As a worship leader with nearly 15 years of experience and a trained piano consultant for more than 18 years, I find that I have a unique perspective on finding the right piano for your church. I’ve worked with churches all over the United States and even some in Mexico to find the perfect piano for their sanctuaries. Hopefully, my experiences will help you and your piano selection team cut through the fallacies and sales hype to find the your perfect church piano.
As always, please feel free to comment below if you have any thoughts or questions. I take the time to respond to everyone. God bless!
Finding the Ultimate Worship Piano in 2020 and Beyond
Maybe your worship setting isn’t best served by a digital piano. Whether you follow a strict liturgy or you prefer hymnsongs on a Sunday morning, the right acoustic piano can greatly enhance your worship experience. “What is an acoustic piano,” you ask? Quite simply, it’s a piano you don’t plug in. …and like its digital counterparts, there are some things that don’t thrill me about many of the options available on the market today. Again. Everyone has their favorite brands and you can find “informed” opinions growing on every tree, but here are five basic things I think most worship leaders would agree are NOT desirable for their primary worship instrument:
- It will not stay in tune. Pianos go out of tune for a ton of common reasons. The three most common, are: Construction, Environment and Lack of Maintenance. Poor quality pianos are made out of cheap particleboard and plastics. Like those furniture kits you buy from big box stores, they aren’t designed to last. They also require more regular maintenance to stay in tune. They might be cheaper to purchase, but they are far more expensive to maintain. No piano, however, can stay in tune when subjected to dramatic changes in temperature and humidity. If you turn your heat/AC on and off throughout the week, you are killing your worship instrument. Either store it in a climate-controlled room or replace it with a good digital piano. Think of wood just like a sponge. What happens when you add moisture? What happens to the sponge if it gets TOO dry? The same will happen to your piano. Finally, very few churches have an adequate maintenance budget for their worship instrument. Your worship piano should be tuned at least once every 3 months. If played heavily, it’s not uncommon for it to require action adjustments and voicing (re-shaping the hammers to provide a more desirable tone) every couple of years. There is no point in purchasing a fine worship instrument if you’re just going to neglect it after delivery.
- It doesn’t sound good. In general, a church sanctuary is one of the most hostile environments for an acoustic piano. Aside from the tuning concerns listed above, church pianos tend to get far more use than do home pianos and, thus, they can quickly become bright (or “tinny”) sounding due to a hardening of the hammer felt where it impacts the strings. Many manufacturers use particularly soft or hard hammers (depending on their tone recipe) and each come with their own set of problems. Hard hammers are naturally prone to harshness. Soft hammers can sound dull (or “muddy”) if not properly prepared and often require much more work to maintain the desired tone. Soundboards (which function as the piano’s amplifier) can lose their clarity and projection in hostile environments – especially if they are not properly supported or are made of inferior (or inadequately seasoned) wood.
- It sounds horrible through the PA System. Unless you have an extremely experienced, professional sound technician and a SUPER expensive, piano microphone package, your piano is going to sound AWFUL if you “mic” it. Traditional microphones are not designed to pick up the wide range of frequencies that acoustic pianos produce. Thus, when you put a microphone into the piano, it immediately ruins the depth and clarity of your piano’s tone. Make sure you purchase an instrument that is big enough to naturally project all the way to the back of your sanctuary. …and keep in mind that it will have to cut through a choir and any other instruments you are using much like concert grands do at classical music concerts. If you can’t make this happen for any reason, you are much better off purchasing a hybrid piano or a good digital instrument and running it directly into your PA system. (…and before you send me hate mail on this one, know this: professional musicians like Elton John, Jim Brickman, Michael W. Smith, Chris Tomlin and Paul McCartney use acoustic pianos with digital implants on tour. The piano sound you are hearing comes from a chip – NOT a microphone. It’s a digital piano sound.)
- Parts began to fail almost immediately. In all honesty, this usually happens because the piano selection committee under bought and/or your worship instrument desperately needs replacement. If you are looking at a grand piano for under $10,000 or an upright piano for under $4000 US, you are probably considering an inadequate instrument. “Good Stewardship” isn’t about buying cheap, inadequate equipment. It’s about getting the best possible value on tools that will further your ministry. Low-grade pianos are often sold as cheaper alternatives to more expensive pianos, but they just don’t hold up in the demanding church environment. I’ve seen pianos fail in the first year! When you begin your piano search, focus on the pianos’ core construction. THAT is what you’re paying for and that is how you can determine a piano’s real value.
- It’s very hard to move. If you plan to move your piano around the building or if you move it every week, then you should consider a piano dolly. This will protect your piano’s leg joints and prevent expensive accidents down the road. That said, your piano should have high quality casters that are wide enough for you to easily re-position the instrument as needed. A piano with casters that won’t roll is not just an annoyance – it’s a danger to itself. If the casters lock up while you push, it’s easy to break a piano leg or leg joint right before service. …and you’d be surprised how often that happens.
Believe it or not, finding a good acoustic piano can be more complicated than finding a digital instrument. Each brand has its own recipe (or “scale design”) and much of the selection process comes down to personal preference. Just remember that basic things like brilliance and key touch are adjustable. The trick is finding the instrument with the construction features you want at a price that fits your budget.
How does your piano stack up? Does it give you the performance you need or are you secretly hoping the Lord will take it Home soon? If the noise your piano is making no longer qualifies as “joyful,” it might be time to upgrade. Here are a few “key” considerations for your next worship piano:
- Get the right size piano for your worship space. There is a reason that professional pianists almost always play on concert grand pianos. Bigger is often better (when considering instruments of comparable quality). Don’t sacrifice quality just to get a huge grand, but try to get the biggest high quality piano you can afford. Your goal should be to get rich, dynamic sound all the way to the back of your worship space without using a microphone or PA system.
- Focus on quality – not brand name. Too many people develop an irrational devotion to a single brand of instruments (in many cases because they are familiar with an old instrument from that manufacturer). You should operate under the assumption that every brand of piano built today has made at least a few significant changes since 2018. Judge church piano candidates by their construction and quality of materials – not by someone’s favorite brand name. Here are some “must have” features on a church piano:
- Solid Spruce Soundboard. (The best woods are Sitka and Bavarian White Spruce.)
- Fully-Notched Spruce Ribs. These support the soundboard’s shape and help transfer sound waves across the soundboard’s wood grain.
- All Wood Action. (I am sure I’ll get some flak for this one because some “piano mechanics” out there love the ABS composite parts (another term for “fancy plastic”) a few manufacturers are including in their piano actions. …but the truth is: ABS has been around in some form for a long time and most of the major manufacturers who have tried it have long since gone back to wood. Wood has its flaws, but it feels better to the performer… and since the rest of the piano is wood anyway… I recommend you stick with an all-wood action.
- Abel or Renner Hammers with T-Fasteners. These “medium hard” hammers are easy to adjust and maintain for a much longer period than their softer (or harder) competition. Most of the best pianos in the World use one of these two brands. The T-fasteners help maintain the hammer’s shape and provide counter-tension at the hammer’s shoulder for better “bounce” and tonal projection.
- Hard Maple Pin Block. Good quality pianos are made with multi-directional, hard-maple tuning pin blocks. These (combined with cut thread, premium steel tuning pins) cost a bit more, but keep the piano in tune much longer.
- Expanded or “Wide” Tail Design [Grand Piano Only]. The wider tail helps center the bass strings across the heart of the soundboard – giving the piano a HUGE boost in the lower register. It also gives a larger soundboard – improving the piano’s overall projection.
- Quarter-Sawn Wood Parts. We all know the best part of a watermelon is the heart, right? Well, just around the center of a tree is what we call the heartwood. This is THE best quality wood for keys, action frames and action components. It lasts longer and better resists environmental changes.
- Adjustable Artist Bench. A performance piano requires a performance bench. Make sure your instrument (grand or upright) comes with an adjustable artist bench so it can ideally suit all your church musicians.
- Double or Wide Casters. For both safety and convenience reasons, make sure your piano can be easily re-positioned as needed. This will really matter to you someday…
- Establish an adequate maintenance budget. No piano will survive long in a worship setting without regular maintenance. Work with your technician to develop a reasonable annual service budget for your piano. Plan to tune it at least once every three months and include some extra money for unexpected adjustments.
- Consider climate control solutions. Most professional venues have a small, climate-controlled “bedroom” for their performance instruments. This room is meticulously maintained at a constant temperature and humidity to prolong the life and the performance of their pianos. If this is not feasible for your church, do whatever you can to stabilize your piano’s environment.
- Look for the best value – not the best price. For the most part, the Piano Industry is a ”get what you pay for” industry. If you budget for a cheap baby grand, you’re going to get a poor-quality instrument that won’t last long in your space. If you buy a 20-year old used piano, you might save some money, but you’ll have to replace that piano much sooner and you may have to do more to it to get the performance you want. This is your primary worship instrument. It’s worth spending a bit more money to get a much better piano. …and don’t worry so much about the piano’s brand name. What matters is HOW a piano is made – not who made it.
- Build a relationship with your piano provider. I took this idea right out of “Chicken Soup for the Soul”and it’s great advice. Good piano dealers (like us) do a lot of homework to find pianos that represent the best value at different performance levels. They can be a source of tremendous insight and support throughout your piano selection process. Some dealers (like us) even offer turn-key fundraising programs to help you get the very best tool for your ministry. Find a dealer with a great reputation and an in-house service team who can work closely with you to select and service your worship piano. The right relationship can save you a lot of money later.
- Get the accessories you need. Unless you’re moving your piano around quite a bit, you probably don’t need a moving cover or piano dolly. Just get a good dust cover, a proper cleaning kit and an adjustable artist bench. Most pianos designed for institutions will have built-in locks.
Once you have considered these things, you’re ready to visit a piano store and play some pianos. This cannot be adequately accomplished online. If you’re going to spend the money for a nice acoustic worship instrument, you owe it to yourself to try the piano in person. It’s a good idea to take a piano technician with you or work through a dealership that has service technicians who can take the piano you’re considering apart and demonstrate its quality. Anyone can tell you their pianos are great. Make your dealer show you how their pianos are built to last in the challenging worship environment. …and don’t worry too much about where your piano is built. Acoustic piano brands have all changed in recent years and most pianos are built in China or Indonesia. That is not necessarily a bad thing either. The economy has been rough on piano manufacturers and they have all had to adjust to survive. Focus entirely on a piano’s construction and you’ll get the best instrument for your budget.
Now on to my recommendations…
If you’re considering a grand piano for your church, I can’t recommend the Baldwin BP-178 highly enough. It and its larger sibling (the BP-190) are truly IDEAL church pianos. In fact, I think you will be hard pressed to find any piano that can match their famous warmth and clarity – especially in this price range.
Like every other piano builder, Baldwin went through some hard times in the last couple of decades. Thankfully, they have found new life as part of the Nashville-based Gibson family of instruments. Under Gibson’s leadership, Baldwin re-hired several of the original Cincinnati factory team to help redesign and relaunch “America’s Favorite Piano.” The new instruments also rely on a global manufacturing concept, but most of their parts are sourced from the US and Germany with final assembly done in China’s low-cost labor market. The Baldwin design team now claims these new pianos are the finest Baldwin instruments made since the Cincinnati plant – and that is really saying something.
If you’re considering an upright piano, I recommend the Yamaha P22 – the most famous studio upright piano in the World.
The Yamaha P22 is ruggedly-made with tremendous clarity and warmth. Designed specifically for schools and churches, it is the ideal worship instrument for smaller spaces. It’s also perfect for rehearsal spaces and lesson rooms. That’s why you’ll find these pianos EVERYWHERE around the world.
Come to Riverton Piano Company and play one today. I’d love to see you!
It’s a joy and a blessing to speak with you all from time to time and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your questions and comments. You work a very hard job. If there is anything I can do to help you and your ministry, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Thanks for reading and God bless!