V IS FOR VERTICAL
Vertical pianos, also known as upright pianos, are an exceptional alternative to the grand piano, and can be a viable, even preferable, equivalent when size and cost are major considerations.
The vertical piano has its own set of features that have been developed since its invention in the early 19th century. Unlike the double escapement action of a grand piano, an upright piano's action is determined by a complex mechanical process whereby a hammer strikes a string and, through the use of springs and levers, is returned to its neutral position.
The orientation of a vertical piano's strings is—as the names suggests—vertical, requiring that the hammer strike in a horizontal direction, ruling out gravity as an assisting factor in its return.
Like grand pianos, there are a variety of sizes of vertical pianos. The smallest vertical piano, the spinet piano, is exceptionally small, and even requires a modified "drop action" in order for the hammers to strike the strings. The larger vertical pianos are known as upright pianos, and can reach heights of 52 inches or more.
Originally designed as a space-saving and cost effective alternative to other piano types, the popularity of the spinet was unmatched in the early to mid-20th century. Measuring only about 36 inches tall, the action of a spinet must be adjusted so the keys aren't too low to be effectively played. This "drop action" makes use of rods and levers to engage the action, which itself sits lower than the keyboard. In this way, the hammers and keys sit at about the same height. The reduced size of spinet pianos makes them ideal starter pianos.
Console pianos measure between 39 and 44 inches tall, making them slightly larger than spinet pianos. The action of a console piano is similar to that of larger vertical pianos, with only a modification to the length of the hammers, making them shorter and more compact. Console pianos have become popular recently, due to their small size and cost, while maintaining the high quality action of larger vertical pianos.
The larger studio pianos, between 45 and 47 inches tall, have the added advantage of a larger soundboard. Though situated vertically, these pianos can begin to rival the sounds of small grand pianos. The added space also allows for full size hammers, which considerably changes the feel of a studio piano. Studio pianos are frequently found in churches and schools, though many private buyers enjoy a small piano with a big sound.
A professional vertical piano, measuring between 47 and 52 inches tall, is the tallest vertical piano currently made. The sound quality of professional vertical pianos is most comparable to that of grand pianos. The large soundboard and long strings of the professional vertical piano make this choice the obvious choice for professionals and high level students who are otherwise unable to afford or house a grand piano.
In some cases, a high-end professional vertical piano with a responsive action will outperform a grand piano of questionable pedigree or quality.
While the terms upright and vertical are frequently used interchangeably, true upright pianos are large, between 52 and 60 inches tall. Though vertical pianos of this size are no longer made, they are still available used. These pianos possess excellent sound quality, provided they have been adequately maintained, due to their long strings and soundboards. Finding a quality upright is difficult, as many were made in the early 20th century.
The small size of a vertical piano's soundboard is a compromise. No grand piano will fit in 36 inches of vertical space and measure 30 inches deep, whereas a spinet piano will do just that.
There are a few vertical pianos that can rival the quality of some grand pianos. Perzina, for instance, with it's 'floating' soundboard and reverse soundboard crown, sound quite nice with more resonance and a deeper bass.
Apart from the rare examples, a high quality vertical piano will never compare to a high quality grand piano. However, a high quality vertical piano will cost half as much as a mid-grade grand piano, and the price will pale in comparison to the cost of a high-end grand piano.
The action of a vertical piano is exceptionally clever, making the maximum use out of limited space. The ability of a vertical piano to return a key to its neutral position is a mechanical marvel, requiring the use of additional springs and levers to account for not being able to rely on gravity.
This added mechanical complexity comes at the cost of being unable to play notes as rapidly as on a grand piano. Fortunately, this level of technique is only demanded at the highest levels of performance.
Grand pianos typically have longer keys than vertical pianos, which pushes the fulcrum away from the back of the visible keyboard. The complex relationship between key length and overall touch encourages much debate, with some technicians claiming that the recessed fulcrum makes the force required to depress the key more consistent along the length of the exposed key.
Vertical pianos, with their shorter keys, would then not benefit from this consistency. Other technicians disagree, saying the distance the key is depressed decreases as the player gets closer to the back of the keyboard, making up for the increased force required. Personal preference seems to prevail here.
Vertical pianos make use of the same strings as grand pianos: tempered high-carbon, coiled-steel strings. The difference is in their length. Even the tallest vertical pianos cannot match the length of strings in a 9 foot concert grand piano. However, length is not the only factor that goes into determining pitch and quality. Mass per inch, or rather, thickness, can be just as important. The exact ratios vary from piano to piano, resulting in a wide array of sound qualities between different manufacturers.
Easily the most noticeable thing about a vertical piano, hence the name, is the vertical orientation of the soundboard. This arrangement allows vertical pianos to scale up in size without demanding additional floor space, as would a grand piano.
A significant upgrade in quality for a vertical piano requires much less space than a comparable upgrade for a grand piano. The difference in required floor space between a spinet piano and a professional vertical piano is much less than the difference between a petite grand piano and a concert grand piano. For this reason, many students begin with a smaller vertical piano, and gradually upgrade as they improve.
There are a number of reasons vertical pianos compare favorably with grand pianos. The initial investment required to purchase a decent vertical piano is significantly less than purchasing a similar quality grand piano. Parents of new students should be especially aware of this difference in price.
Luckily, it is absolutely possible for a great vertical piano to sound just as good as a grand piano. Thus, a student can continue to play the vertical piano for years before technique and musical development warrant the purchase (or rental) of a grand piano.
The space-saving nature of vertical pianos is easily their most attractive feature, making them available to musicians in any living situation. This also makes them much easier to move. Instead of disassembling the legs and transporting the piano on its side, putting additional stress on the frame, a vertical piano is easily lifted onto a dolly and moved.
On which piano was "Tiny Dancer" composed? (Bonus points if you know the composers' names?) Stumped? Click here for the answer.