f1I was 22 years of age when i was hired by the local Baldwin piano store.  The owner was a technician and the first words out of his mouth were “Glen, you may be educated in performance but i just want to tell you that because you know how to DRIVE the car, don’t presume that you know how the car works”.  He then proceeded to tell me that the mechanic is not the driver in the Formula1.  And so i took his advice to heart.  I began to learn about the insides of the piano.  I will say however, that being a driver and a mechanic both have distinct advantages.  I remember this boss calling me to his workshop to try out a newly rebuilt piano. He’s all smiles and with big outstretched arms he points to the piano… “VOILA!”  He asks me to play.  I remember not being impressed by the piano and how put off he was because i couldn’t properly articulate what it was i didn’t like about the piano.  And then it occurred to me that regardless of what your thoughts are re: the makeup of the instrument, it’s the driver still that counts – they’re the ones who are going to play this instrument.

grandSo how do you properly test drive an instrument?  It’s funny because i get lots of students through my doors looking for pianos and who do they get to preview the piano? Why, the teacher no less.  But again, teachers are drivers and usually have very little understanding of what is going on in the piano.  They walk around the instrument and give the ol’ inspection “mmm hmmm’s”  but don’t really know what to say.  LOL…ok this is funny – so you know the grand lid on a piano? It’s the 45 degree angled part held up by what is called a prop stick.  After previewing a Steinway grand for her client… she finally said.  “SOooooo, this is one of those ‘one-stick’ pianos”.  (most pianos have 2 or 3) OK ok ok… i thot it was funny… kinda like judging the car by the antennae.  Anyway… here are some tricks and tips on testing pianos:

  1. Test the piano at different volume levels.  My trumpet teacher used to say “any 2 year old can blat a horn – it takes a master to play it quietly”.  Much is the same at the piano.  If a piano is ever going to misfire, it will be at soft volumes
  2. Play each key – find out if there are any sticking or problem notes – listen especially for buzzes and rattles
  3. Find the crossover.  The crossover is the spot where the bass copper coloured strings change to steel strings.  This is usually a problematic place on most pianos for consistency.  Great pianos will have a very gradual change in tone.
  4. Sustain.  Sustain is your friend.  Take one note – moderate volume – play it and listen to how long it takes to die away.  If it’s short lived, quite often the soundboard (the amplifier) is dead.
  5. Excessively loose or heavy action.  Take one key – depress the notes on either side then grab hold of the sides of the key and wiggle it back and forth – left to right.  Does it ‘knock’?  Worn out pianos usually will have a notable ‘click’ here.  As well, lift the very front of the key by the overhang – ever so slightly (you don’t want to rip off the keytop!)  It should rise only about 1/16″ but it should also fall on it’s own weight.  Newer pianos quite often are tight and if there’s too much friction here, they won’t fall back to rest position.
  6. Finally, test the workings of the pedals.  Make sure the damper blocks lift simultaneously and in a comfortable manner.

Oh there are many many other tests you can do… but these will cover the basics. Enjoy!