What Makes a Piano Great?

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Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. Today’s question is: What makes a piano great? I have come across thousands of pianos in my life. I literally grew up with pianos. We had four pianos in our home growing up because my father, Morton Estrin, was a concert pianist and a Baldwin artist at that. We had three Baldwins at one time, a Steinway, a Sohmer; we had different pianos at different times, but I grew up with all of those pianos. I got to try out my dad’s pianos before recitals at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. During his recording sessions, whenever he took breaks, I’d play these magnificent instruments that were prepared to such a high level.

I started selling pianos after graduating from music conservatory.

I was teaching piano, and so many people calling me for lessons didn’t own pianos! The first question I would ask is, “Do you own a piano?” Half the time, people would say, “No.” I would tell them they were better off with a piano and no lessons than with lessons and no piano. How can you learn if you don’t have an instrument to play? So I wouldn’t take students who didn’t have pianos, but I was losing out trying to start my career. That’s why I started seeking out inexpensive pianos that were worthy of restoration, mostly big, tall, old uprights, consoles, and spinets. The need for that has been so great that, my entire life, I’ve always had pianos in my home, at one time a large live/work loft, and have had piano stores as well. I’ve always literally lived with pianos!

I have a real perspective on what makes a great piano.

I’m going to share some tips with you. If you’re looking at pianos, you may wonder if the one you’re looking at is worthwhile. Well, of course, there’s a lot to that subject, and condition is of paramount importance. But what I’m talking about is not really the condition of the piano. Sometimes, we take in pianos that need complete rebuilding, which can take six months to a year! Yet some of them are good candidates, because I can tell the seeds of greatness are in there. Many just don’t have much potential and aren’t worth rebuilding.

How do you know if a piano has the potential to be great?

First of all, the condition of a piano has to be such that you can tell what it sounds like, unless you’re an expert who has vast experience with pianos. If it hasn’t been tuned in ten years and the strings are rusty, you might have no idea if it has any kind of potential at all. But I have an interesting story for you. A few years ago, I had a repeat engagement with the Piano Teachers Association. On stage, they had two brand new nine-foot concert grand pianos. I sat down at one, and it was an absolute dream. The other piano was nothing special. It really didn’t have the magic. So what is that magic? What makes one piano a gem and another one not so great?

Even with brand new pianos, some have more potential than others.

Piano soundboards are hand-built. Even though there are specifications for how they’re built, no two trees are the same. Every soundboard is unique! They are usually tapered on the edges, and they’re built with an arch in the middle, referred to as crown. You can measure crown, but that’s not going to tell you very much. You can run a string under the soundboard to see if there’s a little gap in the middle to check if it has that arch, but the tone of the piano is the way you can tell how good the crown of a soundboard is.

A large old piano might have a thunderous bass, but it’s in the treble that you most often lose the sustain of the tone.

Sometimes a piano will have good sustain in one register but may be lacking in another. By simply playing single notes with no pedal, you may be able to tell the potential of a piano. My personal piano is a late 1930s Steinway S, the smallest baby grand Steinway makes. My grandfather bought this piano for my father, and we rebuilt it a number of years ago. It has the original soundboard without even a hairline crack in it! That is very lucky, since this piano has grown up in a number of environments, yet it has pretty amazing sustain and projection. Listening to a single note with no pedal, you can hear how long the tone sustains. When you get to the really high register, that’s where a lot of pianos really lose it.

There are all sorts of techniques that can be employed to try to increase the sustain of the tone. First of all, you can restring a piano if the strings are old and tired. Just tapping down the strings at the point of termination at the bridges to get good, clean contact from the metal to the bridge can really help. But if you play note to note and none of them have really good sustain, you’re probably not going to get very good results. If you find some of the notes have good sustain and others don’t, there’s hope!

In the middle register on a great piano, the sound of the notes seems to almost get bigger after the initial attack.

You can hear how notes in the middle register open up after the initial attack. That is a sign of a great piano. If you have that in all registers, you’re in great shape. Now, if you’re looking at a piano you may want to buy that has not been prepped and you’re wondering what potential it has, listen to several different notes in various registers. If a good number of the notes have that quality of sound, the piano may be worth restoring. But if you have a whole register that is lacking in that expansiveness of tone and sustain, you’re probably never going to get great results out of it. Sometimes you can replace a soundboard and bring that vibrant life back to a piano; however, that’s very expensive because it involves rebuilding the whole piano. Just the soundboard can cost in excess of $10,000!

That’s how you can determine if a piano is great!

Obviously, a great piano is one that has the potential, has had the work done, and is in magnificent condition inside and out. If you have that, you have the ultimate piano! I hope this has been helpful for you! Thanks again for joining me, Robert Estrin, here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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For premium videos and exclusive content, you can join my Living Pianos Patreon channel! www.Patreon.com/RobertEstrin

Contact me if you are interested in private lessons. I have many resources for you! Robert@LivingPianos.com

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