Pianos aren't a center of attention anymore
By William Loeffler
Published: Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 8:57 p.m.
Schroeder would say “Good grief!”
His beloved piano seems to have fallen on hard times. Used uprights and baby grands wait forlornly on eBay or Craigslist to be adopted or sold. For many, the final stop is the landfill.
Sales of new pianos have been affected by portable digital-music technology, the recession and cuts in school music-education programs. But, if new pianos have been a harder sell, finding a home for a used one can be downright daunting.
“Because of Craigslist now, pianos are a dime a dozen,” says William Glesner, owner of A-1 Piano Service in Ross. “The whole concept of pianos on the market has changed dramatically.”
But recent media reports that describe a surge in the junking of used pianos are misleading, say industry experts, merchants and technicians.
It's true that some owners can't even give their pianos away. Attorney James Joseph thought he might have to junk his Richmond baby grand when he prepared to move out of his Highland Park home. Richmond pianos were manufactured by the Starr Piano Co., which was founded in Richmond, Ind., in 1872.
Joseph, 70, phoned a piano tuner he knew and asked if he could come and appraise the piano's value. “He said, ‘You probably could get as much for it as the appraisal would cost.' ”
Joseph advertised the piano on Craigslist for $500, which he eventually dropped to $300. One couple came and showed interest, but when he emailed them a week later, they responded that moving the piano would cost more than the cost of the piano itself. Locally, the average cost to move or dispose of a piano is about $400.
“When it got to $300, I thought, ‘This is taking up more of my time than it's worth.'”
He found a website, www.pianoadoption.com, through which he connected with Joe Pirtz, a musician and piano collector who lives in Champion, Ohio. Pirtz came and got the piano the same day. It now resides in his collection.
“The social gatherings have changed, and you don't so much have a piano as a center of attention anymore,” says Joseph, whose four children all played the piano that was in their home. “If you happen to have one, there's always somebody who plays. But if you don't have one, it's no big deal. I don't think it integrates into the family as music. It integrates as an educational device and piece of furniture and, maybe, socially if you're entertaining.”
Pirtz says it's criminal that pianos are being neglected.
“Every house I've went to, they're just glad to see 'em go,” he says. “I just couldn't believe it. It absolutely blows my mind.
“I think we just have an abundance of too many things to do. Video games, Facebook. Kids, they're learning to play guitar on Wii, which has no association with the real machine.”
Larry Fine, publisher and editor of Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer, says that most pianos are junked for a reason.
“It's not like every used piano is being taken to the dump,” he says. “You're really talking about old pianos in serious disrepair. Their useful life is done. They're not worth fixing. They require too much repair. “
Consumer-grade upright pianos cost between $3,000 and $10,000, while a baby-grand piano runs anywhere from $7,000 to $30,000, he says.
“It used to be that people would repair almost anything,” Fine says. “New pianos were much more expensive. That's changed. When you have an old upright made in 1890 that won't hold its tune that you might have to spend thousands of dollars to fix, where for three or four thousand you can get a very decent piano made in China or Indonesia that can run circles around it.”
Piano sales suffered from the 2008 financial crisis and are only now starting to rebound, Fine says.
“Pianos are so much tied to home-buying that piano sales have gone way, way down,” he says. “The piano business is, to a large extent, a luxury business.”
Last year, 41,054 acoustic pianos were sold in the United States, a decline of 6.2 percent from 2010, according to a July report compiled by the publication Music Trades for the National Association of Music Merchants. However, sales of grand pianos have improved for the second straight year. Sales in 2010 totaled $174.96 million, up from $128.42 million in 2009. Total sales in 2011 were up 2 percent, to $175.38 million.
“I think it's blown out of proportion,” says Mimi Priano, president of the Pittsburgh Piano Teachers Association in South Park Township. “It sounds like a terrible problem, but it makes sense. These pianos are all aging at the same time. Once it's past its prime, it's not good to anybody. If it's a Steinway, and you fix it correctly, it will retain its value. But the old upright that sat in Grandma's basement all these years and has a cracked soundboard, it's just not worth the investment.”
Patricia Neeper, president of Steinway Piano Gallery in the West End, says a used piano's polished wooden cabinet and gleaming keys can be misleading. Many are past their prime as a musical instrument because they weren't tuned regularly or because of exposure to humidity.
“There's a very strong market for used pianos,” she says. “I think there's a misconception in the marketplace that a piano can last forever. I think that's what you're seeing. There are pianos that are built to last for many, many generations, such as Steinways. We have one at the Juilliard School that's over 100 years old. It's not unusual for me to visit a college or institution to see a Steinway piano that's 80 to 100 years old that is still in service.
“There are other pianos that weren't built to those qualifications. Those instruments, for any number of reasons, have worn out or have not been appropriately cared for.”
Peter Stumpf, a registered piano technician for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Carnegie Mellon University, says that the longevity of a piano can mean there is less demand for new instruments from the factory. Unlike automobiles or appliances, pianos are “overbuilt” to last as long as 40 or 50 years.
“The big problem is they're kind of competing with themselves,” Stumpf says. “The biggest competitor Steinway has today are the Steinways from the '40s and '50s and '60s. People don't need to buy a new piano.”
Faced with a similar glut in the early 1900s, the piano industry built a 50-foot bonfire from used pianos in Atlantic City.
“The manufacturers felt there were too many used pianos on the market,” Stumpf says. “They bought up all these old used pianos and burned them. Thousands of them.”
Digital pianos are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Modern Piano, with offices in Wexford and Mt. Lebanon, feature a series of Yamaha digital pianos, including the Avant Hybrid, whose keyboard purportedly features the feel of the keys on an acoustic piano It offers a greater variety of sounds. Plus, owners don't have to pay an average of $100 to tune it. Prices start at $5,495.
Stumpf, who owns two pianos in his Baldwin home, prefers to see the surplus in a positive light.
“It's a very, very good buyers, market,” he says. “If somebody is looking to buy a piano, they're going to get a better value today than they would anytime in the last 20 years.”
William Loeffler is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7986.
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