Frequently Asked Questions
Don’t know where to start? After many years in the piano business, there are many questions I hear and answer repeatedly. Chances are, your question has already been asked! Look through our Frequently Asked Questions below to find questions and answers regarding piano servicing and maintenance, piano buying and selling, even piano teaching and learning. If you have a question that is not answered here, let us know.
Q: What is a good age to start piano lessons?
A: Much depends on the natural ability and maturity of the child and the level of commitment of the parents. The ability to learn piano requires both nature and nurture: i.e., an aptitude from birth and a home environment that can develop that ability. Usually a child’s natural aptitude can be seen at a very early age (age 2 or earlier) by the child’s interest in music and the ability to carry a tune. Certainly a talented child and a disciplined environment are a perfect combination; but a parent who is strongly committed to rearing a musical child can go a long way with disciplined lessons and practice, even with a child of limited aptitude.
It is difficult to set an age at which such nurturing should begin, but as a rule, most children are mature enough to begin lessons by the age of six or seven. However, it is usually true that the greatest pianists began much earlier than that; and some severely immature children may not be ready until age 8. Beyond that, the window of opportunity during which the natural aptitude for musical language-learning begins to narrow, and children who don’t begin until after age 10 will most likely be limited, especially in their ability to learn to read music.
Q: Should I require my child to begin or continue piano lessons even when they have little or no interest?
A: This is a common question. Piano lessons is a discipline that will benefit anyone who is subjected to it, regardless of their natural abilities. In our age of easy distractions offering immediate gratification, such as sports, television and computers, music lessons are often viewed with frustration and scorn. If your only interest as a parent is keeping your child happy in the short term, music lessons are probably not for you. But if you are interested in what is best for your child, the benefit of music instruction as a skill for life is incomparable.
Music instruction has been found to correlate with greater discipline and higher academic performance. Furthermore, pianos or keyboards can be found everywhere, and many young people can earn extra income even as teenagers by teaching piano or find an outlet for their skills by performing for senior citizens or other community groups. Even if they never make a career of it, the potential for satisfaction and usefulness for an entire lifetime far surpasses many activities that offer short term pleasure but few long-term gains.
Q: My child is very interested in music but is being increasingly torn between playing the piano and playing his (or her) band instrument, which gives him an immediate outlet for his effort. We are tempted to simply drop piano lessons. What would you recommend?
A: I have often called the piano the greatest of instruments, and that is not simply a personal bias. In addition to having the broadest tonal range of any instrument, the piano, along with the organ, is unique in that it can be fully enjoyed without the accompaniment of any other instrument. While the violinist, cellist, flautist or trombonist hears only his own part and feels lonely without being surrounded by other instruments, the pianist plays and hears the full harmony of the music. Thus, one who takes piano lessons in his or her childhood, even after getting away from it, is far more likely to return to it later in life. Unfortunately, such is rarely the case with band and string instruments, which have a very high “dropout for life” statistic. In the case of a child torn between the two, you may be doing your child a favor by requiring the continuation of piano lessons, even alongside the other instrument, despite their short-term lack of interest.
Q: Is it possible to take piano lessons if I only have a keyboard and not a piano?
A: It is certainly possible, especially at the beginner level, to practice piano lessons on a keyboard, but it is important to realize that a piano and a keyboard are really two different instruments. Many people will start their children out on a keyboard in order to avoid the expense and inconvenience of purchasing a piano. But more often than not, the keyboard will lull them into a sense of thinking things are all set for the long run, when in reality the limitations of the keyboard can often do more damage than good. All but the most expensive keyboards have poor touch (or responsiveness to the hands of the player), and a sound and that is in no way similar to that of a piano (after all, the keyboard is really an imitation of the real thing).
As a rule, most piano teachers will say it is better to start on a real piano from the beginning, but if that is not possible, the use of a keyboard should not be continued beyond the first year. For more information on pianos vs. keyboards, please see our article, “Piano or Keyboard: Making the Decision.”
Q: Why does a piano go out of tune, and how often should it be tuned?
A: The ability of a piano to stay in tune depends on many factors, and some are much more stable than others, but as a general rule, a piano that gets any regular use should be tuned at least twice year, and those that get only occasional use may do fine at only once a year. In homes where the piano is being played two hours a day or more, one should expect that even twice a year will not be sufficient. (Please see our article, “Why Does My Piano Go Out of Tune” for a more detailed explanation.)
Q: I was told my piano is tuned “flat” and will require a lot of money to be brought back into tune. What does this mean?
A: This is common for a piano that has not been tuned for many years, or despite being tuned, has not been tuned at standard pitch. In the case of a very old piano (especially those built before 1910), the strings are probably too brittle to go through a pitch-raising without breaking, and thus are better left at the lower pitch if at all possible. Most pianos built after 1910 are still capable of being pulled up and may require several tunings to do so, but having the piano at standard pitch is advisable and worth the expense if it can be done. (Please see our article, “Your Piano and A=440,” for more information on this question.)
Q: I have a good ear and have some interest in learning how to tune a piano, possibly just to tune my own instrument. How does one go about learning such a thing?
A: This may sound self-serving, but in thirty-plus years of tuning I have seen very few ever succeed at learning to tune unless they are driven by a career ambition for it. An old adage in the piano business says, “You can’t call yourself a piano tuner until you’ve tuned a thousand pianos,” and this is probably true. Piano tuning involves not merely having a good ear; it is a hand skill as well, and is kept in shape only by constant repetition.
If your primary interest is in keeping your own piano in tune, you will find that without constant practice it may take you far too long to tune the piano even up to your own standards to make it worth your while. But if after all this warning, you still have a drive to go on to piano tuning glory, there are a few remaining places where one can still learn this “mysterious art,” such as the North Bennett Street School in Boston or others that a good internet search will probably point you to.
Q: What is “perfect pitch,” and do piano tuners have to have it in order to tune a piano?
A: The term “perfect pitch” doesn’t have a precise definition, but it usually refers to a “pitch memory” and allows one to “remember” where a particular pitch is, and thus be able to hum it or recognize when what they are hearing does not match what it is claimed to be. It is usually something one is born with, and has nothing to do with either musical ability or the ability to tune a piano. Even some of our “great composers” did not possess this gift, while others with little to no musical performing ability may have it. Piano tuning is in many respects a mechanical process which requires only good hearing and a knowledge of the process, though a musical ear (and good “relative pitch”) is definitely valuable, especially in the extreme lower bass and upper treble registers of the piano. (Please see our article, “The Importance of A=440,” for a further explanation.)
Q: How can I touch up nicks and scratches in my piano’s finish?
A: This is complicated question because pianos have so many kinds and colors of finishes. For a perfect repair, call a professional who specializes in furniture touch-up work (not merely furniture finishing or refinishing), which is a science in itself. A phone book yellow page directory can point you to such a professional. If you are not fussy and would like to try to fix it yourself, consider using Old English Scratch Cover Polish (see our article, “Care and Maintenance of Your Piano“). Also on that page, you might find the “This Old House” furniture touch-up link helpful.
Q: How does one go about moving a piano?
A: The best answer for this question is, if at all possible, hire a professional piano mover who moves pianos on a regular basis. The peace of mind is usually worth the additional cost. If you simply must do it yourself, at least procure a rectangular furniture dolly to set the piano on, and if possible build a ramp for getting from the door to the truck, or from one level to another. Make use of the handles in the back of the piano, one at each end. And consider that a large upright piano is very top-heavy and can be dangerous if it is mishandled.
Any kind of a grand piano is much more complicated because it must be disassembled and turned on its side, and is difficult to do without special equipment. Call or email us for a recommended piano mover in your area.
Q: I have an old piano and would like to know if it has any value, either monetary or as an instrument to play on. How do I find out?
A: This is a common story. Many people have an old piano stuffed in the corner somewhere and never do anything about it because of the daunting thought of moving it even just to throw it away. If your interest is primarily monetary value, it is unfortunately true these days that the typical “old upright” piano usually has little or no value because it is very difficult to attract a buyer unless it has been tuned and put into good playing condition. For many old pianos, this may cost anywhere between $100 and $1,000 or more. Many of these old pianos still have great potential and can turn out to be gems with a little tuning and repairing. Others, unfortunately, are beyond hope, especially if they have been kept in an unheated environment (such as a barn, garage, or open porch), or are VERY old (such as many Victorian-era pianos which can be identified by their intricately styled cabinets characterized by fluted, grooved or curved lines and detailed carvings.) The only to know for sure is to have a qualified and unbiased piano technician (preferably one who does not have a conflict of interest by being in the business of selling new pianos) do an on-site examination of the piano. We offer this service for a fee, but if you provide us with description of the problem and a few photos via email, we can give you, for no cost, some indication if your piano has any hope.