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Buying a family piano: don't just fall for a sleek silhouette

Even when standing mute, pianos make a statement. Fred Astaire danced on them, Liberace grins beside them. Victor Borge's piano is both straight man and sounding board for his jokes. Chanteuses use them as broad, black shoulders to wail on.

David Letterman even elicited shrieks of delight from millions of TV viewers by pushing one off a five-story building.

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However ignominiously or gloriously it may end up, a piano is first and foremost a musical instrument -- an incredibly complex instrument. Consequently, choosing a piano is often a more lasting decision than may first appear. Houses are bought and sold, cars are towed away, children grow up and leave home, dogs run off, but pianos have the staying power of Gibraltar.

For all its size, a piano is about as intimidating as a teddy bear. A toddler can reach up and hit a C-sharp with all the tonal quality and clarity as the same note played by a concert pianist. And if your budding child prodigy has expressed some interest in playing the piano, you are probably about to join a small army of first-time piano purchasers.

``There was a time when everyone was afraid radio and especially TV would distract from piano playing,'' observes Vivien Harvey Slater, concert pianist, teacher, composer, and pianist-in-residence at Colgate University. ``But they have actually stimulated interest to a degree. Children hear it on TV and want to study.''

Before you succumb to this urge in your children or yourself, you might want to consider that the wise and practical thing is not necessarily to rush out and put a down payment on a new grand.

``Consider a used piano,'' Ms. Slater suggests. ``Preferably a full upright with longer strings that will keep its tone. Make sure, too, that the instrument is kept in tune and repair. Many children become discouraged if their piano goes out of tune, or if notes that don't work go unrepaired. Like cars, pianos have to be kept in sound condition.''

If you're considering a used piano, Larry Fine, a Boston piano technician and columnist for Keyboard Magazine, offers this additional advice:

``More important than anything else, have the piano checked out by a piano technician. With somewhere around 10,000 parts, the piano is unavoidably a complex instrument. Pianos have problems that are just not obvious to the novice. Some cannot even be tuned. Even if the piano is a gift, you still have to have it moved, so it is going to cost you something.'' He suggests, too, that you might consider contacting a technician to keep an eye out for a good used piano if you're in no particular hurry.

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In general, the larger the piano, the longer the strings and consequently the better the tone quality. ``Many people go for the smallest, cheapest piano because `my eight-year-old is just learning.' Well, eight-year-olds grow up,'' observes Mr. Fine.

``Sometimes people fall in love with the cabinet, styling, or fancy embellishments,'' he says. ``These may not be as well constructed as they appear. You should look at a piano as a long-term investment.''

And if you are making a long-term investment, Ms. Slater advises against putting your money into a spinet. She warns that many a new spinet is worth nothing more than expensive firewood.

Fine agrees with her evaluation. ``Basically, you just shouldn't buy one. Even a good salesperson will tell you that. The action is mounted differently in a spinet, and is difficult to service. Some technicians will refuse to service them. Plus the fact that the strings are too short. Consequently it doesn't have a good tone. A spinet isjust too much of a compromise.'' He explains that they came into being after the Great Depression, when the piano industry needed a lift, and they offered something new.

And don't be deluded that a spinet takes up less room than a full upright. ``All verticals take up virtually the same amount of floor space,'' says Fine, ``so unless you have four-foot ceilings, you have no excuse for buying a spinet.''

The smallest vertical piano to consider, according to Fine, is a console. ``It's still a compromise, but not as bad as a spinet,'' he says.

A vertical piano, Mr. Fine explains, is one with strings in a vertical position, in contrast to the horizontal strings of a grand. There are several general sizes in the vertical category: spinet (from about 36 to 39 inches high); console (40 to 43 inches); studio (around 45 inches); and upright (48 to 52 inches). Older ones can be even larger.

The next step up in size (and often quality) comes with the change from vertical to horizontal; and many people are making it.

Paul Murphy Jr., president of M. Steinert & Sons in Boston, has seen a shift in piano buying in recent years. ``More adults are buying pianos for themselves,'' he observes, adding that ``people are not just interested in buying 88 notes. They are more quality-oriented today. The waiting list is months long even for a 5-foot, 1-inch Steinway costing $15,000, or $41,000 for a 9-foot concert grand.''

The thing to stay away from is any ``grand'' piano under five feet long, advises Fine. ``They are ghastly -- the laughing stock of the industry. Some are as small as 4 feet 5 inches. Avoid any piano that's wider than it is long.'' The only thing that's ``grand'' about them is their price, he says. The same size strings are found in uprights.

Beware, also, of the cheapest pianos in any line. Many new pianos are advertised for less than $2,000 stripped down. ``But,'' says Fine, ``these, for all intents and purposes, are advertised to get you into the store, not necessarily to be sold.''

``A dealer is as important as the make you buy,'' Mr. Murphy maintains. ``Most pianos arrive from the factory in less than perfect condition; the dealer is responsible for preparing the piano before and after it is sold as well as honoring the warranty.''

And according to Fine, ``New pianos, especially, need a lot of service the first couple of years, while the strings are still stretching and the parts are settling. All pianos go out of tune primarily due to changes in humidity. The soundboard swells and shrinks with the seasons, whether the piano is played or not.''

Before you ever get it home, you'll need to bear in mind that a piano will sound very different in a bare, cavernous showroom with hardwood floors and high ceilings than in a furnished home. Rugs, drapes, and upholstered furniture tend to soften or muffle the sound.

If you want to investigate further, you can write to Steinert's at 162 Boylston Street, Boston, 02116, for a free booklet, ``The Art and Science of Buying a Piano.''

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