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More and more “piano” students are going Digital. Is it a good idea?

It’s sad but true that a glut of former piano buyers who would have considered piano lessons for their children at age 7 or so, have made the choice to invest in a DIGITAL. (known as a DP)

Of further testimony to the culture’s relatively new fixation on electronic piano technology, are the 35,000 plus You Tube hits my DP overview has amassed, compared to a mainstream “acoustic” offering that snagged the spotlight because of my bench potato CAT.

The CAT and Chopin

Considering the above, which musical purveyance is more pleasing?

I’d say hands down that Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” (below) would be better rendered on an acoustic than a Roland, etc. based on tone dimension and timbre alone. The “feel” of a real piano, also cannot be compared to any so-called mimicked “hammer-weighted” electronic keyboard, though many buyers have tried to trick their hands, not to mention EARS into believing so.

“Fur Elise” rendered on a Steinway (Compare to Roland/Yamaha samples)

So having voiced my bias against digitals, why would I have invested hours of time scoping them out at Guitar Center and Best Buy? No less, bringing a video camera along for the ride? (thanks to Guitar Center’s CEO, Jeremy Cole for the written permission, and to Matthew Wheeler at BB)

Well, reality is, that the purchasing trend is in this direction, and if I tabulated all the inquiries fielded for an opinion on which one to buy, it would stagger the reader’s imagination.

It’s a fact that shoppers are flocking to acquire DPs at every opportunity and they haven’t stopped for a moment to think of what they are sacrificing in this fever-driven pursuit.

***

Elaine Comparone, a well-known New York City-based concert performer injected a bit of social commentary about the wave of DP buying. It was after I had bemoaned the number of parents contacting me for piano lessons who had electronic keyboards. Some of their prize musical possessions amounted to 61, bell and whistle sounds, with a few “belches” thrown in for special effect.

Elaine’s thoughts were riveting:

“I think a lot of this is economic along with the pervasive effect of pop culture. Which of these kids, or parents for that matter, have ever seen or heard a real instrument on TV or live? Real music study has become a pastime for the wealthy elites where years ago it was a sine qua non of immigrant working class culture. But it behooves us to hang in there and pass along genuine musical values, which can exist in myriad musical forms. Blah blah…..”

I added to the mix that “real” pianos sold at dealerships were beyond the financial means of the average instrument buyer, though, ironically, struggling consumers might in a flash, slap down a credit card for a $4100 Roland equipped with EVERYTHING, like a snazzy new car with all imaginable options.

Try this DP out for size:

One Facebook correspondent owned a 9-foot Steinway grand, but had the luxury to invest in a pricey Digital console that would yield hours of pleasure with its fancy accouterments.

Initially plagued by making a choice between a LX10 Roland at $4,100 and a $2900 Yamaha CLP 440, she was biased toward the Roland based on its “accelerated action and weighted keys from bass to treble unlike the Yamaha.”

It could also simulate the so-called Steinway grand piano sound with a simple finger tap.

Other consumers, of more modest means, might have gone the less expensive route buying a portable or more modestly priced console like the Yamaha Arius going for about $1100 plus tax.

Still, when it came right down to it, teaching piano to a child or adult equipped with a “hammer-weighted” digital wouldn’t be same as working with an acoustic.

I Skyped a few piano lessons to rural Pennsylvania, where a DP flashed up on the screen. In time, after the first virtually transmitted instruction, it was tossed in favor of a twangy Haddorff 1941 console. To call the latter a saloon piano would have been an understatement, though its “feel” and “resonance” appealed to the owner.

I could relate.

The decay rate of any note on this “real” piano was astounding. It reverbed to the heavens despite its shortcomings attached to a poor maintenance history.

By coincidence, I had purchased my treasured Haddorff 1951, advertised on Craig’s List for $700, and it played circles around any digital in the tone and timbre department. (Though I will admit that its tuning needs were frequent, compared to tune-free electronic instruments)

Nonetheless, the above example alone, proves to me, that there are many worthy used pianos waiting to be purchased, and like mine, they may be located around the corner.

I’ve helped any number of students acquire pianos before the digital rage took hold and these purchases included Baldwin Acrosonics and Wurlitzers from the 50s, 60s and 70s era.

Just a decade ago most parents who contacted me for lessons had one of these acoustic pianos in their home. Today, the majority own a Casio, Yamaha, or a lesser known DP, and they have no idea that embarking upon instruction might require the real deal as far as some piano instructors are concerned. (myself included, though I’ve made adjustments for students who have little or no space for even a console or spinet piano)

***

But for piano study to be meaningful, it entails properly teaching the singing tone, touch, phrasing, nuance, “feel” which means a student needs to practice on a functional acoustic piano– one without sticking notes, missing notes or blanks, etc. In addition, the instrument needs to have tuning viability. (an able technician can examine the tuning pins, hammers, strings, etc. before a particular piano is acquired)

Many DP owners boast the critical lack of need and cost associated with tuning or regulation. (not to mention having climate-free concerns ) While these may be definite advantages, the trade-off in other areas of assessment is, in my opinion, not worth it. And I’m not talking about the hours of recreation and pleasure afforded by DPs. That’s FUN and great. My concern surrounds TEACHING and passing on a traditional legacy that has been time-honored for generations. (and that goes for mentoring “beginners.” There’s no reason for the training-wheels equivalent of a digital as predecessor to a real piano) One piano teacher’s website, for example, shows a row of 3-year olds wearing over-sized ear phones, hooked up to computer screens and attached digitals. She claims they are Mozarts in-the-making.

I’ve heard that song sung so often, that it’s become a dissonant reminder of the status quo.

But to inject some humor into this posting,

Evgeni Bozhanov, a distinguished Bulgarian pianist who competed in the last Cliburn International Piano Competition, was quoted as being unhappy with the complimentary Steinway grand donated to his host family in Fort Worth Texas as he prepared for his first-round musical appearance.

Pictured at a Yamaha Clavinova practicing a warhorse Rachmaninoff piano concerto, he was the poster boy for musical sobriety, shrugging off the arrogance of effete snob pianists who might discredit him. (Would that happen to be me?)

So on this disturbingly confusing note, I’ll conclude by sharing my voiced fears about the survival of the acoustic piano culture as channeled in a previous blog.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/is-the-piano-a-dying-breed/

RELATED:

My “new” old 1929 Baldwin grand–a tribute to a seasoned used piano. For me, no digital can come close to it.

***
Footnote to item about Evgeni Bozhanov, from Wilson Pruitt who blogged about the last Van Cliburn Piano Competition

http://varropieces.blogspot.com/2009/06/bozhanov.html

“Things we know about Bozhanov: … He doesn’t like Steinways, especially American-made Steinways, and definitely not the brand-new New York grand that was delivered to his host family’s house so he could practice. Instead, his host family bought a Yamaha Clavinova electronic piano for him to use for practice (while in Texas) … He travels with his own piano bench.” (which looks like one of those DP jobs)

"How could this happen to my piano?" by Shirley Kirsten, Baldwin Hamilton 1929 grand piano, Baldwin piano, buying a used piano, pianist, piano, piano buyer, piano seller, playing piano, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Steinway M grand, The Piano Book by Larry Fine, word press, word press.com, wordpress, wordpress.com, you tube, you tube video

My blind date with a “new” piano–

I’m meeting a 5’2 Baldwin Hamilton in El Cerrito today, Sunday, and I’ll videotape the introduction for posting on You Tube.

This is the piano that had a verboten phone interview with a follow-up long distance tech eval. Good report, but the verdict is still in my hands when I run my fingers over its keyboard. Good looks do not guarantee beneath the polished surface character. (Sound familiar?)

Frankly, the finish is low on my list of priorities. For others, who demand drop dead exteriors, the preference might spell disaster, especially if the piano is nothing more than an eye-catching piece of furniture. (I’ve been down that runway when close friends chose florid musical partners on fancy websites. A few of these beauties had fluted legs and scrolled desks, a.k.a racks)

One buyer had a huge eye-opener when her mail-order bride arrived with a cracked harp. (cast iron plate) Or maybe it was a budding crack, like a fault in California, weakened to earthquake proportion, ex post facto. (after delivery)

In the “case” of a Proksch piano described in “FUNERAL for a CRACKED PLATE,” the conspicuous rift in the Capo D’Astro killed any tonal attraction the buyer ever had to this piano through her scanty online relationship with it. (The piano was located in rural Georgia, a long car ride from Fresno California, though the new owner eventually made the schlep to the boonies for legal purposes. It was a year or so after the beauty turned out to be riddled with internal problems)

The buyer lost her “case” in court, but the exotic seller eventually got slapped with a hefty fine by the Feds for smuggling ivory into the country. He figured the elephant tusks would entice interest in his “rebuilt?” Bosies (Bosendorfers) among other imported inventory.

Recently, I received the following comment from a technician who knew the shyster’s antics up close and personal:

“The Bosen-like pianos that he sells are furniture only. They don’t have modern actions and play poorly. He sells them on eBay for 10k He buys them in Germany from people who have acquired them for very little money. They have exotic cases and are very light weight . They have horrible tone. An American spinet has better tone. Most re-builders will not touch these old pianos. They where very poor to begin with. The actions are very simple. The long key has a capstan in one end. It pushes up on a leather butt that pushes up on a hammer that is attached to a brass flange which often clicks. The touch is awful. These old European actions where terrible. I work in this industry as well and he makes the rest of us look really bad.”

Amen, to this fellow who had the courage to publicly post the Truth at my blog site. It was definitely a red flag for those captivated by a brand, without a necessary in-depth inspection of a piano’s interior by a capable technician.

***

Now given all the exposure I had to this particular seller who pitched a dubious description of the PROKSCH to a prospective buyer in Fresno, I had promised myself never to rely on AT and T or anything resembling, to choose a piano. Yet circumstances required an imminent replacement of a teaching instrument (not mine) that was at death’s door, and the phone, being within easy reach, was a tantalizing option.

DETAILS:

The piano that piqued my interest, sat in the seller’s living room in Arroyo Grande, California, on the Central Coast.

Of speculation: Who did the so-called “excellent” rebuild of an instrument dating to to 1929? (I had acquired the serial number and matched it up in the Pierce Piano Atlas)

While a technician was selling it, he was NOT the original owner, and in any “case,” how could he be unbiased about a piano that embodied a profit by its sale.

(You can see why the upcoming blind date remained cloaked in suspense, not to mention FEAR.)

As far as I was told, the piano had a University-based history. Well, supposedly it bore a sticker with a Cal Poly inventory number.

An educated piano, perhaps? Tonal implications? Who maintained the piano?

The seller suggested that a fellow named “Richard Cummings” might have worked on it. Apparently, this regaled R.P.T (Registered Piano Technician) was one of the elite piano masters of Arroyo Grande. And from what I learned, he had relocated to Missouri in his retirement years leaving behind a following of fine piano owners.

***

I knew how it felt to lose a cherished technician. The aftermath could be of tragic proportion.

In 1989 my Steinway M, 1917 grand catapulted into crisis after a local tech “polished the knuckles,” and “filed the wippens.” He even “brightened” the treble, unauthorized transforming my life partner into a virtual stranger.

The ordeal, well documented in more than one blog, reached the Piano Quarterly, in a published article “How Could this Happen to my Piano?!”

To spare readers all the gory details, suffice it to say, that the piano barely survived an onslaught by more than one tech in a parade of them. In fact, my dearly beloved nearly died before its miraculous Resurrection through life-saving efforts of a Modesto-based SAVIOR.

(I’m PRAYING that my blind date was not comparably assaulted before its supposed “rebuild.” For all I know the “overhaul” could have amounted to applied varnish and hammer reshaping.)

Piano Genealogy?

Through a bit of Google-driven research, I had found the canonized Richard Cummings with God sent contact information.

In an e-mailed reply to my lengthy diatribe, he confessed openly that he never worked on my “newly” purchased piano, but had a fresh “lead” for me.

Perhaps an able tech named “Beverly” did the “work.”

So like a dog sniffing a bone buried deeply in the ground, I began my hunt for “Beverly” in “Arroyo Grande” and found an amiable woman speaking to me by phone about a piano she admitted was not one of her babies.

She mentioned “Forrester?” as a possibility in Oregon, sure to send me winding along a relentless trail. (Unfortunately, I’d lost the check stub with his scribbled name)

Back to start.

The plot thickened. A tech whom I had dispatched to review the Hamilton grand had a bit of a dubious connection to the seller, and I wasn’t sure about the quality of his work. He was definitely NOT mentioned by Cummings in his short list of numero uno techs. In fact the list amounted to ONE name–“Beverly.”

The tuning landscape sounded all too familiar. Here in Fresno, I could count one GOOD tech on my pinky, and that number was shrinking into the negative zone….

***

Okay Enough speculation and hand-wringing about my blind date.

JUDGMENT DAY is later TODAY, so I’ll have to wait patiently for the verdict.

Meanwhile, Stay tuned… I’ll be back Tuesday well after my tryst with this intriguing piano.

LINKS:

The Day of Reckoning, I meet my Blind Date in person: (6 videos plus CODA)

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/02/14/just-in-time-for-valentines-day-i-meet-my-blind-date-grand-piano-in-el-cerrito-6-part-video-and-coda/

Funeral for a Cracked Plate


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/funeral-for-a-cracked-plate-piano-caveat-emptor/

Piano dealer busted for illegal ivory smuggling

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/11/19/pascal-vieillard-a440-pia_n_785913.html

Piano Interviews by Phone, Don’t Copy Me.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/02/07/piano-interviews-by-phone-dont-copy-me/

Do’s and Don’ts for piano buyers and sellers

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/dos-and-donts-for-piano-buyers-and-sellers-dream-pianos-last-chapter/

The challenge of maintaining fine pianos after a personal tragedy

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/11/05/treading-on-hallowed-ground-the-challenge-of-maintaining-fine-pianos-after-a-personal-tragedy/

The voices of piano technicians around the country

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/11/06/the-voices-of-piano-technicians-around-the-country/