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Buying an upright acoustic piano
This advice is based on personal opinion only, and although it is designed to help you,
Marycliff Productions are not responsible or liable for any actions you do or do not take as a result of reading this article.
If you want to go the whole way and buy an acoustic piano, then try and buy a new one if possible. Whether you're buying new or second-hand, its a good idea to take along with you an independent piano tuner, because they know all about pianos. It's a bit like buying a car: it's always preferable to take an expert with you. However, here are a few points to look out for and to discuss in advance with your piano-tuner if you're buying a second-hand upright piano ..

Every piano has dampers - those are the little blocks of felt which stop the strings from carrying vibrating, and which kill the sound when you release the piano key. The upright piano should be under-damped, that is with the dampers below the hammers, NOT the other way round. Only very old upright pianos have dampers above the striking hammer, that is called over-damped and this was not as effective as under-damped, which developed later. Over-damped piano actions have dampers which are much noisier than under-damped.

Check also that the piano hammers are not too worn, otherwise you will have an expensive repair bill soon. Sometimes hammers are even attacked by moths, which of-course will cause a deterioration in the sound and efficiency of the piano. In fact without sufficient felt on the piano hammer, the instrument becomes unplayable - quite apart from breaking the strings more frequently as the wooden part of the hammer gets closer to the string.

The piano should be overstrung, that is with the strings going diagonally, NOT vertically. On very old pianos, the strings were all going in the same direction - straight strung - which made the instrument too large (early upright pianos were called the giraffe piano because they had a long neck looked like a giraffe. This was very impractical, and so piano designers decided to cross the strings over each other - overstrung - to try and save space at the same time as keeping the piano strings as long as possible. The longer the string, the better the sound - especially in the bass notes. If you see a piano which is not overstrung - it is likely to be very old and not advisable to buy on account of its condition and durability.

All the notes should be working of-course, and the sound should stop as soon as you release them.

There shouldn't be too much lateral movement in the keys: i.e. it shouldn't be too easy to wiggle the key from side to side. Look for cracks in the soundboard, wooden bridges and even the iron frame itself. Some cracks are more serious than others. Look out for woodworm, although in my experience, it is quite rare in upright pianos.

Get your tuner to test-tune a few notes, and ask him what he thinks of the state of the wrest plank, (check for cracks again) that's the piece of wood which the pins are in. If this piece of wood is not in good condition, then the strings won't stay in tune very long, and your tuning bill will soon mount up.

Rusty strings are bad news, because this means that the piano has been in a damp or very humid environment. The strings are likely to be old and will break easily. Having new strings fitted is an expensive job and sometimes is just not worth putting new wine into an old bottle - so to speak.

The left pedal - una corda or soft pedal - of your upright piano should be working properly, making the notes quieter by pushing the hammers closer to the keys and thereby reducing their striking distance. Older pianos use the method of pushing up a piece of felt between the hammers and the strings, but this is unsatisfactory except as a practice pedal for not disturbing the neighbours

The right pedal - sustaining pedal - of your upright piano should also be working properly, and one simple test is to depress the pedal and then play any notes on the piano, without holding them down. Now let go of the pedal, and the notes should stop sounding immediately, although on upright pianos there is often a small amount of resonance after the pedal has been released.

Take note of the circumstances of the piano: was it kept in an environment with a fairly constant temperature and humidity, or has it suffered extreme changes? Has it been kept next to a central-heating radiator? This is very bad for pianos, especially old ones, because the water-based animal glue becomes ineffective, and you have lots of repair bills. You also need to take your tuner's advice about the environment you are putting the piano in, because if you take an old piano from a cold, damp house to a warm, centrally heated one, then this will cause the piano a lot of problems and the damage can be quite devastating.

A good acoustic upright piano can produce a beautiful sound and has a great feel to it when playing, but remember that electronic keyboards do not have many of the problems listed above, and you have to weigh up the pros and cons before making a purchase. Acoustic upright pianos sound great, but you can't put earphones on to avoid disturbing another member of your family. You will need to have the piano tuned regularly? Another factor is the number of rooms you have in your house, and how important is mobility? You might achieve a better technique playing an acoustic piano, but you can't put it in the boot your car. The author's opinion is that you can manage quite well on a, electronic keyboard for grades 1-6 ABRSM, but for grades 7 and 8, you really do need an acoustic piano. However, electronic pianos are improving all the time. Don't forget to evaluate the impact of an acoustic upright piano on the rest of your household. The sound of an acoustic piano reverberates along the fabric of the building and the sound travels very easily. I guess that if you're as piano mad as we are at Marycliff Productions, then you're going to buy that acoustic piano anyway ! SO - remember - under-damped, overstrung, no cracks in soundboard or wrest plank, no woodworm and no moths.

Remember that upright pianos are heavy items to move around, even from one part of the room to another, and that it's safer to employ professionals to do this, as they are experienced, and have the right equipment to do the job. Moving a piano on your own is dangerous.
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