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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.


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

“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)

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Digital Piano Review continued: On Location at Best Buy in Fresno CA (6 videos)

This was such a smooth experience. Matthew Wheeler was found playing drums and keyboard in Best Buy’s atrium, for want of a better name, and he stopped what he was doing to film me sampling digitals. These were console models: Roland F110, Casio 830, and Yamaha Arius YDP 141.

There are six videos, including a side-by-side comparison of my playing the Roland and Arius. (“Fur Elise”)

You’ll know in an instant which one I favored.

Thank you’s are extended to Matthew and Best Buy for being so welcoming.

Matt is musical director at CMT and Fresno Unified School District. If you’re needing assistance at Best Buy, head over to Matt and he’ll be happy to serve you.

My Reviews:

Roland F110 console model digital piano:

Casio 830 console model digital piano:

Yamaha Arius YDP 141 console model digital piano:

Yamaha Arius YDP 141 fast passage clip (Mozart K. 545)

Side-by-side Comparison playing Roland F110 and Yamaha Arius YDP 141:

Revisit Roland F-110 without reverb

Over-all consensus after having reviewed 12 hammer-weighted digital pianos, I would put Yamaha p155 and Yamaha Arius YDP141 at the top of my list.

RELATED: Scoping out Digital Pianos at Guitar Center in Fresno (9 digital pianos are reviewed)

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Cato, his Killer Keyboard, and a round of piano lessons!

Ralph Cato had been scheduled to come for his first piano lesson soon after we had a chance meeting at the Guitar Center in Fresno a few years ago. At the time, he was combing the store in search of a “killer” digital keyboard, as he described it, for his 10 year old daughter. Christmas was just around the corner so I happened to breeze in to check the inventory of electronic instruments. (I always had parents interested in purchasing these for their children)

Gliding my fingers over a Casio PX110, a portable with an unusually resonant, simulated “Grand Piano” tone center, I was distracted by a salesperson trying to sell a customer a pricey competitor. As the store employee demonstrated an expensive Yamaha keyboard that had a fancy computer screen and a million buttons, he couldn’t drown out the soaring, resonance of the Casio I was playing.

So many digitals lining store shelves and sitting on display stands had huge tone banks and complex gadgetry. A good amount had blinking lights and other fancy visual enticements, but they lacked a fundamental sonority in the basic “grand piano” area of tone production. For the most part they produced a metallic, generic sound that clearly separated them from acoustic pianos and made performing on them a synthesized experience. As a performing pianist, I preferred a digital keyboard to have a reasonable tonal relationship to my Steinway grand, so I could prep on fingering and phrasing and record/playback before leaping into the standard repertoire on my bigger piano. Because I had a neighbor to the right who had been complaining about my nocturnal practicing, I had to acquire a keyboard in short order, and put on my earphones at the strike of 10 p.m.

Ralph had been captivated by what he heard coming from my Casio. “Ya know, I’m really confused by all the keyboards around here,” he said, and I’m not sure which one to choose for my daughter.” He was a tall, broad shouldered African American dressed in casual, designer clothes. He wore a colorful sports shirt, khaki shorts and tasseled loafers.

“You play very well,” he added. “Do you mind me asking what you think of this keyboard that I’m about to buy?”

“Just focus for a moment on this Casio model’s ‘grand piano sound,’ I replied, “and compare it with what you have in front of you.”

He listened attentively to my musical sample, and then tapped his fingers on the Yamaha keyboard. Meanwhile the salesperson, who had given him undivided attention, had drifted off to assist another customer. It was like Kinko’s floating personnel. Here today and gone tomorrow!

I continued my mini concert on a variety of digitals, making an instrument by instrument comparison. I played Beethoven’s Fur Elise on the Casio and then I switched over to the Yamaha. Finally I provided a sample or two on three other electronic instruments that were sprinkled around a parlor of competitive brands.

Who would ever believe that I would be sitting in front of a weighted electronic keyboard serving up a Classical menu? If Ludwig Van Beethoven were alive he might be enraged by the digitally filtered stream of his music. Or maybe not. When he became deaf, he might have appreciated the vibrations emanating from the Casio.

I had quickly come to realize that I couldn’t be an artifact of the past when the winds of change were sweeping music and media in new directions. I had only to reference the pearly words of the great virtuoso pianist, composer, and conductor, Mikhail Pletnev who shared his musical views in an interview conducted by Michael Church, in Andante, Everything (February 28, 2005)

“Me, I am still in a classical frame,” Pletnev said. ”But a new composer must study electronics and the art of synthesizers. Music composed by computer, and arranged with modern acoustic systems, sounds more impressive than music in the concert hall…..New technology opens new doors.”

I could agree with him in part, though I was absolutely not willing to trade in my Steinway grand piano for a high tech digital system any time soon.


Ralph was very focused on my playing, tuned into the many sections of Fur Elise that tested the musical worth of a keyboard. And then I  showed him any number of contrasting passages that fleshed out the superiority of the Casio 110 as compared to its high profile rivals. Slowly but surely, he was swayed to my way of thinking.

“I’m definitely sold on the Casio,” he said. “It’s obvious that it resonates and also explodes with sound when you need to pack the punch.” He was no doubt referring to what I drew out of it when I played a prominent interlude in the Beethoven selection that had stormy, fortissimo chords in the left hand. No matter how much I pounded, the Casio sustained the blow well and filtered out the percussive in favor of a melodic line that flowed within a series of triads.

As Ralph and I talked further at Guitar Center, I  learned that he had been a boxing trainer for the USA Olympic team, though he had clearly communicated a very sensitive side of himself in the din of an instrument store where intimate exchange was made nearly impossible.

Naturally, I was interested in this side of him because I had a pervasive alter ego tied to athletics. It wasn’t just my tennis exploits, and attempts to sign for Little League baseball when girls were banned from the sport, but my brother actually put boxing gloves on me when I was a kid, and punched me silly in the gut after he landed consecutive jabs to my head. He’d fight dirty, and wallop me below the belt putting me away with a one-two punch. That’s when I’d go crying to my parents. There was never justice. I’d always be blamed for putting on the gloves in the first place.

Meanwhile, my father watched the Gillette “Fight of the Week” and got the momentum going, cussing at the favorite, and wanting the underdog to win. I’d be immersed in the culture, knowing that if I could make it to the ring, I’d be carried off in victory like a “Rocky” hero.


Surprisingly after Ralph purchased the PX110 “killer” keyboard for his daughter, he voiced an interest in taking piano lessons with me, and being that he had an old upright in his home, I figured it might be a workable situation. The only complication was Ralph’s underlying passion for Gospel music that intimidated me. Far too often these musicians pounded the keys so brutally that many church pianos had strings popped from repeated assaults.  I shuddered to think what would befall my precious Steinway if this Gospel energy was not held in check.

Cato managed to stay true to form when he arrived in my home studio to try out my big size grand piano. While he approached his Gospel sounding music with rhythmic definition, he greatly over-projected his sound in a room that could barely absorb the shock of his bombastically offensive chords. It was like an earthquake had hit!

“Okay!” I said forcefully, just when I needed to the draw the line.”That’s enough for today, Ralph!” I sounded like his boxing coach toweling him down after a nasty round with his sparring partner, but I needed to be completely honest and forthright with Cato at this juncture or my precious grand might be in grave danger.

“I’m not sure how I can be of any help with this style of music,” I insisted. “Gospel stuff is just not my bag, and frankly, it requires a type of  pounding that doesn’t really belong here in my studio.”

Ralph was bit shaken by my comment but he knew how to instantly retreat to avoid confrontation.

“Well,” he said, meekly “I’m at a juncture where maybe I need to get away from this Gospel music and learn something more refined and classical.” Those were the magic words. By sweet talking the music I treasured, he had managed to earn himself a temporary reprieve and an extension of his piano lessons.

Yet, I was uncertain whether I could teach him on a regular basis. He’d been so entrenched in this Gospel stuff since childhood that he might be incapable of altering his aggressive approach to the piano.

“Well, let’s think a bit about where we’re heading with this before we make a permanent commitment to lessons,” I said. “Maybe we should just give it another try and see what happens.”

In the meantime, Ralph tried to ingratiate himself by leading me to the staircase that led to a second floor space in my townhouse and unsolicited, he began coaching me like I was a boxer in training. He nudged me up a few steps and back in a precise way to give my calves a workout, and then suddenly, from nowhere, he threw a shadow punch at me to test my reflexes. I couldn’t believe what I was doing! If I had my camcorder rolling, I would have captured this whole event on video. A piano teacher taking boxing lessons from a student?!

From that point on, I put an end to all the coaching, sparring and other athletic routines, and steered Ralph away from his Gospel exhibitions at my piano. Instead, I told him about a project I was engaged in that involved gathering stories about “dream pianos.” I wanted him to tell me about his first piano and how it influenced his life.

Ralph acquiesced and spun out a story I would never forget.

When I was 8,” he said, “my parents purchased an upright whose brand name had been painted over white, like the rest of the piano. The instrument was actually given to my younger sister only, so after 8 o’clock each evening when she was finished with her practicing, she would always lock it up. So during the middle of the night, when my parents and siblings were off to bed I would silently sneak into the foyer where the upright was sitting, and I would pick the piano lock with a paper clip, something I had learned at school from a buddy who did the same with a trombone case.

“After I unlocked the piano, I would play on it from sundown to sunset, without ever waking any family members.”

Ralph sat at my piano with nice posture and demonstrated how he originally taught himself a scale composed of single notes, and then he showed me how he learned to create harmony among two notes. Finally, he demonstrated how he formed triads of three notes at a time in sequence. This was right before he had carefully closed up his childhood piano at the peep of dawn, as if it had never been opened the night before.

“It wasn’t long before my mother started to recognize my interest in the piano,” he said, “and one day she became more directly involved in my musical explorations. I remember one afternoon, after she heard me play my chords, she said, ‘Ralph, I think I know a song that sounds just like the one you play.’ And she sang it immediately back and taught it to me.” He demonstrated how each of 8 rising chords had a syllable of verse attached.

“It’s no se-cret what God can do.”

It was the most touching personal account I had heard to that point, and coming from a boxing trainer with a tough exterior, it revealed his soft and sensitive side.

Ralph never did follow through with his piano lessons. He had too many family related matters to deal with, but nevertheless, for the brief time I knew him more intimately through his childhood memories of his first piano, he lit up my studio with the glow of his warmth and tenderness. His special recollections will always linger.

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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.