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Choosing the right instrument is much easier and much more difficult that many people believe

By John Terauds on September 29, 2013

Adam Sherkin as seen from the other side of the glass on Scott St on Saturday night (Le Lgh photo).
Adam Sherkin as seen from the other side of the glass on Scott St on Saturday night (Le Lgh photo).

For his season-sampling reception and recital in the Jane Mallett Theatre lobby last night, Toronto pianist Adam Sherkin used a very special little grand piano bristling with all sorts of new and interesting features. The piano reminded me of how intimidating the process of choosing an instrument can often be.

Sherkin’s was a Steingraeber & Söhne baby grand, a high-end piano packed with goodies to raise the highest of brows. Thanks to his sponsor, Grand Piano House Inc., he will have a full concert-size instrument to work with whenever he plays at the Jane Mallett Theatre this season.

The pianist didn’t pick the piano because of its carbon-fibre soundboard, or the fact that its strings are linked to the bridges in a novel way, or that the una corda (soft) pedal offers an extra step that radically changes each hammer’s relationship with the strings.

He chose it because it sounds nice and feels good under his fingers.

Because most of us are brand-obsessed and dazzled by technology, it is way too easy to forget that what inspires a student, satisfies parents and teachers and promotes a lifelong love of music is neither provenance, nor brand, nor technical innovation, nor reputation.

A piano, or a cello, or a violin, or a harp or a tuba needs to sound nice and feel right.

There are online forums where people discuss the merits and share insights into all sorts of musical instruments. Google [instrument] forum, and your eyes will be opened to enough online chitchat to send you fleeing to an Algonquin Park canoe. But the best advice always comes down to this: Set a budget, then find the instrument that speaks to you — or your talented child. It’s that bond between player and instrument that will keep it from gathering dust, not the fact that you paid $100,000 for it.

And speaking of prices, unless you’re buying an Old Master stringed instrument carefully vetted by a master luthier, don’t think for a minute that your musical baby is going to be worth more used than it was when new — no matter what the salesperson tells you.

Making and selling instruments, even for those who are more passionate about the craft than the lucre, is business. So remember that the seller is not your friend; but he or she can still be your ally. Buying a piano or viola is entering into a deeply personal relationship, one that could easily outlast several human relationships. So one needs to research and touch and play and go home, then come back and play and touch some more — perhaps several times — before making a commitment.

New York City pianist Simone Dinnerstein found her musical partner when she sat down in Berlin to record her third album and realised she couldn’t live without this particular Steinway. So she bought the 9-foot beast, had it shipped to the United States and had a crew shoehorn it into her modest Brooklyn house.

A violin is a lot smaller and lighter (but not cheaper), but the Aha! moment is just as powerful.

In short, the process is a lot easier — and much more difficult — than many people believe. Success depends on self-awareness rather than external confirmation.

There are two wrinkles in this process, though.

The first is making an instrument suit your tastes. The reputable, serious merchant will make sure that, once you’ve made a connection with an instrument, there is ample opportunity afterward to make small adjustments. This could mean moving the bridge 0.5 mm on a violin, or restringing a cello, or softening the felt on a piano’s hammers (part of a process called voicing).

There is a remarkable range of technical and tonal changes that can make an awesome instrument into a sublime one — or an average instrument into one that speaks to you without breaking the budget. Ask the salesperson or business owner, and they should be more than happy to outline the possibilities.

The second wrinkle is the talented child, abandoned in the waiting room several paragraphs ago.

No one knows how long the typical wide-eyed 5-year-old is going to continue their music lessons. For the majority, the fantasy is the sooner abandoned they are the better. The (lucky) few will really get into the music and, as their technical ability and musicality grow, what they want and need from their instrument will change as quickly as their taste in hairstyle and clothes.

For anyone with limited means, it’s not practical to think of buying a professional-quality instrument for a 5-year-old and then hoping for the best. At some point, you may need to upgrade. Here, too, the reputable merchant will be able to step in with a reasonable trade-in policy. Who better to sell you a new instrument than the person who helped get the relationship going in the first place?

This is how it’s done:

John Terauds

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