum amount the air could possibly hold at a given temperature. The relative humidity of the outdoor air depends on the nature of the air mass—that is, how moist or dry it is—and on the temperature because the ability of the air to hold moisture increases with increasing temperature. So if we take a “parcel” of air with a certain amount of moisture in it and we heat it up, the relative humidity will decrease, because the amount of moisture in the air will have decreased in comparison to the amount the air is now capable of holding. Alternatively, if we cool that air, again without adding or subtracting moisture, the relative humidity will increase, because the capacity of the air to hold moisture will have diminished.

The relative humidity of the outdoor air can be high or low from day to day, regardless of the season. The reason such a fuss is made about low winter humidity is that in climates that have cold winters, the indoor relative humidity is artificially lowered by heating the air with a furnace system without supplying any additional moisture. If, for example, the outdoor temperature is 32 degrees Fahrenheit and the outdoor humidity is 100 percent (an extreme example), by the time the air is heated to 68 degrees indoors, the indoor relative humidity will have dropped (theoretically) to only 28 percent (the actual amount may be little higher due to human respiration, plants, and other factors).

The continuous exchange of moisture goes on between the air and the wooden piano parts and other porous objects around the house, as the moisture level attempts to reach a state of equilibrium. Since the air is usually a much grater reservoir of moisture than the objects, it tends to dictate the terms of this interchange. When the relative humidity is low, the air sucks up moisture from the piano, causing the pitch to fall, tuning pins to loosen, and parts to rattle (not to mention causing plants to wither, furniture joints to loosen, skin to crack, and throats to get sore)

Piano manufacturers suggest that the ideal humidity level for pianos is about 40 to 50 percent, whereas studies show that for people, 50 to 60 percent is best. Actually as far as pianos are concerned, the particular humidity level is not nearly as important as the change in humidity through the seasons. In most cases, a piano can be adjusted to exist quite well at any reasonable level of humidity as long as it doesn’t change much. But when, as happens in most of North America, the indoor humidity goes from very high to very low and back again, year after year, the alternate expansion and contraction has the net effect of shrinking, cracking, and warping even wood that has been well seasoned prior to manufacturing. One of the most important parts of good piano maintenance is keeping the humidity as constant as possible.

Where to Place a Piano
There are several ways you can protect your piano from extremes and fluctuations of humidity. The most important of these is putting the piano in the right place. NEVER put a piano near or against a working radiator, next to or over a hot air vent, or under a ceiling vent. If you can’t observe this one simple rule, there’s no point to even buying a piano. You’ll be throwing your money away. A customer of mine insisted, over my objections, on situating her fifteen thousand dollar grand over a large heating vent in her living room. “It doesn’t look good any place else,” she said. Her piano is now almost untunable. Priorities, please!

Some tuners advise their customers not to place a piano near a window or a door because of possible drafts, or against an outside wall that may get cold. This is undoubtedly good advice, but following it may severely restrict your ability to have a piano at all. Use your judgment. My experience is that these factors are often not too significant unless the conditions are extreme. If in doubt, and an inside wall is not available, move your piano six inches away from an outside wall to provide and insulating air space, or try putting a sheet of Styrofoam insulation behind the piano. Remember, too, not to place your piano in an unusually damp place, such as a damp basement.

Direct sunlight on a piano should be diffused with curtains or Venetian blinds. Besides damaging the finish of a piano, sunlight can wreak havoc on the tuning. I remember the time I was called by a grand piano owner who claimed his piano seemed to go out of tune at certain times of the day and back in tune at other times. “Sure,” I thought skeptically, but agreed to check it out. Not finding anything obviously wrong, I proceeded to tune the piano. Halfway through the tuning, I discovered, to my dismay, that the piano was already going out of tune. Then I noticed that while I had been tuning, the sun had shifted its position in the sky and was now shining directly on the soundboard. I quickly got up and closed the blinds. After five minutes, to my relief and amazement, the piano was back in almost perfect tune.

Another way you can keep the humidity up in the wintertime is to keep the temperature at a moderate level. Temperature alone does not affect a piano very much unless extreme, but it decidedly affects relative humidity. A temperature difference of just 5 degrees can make the difference between a house that is hazardously dry and one that is moderate and comfortable. Some of the best-preserved pianos I have seen have been in rooms that were relatively poorly or indirectly heated. Some of the worst have been in houses heated to over 70 degrees. Some piano manufacturers state that the ideal temperature for a piano is 72 to 75 degrees. In my opinion, this is ridiculous. Not only would this be a waste of expensive energy resources, but it can be nearly impossible to keep and adequate humidity level when a house is heated to such temperatures in the wintertime. Studies have shown that the best temperature for most physically active people is around 64 degrees, although there is, of course, a certain amount of variation from one person to another (for instance, people who are elderly or ill usually need a much higher temperature to avoid hypothermia). Obviously you need to strike a balance between your health and comfort needs and the requirements of your piano. Fortunately, this balance is usually not hard to find if you are willing to be flexible and wear a sweater indoors from time to time.

Humidifiers and Climate Control Systems
Recognizing the importance of an adequate humidity level in your home so that your piano is best protected, many piano owners artificially raise the humidity in their homes during the dry months by using humidifiers. There are three types of humidifiers: a central humidifier directly connected to your forced hot-air heating system (if you have this kind of system), a portable unit that can humidify one or several rooms, and a miniature climate control system installed right in your piano.


For more information about instruments, please contact Helga Murray by email at or call (778)294-2945.

Piano, Harmony, Theory, Counterpoint, and Royal Conservatory of Music Exam Prep in South Surrey, BC