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Is the Acoustic Piano Culture at Risk?

I’m worried. I drove over to Fresno Piano on Ashlan this afternoon after my return from the Bay area. With an instant camera tucked in my pocket, I would prove my point that acoustic pianos were on their way out and digitals were fast taking over the marketplace. Even before I reached my destination, I received bad news. Our Music Teachers Association President shot off an email that the store had announced its imminent closing. Mark down sales were around the corner.

Despite a shell-shocking article in California Magazine that described Fresno as “a no man’s land with endless miles of strip malls,” the local piano dealership seemed to stand apart as a repository of Steinway grand pianos and high culture. It always enjoyed a loyal following of buyers and had a nice stock of pianos that included a cadre of Baldwin grands filling a large share of its 5000 sq. feet space.

In the late 1990’s the Baldwin company had made a comeback with its “R” series of artist grands and I happened to pick up one of these at a ranch in Clovis for the steal price of $4,500. (Valued on the retail market at 17 to 20K at the time)

Imagine my stepping over horse dung to get within reach of this precious French provincial style beauty.

Fresno Piano was clearly more accessible to most piano buyers, and it seemed to be growing by leaps and bounds. In fact, it acquired the Steinway dealership after Sherman Clay left Fresno, and it even added a Steinway parlor within its space that was decorated by eye-catching paintings of Rachmaninoff, Paderewski and Vladimir Horowitz.

One of these parlor housed grands had been hand-picked at the Steinway factory in Long Island by a team from Fresno Piano that also included the conductor of the Philharmonic, its Executive Director, and a concert pianist from the East Coast. The glittery event was covered coast to coast by Fresno Magazine.

The piano selected, a 9 foot Model D, was purchased for about 105K and became the Philharmonic’s official, NEW piano, replacing the old one that had been ill-maintained for most of its playing life. The lazy, sticking notes, poorly voiced registrations, and lack of overall regulation, had irritated Jeremy Menuhin, in particular, who publicly apologized for his performance of a Mozart concerto before he sat down to play. It evoked memories of Leonard Bernstein doing the same to Glenn Gould when the conductor dissociated himself from the pianist’s unorthodox performance of the Brahms Concerto in D minor back in the 1960s.

Those were the days when the PIANO reigned, and not a digital could remotely compete with the King of instruments.

Now well into the Millennium, Craig’s List featured fewer ads for acoustic pianos, and had a laundry list of clunker uprights for quick sale. The battery powered, or plug in keyboards took up the most space and were picking up steam.

My trip to Fresno Piano verified this consumer turnaround.

Greeted by the “Yamaha DGB I with Disklavier Mark iii, I thought to myself, “Was this a launching pad for another unmanned satellite?” A handsome piece of hardware with every computer generated option known to mankind stood on a raised podium giving it a sense of entitlement. I could easily sit down at this thing and have a full orchestra accompany me while I plunked out a simple right hand melody. No last wish was unfulfilled in sound space. Whatever I imagined as my ideal orchestration was at my fingertip command. Hours, days, months, years of instant musically generated gratification awaited me and millions of others with lesser performance skills and musical background.

The technology based run-down in part, was impressive: “16-note polyphonic Pedals Sustain; amp; shift: Trapwork-integrated solenoids; incremental response Data; Storage Internal Memory 1 MB x 16 flptical sensors Drive System Keys High-power, high-efficiash memory disks (16M B total); up to 9 groups and 99 program sets; built-in calendar/clock/timer File Format Standard MIDI File (format 0
, format 1)/E-SEQ Removable Media Floppy Disk 3.5 2DD (720 KB) or 2HD (1.44 MB) floppy disk Control Unit Main Display Song number plus 24-character x 2-line LCD Function Indicators LEDs Drives Floppy disk Switches Power,woofer x 2,2.5 cm (1) tweeter x 2 Connectors MIDI In/Out, AUX In/Out (R, L/Mono) x 2, To Host (serial port), Foot Controller Ensemble Tone Type Advanced Wave Memory 2 (AWM2) Polyphony 32-note max. Ensemble Parts 16 Voice Module Modes XG,…”

This piece of hardware, while impressive, was by no means as striking as the Roland that was off to the side.

A musical turbo, it definitely grabbed the lion’s share of attention when customers entered the store. Okay, so the gist of this particular piece of space technology, I mean entertainment center, I mean simulated piano… do I have it right? — was to make it easy for a user to have a nice playing experience without much challenge to his or her technical/musical skills. All good and well. Endless hours of listening and playing pleasure was of no harm. But what about the stock of acoustic pianos at the Fresno Ashlan location? I was curious about the sales report for the past year.

Hans Oviedo, sales rep, spoke candidly with me. “We sell about 50/50, but the digitals are fast moving ahead these days.” Another salesperson put another spin on it. The pricey technology was not moving, he said, and it couldn’t offset the losses associated with acoustic piano sales.

Certainly, the Steinway pianos in the parlor were fixtures for too many years. I didn’t see any sign of an overturn. In fact, I played the same M, O, and A models for month after month.

My preference was a model B that wasn’t the centerpiece of the parlor area. It stood off in a corner without much fanfare. The Philharmonic’s Steinway D, grabbed all the attention, being roped off on display between concerts.

If I hadn’t been over-saturated with digital hardware mania during my visit, there was still another enclosed area in the “piano?” store that I hadn’t yet investigated. It was a small room that housed the CVP09 with a big computer screen.

An Internet blurb produced the following. “Introducing Yamaha CVP509: Musical notation and text are clearly displayed on a large screen that not only shows the musical notation, but it can display lyrics, chords and text files made on a PC via simple operations.”

Wow! Very nifty. I soon found myself singing along and toe-tapping my away across the room to the tune of “California Dreamin’,” or something resembling that title? I had meant to jot down the name of the jazzy tidbit but I was too distracted by the dancing notes, having a blast of a time in this “video arcade”? But wait a minute? Where exactly was I?

Was this the Fresno Piano store where I used to bring students to try out real pianos over the years? This same establishment hosted the Music Teacher’s Association meetings each month, and many of our students would have the opportunity to perform onstage in the beautiful, chandelier decorated space, running their fingers over a magnificent Steinway grand.

The good news was that the space age merchandise had not yet made it to the recital hall, though on one occasion a Clavinova sat beside the grand because someone forgot to move it back to the main floor.

The Clavinovas were big sellers over at Fresno Piano, because students at the music school within the store purchased them after having had several months of group classes.

I panned around the establishment with my camera and verified that the place was permeated with digitals. Fresno Piano’s going out of business declaration was the hand-writing on the wall. The acoustic piano was at this historic moment in time dying on the vine. (Three other dealerships in the Central Valley had bitten the dust in the past two years)

To me, everything was still about the economy stupid. The creeping recession had knocked sales down in virtually all areas of the marketplace and while pianos were temporarily losing their appeal among buyers, there was still a heaven sent niche market: Buyers who had cultivated tastes in finer musical instruments would purchase pianos. And Steinways would still be sold to universities conservatories, and orchestras around the world.

Nonetheless, if real books were being replaced with Internet generated E books, it was no surprise that acoustic pianos were taking a back seat to the space age technology — at least for the time being.

One problem would still remain: price tags on the Disclavier and Roland were far too inflationary at 14 to 15K to lure interested, pie in the sky consumers.

The more low budget electronic pianos, easily transported and put on a music stand, saved space, and didn’t need tunings. Many of my students and friends had gone that route in the face of the depressed economy.

So enter Guitar Center as the next takeover store in the wake of Fresno Piano’s demise. Every man’s instrument haven, perhaps?

If you wanted to go Casio PX120 or 130, you could probably cut a deal for $425 to $450. Not bad, but these digital keyboards wouldn’t give you a big orchestra to cushion a few modest treble-based melodies. Besides they were tinning out, and had wobbly, blubbering keys–plus no notes bouncing on a computer screen to shoot down with a BB gun when you became frustrated with the sounds coming from your portable.

In summary, I can only hope that in the not too distant future, there will be a resurrection of acoustic pianos in the good company of digitals. Maybe by Easter, 2012, a miracle will happen and we can celebrate by singing the “Allelujia” Chorus from the Messiah.