On buying a piano in Singapore

The single most useful source of information is Larry Fine’s Piano Book, and its latest Annual Supplement. I bought my copy from Books Kinokuniya. If you can’t find it there or at other major bookstores such as Borders or Harris then you can (obviously) buy it from online stores like Amazon.com or from IPG. The Annual Supplement can be purchased as an online download from here.

Two things about the Piano Book.

First, the prices in the Piano Book are valid only for the U.S. But you can still use them as a rough guide to relative pricing differences in Singapore. But it doesn’t always work. For example, Steinway pianos in the U.S. are made in their factory in Astoria, NY. Steinway pianos in Singapore come from the Hamburg factory, and their prices are significantly higher than the equivalent NY Steinway models. Also, some models that a manufacturer offers in the U.S. aren’t available in Singapore, and vice versa.

Second, the piano categories (referred to in the piano world as ‘tiers’) must not be taken as the Gospel Truth. Even Larry Fine himself warns against that, but many people seem to think that he is the God of Pianos and therefore what he says must be so. Nevertheless, the Piano Book’s categorization is still useful because it gives an idea of how a manufacturer stands in relation to all other brands. It may not be entirely accurate and is subjective to a point, but there is nothing else out there that even comes close to bringing some structure and sanity to the task of buying a piano.

After having been suitably educated, you then start making the rounds of the dealers and playing on on as many pianos as you can, good and bad. That’s if you are looking for a new piano. If you are in the market for a second-hand piano then you will have to also scan the newspaper classifieds, supermarket bulletin boards, etc. It is useful to set yourself a budget to start with, and have an idea of how much upward flex you have. What many, many piano buyers (including myself) have found is that piano shopping is Very Bad (TM) for your wallet.

If all you’ve ever had exposure to was the upright (on which you clawed your way up to Grade 8 or ABRSM diploma) and the examination piano, then you are new to pianos. In other words you have not had exposure to a good range of what’s available, from the very best (in Larry Fine’s Tier 1), to the inexpensive mass market brands (in Tier 4).

Therefore, in order to make an informed choice, you need a baseline from which you can reference and compare other pianos as you do your search. You can use any piano or brand as your baseline, but I strongly suggest that you pick a brand from Tier 1 or a good one from Tier 2. Even better (if your skin is thick enough, heheh) is to sample as many pianos from the Tier 1 & 2 brands as you can find. None, I repeat, none of the brands are intended to sound or feel alike. There will even be variations within a brand.

The idea is to work your way down the brands in the Piano Book’s tiers until you find a piano that meets your budget and has the most agreeable tone and touch for you at that price.

I am almost certain that at some point in your search you will at least toy with the idea of increasing your budget by some big number! But please be sensible OK? Don’t sell the dog, wife, kids, and home just to get the piano of your dreams. A more modestly priced piano can still be a tremendous instrument to play on if it has been properly prepped and tuned. It is especially surprising how tuning the piano to a mild Well Temperament such as the EBVT can turn it from a ho-hum performer to a significantly better-sounding instrument. Trust me on this one.

So, now that you are about to embark on your top-down piano search, you run up against your first problem. Not all of the Tier 1 brands are represented in Singapore, even though their web sites may list one or more Singapore dealers. Grotrian is one example. Then, of the Tier 1 brands that are really represented in Singapore, not all their models are available for demo here. But that’s OK if all you want is a reference point.

But if you are buying a Tier 1 piano then there are two ways around this: buy sight unseen, or visit the factory. Buying sight unseen is not for the faint-hearted, and you must have enough trust and confidence in the manufacturer’s ability to deliver a piano with their signature tone and touch. The tech in Singapore then must be skillful enough to be able to do fine adjustments to the voice to suit the buyer. The tech must also be competent enough to be able to troubleshoot and fix all but the most serious problems that might arise.

And then the next problem – not all dealers of Tier 1 and even Tier 2 pianos properly prep nor tune their showroom units. That’s a shame. It’s like walking into the BMW showroom and going for a test-drive in a car with under-inflated tires or not firing on all cylinders. Also, showrooms can be acoustically dreadful. Some are so acoustically dead that the piano sounds dull and lifeless. Some are so ‘live’ that you get aurally fatigued after playing for 5 or 10 minutes. You’ll have to try to compensate mentally for the showroom acoustics.

By the way, one of the best ways of getting a better sense of a piano’s tone is to have someone else play the piano while you step away from it. The piano bench is actually not where you hear the piano’s full and true tone.

As for piano inspections, you must do them if you are buying a second-hand piano from a private seller. Also ask about the piano’s history. There just aren’t many piano techs in Singapore that you can confidently engage to assess a piano for you, so you’d better learn how to do it yourself. The Piano Book give you some useful tips about this. If you are buying the piano (new or second-hand) from a dealer, then you’ll just have to trust that the dealer has prepped and/or repaird the piano properly, and that the warranty means something.

The piano trade in Singapore seems to be particularly vicious compared to say in the North American continent and Europe. The market is small, popularity of the piano is falling, and there are too many dealers. As a result, some dealers resort unnecessarily to ‘creative’ sales and marketing tactics that are sometimes downright distasteful (such as bad-mouthing other brands and dealers). Be wary of a dealer that does this instead of selling his or her pianos on their own merits. Actually if I hear Dealer A saying bad things about Dealer B and the brands that he carries, my instinct would be to go and check out the competition!

So it is in your own self-interests to forearm yourself with enough knowledge about the piano before you prise open your wallet. At the very least you must have a basic understanding of how a piano’s mechanicals work and something about the maufacturers and brands that are available in Singapore.

Suppose that you have now bought your piano. You’d better hope that the dealer’s piano techs are up to the job of helping you keep your piano in good shape. This is where we in Singapore are at a disadvantage. There just aren’t that many good piano techs here.

Lastly, here is an essay by the recently retired and much celebrated pianist Alfred Brendel titled Coping with Pianos. It gives an idea of what he looks for when selecting a piano for his purposes.

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4 responses

  1. ” …..Be wary of a dealer that does this instead of selling his or her pianos on their own merits. Actually if I hear Dealer A saying bad things about Dealer B and the brands that he carries, my instinct would be to go and check out the competition!”

    This is extremely common in the piano trade in SG! Few will actually “let” you buy a piano on its own merits if you so much as mention that you are considering another brand not carried by that particular dealer.

  2. Of course, so you have to grin and bear it or else look for an alternative, unless you really must have THAT particular brand or piano.

    I suspect that dealers naturally assume that the buyer doesn’t know about pianos, which means selling on merit is out of the question. So they resort to sale & marketing BS and scare tactics to keep you away from the competition.

    One dealer managed to do that to me for a while, until I started to wonder why he was heaping shit on Alvin. So I decided to go check out Raffles Piano for myself. The rest is history.

    Another thing, how can the dealer sell his pianos on their own merits if they aren’t prepped and tuned on the showroom floor anyway!

  3. “Even better (if your skin is thick enough, heheh) is to sample as many pianos from the Tier 1 & 2 brands as you can find.”

    Hello from 2013! Just wanna say thanks for your wonderful posts and information about pianos–they’ve been very useful to me. And yes, I had to thicken my skin by a few inches and muster up a LOT of courage to walk into the Steinway gallery to try their k132, to tinkle on a Bluthner with an imposing presence beside me (and really sweaty palms), and try out Bösendorfer’s upright in Yamaha’s showroom that exclusively houses that brand. I didn’t dare touch any grands…My husband, who doesn’t play the piano, went around poking bass notes to hear their resonances, but I didn’t dare touch them! God knows what’ll happen if I fall in love with one…

    • Hi Priscilla,

      Thanks for your kind words about the blog!

      You know, there should be no fear walking into places like the Steinway Gallery or play on grands etc. The sales cycle for a high-end piano is typically quite long, and there is a fair amount of emotion invested in the final decision. In fact the sales reps hope to see you back again, because each time you come back could mean that you are moving one tiny step more towards making a purchase! They are giving you the opportunity to fall in love, as you say. 🙂

      /Ben

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