First, you have to decide whether you are looking for a piano or a keyboard.
Pianos are generally preferable (because after all, that’s what you are learning) but there are some aspects of piano ownership that you should consider before you take that step:
- Maintenance costs: Pianos require professional tuning at least 2 times per year. This will cost around $125 (or maybe a little less) per tuning. Sometimes, with the humidity here in New Orleans, it needs to be tuned more often. For children especially, you will want to keep the instrument tuned while their ear is developing.
- Tuning time: You have to be available to let the tuner in to actually tune your instrument (1 – 2 hours)
- Moving costs: Pianos are really heavy and the only way to safely move them (insuring the safety of your instrument and any potential friends you might persuade to try to move it), is to hire professional piano movers. You are looking at between $200-350 to move an upright depending on stairs. I do not recommend attempting to move the piano yourself because if it falls on someone, they could be very seriously injured and your instrument could be ruined.
- Longevity: Pianos, if cared for properly, will last forever – they are made exactly the same way they were made 100 years ago. My $2000 keyboard from the 90s has notes that won’t play anymore and there’s no fixing it. My piano that is over 40 years old plays just as well as it ever did.
If you decide to go with a keyboard, things to look for:
- Weighted, touch sensitive keys – this will be the most like a real piano so will be best for helping them learn; with the other kind of keys, there are sounds that are necessary for good piano playing (even on the elementary level), that some keyboards can’t reproduce
- A full keyboard – ideally 88 keys or the closest to it your budget allows
- No Need for Bells N’ Whistles: You don’t need fancy stuff (additional sounds, recording capabilities, etc). Pianos don’t have them, so they are unnecessary for learning (but by all means get them if it doesn’t cut into your budget)
- MIDI capable: MIDI capable means it will be able to interface with the computer so that if the kids ever get interested in writing music you’ll have the right capabilities.
- Plugins for foot pedals: These pedals are usually sold separately and are necessary for playing. At minimum you will want a sustain (aka damper) pedal.
- A music stand: -often purchased separately
- A keyboard bench: ,preferably height adjustable
- Making sure keyboard at proper height: The player should be able to keep arms parallel to the floor when his or her hands are on the keys; (might require minor tweaking of the bench to suit multiple players).
- Dynamics: A keyboard capable of producing louds and sounds based on how hard you depress a key NOT based on using volume control. That’s kind of what I meant by touch sensitive keys, but making it more explicit here.
A good place to start looking is on craigslist. People often give away pianos because they’ve inherited one and have no interest in dealing with it.
If purchasing a used piano, questions to ask:
- When was the last time it was tuned? Best answer: within the last 6 months . . . the longer it’s been the more it will cost to get in working order. When it has been a long time, piano tuners must “bring the instrument up to pitch” and this takes longer and costs more. If you are considering a piano where this might be a problem, call a local tuner and ask what they charge for bringing a piano up to pitch. Don’t be surprised if it is $200ish.
- Has it been in a climate controlled environment? Walk away if it hasn’t been – it will be too costly to fix.
- Are all the individual keys intact and in working order? It is not practical to try to replace chipped or missing keys. My piano tuner recently told me that ALL the keys must be replaced to fix one key.
- What is the brand? Different brands are known for different types of sounds . . . this is probably only a major concern for those who are more famliar with playing various pianos, but you might want to make sure it is reputable brand. If you are googling the brand, make sure you google the brand from the time that the piano was made (if you can find out). A Mason & Hamlin piano from the 90s is different from the ones made today (and so on).
- Around here – has the piano sat in water? if so walk away, it will still play but there may be issues that pop up.
Note: depending on how much you spend on the piano, these considerations might matter more or less. You’ll have to gauge that for yourself.