Pianos can be as big as a car or small enough to fit in a boot, but how do you choose between electronic and acoustic? Gerald Haigh plays the market for sound and suitability
Too many school pianos are treated carelessly. Every time I play one, I make a point of removing everything from the top - piles of old hymn books, half-empty packs of chalk. What we have here is not a handy shelf, but a craftsman-built musical instrument, and one of the most expensive pieces of school equipment.
There are two keys to buying a school piano: personal preference and practical suitability. Within a given price range, the choice between one instrument and another will be determined by the feelings of those who use and listen to it. And then that choice must be right for the instrument's role in the school's musical life.
There is astonishing ignorance about electronic pianos. Early models were not very good and many music teachers have not heard the latest ones. But even the Royal Academy of Music now uses them for its general keyboard skills programme (though not for serious piano study).
A modern electronic (or "digital") piano works by reproducing the electronically recorded, or "sampled", sounds made by an expensive acoustic grand. The more you pay for the instrument, the better the sound reproduction and the feel of the keyboard.
Electronic pianos have some important advantages. They are generally cheaper and maintenance-free - they require no tuning and virtually nothing can go wrong. They are also amazingly portable. Even the larger ones can be dismantled and moved, while smaller ones can be carried from room to room and stored in a cupboard. When you take the school choir out, a piano with a short 61 or 76-note keyboard will come with you on the coach or sit on the back seat of your Peugeot 105.
You can play electronic pianos "silently" through headphones, for private practice or multiple classroom use and offer a range of electronic tricks such as recording what you have played. Some offer a range of different piano sounds, and they will link to computers and to other electronic instruments.
So why even consider an acoustic piano? Because it is still the real thing. Sit down at a good one and you can always feel, as much as hear, the difference. In terms of musical and emotional education this is important.
But it has to be a good piano and well looked after. A traditional piano has 5,000 hand-assembled moving parts. It dislikes fluctuations in humidity and temperature, and does not take too kindly to being roughly moved around.
A secondary school with an impressive hall, a good orchestra and the occasional visiting recitalist, might even consider a medium-sized grand of six to seven feet.
Sometimes these are bought second-hand, but beware. Pianos which appear to be good can hide terminal problems. So go to a specialist dealer who sells second-hand as well as new pianos and expect to pay a four-figure sum for a reconditioned piano.
For reasons of safety, never under any circumstances just bring a domestic piano into school. An upright piano is inherently top heavy, and, if it is not modified, it can tip over when moved, with potentially fatal consequences. The dealer has to fit a safety kit - larger castors, and an extended base - so that the piano will not tip. Extra locks are added, too. All this will probably cost around Pounds 150. When a manufacturer advertises a "school piano", these features are built in.
In terms of maintenance, a school piano should be tuned at least every term (more often if it is used or moved often), preferably by a tuner who can fix mechanical problems. Proper tuning may take a couple of hours per piano and will cost in the region of Pounds 40, so governors should be prepared to set aside a tuning and repair budget of about Pounds 150 per piano per year.
For the purpose of this survey, electronic pianos are divided into three price ranges. All prices may be subject to considerable discounts from retailers or school suppliers, so shop around.
Pounds 500 or less
There are a lot of cheap and cheerful electronic pianos in this range. They sound a bit tinny, and the keys will be springy rather than properly weighted. They are, though, light and easily stored, which makes them suitable for classroom music or for an assembly hall in an emergency, especially if played through an external amplifier.
Worth considering: Casio's CPS 7 (Pounds 399) is very basic, but feels and sounds reasonable. It is very portable and will go in a cupboard. Yamaha's YPP15 (Pounds 499) is also portable and has good sound, but only 61 keys.
Best buy: in this lowest price range I would be tempted not by a piano at all, but by Casio's 76-key WK 1500 electronic keyboard at Pounds 499. The piano sound in this keyboard is better than in Casio's cheapest piano, it has more keys than the cheap Yamaha piano and you get a host of different electronic voices and features.
Any of these small pianos is considerably improved by the addition of a keyboard amplifier-speaker. Look at the Peavey KB 60 at Pounds 269 (Chappell's of Bond Street and other high street dealers), even though it is heavy to lug around. If you want compact and portable power, you might consider Yamaha's MS 60Y at Pounds 519. The amp can be used for lots of other purposes in music and drama.
Around Pounds 1,500
These are the big sellers. Digital pianos in this middle range start to be comparable with an upright. They are suitable for a medium-sized hall or a secondary department. Look for good piano sound, a full 88-note keyboard and authentically weighted keys. The major suppliers are Technics, Roland, Yamaha and Casio.
All are good and the choice in the end will be personal, although there are price differences within this general range. Always remember to shop around for discounts. You can often get several hundred pounds off a mid-range piano.
Worth considering: From Casio's Celviano range, the AP20 at Pounds 1,499; from Yamaha's Clavinova range, the CLP 153SG at Pounds 1,399; Technics' PX201 at Pounds 1,499; and Roland's ep-9 at Pounds 899. Further up, perhaps more comparable with the others, is Roland's HP-1600e which costs Pounds 1,399.
Best buy: On price, the Roland ep-9 which has good sound and a very acceptable feel or the Casio AP20, especially if you can find it discounted to around Pounds 1,000. But when I had a big school choir specialising in show songs and pop ballads, I would have loved a Yamaha stage piano such as the Clavinova PF P100 with a full-weighted keyboard, big bright sound, good extra effects and capable of being carried in a hatchback.
Pounds 2,000 upwards
In this range all are pianos in every sense of sound and feel. They may not be quite as good as an acoustic piano costing twice as much, but will sound infinitely better than the neglected instruments that inhabit so many front rooms, school halls and music rooms. At these prices, make sure you check the differences carefully. You may be paying for features you do not need rather than a better sound or feel.
Worth considering: Yamaha has a number of Clavinovas at more than Pounds 2,000 - compare the differences between them, so you don't spend unnecessarily (particularly good is the CLP157 at Pounds 3,199). Technics' PX207 at Pounds 2,799 has a beautifully authentic keyboard feel and better than the cheaper Technics instruments. Roland's HP 330 at Pounds 1,999 has an excellent feel and sound, and a particularly impressive bass (the more expensive HP530 is the same instrument in a better wooden case).
Best buy: My favourite is the Technics PX207, a personal choice based largely on the feel of the keyboard. If price were sensitive, I would buy the Roland HP330, but remember to look at discounts.
Acoustic upright pianos
An upright for the primary school hall or the secondary music block will cost between Pounds 2,500 and Pounds 5,000. Well looked after, it will hold its value better than an electronic instrument, because electronics are constantly changing and improving.
Sounds vary, so choose with care, visiting big showrooms with a good selection.The Piano Workshop in north London has a wide range of new and second-hand instruments and director Mike Neill is a mine of helpful advice. If you are not in London he can point you to a local dealer.
What you cannot tell is how long an instrument will last. The names mentioned here are of reputable manufacturers well regarded by musicians and piano technicians. Again, you should be able to find good discounts.
Worth considering: A major manufacturer of purpose-built school pianos is the UK firm Whelpdale Maxwell and Codd, who make Welmar, Knight, Rogers and Bentley pianos. They have their own retail shops and also supply through independents. Try the Rogers Student model at Pounds 3,940, the Bentley Concord Scholastic at Pounds 3,475, or the very popular Knight K10 School Piano at Pounds 4,865.
Another UK manufacturer is Kemble which also makes Yamaha acoustic pianos. Try the Kemble Cambridge at Pounds 2,499. In the Yamaha range there is the C108 at Pounds 2,999 or the U3 - a full-size studio upright at Pounds 5,199. A smaller UK manufacturer is Woodchester, of Stroud, which does business with a number of schools. Look at the Arlingham at Pounds 2,510 and the Cheltenham at Pounds 3,625.
Some pianos imported from east Europe and east Asia need to be approached with caution. Excellent pianos, though, come from the Korean firm Young Chang (there are 31 in use at the Royal Academy of Music, working all day every day). There are lots of models in different sizes and finishes. Try the E101 at Pounds 2,665.
Best buy: the Knight K10, for being a proven, robust, purpose-built school instrument. But try them all for yourself.
Acoustic grand pianos
Best buys: The Weber WG73, a six-foot grand at Pounds 8,549, is astonishing value for an instrument that would grace a school hall and is a delight to play. Or, when the lottery smiles, the Bosendorfer I tried in Harrods at Pounds 38,199 (Pounds 41,749 in birds-eye maple) is lovely to play, but you could buy the Weber plus an E-class Mercedes for that price.
KEY SUPPLIERS AND WHERE TO GO FOR ADVICE
* Kemble, Mount Ave, Milton Keynes MK1 1JE. Tel: 01908 371771 * Roland UK, Atlantic Close, Swansea Enterprise Park, Swansea, West Glamorgan SA7 9FJ. Tel: 01792 702701 * Technics pianos, contact Panasonic UK, Panasonic House, Willoughby Road, Bracknell RG12 8FP. Tel: 01344 853177 * Whelpdale Maxwell and Codd, 154 Clapham Park Road, London SW4 7DE. Tel: 0171 978 2444 * Woodchester Piano, Woodchester Mills, Woodchester, Stroud GL5 5NW Tel: 01453 872871 * Yamaha-Kemble Music UK Ltd, Sherbourne Drive, Tilbrook, Milton Keynes. MK7 8BL. Tel: 01908 366700 * Young Chang and Weber pianos, contact Piano Workshop, 30 Highgate Rd, Kentish Town, London NW51NS Tel: 0171 267 7671 For independent advice: * The Music Industries Association, Grove Court, Hatfield Road, Slough SL1 1QU Tel: 01753 511550 * Jonathan Ranger, National Piano Centre and Information Service, 5 Summerfield Road, Ealing, London W5 1ND Tel: 0181 997 1793