Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Modern or Traditional Piano?

Many people assume that learning the piano is as simple as buying a piano, and then practicing.

But all too often not a lot of thought goes into which piano you'll be buying - the only things people think about is A) whether it looks good and B) Its price.
Obviously, these are both important fields to consider, but some thought should also be put into what you want from your piano - what kind of environment will it be played in? How much space do you have? What sound do you want from it - a modern, highly tuned sound or an older, more traditional one?

I have a 1937 upright piano, in a medium sized dining room at the back of my house. Because it's so old, some might say it'll never sound as good as a modern piano. But I think old pianos give off a sound that the newer ones can't mimic, that is, in many respects, a better, more 'homely' and traditional sound than their younger counterparts. It also has ivory keys, which are far better than the plastic ones of today - I find that they allow better grip (my fingers tend to slip about more on plastic keys) and ivory keys don't feel icy if the room is cold, like plastic ones do.

My piano represents a good match for my living situation - it's relatively small, has a good sheet rack (with little clips to hold the paper in place - a feature which no modern piano has) nice ivory keys..... And the fact that it's old is an advantage in itself. I don't care if I scratch the woodwork or spill water on the keys, or that it has a weird 'fusty' smell when I take the lid off - because that's what old pianos are like. It was fusty & scratched when I bought it, so I don't feel obliged to look after its exterior, which means it's one less thing I'm having to fuss over. People spend so much time and money these days on looking after their belongings looks - take iPod cases, for example. You can spend the money on the case, you can put the case on, and never take your iPod out in fear if it getting a hairline scratch on the screen. You can dust, wipe and pamper the product to physical perfection, but you can guarantee the moment that iPod comes out of it's case, that'll be the moment you drop it on the tiles kitchen floor, smacking a great big silver scratch straight down the plastic casing.

But, my question is..... Does it really matter? Would you rather have a pristine, perfectly conditioned iPod that you've never taken out of its leather protective case (and therefore never enjoyed it as much as you could/should have) - or a slightly scratched, dented unit that you've used for its function, and not as an aesthetic idol to impress? It's the latter that seem to get more and more homely the longer you've owned them, and therefore are much more rewarding to own and use. This is why I like my old piano so much - the more I use it, the more I get to know it - it's been nine years I've played it, but that's nothing on the 71 years of musical prestige it holds.

Seriously - for domestic use, get an old piano. They feel better, sound better, and you just don't care if it runs into a scratch or two. And to top it all off, they're relatively cheap. That isn't to say that newer pianos aren't as good - many may disagree with me - but I still think that older pianos have a certain vintage feel and sound that adds that extra ambience to the music you play - whether it be classical, jazz or rag-time - that modern pianos simply can't mimic or, for that matter, compete with.

Of course, should I be offered a Steinway Grand, or top-of-the-range Yamaha, there's no way I'd turn it down! These high end pianos are in a league of their own - but for us ordinary folks who aren't lord of manor (we have limited funding and space to spend on our piano) - a reasonably priced older piano represents far better value than a (not so) reasonably priced modern one.


And even if I was given a Steinway Grand, in all its £100,000 worth of glory, it still wouldn't make my 1937 upright redundant. Unless, of course, it was a 1936 Steinway Grand. ;)


natalie said...

Hi Mark!

Looks like you've got a great blog started here. I look forward to reading your future posts. As I was reading this post, it reminded me of a book I read earlier this year - The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart. Have you heard of it? Based on your writing style and interest in piano, it seems like one that you might really enjoy.

Thanks for letting me know about your blog!


Rebecca said...

I saw your post on musicmattersblog.com. I'm excited to keep reading your articles!

I don't have a preference for old or new pianos, but I feel that some people choose digital pianos for the same reason you say they choose new pretty ones. They look cool and you can do cool things with them. But I much prefer the feel of an acoustic.