Are “free” pianos really free, and are they OK to learn on?

Are those “free” pianos that are offered to you really free, and are they usually OK instruments to learn on?  That’s the questions I’d like to address in this segment.


The answer to both is typically “no”, however, there are always exceptions.  First let’s look at why those seemingly good bargains, those too good to pass up offers are sometimes just not worth it.


Free pianos are not always free!


So, you’re considering getting that free piano to fix up…or maybe you just got that free piano anyway and want to fix it up because you know that your child needs a good piano to practice on.  Well, in short, unless you really get lucky and receive a piano that is not terribly old and is still in good shape, that “free” piano might likely wind up costing quite a bit of money by the time all is said and done.  I’d recommend instead, save up the money that you would be using towards pitch-raises, repairs, rebuilding, regulation work, and put it toward a piano that does not needs as much of that at this stage of it’s life.  Yes, all pianos need those things from time to time, but older pianos usually need much more work done on them than younger pianos usually do.


Think you’re getting a great deal?  You might be….great deals are out there, I’ve seen them.  On rare occasions I’ve found myself commenting to a client on the good shape their piano is in, only to hear from them, with a great big smile on their face, that they got the piano for free.  Really?  It does happen, however, that is usually the exception…not the rule.

Many times I’ve had to tell a customer (after they’ve spent hundreds of dollars to move an old upright piano to their home, up a flight of stairs, down a hallway, around the corner…well you get the picture…) that this old piano that had been graciously given to them for free was virtually beyond repair, (at least as was practical or feasible for them).  I always feel terrible for them since I know that not only were their hopes of getting a great deal dashed, but so was any thought they may have entertained of saving money!

My goal here is not to knock free pianos or make anyone feel bad for having taken one home, but my goal is really to try and prevent someone from going through the frustration and letdown of going through all the work and effort of moving a piano only to be told it has no real value left in it. 

To be quite honest, I’m a bit baffled, but also kind of chuckle at the thought of just how many free pianos get passed around, like the unwanted Christmas fruitcake!  It’s interesting to me how someone who would never consider accepting a free car that was on its last leg would say “yes” to a free piano with the same type issues.  Why, I’m not really sure, although I have some ideas about it.

I don’t have any numbers to back this up, so this is just my speculation, but something I find interesting is that millions of cars have been produced worldwide, and millions of pianos have been produced world wide, we see junkyards for cars all over the place, but I’ve never seen a piano junkyard.  Per million produced, in comparison, I would bet that a much higher percentage of cars get ditched after they wear out than pianos.  There are lots of reasons for this, and that could spark a whole other discussion, but I think the point here is that people, for whatever reason, just hold on to pianos as long as humanly possible.

I’m sure much of it is because people seem to bond with their pianos like it’s another member of the family.  This makes sense if you stop to think about how the music that comes from a piano moves our spirit, unlike ordinary furniture in the room.  It seems to sing to us, speak to us, it stirs us emotionally….so we become emotionally attached…therefore, we cannot bear to see it go to the landfill, even when we know that it’s at the end of it’s life and that”s exactly where it needs to go.

With that said, that brings up another issue, where to take it…how to get rid of it when it does die?  So…rather than facing the music (no pun intended), we send the old piano down the road for someone else to babysit for a few years.

Let’s go back to the free car analogy for a moment. We all know that there are a lot of free, or cheap, cars floating around out there that you, or I, wouldn’t dare take ownership of, for any reason…even as a gift….because we know that if it’s free…it probably has some issues that are gonna cost….big time!  It may need new brakes, a new motor, it may have leaking oil issues, it may have a rusted out frame, it likely needs new tires, the radio may not work, etc, etc, etc… know the ones.  You may have one of them.  I guess there’s nothing wrong with an older car if it gets you from one place to another without breaking down or costing too much money, but by the same token, I’d never purchase an old Ford Model T to commute down the highway to work. Forget for a moment it’s historical value and just consider it’s function.  It may get me from place to place, it may have been cheap to purchase from a junk yard, it probably will take some money to get it at least running, but it will never perform like the rest of the cars on the highway.  It was great for it’s day, but it’s day is gone.  Similarly, an older piano that can’t be sold, but is usually given away may need similar things done to it. It could have a bad pin block (loose tuning pins), a cracked bridge, loose glue joints, broken and misaligned parts, mice chewed and/or stained wood, felt, and rusty strings.  A piano with one of these issues may indeed be a candidate for fixing up, but often times an older piano may have all these problems and is just too costly to repair.  In addition, an old piano, like the Model T, even fixed up sometimes has a difficult time comparing to a modern piano in sound, tone, and function.

My point is, most times that things are given away for free, there is a good reason….it’s too costly to own, impractical, low quality, or whatever…or they’d keep it themselves.

I’m not saying that all free pianos are bad news.  Not at all.  If you wanted to give me a free Steinway B in perfect shape, very well…I accept!  Probably not going to happen, though! Why, because it still has a lot of value, both musically and monetarily.  Most free pianos have very little value left of their own without putting something in to them to bring back some of their value.  Most pianos, can be reconditioned or rebuilt, for the right price, but just like a “totaled” car…even though it might be brought back to working order in the hands of an expert rebuilder…new doors, new motor, new frame, new tires, new this, new that….the next thing you know you have spent near what a good used or new car costs…but you still have an old car with new parts.  Pianos work a lot the same way.  Once they’re “totaled” you can put money into them, at your own risk…many pianos have been saved from “the heap” that way, and many pianos have gone on to lead useful lives for many more years.  My hats off to the many piano rebuilders who do just that every day of their lives.  We owe a lot to them.

Again, I am NOT saying that old pianos should not ever be rebuilt, not one bit.  I am NOT saying that you are not wise by putting money into an old piano.  You have every right to do what you would like.  The CAUTION is to consider these things before accepting that “free” piano, and then being disappointed when you realize what you’ve inherited, and that once you fix it up, you quite possibly won’t get that price back out of it if you decide to sell it.


What I AM saying, is that basically, you’re not going to get something for nothing.  Don’t expect to take on a free piano and “only have it tuned”.  It’s probably not going to happen.  If you are going to accept that free piano, it would be a good idea to know what you’re getting into so that you don’t have that shocked look on your face when I have to give you the bad news!   Accepting that free piano sounds so tempting, but take some simple advice and do your homework before you do.


Free pianos are not always the best to learn on!
I am often surprised when I hear a parent reason that they “are getting a piano for free, even though it’s in pretty rough shape, to see if my child will like it and stick with it before investing any money into a better piano.  After all, they aren’t practicing to play at Carnegie Hall, or anything like that, so it really doesn’t matter.”  I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this. Really though, what kind of reasoning is that?  I understand not wanting to spend money on something the child may give up in a year or two, but the way I see it, you are setting him up to fail.
Certainly, if your first experience with an instrument is a run-down, shoddy instrument that barely plays, the chances of you falling in love with the music it produces (or doesn’t) is slim to none!  While it is a risk you take to get a decent piano and keep it maintained, that investment will likely pay off in the long run…and if it doesn’t, you still have a nice piano that has value that can be sold if you need to.
This goes for adults too.  Anyone learning to play the piano needs a good, decent, well tuned and regulated piano from which to learn on.  “Why.” you ask? Because your ear is being trained to hear differences in sounds and pitch, as well as the differences in expressions.  If the piano is not tuned and voiced well, you will begin to recognize pitches incorrectly, the piano may not respond to your loud or soft playing correctly, and you could learn improper finger techniques as you attempt to compensate for poor, uneven touch, loose and wobbling keys, and such. We seem to think that younger students won’t notice, or that they at least won’t mind, but the fact is that they do notice.  Every time they go to their piano lesson play on their teacher’s well maintained piano (we hope), they are reminded when they get home that their piano for some reason doesn’t sound or feel like their teacher’s piano.  It is for this reason, many times whether the student knows exactly why or not, that many potentially great pianists have given up at a young age.
What makes things worse, I feel, is when the parents are not musically inclined (not THAT they are not musical, but because they are not musical).  When the parents don’t have an ear for music, or are not pianists themselves, it makes it much easier for them to justify starting out with a less than stellar instrument, because they honestly don’t know the difference.  So reasoning with them about how really important it is for the student can sometimes be more difficult.

Here’s how I see trying to get little Johnny or Suzie to learn to play on an old clunker.  Think about this…would you WANT to learn to play golf, and would you learn to play WELL, on a set of hand-me-down clubs that had all the club faces all nicked up, where the wood clubs were dried and split, where the handle grip tape was all gummy and falling off, some of the clubs had bent shanks, and all your golf balls had deep cuts in them from years of use.  Absolutely not.  Granted, we usually cannot afford the best set money can buy, just like everybody can’t go out and get a Steinway & Sons grand piano to learn on, but at the same time, I would never try to learn golf on a set of clubs that I’ve described, nor would I try to learn or practice piano on a very poor piano.  It may have been good in its time, but time and wear have rendered them near useless.


Today’s post was not about bashing old pianos given for free.  As I said before, there are many of them out there still making plenty of great music.  My hope is that armed with this knowledge, you will be prepared to either say “no” to that offer and make plans to search out a decent piano to learn on, or that if you say “yes” to that free offer, that you will be either prepared to spend some money fixing it up properly, or you will be prepared for take your technician’s recommendations, whatever that may be.


Until next time…..make a joyful noise!

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