Choosing a Piano

I used to play golf but gave up after one particularly bad round defined by an unbreakable cycle of rage and resignation. Sometime before this, I had the fortune to play a round with a professional. In the spirit of 21st-century amateurism, I sauntered out with hundreds of pounds worth of equipment: ‘forgiving’ irons, which seemingly didn’t forgive bad golf; a huge driver so I could slice the ball into a squirrel’s arse from 300 yards; a massive putter, enabling me to tap the ball endlessly back-and-forth across the green, avoiding the hole with unerring anti-skill. The pro picked up a cluster of mismatched clubs from the driving range with a street value of £8.

I witnessed a masterclass of ‘idea over gear’, which pained me greatly but taught me a valuable lesson concerning the weakness of the correlations between performance and equipment, expenditure and result.

The analogy is, I think, that if you’re good enough, you can play well with anything. Contrarily, if you’re a ham-fisted pleb with expensive kit, you just look like a bit of a tit. With the piano, as with golf, there’s a balance to be struck.

I started out with the bottom-of-the-range digital Yamaha (a P45). It was fine until I first played on an acoustic piano, when it became immediately apparent that I had been learning on a cheap, springy imitation of a complex and nuanced instrument. To try and bridge the gap, I bought a slightly better digital piano (Roland FP-30), but its strange fake key weight was still unsatisfactory.

At this point I should point out that I live in a flat and I’m not quite selfish enough to subject my neighbours to the full force of an acoustic piano. And I find practice pedals upsetting, something akin to puttting toilet rolls on a cat’s legs.

My third piano — and the one I still have — is a complex and expensive setup, based around a Kawai VPC. It’s an astounding approximation of a piano which I’m quite sure couldn’t have existed a couple of decades ago; however, it’s still very much not a piano.

A Kawai VPC exposed to show its long wooden keys and little pretend hammers

It has recently become one of my great joys to happen upon an acoustic piano. In the shopping centre, in my friend’s mum’s house, in a college I visited for a talk and afterwards sniffed out the music room, like a highly-trained pianohound. They’re invariably cheap but they’re infinitely better than my non-piano.

A good digital piano is — I imagine — like virtual reality porn with a sex doll: still enjoyable but most definitely not the same as the real thing. The good news is that your partner is unlikely to find a digital piano as upsetting to come home to. And you don’t have to hose it down when you’ve finished playing with it.

To conclude: If at all possible, buy an acoustic piano. If you can’t, buy a really good digital and make it a permanent sidequest to seek out acoustic pianos.