We asked our St. Louis technician and pianist Michael Laschober (Academy Piano Service), for his perspective on some of the most frequently asked questions about pianos:

#1. How often should a piano be tuned?
#2. What brands do you recommend for new and used pianos?
#3. What's the best piano for a beginner?
#4. Where's the best place to put a piano?
#5. What's better, a heavy touch or a light touch?
#6. Are piano heaters useful?
#7. How do you pick out a good used piano?
#8. Are the older pianos better than the newer ones?
#9. Can any piano be converted into a digital player?
#10. How do you feel about plastic in a piano?
#11. How do you pick out a new piano?
#12. How do you pick out a good piano teacher?
#13. Where can I buy a piano bench?
#14. How much does it cost to rebuild a piano?


#1. How often should a piano be tuned?
There's no right or wrong answer to this. Tune it whenever it bothers you. The piano doesn't care. It doesn't hurt the piano if you never tune it. Many people seem to shoot for "once-a-year" tunings.  Pianos always go out-of-tune when the seasons change - mostly due to humidity.   So if you tune it in our humid summer, you can be sure it'll be flat and out-of-tune in the winter. If you tune in our furnace-dry winter, you can be sure it'll be sharp and out-of-tune in the summer. You can't win. But if you wait long enough for the seasons to change again, it'll pretty-much go back into tune all by itself - like magic!


#2. What brands do you recommend for new and used pianos?
I never recommend or reject a piano because of its name. It's better to judge each individual piano on its own merits.  This is especially true with used pianos.  The environment that a used piano was kept in and the way it was treated is often more important than the name it carries.  As with clothing and everything else, "name brand" is largely psychological.  In a blindfold test, you might find the sound and touch of an unknown brand to be indistinguishable from the sound and touch of our most respected brands.


#3. What's the best piano for a beginner?
One that functions properly.  This is really important.  Sticking a beginner with a piano that doesn't operate properly is a recipe for failure.  It would be better to give a poorly-operating piano to an experienced player than to a beginner.  Experienced players can cope with mechanical and tuning problems more easily because they know how things are supposed to be.  A beginner doesn't.


#4. Where's the best place to put a piano?
I don't have a "best place" suggestion, but I've made some observations about where NOT to put a piano:
1.  Upright pianos placed over the furnace's cold air return become very dirty inside.  The piano becomes a very expensive air filter.
2.  Pianos that are colder than the room they are in will have big problems.  This situation occurs when the heat of the piano is drawn away by cold basement floors or UNINSULATED outside walls.  Since moisture in the air condenses on colder objects, the piano will become damp.  This means the strings will become rusty and the felt will become moldy.  Once I serviced a piano that was resting against a cold, poorly insulated (masonry) wall.  The room was very humid because people were cooking in the kitchen. Water was literally dripping off the tuning pins.  The heavily rusted strings were untunable.
3.  Direct sunlight can discolor plastic keys, damage the cabinet's finish, and its heat can cause a temporary pitch drop.  When I tune the pianos for the annual St. Louis Jazz Festival (outdoors in Shaw Park), the sun inevitably shines on the pianos after I've tuned them, making them sound worse than before I tuned them!  (It's an embarassing and unfair situation that I always complain about – even now.)
4.  Pianos placed near a heat vent or radiator will constantly be expanding and contracting with the temperature and humidity changes.  This doesn't make for a very stable tuning, and it might eventually cause problems like glue joint failures.
5.  It's seems such a romantic picture: the pianist sitting at the piano, dazing out of the window in deep, beautiful, musical thought. Ha!  In real life the opposite is true.  It is VERY uncomfortable to read music when the piano is in front of a window. It puts the music in constant shadow and makes music-reading very tiring. Also, any car or bird that passes becomes a distraction.  I still remember looking out the window while practicing the piano, crying because my friends were out in the street playing ball.  If the piano has to be near a window, the window should be BEHIND the pianist (in my unromantic, killjoy opinion).
6.  Keep pianos out of areas that have mice.  Mice love pianos and can absolutely destroy them in no time. 


#5. What's better, a heavy touch or a light touch?
What's better, a heavy suitcase or a light one?  Given the choice, I would always pick the light one.  It seems that many people associate "heavy" with big, beautiful grand pianos.  Well, those big beautiful grand pianos with hard-to-press keys have a problem.  "Heaviness" does not exist for the sake of "heaviness".  It is a negative feature that would be avoided if it could be avoided.


#6. Are piano heaters useful?
I personally tend to shy away from the piano heaters and humidifiers because it is too difficult for me to verify that they actually make a difference. One the other hand, there are some things about them that can indeed be verified: they use quite a bit of energy over time, they seem unreasonably expensive, and they have to be monitored. I've notice many times that people have the heater plugged-in during the winter instead of the summer. (I'm always tempted to cut the cord off when I see that - although I never would). If pianos can function unaided in tropical jungles and in dry deserts, why shouldn't they be able to function unaided in St. Louis? If a piano has sluggish keys or action parts, it makes more sense to fix the problem than to change the environment. A piano isn't a living creature.  It doesn't care if it is hot or cold.  It is a machine that follows the same laws of physics as every other machine.  For these reasons and from the observation that the piano manufacturers themselves do not use them, I've never recommended them. Maybe they do make a difference, but I don't know how to calculate the cost/benefit equation.


#7. How do you pick-out a good used piano?
Reject pianos that have serious problems.  Here are some pointers for inspecting a used piano:
1. Open the piano up so you can see what's inside.  If it's one of those old, tall pianos, it won't be enough to simply lift up the top because it will be too dark in there.  Take off the entire front part of the cabinet.  It usually just lifts off or slides off.  Sometimes it will be attached with screws, so bring along a screwdriver.
2. Examine the strings.  Never, never, never buy an old piano without first looking at the strings.  Are they rusty?  Rust is easiest to spot up where the strings wind around the tuning pins.  Rust weakens strings, making them more likely to break.  Are any of the strings broken or missing?  Is there a mix of rusty old strings with shiny new replaced strings?  If so, reject the piano.  I would.  Broken strings can be replaced – in fact the entire piano can be restrung. But why start off with such serious problems?
3. Listen as you play each of the 88 keys.  All pianos go out of tune.  It's normal and unavoidable.  But piano strings tend to go out of tune somewhat together.  It's not normal to have a string that is wildly and disproportionately out of tune with respect to its neighboring strings.  It suggests that the tuning pins might be too loose and may be slipping in the pinblock.  Although everything can be fixed, I personally would never consider buying a piano with slipping tuning pins.
4. Watch as you play each of the 88 keys.  In an upright piano, you’ll see the hammers as they are thrown forward to hit the strings.  They are supposed to move in a "back and forth" direction.  They are not supposed to wobble from side to side.  Wobbly piano hammers are a bad sign.  It suggests that the piano is very worn or that the hammer butts are attached with failing brass flanges.  I personally would never buy a piano with wobbly hammers.

In summary, you should avoid pianos with rusty and broken strings, slipping tuning pins, or wobbly hammers.  These are, in my opinion, the most common cancers in the lives of pianos.  Everything can be fixed, but "restringing", "repinning", and "rebuilding the action" are very time-consuming (and therefore expensive) jobs.  Even if the pianos are being given away for free (and they often are), it would be wise to just stay away from them.


#8. Are older pianos better than newer ones?
Are older automobiles better than newer ones?  The piano is not a violin.  It’s a machine.  Machines never get better with use and age.  So when shopping for pianos, don’t even consider buying an “antique” piano.  Of course there are countless old pianos that still function beautifully.  But as a general rule, “newer” is better than “older”.


#9. Can any piano be converted into a digital player?
I guess so.  You know, I've changed my mind about these digital devices.  Until very recently I felt it was really a goofy idea to add an electronic gadget to a traditional piano.  After all, electronics seem to be changing every Wednesday.  Pianos haven't changed much for over a century.  If we had decided to add such contraptions 40 years ago, we'd all have broken 8-track decks bolted to our pianos.
But now I see things a little differently.  I was at a nursing home where one of these units was playing constantly, bringing joy to the residents.  I heard of a widow who had one of these units installed in her husband's old piano so she could hear the sound of her husband again.  If these things bring happiness to people, then let them be.


#10. How do you feel about plastic in a piano?
Although some manufacturers proudly claim that their instruments contain no plastic (in an effort to scare you away from those that do have plastic), I actually like plastic action parts.  They are more stable.  They don't swell-up with humidity.  Decades ago some progressive manufacturers (like Lester) used plastics in their pianos.  Unfortunately those early plastics didn’t have much longevity.  In time they got brittle and crumbled, giving plastics a very bad name (in fact we're still replacing those parts to this day).  But the new plastics are stable and can offer advantages over wood.  You won’t have to worry about them.


#11. How do you pick out a new piano?
People buy pianos for many different reasons.  Some are buying furniture.  Some are buying into a dream for themselves or their children.  Some are buying for status.  Some are expert players and are buying for tone quality or evenness of touch.  Some are looking for a bargain.  Some are buying as a tool for teaching or songwriting.  Most are probably buying for a combination of these reasons.  So it is impossible to come up with "one size fits all" advice.
I feel safe in saying that all new St. Louis pianos are durable machines.  None of them are going to fall apart on you when you get them home.  After all, there are no secrets in the piano industry.  One company isn't "smarter" than another.  One company doesn't have a secret ingredient, an ore from another planet, or a wood from an undiscovered species.  So don't pay much attention to the claims and counterclaims about materials used.  If a salesperson says something negative about a competitor's product, just ignore it.  If you let the seeds of doubt get planted you'll never find a piano. You're really interested in only 4 things:

How does it look?
How does it sound?
How does it feel?
How much does it cost?

How does it look?  Everybody has their own taste.  They all look pretty nice to me.
How does it sound?  This is a judgment call – different people like different tone qualities.  To make it even more complicated, the same piano will sound different at different locations because of the size of room, the carpeting, etc.  And if the piano is out of tune, it's even harder to determine what the tone is like.
How does it feel?  Some pianos are easier to control than others.  If you aren't somewhat accomplished at the piano, you won't be able to make this decision.
How much does it cost?  The dealer of course will want to get as much money for the piano as possible.  Unfortunately, you can't very well play one Kimball dealer off against another Kimball dealer because there's only ONE Kimball dealer in the whole area!  (Actually there are none - Kimball went out of business quite a few years ago).  But that's how the game is played.  It's monopoly.  You'll have to negotiate with very little leverage unless you consider more than one brand, or travel to other cities, or do some comparative shopping over the internet.

And one more bit of advice: base your decision on the present condition of the instrument, not on the promised condition.  If you don't like the tone or the touch, you might be told: "Oh, that's nothing. The technician will take care of that for you."  Oh yea?  There are limits to what technicians can do.  If there weren't, all pianos would sound and feel equally wonderful.  But they don't.


#12. How do you pick out a good piano teacher?
Having taught and having observed many different piano teachers and their students for so many years, I have to say that I no longer know how to answer this question.  Music is such a big field.  Every teacher is different.  Every student is different.  It's pretty much a matter of finding a match that works.

I guess you should just try a teacher out.  Piano lessons are really adventures in psychology.  If the student becomes engaged, then everything is wonderful.  Being engaged and on-task is what learning is all about.

If things don't work out too well, then find a different teacher.  Sometimes a good match just can't be found.  But don't feel bad.  Although it is a great luxury to have a piano teacher, some of the greatest pianists never had much instruction at all.  They had desire. With desire and application, anybody can figure out how to operate the piano machine, even without a teacher.  But it sure is nice to have a teacher.  Good luck, because that is really what it is.


#13. Where can I buy a piano bench?
Just call any piano store or technician.  But don't call me.  I'm not too fond of piano benches.  They are heavy, expensive, and really unnecessary.  Most people have them so full of music you need a forklift to move them.  The legs are often wobbly and the bottoms are always falling out.  Of course since I have to move them and fix them everyday when I tune people's pianos, my perspective might be a little distorted.  I prefer a light, simple chair.  The cheap metal folding chairs are my favorite when tuning.


#14. How much does it cost to rebuild a piano?
Don't use the word "rebuild".  For that matter, don't use terms like "refurbish" or "redo" or "restore".  They have no precise meaning.  Adding the adverb "totally" adds no clarity at all.  Ask 10 different rebuilders what a rebuilding job entails, and you'll probably get 10 different answers.  Ask 10 different rebuilders what a "total" rebuilding job is, and you'll probably get 27 different answers.  Instead, use specific terms that describe single jobs, like: "restring and repin using oversized tuning pins" or "replace the hammers along with new shanks" or "replace the damper pads".  Each of these operations has an exact meaning that every technician will understand.  So, the question: "How much does it cost to rebuild a piano?"  is impossible to answer.  By the way, refinishing a piano that has rusty strings and broken hammers is a bizarre thing to do.  If a worthless, untunable piano is given a beautiful $3,000 refinishing job, it is still a worthless, untunable piano.  There's a sequence to doing these things.  From a musician's viewpoint, cosmetics always comes last – if at all.

Pianos don't live forever.  They're not like violins and guitars which have no moving parts to wear out.  There are no "Stradivarius" pianos.  In the piano world, "antique" is usually a euphemism for "firewood".  And so unless it really, really has sentimental value to you, you probably should not keep grandma's piano in the family unless you can bring it up to musical usefulness.  She would not want to BURDEN your children with an instrument that will stymie their progress.  Throw it away.  Her memory would be better served by getting a musically useful instrument.