So you’ve decided to get a piano! For yourself, or for, say, the piano-loving Target worker who gave up her lifelong piano access when she moved to Mississippi to live with you as your wife. I think this is a fine choice! Pianos are lovely. Let’s talk about some good and bad practices for acquiring a piano.
Do you want a piano? Do you have space for a piano? Do you have access to a vehicle that can be used to transport a piano? Do you have like a hundred bucks, tops? Go for it. You can get a piano.
The first thing to know is, you do not have to be a very rich person to get a totally decent piano. In fact, functional secondhand pianos are rather famously cheap and much more abundant than you might think. This is because pianos—even the shitty Kingsbury upright job your grandmother covered with a tablecloth and used as a sideboard for the last 35 years of her life—are ungodly heavy and a monstrous pain in the ass to move; this often gives them negative value for their owners. It is not at all uncommon for a piano owner to offer their piano for no money at all to whomever can haul it away before the property that housed it changes hands.
Craigslist is lousy with secondhand pianos. You cannot not find a piano on Craigslist. In 10 minutes I could find you a handful of cheap pianos in pretty much any region of the United States on Craigslist. If you cannot score a decent, functional piano for under a hundred bucks in “weeks” of checking Craigslist “for the whole state”—Mississippi or any other, possibly barring Alaska, which as I understand it is basically The Revenant—either you are looking in the wrong section of Craigslist (just as an example, pianos for sale generally will not be listed in the “maudlin, probably fictional personal essay” discussion group), or you are not actually looking for a decent, functional piano.
But wait, you are saying. What does “functional” mean, when we are talking about pianos? What makes a piano functional? Good question. “Functional” means all the keys work; the piano can play music. Bonus points if the pedals also work. Not to be a stickler, here, but functional piano keys are like 99 percent of the practical difference between a piano and a boulder.
Accordingly, if you call a piano-seller on the phone to ask about the condition of their piano and they tell you that “some of the keys [are] stuck but the wood [looks] fine,” right there you have a big deal-breaking problem on your hands, buddy. A piano with stuck keys is not a piano! It is a weird table that weighs a ton. Are you shopping for a weird table that weighs a ton? Probably you are not.
But that is The Only Piano I Could Afford!, you are protesting. For I am Hardscrabble Romantic Writin’ Man what don’t got no money! But actually, no. You cannot afford that piano.
This is a thing people understand when it applies to, say, purchasing a used car. If a car-seller tells you that their used car looks fine, but “some of the wheels don’t turn,” you do not think to yourself, Well okay that’s unfortunate but since I’m poor I guess I have to get this car that doesn’t work. A fine-looking car that literally cannot be driven is not a poor person’s investment; it is a rich (or tragically stupid) person’s investment. For anyone who does not have the money for extensive repairs, it is a useless and extraordinarily large decorative item, and only the very wealthy can afford those.
Likewise a piano!
But, okay, let’s just say that you foolishly bothered to drive “west for two hours [past innumerable functional secondhand pianos which could be had for a fraction of the cost of repairing a catastrophically damaged one], crossing the county line where liquor sales stopped, on roads that were cracked and narrow,” to view a secondhand piano with fine-looking wood but “some” keys that don’t work, like an idiot. Rookie mistake! No big deal. You haven’t actually bought it yet, so you’re not on the hook for more than the cost of the moving truck. You don’t have to take this piano!
Now you’re in the physical presence of a piano; probably you should check it out. You wouldn’t buy a used car before taking it for a test drive, right? Same deal here.
Ideally you would have someone who can play a piano with you when you go to check out a prospective piano. You wouldn’t go shopping for a used car by yourself if you don’t know how to drive, right? But, okay, sure, let’s say you’re intent upon surprising your spouse with a (busted) piano (that doesn’t work) (for no good reason) (but possibly as a passive-aggressive gesture, I mean there’s literally no other reason to buy a piano that doesn’t work). Unlike with a used car, you can still perform a basic test that will tell you whether the piano is working or not. Here is how you test the keys of a piano before you decide whether to buy it.
The piano has, or should have, 88 keys—52 white, and 36 black. They’re lined up across the front. Press each one in turn. Do all of them move when you press them, and produce a sound? And not just the dull bip of your finger striking the key, but an actual piano sound, sort of like the pretty sound of a hammer striking a string inside the instrument, maybe a little off, but recognizably and clearly piano-like? If they all do that, all 88 of them, then this is a functional piano; it meets the very most basic and essential qualification for purchase. If less than all 88 of them do that, then this is not a functional piano; it is not qualified for purchase. This test will take all of two minutes.
Let’s take it a step further. You know what do-re-mi sounds like, yeah? Hell yeah. You can play this on any part of a piano. Does re sound a little weird over on that part? Okay. Then the piano needs tuning. No big deal. Do sol, la, and ti make no sound at all over there? Then the piano needs major repairs, which will cost more than many totally functional secondhand pianos. Does mi stir the family of raccoons living inside the piano, who emerge in wrath to make war upon the invader? Then you probably will need a rabies booster shot.
I put my hands on the keys. Many were stuck, far more than the woman had let on. But I pressed one, and inside the unseen hammer fell to loudly strike a note. I handed her my money.
“Ah. Yes. This extremely heavy and large piece of musical equipment can perform only slightly more than 10 percent of its essential function. I’ll take it.” This is not a good and smart way to select a piano.
Other Features You Might As Well Check, Since Functional Pianos Are Pretty Abundant And Cheap And You Might As Well Get The Best One You Can Find
Most pianos have some number of pedals—usually three—beneath the keyboard, down by the floor. They change the piano’s sound in various ways that probably are not worth trying to explain to someone who did not think to bring a piano player along when searching for a piano to buy.
Do the pedals move when you depress them with your foot? Okay. Depress the right pedal, hold it down, press and release a key on the keyboard, and keep the right pedal depressed. Does the note sustain—does it sound all echoey and shit—even after you released the key? Nice! The other two pedals also do things, but the right one is the most important, because it is used the most.
Many pianos also have wheels, so they can be moved around. Does this piano have wheels? If so, make sure they roll. Otherwise they are not wheels, but rounded feet. This will make moving the piano even more miserable. Almost certainly, in your area, you can find a cheap piano with functional keys, pedals, and wheels; if the piano’s wheels are rusted in place, probably you should just pass on this busted piano.
For Some Stupid Reason I Bought A Non-Functional Piano For My Piano-Loving Spouse Even Though Neither Its Keys Nor Its Wheels Worked At All. Later We Got Divorced. What Now?
Write about it for the New York Times. If it couldn’t work as a piano, maybe you can try to make it work as a clumsy metaphor!