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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)

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DREAM PIANO: Overview and Acknowledgments

My two-year long romp on the piano finding trail with York as my professional companion and consultant had been worth all the time spent in, around and under pianos. How else would I have acquired knowledge about the piano’s harp, or cast iron plate were it not for his having the bravado to dismantle it from the Proskch 1905 grand and haul it out to the College of the Sequoia’s welding department. In the face of technicians and others who mocked him for his efforts, he persevered; soda blasted the ugly looking frame and dragged it home for a second wind. Rebecca McGregor, a victim of her impulsive sight unseen Internet piano purchase and an unprincipled seller, had written me a thought provoking e-mail after she had hovered over the plate on full view in York’s driveway. It was a funereal scene.

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

She wrote, “I actually learned something at York’s, and I think you captured the essence of our meeting and the somber mood. Were we paying for his having tried to mend the plate, I would have stopped him, but with York’s willingness to take it on without payment, we’d have been fools not to let him proceed.” (This was before the plate cracked in two other places as York hauled it to his pick-up truck)

Rebecca had linked hands with Terry Barrett and York’s wife in a prayer vigil over the plate and then helped to flip it on its back to survey its underbelly.

The underside of inanimate things always sparked York’s curiosity and it invariably sent him nose diving under pianos to investigate anything from mice, moths and moisture to the storage of $$$ assets in the crannies of a Kawai.

To my educational advantage, he found it necessary to drag me along on his adventures to prove without a doubt that he had the lowdown on each and very piano he tuned, moth proofed and treated for rats.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/24/me-york-and-our-great-piano-adventure/

And I can personally attest that his tattered, age worn diaries were evidence of his meticulous record keeping since 1948. These should someday be enshrined in the Smithsonian or at least in the PTG (Piano Technician’s Guild) Hall of Fame.

While Terry Barrett, RPT (Registered Piano Technician) argued that bridle straps had no importance in the assembly of uprights, and moths were basically harmless to pianos because they would die eating cyanide based hammer felts, York produced incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. He marched valiantly on his truth finding crusade and produced a Kimball made “Whitney” spinet without bridle straps that had a basic action defect, and he plucked a hammer from his pick-up truck that had the most perfect, moth drilled hole I had ever seen! Such was Mother Nature at work.

As an unofficial “apprentice” to the city’s senior piano tuner, I had acquired trade secrets that no piano technology school or correspondence course would ever impart. Would most “registered technicians” anywhere in the universe know to battle moths with a bottle of cloves? York was always far ahead of his time banishing moth balls from his tool box. “They cause cancer,” he said repeatedly when we stumbled upon pianos that were victims of merciless moth attacks. While I hadn’t yet seen examples of chewed up bridle straps from nest seeking rats, York had promised to phone me immediately if he had a scheduled DECON call at a church or elsewhere.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/30/samick-york-tofujie-and-me-on-the-piano-chasing-trail/

The master tuner without his formal “registration” in the Piano Technician’s Guild showed those who had somehow obtained it that he deserved at least the honorary title because of his decades long association with pianos. Thankfully, the local Fresno chapter honored York by giving him a podium to demonstrate piano restringing, and when he turned up at monthly PTG meetings as a devoted “associate member,” his colleagues always greeted him with a hearty slap on the back.

On the day I had shown up to interview “Laroy Edwards” retired Yamaha senior piano technician, and emissary for the company all over the world, York made his presence known by telling his full length account about the cat that had been trapped under a grand piano lid and miraculously, emerged alive and well, though hairless. York fleshed out, colorful new details each time he spun a piano related tale, though he sometimes forgot that he’d told the story one too many times.

Besides being York’s companion through our two year-long piano adventure, my having compiled these stories was a natural outcome of all the trips made to many homes containing used pianos of an infinite variety–some sold in estate sales and auctions.


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/12/the-great-piano-auction/


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/used-pianos-estate-sales-and-mr-york-the-tuner/

And in the course of this learning driven journey, I had hoped that readers would willingly share their own piano memorabilia since a keyboard culture may be dying on the vine if not preserved.

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

The old upright stories should be written down and treasured. The genealogy of older pianos should be a relentless source of research. Piano owners should learn how to discover the age of their pianos by seeking out the serial numbers on the cast iron plate, and by consulting the Pierce Piano Atlas or the Bluebook of Pianos.com. While it’s common for piano owners to throw up their hands and say,”I know virtually nothing about my piano,” it’s time for a new attitude to replace the old. Even “Alice” was exhilarated to know more about her “player piano without a name” when I enlisted her in the fact finding adventure. While the piano had been virtually un-played for 4 years since its purchase from an antique store for $125, she quickly became my “Dr. Watson” beaming a flash light on its cast iron plate; screaming in delight when she discovered the digits that might help date it. In the case of her particular piano, supplementary information acquired from Robert Furst’s Bluebook of Pianos.com led to its more conclusive identity.

Sharing a systemic approach to the whole research undertaking with Alice, I was able to enlist a new partisan in the preservation of old pianos. In fact, she became very reluctant to part with her stately upright once I had breathed life into it as a performing pianist. But at long last, it finally found a worthy owner who had promised to take good care of it and give it a new home.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/15/a-player-piano-without-a-name/

Another piano, a table style Aeolian with three leaves underwent an equally intense identity crisis as its true birth date was pursued. I couldn’t thank Mr. York enough for his A-1 guesstimate and Terry Barrett for pulling the piano’s action and stumbling upon a note with the date “APR 1936” engraved in the wood. What a miraculous discovery!!

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/a-table-style-piano-with-three-leaves-the-whole-story-in-lurid-detail/

DREAM PIANO had been all about the exciting adventure of pursuing and finding pianos, primarily in the private party, used piano market and how these travels of mine had changed the hearts and minds of the many piano owners that I’d encountered. Just making a routine house call to check on a piano up for sale, I’d invited myself into the lives of so my people who possessed the kindness and generosity to share their piano stories. “Ralph Cato,” whom I’d met at the Guitar Center looking for a keyboard to give his daughter for Christmas shared a heart rending story about his first piano and how he stole into the night to pick the lock and play it. Even a US Olympic Team boxing trainer with the exterior of a lion, softened up to share a tender memoir.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/cato-his-killer-keyboard-and-a-round-of-piano-lessons/

“Caroline Scheer” opened her heart to me and finally imparted the reason she wanted to sell her beloved Knight piano. This had been a mystery all along, but when the truth spilled out one day during a taped phone interview, all the puzzle pieces fit together. I had learned that her father never kept his promise to buy her a grand piano, like the one she had seen at Delaware University, if she obtained all “A’s” on her report card. How many others would want a grand size piano in their home just because they had been deprived of one early in life.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/16/the-little-knightingale/

In my travels, I had learned that pianos had a wide variety of meanings for different owners. For some, they were not musical instruments at all, but beautiful pieces of furniture to behold. But that might have been because the buyer or seller didn’t know where to begin in assessing the value of something that at one time had a playing life. And from the countless visits I’d made to homes with old pianos, just by playing them, they acquired a new value and meaning for their owners. Maybe there was an important message to heed. Why not bring a performing musician and piano technician to an establishment or home that housed a piano for sale. Why rely on a visual assessment of something that was meant to elicit tones, harmonics, and chords of beauty?

Perhaps the late Anne Meux, whose esteemed Fresno family had been memorialized in a landmark home preservation, experienced an awakening when her pianos came to life the afternoon I had played them. Prior to my impromptu visit, these musical treasures might well have been regarded as decorative furnishings, appreciated only for their external beauty.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/15/anne-meux-her-pianos-and-my-visit/

Pianos I’d encountered that were pretty but without musical value:

So many piano owners found themselves with antiques of the square or parlor grand variety that were quite ornate looking but could not play worth a dime. And when it was time to sell them, they confronted the hard reality that as play-less instruments and artifacts of the past, that no one wanted them in the present or future. So what was purchased for $5,000 some years back would sell for $200 or less in the private party marketplace. Some of these age worn and ill maintained pianos might have had to be donated out to a favorite charity. As Terry Barrett poignantly said, “An antique piano was just a different animal.”

“Sam” Torcaso, owner of Chesterfield’s in Fresno, brought it home that the older uprights were just not selling and the whole marketplace of antique pianos was abysmal. She pointed to the bleak housing situation with foreclosures abounding and the dearth of interior decorators that would be consulted to design the insides of newly acquired homes as reflecting part of the problem. But despite her registered cynicism about the universe of antique pianos, she had always known to advise her customers to bring in a technician before they made any kind of “all sales final,” piano purchase at her establishment. This recommendation showed her respect and concern for those who would buy a piano from Chesterfields and then pass it to their children to learn on.

***
More stories from Dream Piano:

FUJIE had the patience to await the arrival of her dream Kawai K 15 studio upright model piano housed at California Piano,


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/05/fujie-finds-her-dream-piano-but-buyer-beware/

and “Sharon Cooper” allowed me to include our clandestine tryst in the seedy parking lot beside Ag Hardware where a cash drop was made for a dream piano.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/19/a-high-stakes-piano-finding-adventure-or-was-it-a-sopranos-tv-episode/

Not to forget Dan Bates, who stole off and bought a Petrof piano, while in the grip of his obsession over the Steinway 1968. May the best piano win!!

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/03/a-battle-of-two-steinways-a-yamaha-and-a-spoiler-petrof/

And who could forget the Dream Piano I fought for and won, a French Provincial Baldwin Artist Grand.
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/fighting-for-a-dream-piano-hopefully-it-should-not-come-to-this/

On the last lap of my journey, I also stumbled upon “Victor Thasia” who was the first person I had ever met who changed his mind about selling his piano, and was ready to love and cherish it forever. Thanks for sharing your epiphany!

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/16/5007/

And what an opportunity came my way to record on a Dream Piano compliments of the Visalia Piano Gallery:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/13/recording-on-a-sleeper-dream-piano/</a

To “Patricia Frederick,” of the Fredericks collection in Ashburnham, Mass., and Thomas Winter, early piano restorer, San Francisco, my sincere appreciation to you for having provided scholarly words of wisdom about period pianos. What a rare opportunity came my way to play a 19th Century Dream Piano that turned up at the American Cancer Society Discovery Shop.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/27/the-fritz-of-vienna-chopin-reincarnated/

And another period piece that was beautiful on the outside but proved to be a pathetic tonal disaster!


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/28/the-ghost-of-fritz-was-i-dreaming/

Concluding Bonus Chapter:

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

Extra: York’s World War II Musical Memoir
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/06/yorks-wwii-story-in-writing-and-on-video/

More People to Thank:

Terry Barrett, RPT, Fresno gave countless hours detailing pianos for me and helped me write about them from a more technical perspective. While he sometimes disagreed with York about the significance of moth damage and the value bridle straps, he contributed loads of piano related information that enhanced my stories and also assisted sellers in learning more about their pianos.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge all those piano students who gave me my first opportunity to help them find their first real, 88 note, playing pianos. “Michelle” now happily practices on a lovely Baldwin, 1970’s console that had its first tuning, and tweaking by YORK, and my youngest pupil, “Claudia” enjoys her resonating Yamaha studio upright 1992 that I found in the former, Old Hilton Hotel in Fresno where a salvaging company was selling it. I remember how I had managed to get there just at the right time before word got out that two practically new pianos were accumulating dust in a second floor banquet room. Oddly, the Yamaha sat for too long after it was purchased and couldn’t get down the elevator to the ground floor until inspections were made and certification papers filed with the County. In the end, when the piano descended to the first floor level for transport, it was shipped gratis to the base of steps leading to the new owner’s second floor apartment. That’s when a challenge arose! “Elaine,” Claudia’s mother could either pay a whopping $400 to move the piano up two flights of stairs or enlist the help of able bodied neighbors. I wish I could have been there to see how they managed to turn the corner on the landings and push the 700 plus pound piano into the apartment. It must have been quite a sight to behold!

Some piano owners had been luckier than others in moving their pianos. York had told me that the Salvaging company owner, who sold Elaine the Yamaha, tipped over a Kawai piano while he was steering it into another banquet room. “The whole thing just came crashin’ down all at once,” he said. I had dispatched him to give the Yamaha a once over appraisal before it was purchased, and according to YORK, “it passed with flyin’ colors.” While he was at the hotel, he happened to look at the action assembly of the neighboring Kawai console and discovered that the hammers were over-sized and not fitting right. York always knew his stuff when it came to pianos and their interiors. He was also an ace evaluator of piano finishes and could rub the tips of his thickly padded fingers against the grain and ascertain what percentage was veneer.

The old man had done just about everything where it came to pianos. He tuned, repaired, refinished, and moved them. He was quite the master of all trades and he allowed me a share of his knowledge under careful supervision!

Finally, thank you to those who might not have gotten into the pages of this book but who added to my knowledge about pianos of all shapes, sizes, and vintage. I am beholden to “Martin Sigley,” a brilliant player piano restorer who loves what he does like a poet who crafts every word as a jewel. I was so impressed by his little shop that housed an old Behr Player and an “Angelus Orchestral,” and how intensely he worked. The world should regard him as a heaven sent angel. In a universe that values big cars, and expansive, designer homes, there is sadly little room to think about old world type restorers who will someday vanish without the appreciation they deserved in life.

In conclusion, a warm and grateful hug for my 96 year old mother, Jessie Taft Smith who sat relentlessly on the phone in the wee hours of the morning and listened to each Dream Piano chapter as it unfolded and voiced hard fought criticism that drove some periodic changes in my writing. I couldn’t have done it without her.

PS Additional acknowledgments: Peter Wolf, recording engineer, Wolf Sound, Fresno, CA
Bill Sayre, owner, Fasttraxx recording studio, Fresno, CA Heyner Oviedo, Fresno Piano,
The late Anne Meux, Fresno, CA

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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 Classical.com (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.

authorsden, Baldwin piano, Carol Burnett, Clavinova, CVP509, dgbI, digital pianos, Fresno, Fresno miniseries, Fresno Piano Store, Guitar Center, humor, New York City High School of Performing Arts, Oberlin Conservatory, New York City High School of Performing Arts, Paderewski, pianist, piano, piano finding adventure, piano society, Piano Street, piano student, piano teacher, piano technician, piano technician's guild, Piano World, pianoaddict.com, Pianostreet.com, pianoworld, pianoworld.com, Roland digital, satire, Shirley Kirsten, Steinway and Sons, uk-piano-forums, Uncategorized, Vladimir Horowitz, word press, wordpress.com, Yamaha Disclavier, Yamaha Disklavier, you tube, you tube video

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.