Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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But what do you do if, like my friend Alexandra, your child is learning, and needs something more than an electronic keyboard to play on? "I know nothing about pianos!" she wails. Yes, but she has a car and knows nothing about those, either. And while, at first glance, Planet Piano might seem a very esoteric place, it is quite similar in many ways to the motoring world.

The price structure is the same, for a start. For example, you may be able to pick up the piano version of an old banger for around £50, or have one given to you by an aged relative. As with an ancient automobile, whether it will be any good or not is a lottery. It may be wonderful, especially if it has belonged to a piano teacher (who tend to be the classic-car owners of the music world). It may be crap.

Spend a bit more - around £500-£1,000, say - and the chances of getting something decent increase proportionately, especially if you want an upright. Go to a reputable piano dealer, pay a lot more - £10,000 - and you'll get a really good grand piano. As with cars, it may well be something reliable and Japanese - probably a Yamaha. They're tough, and much more practical for a house with central heating than a vintage piano.

Then there's the Maserati bracket, which, in the piano world, also features an Italian marque: Fazioli. A brand-new Fazioli concert grand will set you back around £80,000, and playing it is a bit like test-driving a Ferrari when you've been used to a Ford Focus. (There's only one UK supplier, and that's Jaques Samuel at Marble Arch.)

Pianos even have serial numbers, just like car chassis numbers, which means you can check the exact age of that ancient Broadwood grand that your neighbour's great-aunt is chucking out. (You can do this on www.pianos.co.uk, which also lists private sellers and dealers nationwide.)

The reason that most people acquire a piano these days is, like Alexandra, because their children are learning to play. But here, the car analogy grinds to a halt. When your children learn to drive, you buy them an old banger. When your children are learning an instrument, get them the best you can afford.

If you don't have a great-aunt with a grand piano, and haven't got a couple of grand to spare, what do you do? Well, you could hire a piano, a sensible option if you're not sure you're going to stay in your current home for long. If you live in London, Markson Pianos, in Albany Street near Regent's Park, do rentals and have a scheme whereby you can buy a "starter" piano, at around £500, with the option to part-exchange it if you want to trade up, just like a car.

The most important thing, however, is to test-drive a few pianos, and a sensible dealer will have no objection to this. You may think your world isn't complete without a baby grand in the corner, only to find that you fall in love with something completely different once you hear it being played.

After you've found your piano, all you have to do is keep it regularly serviced - that is, have it tuned twice a year (older pianos may need more). Don't listen to anyone who says that their piano never seems to need tuning - they're probably tone deaf. It is also a good idea to keep the piano as far away from any radiators as possible.

Console yourself with this thought. Buy your piano from a company such as Markson Pianos, and it will install the instrument in your home, using experienced staff who know one end of a concert grand from another. How are you going to get your great-aunt's piano home? On the roof-rack? Kerrang! I don't think so.

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