Pianos for Singers

A good-quality, acoustic piano is an important tool for singers and voice teachers but can be daunting to purchase and care for. Find out from piano technicians what to look for in a piano and how to best maintain it.

Singers, voice teachers, coaches, and choir directors all require a very important tool for their work: a good quality, in-tune piano. Unfortunately, few vocal professionals and pianists really know what to look for in a piano or have a clear understanding of the care and maintenance required. Follow the steps below to make sure you buy and maintain a good-quality piano. 

Find a Piano Technician 

Start with a technician. Buying a piano, like buying a car, is an overwhelming experience and a very expensive one. A skilled piano technician can help you with the process: finding the right piano for your needs and your budget. Cassie Van Gelder, the head piano technician at the University of Arizona in Tucson, says, “Find a technician to help you buy a piano and have it assessed by them. Start with your budget and go from there to get the best you can afford.” 

The Piano Technicians Guild website has a directory of members and you can find a high-level technician through it based on zip code. The field of piano technology is an unregulated one—just as anyone can teach a voice lesson regardless of qualifications, anyone with a tuning hammer can come into your home or studio and work on your piano with potentially troubling results. The Piano Technicians Guild has a designation, a Registered Piano Technician (RPT), achieved through passing a series of examinations, written and practical. While an RPT is ideal, many technicians are operating as associate members of the Piano Technicians Guild and in the process of preparing for or taking these exams. I am among those—and while I’m by no means the most expert technician in the field, I am making the effort to build on my newly acquired skills and, more importantly, I have a wide network of experienced RPTs I rely on, just as I do expert teachers and coaches in my singing.

Call the technicians you find and let them know what your daily needs in a piano are. Are you using it to learn pitches, accompany students, or make home recordings? Your new technician will either keep you in mind as they come across pianos in your price range or connect you to a trusted piano dealer, rebuilder, or other option that is best for you. Most will charge for the time they spend seeking a good piano on your behalf, and it is money well spent, much like a CARFAX vehicle history report. You will save money in the long run on a better-quality piano and you will have the technician already set up for your first tuning. In general, if the technician is busy and expensive, they are good. 

A “Free” Piano Is Never Free 

Every technician has horror stories of the worst things they’ve seen in pianos, including damage from cat urine causing cracks in the soundboard, rusty strings, and loose tuning pins rendering the piano practically untunable; melted candy from the teacher’s candy dish; desiccated mouse corpses; rat and mouse feces; claw marks on the wood from pets; and a piano teeming with termites. 

Yes, I’m trying to scare you. Rats and mice love to make homes in pianos, using the felt from the hammers as nests. That free piano you found on the street corner? You are not rescuing it; you are potentially bringing hantavirus into your home. Those are the worst-case scenarios.

The best-case scenario with a “free” piano? According to Hannah Beckett, RPT (the Aural Technician, Washington D.C., www.theauraltech.com), “The used market is currently populated with long-expired pianos advertised as ‘antique,’ ‘rare,’ ‘cheap,’ ‘still plays’ or, my personal favorite, ‘just needs a tuning.’ The uninformed and unsuspecting public can’t resist the siren call of the ‘cheap’ piano, and so these ancient and unserviceable pianos keep circulating the market. 

“The problem now lies in the lap of the technician. We get the call: ‘Hi, I just got a free piano that just needs a tuning,’ we sigh, show up a few days later and, after running a few tests we break the bad news to our clients that they just spent $300 moving a dead piano into their house and now they’re going to have to spend another chunk of change to get it out. And, no, they should not put it on Craigslist for free. It’s a bad day for everyone.”

The cost of a free piano adds up, and quickly. Avoid Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace for a piano. Pianos are manufactured to have a lifespan of approximately 40 years. The components of the piano are made from things that used to be alive: felt, wood, suede. Those materials do not last forever, nor should you expect them to. 

Piano technicians call pianos past their prime a “piano-shaped object.” It ceases to be a functional instrument and is a heavy, useless piece of furniture. If “free” is your budget, you cannot afford an acoustic piano at this time. Find a digital piano or better-quality keyboard and start saving for a higher-quality instrument. 

Inside AC Pianocraft, a piano restoration company in Queens, New York.

Be Careful with Used Pianos 

If you are considering used pianos, you must consider potential problems. Google “gray market pianos” or “stencil pianos” for a sordid history of used pianos with irregular manufacturing that often later yields major repairs that can be expensive. A used piano requires a lot of thought and evaluation by your technician. Piano manufacturing throughout the 20th century varied widely in quality with production cost cuts in ways that mean the pianos from the 1960s–90s can have quality issues with tone and tuning. 

Sally Phillips, a concert piano technician with over 35 years of experience in every aspect of the piano industry (Piano Perfect LLC, Waverly Hall, Georgia, pianoperfectllc.com), argues against a spinet piano in her piano buying guide: “These actions are difficult—and thus expensive—to repair. Also, during the 1950s and early 60s, many spinet actions were manufactured with connecting parts, called ‘elbows,’ made of plastic—a technology then in its infancy—which eventually deteriorated and broke off. Installing a set of replacement elbows can cost hundreds of dollars.” She includes a list of piano brands to avoid in her guide and why. 

David Estey, RPT (Estey Piano Service, Passaic, New Jersey, www.esteypiano.com), created detailed piano buying guides with photos of what he looks for inside the piano. In any used piano, he recommends fully examining the instrument and playing “one note at a time. I would recommend you look/listen for separate issues with each pass.” 

This kind of slow examination may be annoying for the seller, but you must examine the piano thoroughly. Cosmetic dings on the case show very little, while “the real value of the piano is all about the inside and its condition,” Estey says. Without education for the piano’s style, action, and parts condition, you cannot make an informed decision on a used piano. 

Rebuilding a historic instrument is an expensive process and requires high-level experts. Upright pianos are seldom worth the cost of doing so—the resale value is lower than the cost of the rebuild. Many people who receive “grandma’s piano” consider rebuilding for an instrument that is of no value other than sentimental. Remember, it is an instrument, and if it can no longer be played or kept in tune, and is more expensive to rebuild than to replace, it is a poor investment for your professional work. 

Educate Yourself on the Instrument 

Get a sense of what you want in a piano—not just the budget, but the make and the particular sound or tone you hope it will have. “Find a piano with a middle ground of tone,” says Scott Andrews, MM, MA, (New York Piano Works, Kingston, New York, www.newyorkpianoworks.com). “You aren’t going to get a piano that is tonally spot on for both Mozart and Wagner.” You may want a grand, but an upright is more realistic for your budget and space. You may dream of a Steinway, but a Yamaha or Kawai would be a realistic purchase with the right kind of sound.

The sound, how it will support the voice, is the primary thing for singers. The secondary consideration is the feel of the piano. Fred Sturm (Albuquerque, NM, fredsturm.net), a concert pianist and technician at the University of New Mexico, wrote in Clavier Companion in 2014 that the player should “count on a predictable range of tonal response from each key, and so that each key feels and behaves the same.” 

If you are in school, I recommend finding the technician for your department’s instruments and asking for a tour of their shop, or ask your department chair if the technician can schedule a “learn the piano” workshop for the voice department. If you are not tied to a university, ask your technician if they can talk you through the instrument. If they’re unable to, ask for video recommendations.  Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 is a wonderful documentary about the manufacturing process of a Steinway grand model that offers insight into the ways that pianos are built. 

Plan Where Your Piano Will Go 

You must plan where the piano will be placed in your home, which is part of planning for the care and maintenance of the instrument. Deborah McCann (Deborah McCann Piano Service, Salmon Arm, British Columbia, Canada, interiorpianoservice.com) notes, “A lot of thought needs to be put into where in the house or studio their piano is going to go. Temperature changes from sun coming in a window or the breeze from a frequently opened door can cause fairly dramatic changes in pitch and unisons throughout the day. A piano is only in tune when the room is at the same temperature and humidity level it was when the piano was last tuned.” 

If you are able, avoid placing the piano against an exterior wall, as this can lead to temperature fluctuations, especially in colder climates in the winter. Pianos in the home or private studio should not be moved the way that concert pianos or rental studio pianos are. Those pianos are placed on truck dollies for easy movement for rehearsals and performances without putting pressure on the piano’s legs. 

When you coordinate with your technician about the kind of piano you want, mention the environmental issues. Depending on your humidity levels, they may recommend installing a Dampp-Chaser Piano Life Saver System. This system, which can be costly to install, maintains humidity at a constant level throughout the year, regardless of atmospheric humidity and changes in weather conditions. 

Consistent humidity helps to keep tuning stable between your regular piano tunings. As inconsistent weather patterns become more normal with climate change, the effect of shifting humidity levels on the piano may make this a necessity. Ask your technician whether they recommend it and what the cost would be so you can factor it into your budget. 

Tune Your Piano Regularly 

Getting the piano tuned regularly is the most basic care you can provide for it. I have seen singers giving away free pianos that were “just tuned two years ago.” Throughout the year, weather changes and humidity changes cause the pitch to go up (typically in a hot and humid summer) and down (typically in a cold and dry winter). Unfortunately, this raising and lowering of pitch does not happen uniformly. 

Most manufacturers recommend tuning a piano two to four times per year. A quarterly tuning is often necessary for pianos undergoing heavy use, such as in churches, concert venues, and coaching studios. For most users, twice per year is best. Know that when you schedule, December is the busiest time to have your piano tuned because of holiday concerts and parties. Talk to your technician about getting your regular tuning on their schedule in advance. 

If you’ve purchased a piano, it will need to be tuned several weeks after moving. It should not be tuned immediately after the move because the piano needs to settle in its new environment. Otherwise, it will not hold its tune. 

Jenny Stokes, RPT (Stokes Piano Service, Dallas, Texas, www.stokespianoservice.com), mentions one of the major pitfalls that can affect singers negatively with an out-of-tune piano: “I was in a choir a couple years ago, and there was a lady in a different section who was always flat. Always. Her voice stuck out like a sore thumb in the small SSAA group of 15-ish. I ended up tuning her piano and, lo and behold, it was 35c flat! 

“We laughed and laughed, as she finally discovered why choir practice seemed to strain her voice when she could sing everything at home just fine and practiced every day with the piano. Moral of the story—get your piano tuned often!” Stokes recommends that if singers and voice teachers are unable to commit to regular tunings, digital pianos are a better option: “Pitch is prime for singers.”

Kirsi Lassi (Pianonvirittäjä, Helsinki, Finland, 

www.pianonviritys.com) suggests a hybrid piano as an option, such as the Yamaha Disklavier. “They can ask their accompanist to play the piano part into the piano and rehearse with that when the pianist isn’t available,” Lassi says. “And when they are available, it’s a good acoustic piano.” 

Beyond the regular tunings, pianos may need repairs, voicing, and regulation. Consider these important aspects as seriously as you do your vocal health. According to Willem “Wim” Blees (Blees Piano Tuning and Repairing, Oahu, Kauai, and Molokai, Hawaii, bleespiano.com), “They should take care of their piano as well as they take care of their voice. 

“My wife is a singer, and at the least sign of a cold, she bundles up and stays warm. Singers need to realize that temperature and humidity changes make the piano go out of tune more than playing it . . . just like the singer listens to and takes advice from his/her doctor, he/she should listen to, and take advice from, his/her piano tuner. Other than his/her voice, the most important instrument in his/her house is the piano.” 

Resources:

Piano Technicians Guild: www.ptg.org 

Note by Note (The Making of Steinway L1037): 

www.steinway.com/misc/note-by-note

“Advice about Used Pianos” by Sally Phillips: www.pianobuyer.com/article/advice-about-used-pianos

“Piano-Buying Tutorial” by David Estey: 

www.esteypiano.com/pianos-for-sale/piano-buying-tutorial 

“What to Look for in a Used Piano” by Gregory Cheng: www.proptn.org/post/what-to-look-for-in-a-used-piano

“How to Locate the Serial Number of a Piano and Checklist for Inspecting a Used Piano before Buying” from The Piano Book (4th ed.) by Larry Fine: www.pianobuyer.com/article/how-to-locate-the-serial-number-of-a-piano-and-checklist-for-inspecting-a-used-piano-before-buying

Tip: Never put plants on a piano. Condensation, overwatering, and humidity changes can all cause damage to the instrument.

Joanie Brittingham

Joanie Brittingham is a soprano and writer living in New York City. She can be reached at joaniebrittingham@gmail.com. Visit her blog, Cure for the Common Crazy, at commoncrazy.blogspot.com or see her column, Big Apple Sauce, on the arts scene of New York, at the website JuicyHeads.com.