If you grew up the way I did, you probably heard someone in your household overuse the whole “right tool for the right job” cliché. Then – to your horror – you found yourself saying the same thing over the years. We’ve all been there. The fact is that there are some tools that work better in certain situations – even when it comes to pianos. While any piano can be used in a school, not every piano is ideally suited for the rigors of a school environment. In fact, some pianos are too small, too fragile or too limited to be appropriate classroom tools. …and since there isn’t much information on the internet about what makes a piano a “good school piano,” I thought I would focus on it here. More specifically, I’m going to bypass grand pianos and talk about the “school studio” piano – the upright piano most commonly found in classrooms around the world. I’ll cover what specific criteria make this piano ideal for the school environment and those criteria might be changing in the years ahead. Let’s get started!
You might be surprised to learn that Baldwin invented the first “school studio” piano in 1939. Called the “Baldwin Hamilton,” this piano was purpose-built to meet the needs of school music teachers, choirs, university practice rooms and other school music programs. These pianos quickly found homes in schools all over the world – which inspired other manufacturers like Yamaha and Kawai to create their own versions. Today, most piano makers have at least one model (and – in some cases two) designed specifically for use in schools. These “school studio” pianos all have similar features and specs… but – of course – each has a slightly different sound and touch due to their company of origin. Today, the most popular “school studio” pianos are the Yamaha P22, the Baldwin B-243 “Hamilton,” and – to a lesser degree – the Kawai ST-1. Other manufacturers (like Boston, Essex, Pearl River, Charles Walter, Samick, Knabe and more) also have “school studio” models, but they – for various reasons – have yet to gain the global traction Baldwin, Yamaha and Kawai have.
So what makes a piano a “good school piano?” Well, for one, they are generally made to be extremely durable. No school wants to buy new pianos every year so it’s important that they can withstand the heavy use (and sometimes abuse) of classroom life. Here are a few specific design characteristics that make these pianos particularly rugged:
- Toe Block Construction. This means that the front leg of the piano is connected to a “foot” at the bottom part of the cabinet. Having the leg connected at the top and bottom of the piano makes it very rigid and far less likely to break. Toe blocks are also sturdy enough to have larger casters installed under the front legs. With larger casters at the front and back of the piano, the instrument’s weight is more evenly distributed – making it much easier to roll around. Also, the casters on school pianos are usually double-wheeled and made of a hard rubber which helps them roll easier and more quietly down school hallways. This is a point for the piano’s longevity and for the longevity of the poor school employees (or students) who have to move the instrument from room to room!
- Robust Frame and Bracing. Looking at the back of a school piano, you will see the back posts are usually thicker, more numerous, and spaced differently than on home pianos. This enhanced frame rigidity helps the piano stay in tune longer – especially in environments where dramatic temperature and humidity changes are common.
- A Particular Height. School studio pianos are taller than most home pianos (45” to 48” tall), but not too tall. This gives them greater projection and tonal depth – a performance advantage that is especially helpful in larger rooms where space – and budget – are at a premium. …but it doesn’t it doesn’t impede the player’s ability to see over the top of the piano – much to the disappointment of the less earnest students. In cases where “seeing over the piano” isn’t a concern (practice rooms, university teaching studios, etc.), some school pianos can go up to (but not over) 52” tall. These pianos have a more “grand piano” like sound in cases where a grand piano isn’t feasible. In addition to Baldwin’s B-243 “Hamilton” Studio (47” tall), Baldwin offers a very popular taller school piano – the BP-5 (49” tall) and a powerful model B-252 (52” tall).
- Full-Size “Direct Blow” Action. Unlike some home pianos (spinets and decorator consoles mostly), school pianos have full-sized “Direct Blow” actions. Smaller pianos usually contain smaller action parts so everything can fit into the cabinet. A quick way to check this is to get out a dollar bill and line it up against the back of the key. A full-size piano key should run to the end of the ink on a dollar bill. If not, the keys are too short for school use. Also, many spinet pianos have a sluggish “Drop” action design. This is because they are too short for the hammers to be positioned above the keys. In spinet pianos, the hammers and keys are parallel and a variety of mechanisms are included to operate the key action. These mechanisms slow the action down considerably – making spinet pianos undesirable for professional players, teachers and students who want to learn “proper” playing technique. A full-size “Direct Blow” action allows for greater precision and expression. This is why so many schools require these features.
- Locking Lid and Key Cover. For some reason, students love to put things inside pianos – sometimes accidentally. To protect the action mechanism inside, many schools choose to lock their pianos’ lids and key covers (or “fallboards”). This protects the piano interior and limits access to the instruments’ inner workings.
Although it’s not a feature associated with the piano’s longevity, one of the most important (some would say “iconic”) features of the school studio is its full-width music rest. In school settings, it’s not uncommon to have large scores spread across your piano – or even several music books open at the same time. With home pianos, your music sits on a narrow shelf (usually less than two feet wide), but with school pianos, you have up to five feet of space for your music!
The Truth About School Studio Pianos
Whether we like it or not, there is one fact that stands out about the role School Studio Pianos will play in the years ahead – it is diminishing. Some modern digital pianos (like the Roland HP-704 and the Yamaha CLP-745) have grand piano performance features that make them more versatile and “grand piano like” when compared to traditional school studio pianos. In cases where space and budget are a concern, many schools are selecting high quality digital pianos to replace their aging school studio pianos because they are less expensive to purchase and they don’t require any of the tuning or maintenance their acoustic cousins do. Universities and teaching studios are moving towards hybrid pianos (like the Yamaha NU1X or the Yamaha N1X) instead of traditional acoustic pianos. These instruments have the exact same action parts as acoustic pianos and, thus, offer a very satisfying sound and touch in very limited space – also with no tuning required. Finally, new learning apps and software have made hybrid pianos and digital pianos more attractive to modern learners because they interface with tablets and smart phones to provide a more interactive learning experience. Students learn faster and have more fun than they could with a traditional acoustic piano.
For over 80 years, the school studio piano has been a staple in music departments, teaching studios, churches and schools all over the world, but that may be changing as modern learners migrate towards technology-infused instruments. …but – as long as students are spending time learning to play – this is a good thing! For over 300 years, the piano industry has ebbed and flowed. It’s no surprise that it – like every other industry – is changing more rapidly now. Only dead things don’t change!
So, in conclusion, school studio pianos are the most durable, best sounding acoustic upright pianos you can buy. They are built with function in mind over styling – so they may not be as ornate or stylish – but they meet a vital need in schools all over the world. That doesn’t mean that a school studio piano is ideal for your school or church, however. In fact, with all the options out there, it’s a good idea to link arms with your local piano store and look at all your options before you decide on an instrument. The extra day or two it will take might bring rewards for decades to come. …and the best part is – getting a piano education from Riverton Piano Company is FREE! Contact us today and let us help you find the perfect instrument for your practice or performance space.