Some people think that a piano is just a piano. It does not make a difference on which piano you are learning from. I once encouraged a parent to buy an acoustic piano for his child who is starting to learn piano. But the parent said that an electric piano will do the job as he is not concerned with technique development. He just wants his child to develop an aesthetic appreciation through learning music.
I teach on a grand piano. I teach teachers taking the Diploma in Piano Teaching Exam as well as students taking the Diploma in Piano Performance exams. At this level, it is important that the student works on a grand piano.
The mechanical action of a grand piano is different from that of an upright. On a grand piano, the force of the fingers directed into the key is directly translated to an equal but opposite force of the hammer moving upwards to strike on a string.
On an upright piano, this force is more diluted as it undergoes a series of levers to move the hammer to change the downward force into a forward-backward force to move the hammers to strike onto a vertical string.
The technical precision of a grand piano is more crucial in playing the larger and more difficult repertoire at the advanced piano learning. On top of that, the sonority of the reverberation of the soundboard is immediately felt as the sound leaves the piano from the top of a grand piano as opposed to the back of an upright piano. This immediate feedback of sound delivered as soon as notes are struck on the keys is like fuel to a concert pianist’s playing. The beautiful sonority is what the pianist strives for, and to have the ‘kick’ diluted due to technical limitations of the piano equally dilutes the spirit of the pianist.
Did you know that the 3 pedals found on a grand piano is a little bit different in function from the 3 foot pedals found on an upright piano? The most frequently used pedal is the damper pedal. The outer right pedal. When the damper pedal is depressed, it raises all the dampers (they are black in colour and its function is to damp or stop the string from vibrating). The damper pedal works the same way in both the upright and grand pianos.
However the left and the middle pedals work differently on the upright and on the grand.
On the grand piano, the left pedal is called the una corda pedal. When depressed on a grand piano, the keys along with the hammers shift to the right slightly. This is to enable the hammers to strike only 2 instead of the normal 3 strings. The sound is softer and the tone colour mellower.
Another pedal that works differently on the grand is the middle sostenuto pedal. This pedal allows a note or a few notes in a chord to be sustained usually in the bass, while the hands can then move to the upper register and play there without loosing the bass notes. On an upright piano, the middle pedal merely moves a piece of felt cloth over the strings and act as a practise pedal to mute the sounds of the piano.
Both the sostenuto and the una corda pedals are more often used in works such as those written by Debussy, Liszt and Ravel. Very often, piano students do not get to pieces by these composers until at the advanced levels.
At the end of the day, choose to purchase a grand piano if your house has the space. You will definitely enjoy playing the bigger works on a grand piano. Conversely, a 5 year old starting out on learning to play the piano do not need a grand piano yet. A lower to mid-end upright piano would be sufficient to get the child started on the music that he is starting to play. Choose a piano that suits your budget, living space and level of playing ability.