Signs of the Times - A Piano in the Parlor
March 2004
Political Economy: A Piano in the Parlor
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Your youngster needs some culture--maybe piano lessons will be a good thing? So you get an OK-looking used upright, basing the purchase decision strictly on price--$1,000 or less--after all, the kid may not stick with it.

But say she takes to it. Within a couple of years, you're in the market for something better--and consequently, more expensive.

And who knows, you may have a prodigy on your hands. What further expenses await you, down the road?

Well, a new Steinway Model "M" grand piano (sized for the home at just under six feet in overall length) sells for about $45,000, in the popular walnut finish (somewhat less in ebonized black). Other major brands, such as Yamaha, retail for about two-thirds of the Steinway price.

Finding a dealer

There are only two places in the Charlottesville / Albemarle area at which one may purchase a new piano. The Virginia House of Music, on Berkmar Drive behind the Rio Hill shopping plaza, is a Yamaha dealer, offering new acoustic pianos, electronic pianos and digital synthesizers.

The Charlottesville Piano Company is nearby, on the northwest corner of Berkmar Drive and Rio Road. They sell several lines of new pianos--and no electronic alternatives. A specialty is refurbishing and rebuilding pianos--especially Steinways.

Many piano purchasers, as in our example, have a trade-in. So pricing, especially for new pianos, is quite "elastic," since the dealer wants to seem accommodating. A website with much useful general information, as well as pricing information for new pianos is at There's a wonderfully complete (and mind-numbingly extensive) listing of the world's piano brands at a British website, Pianosonline. The website provides a page of history and information about each maker, and offers links to the websites of all those which have them.

To find a Steinway dealer, you must go to the Steinway website and register. The good news is, you'll get a large, richly informative catalog from the company in the mail.

Alternatives to the acoustic piano just not there yet

The first computer I ever saw, nearly 50 years ago, was at an open house at MIT's Lincoln Lab. There were demonstrations for the public. They had the computer (SAGE) hooked up to, among other things, a speech synthesizer. It spoke. And the IBM guy (IBM made and maintained the computer for the Air Force, and MIT housed the system at Lincoln Lab) told us that it was just a matter of a few years until there would be two-way voice communication with computers. It has proven to be slightly more difficult than they anticipated.

In just the same way, despite promotional claims, a digital or synthesized piano that sounds the same and plays the same as a quality acoustic instrument is still some time away. Yamaha's promotion for their new, top-of-the-line Disklavier admits as much when it speaks of "a degree of warmth, touch and control that's closer than ever to the real thing." [Our emphasis]

They are getting closer. And interestingly, the top-of-the-line instruments don't synthesize the piano sound. They use stored samples (digital recordings) of actual piano sound, manipulated by a built-in computer, to play the notes as you strike the keys--piano and forte. High-end electronic player-pianos range up to $12,000, and are consciously built to be 'furniture.' Synthesizers sell for up to about $4,000, depending on features.

A previously-owned piano, perhaps?

A six-foot walnut Yamaha Grand has a list price around $33,000. That size and type of piano, 80 years old and restored 'like new,' will sell for $20,000 or so. What is surprising is that the rebuilt 80-year-old may very well be a better piano.

Tom Shaw, of the Charlottesville Piano Company, is of the strong opinion that the old pianos, if they have been well cared for, are much to be preferred. And his opinion should carry some weight - he's the third generation of his family in the business of maintaining, restoring, selling (and playing) fine pianos.

Shaw says flatly, the best pianos were made long ago-from the end of the 19th century up to the start of the Great Depression. Having a piano in the parlor was all the rage during the good times of the 'gilded age' following the Civil War (in the north, at least). It was an expression of real or feigned sophistication. There were hundreds of piano makers in the U.S., employing legions of craftsmen.

The Times documents the building of a Steinway Piano

This website has carried the New York Times' documentation of the history and methods of the Steinway piano company. Steinway, the man and the plan, came to this country in the 1840s. His firm rapidly established a position of leadership in the field, and despite ups and downs, the name is still the touchstone of piano quality.

How Does a Piano Get to Carnegie Hall?
Seeking the Perfect Piano Piece, in Spruce
Why Today's Piano is Much Like Yesterday's, and Last Century's
Steinways With German Accents
88 Keys, Many Languages, One Proud Name: Steinway
'Our Core Business'; At Steinway, It's Hammer Time
Finally, a Steinway Makes Some Music
Taking a Perfectly Lovely Piano and Fine-Tuning Its Personality
When It's an Honor to Pick Up a Pianist's Jacket
A Piano Is Born, Needing Practice

But the great days went away. The Great Depression was not the only reason for the abrupt decline of the piano industry. By the late twenties, talking pictures brought families out of the house to be entertained, while radio and the phonograph increasingly brought music (in new kinds of furniture) into the home. But widespread economic disaster surely accelerated the decline of piano manufacture.

Many makers went out of business, and those that remained--even the best of them--found they had to cut corners--literally--to get prices down. They worked with thinner veneers and smaller hinges; they put in brass-plated fitments where once was solid brass. They used synthetics instead of thick slabs of ivory on the keytops. And they employed fewer people to do the work, maintaining production at the expense of craftsmanship.

Bringing them back to life

But some of the high-quality pianos from the previous era are available today. A piano was always a major purchase and was usually cared for as a piece of fine furniture. There are a lot of them around, many in refurbishable condition.

People in the trade of making old pianos new again employ three terms to describe the general level of work required, and consequent cost:
- Rebuilding, or a top-to-bottom job.
- Restoring, or replacing major components as required; and
- Reconditioning, which is sprucing up with some minor replacements.

Those who do this work have to have the skills of many different crafts. The factories employ specialists, but a rebuilder works alone, or with one or two assistants. And it takes a lot longer to restring a piano if you only do it once in a while.

A principal cost factor in rebuilding is replacing the soundboard. The soundboard is the hidden heart of a piano, lying just beneath the strings, amplifying the sound and adding resonance. And with time, especially in a typical American home, it can dry and crack. The wood used in the replacement soundboard is shaped flat, then slightly domed, similar to the crowning of acoustic guitars and fiddles. And it is not just any wood.

The hillsides above the Val de Fiemme, in the mountains of far northeastern Italy, are dry and cool. One summer is much like the next; the chill winters too are much the same, year after year. Spruce trees in that region grow slowly with a remarkably tight, even grain. Musical instrument makers have taken advantage of the qualities of this wood for centuries. The Cremona violin makers, Stradivari and Guarneri, used red spruce from these mountains. And this spruce is used for the finest piano soundboards. But it is very expensive.

The piano will get new hammers, a new action, new strings. Each made from a different wood or a special alloy--time-tested materials. The frame is sent out for re-bronzing. The case (the huge, elegantly curved box that holds all the pieces together and contributes to the sound qualities) will be completely refinished.

Then the piano is put back together. It is restrung, tuned, allowed to rest, retuned.

If everything in the piano has been done right, at this point the action can be regulated and the tone can be 'voiced.' This is the last 5% of the rebuild, but the most important.

Regulation seeks consistency of touch with every key-harder or softer, bouncier or more languid. Serious musicians want a 'heavier' touch - more resistance, which requires greater finger strength, but affords a wider dynamic range

Then comes the most elusive quality of all - the 'voicing.' The color of the sound. The soul of the piano. We use all kinds of other words to try to get at a description of it. A bright or muted tone. Bell-like, crystalline.

Randolph Byrd runs the sales room for Charlottesville Piano. You will also find him playing jazz around town. Bow-tied and jaunty, he loves pianos, and he loves to talk about them. He explains that the jazz pianist wants a 'hard' tone that will stand up to drums and brass, and cut through the clatter and hum of a smoky nightclub.

There is a very different voicing that sounds right when playing Chopin. And the baroque sound actually requires a different hammer altogether.

Pianos do come from the factory with a family sound. For example, says Byrd, the upper register of a Steinway has what is known as a 'crystal' tone. And not just in a manner of speaking. He has a large Waterford goblet that he uses to demonstrate - first a gentle flick of the finger on the glass, then a gentle striking of the 'D' two octaves above middle C. The piano tone is nice but to the untrained ear, just a piano tone.

Over to a Mason & Hamlin. 'This has a 'bell-like' tone. Like the bells that hand-ringers use.' He strikes the D - it is startling, how different the tone is from the other piano, and how, in fact, bell-like this tone is. Listen to the crystal again, and the Steinway-yes, I see-it may be the power of suggestion, but the tone is more crystal than bell.

And the famed Steinway 'growl' in the bass.... So the voicing, unlike the regulation, is not the same, exactly, across all the keys, but reveals some higher and more elusive consistency.

The craftsman employs extremely low-tech means to work with the voice of the piano, and the skill is part learning and part intuition. He can use a needle to prick the felt on the hammer to soften it slightly. Or he can use deft brushstrokes of lacquer on the felt to harden the surface.

This level of adjustment is not something that will be done to a new piano. That's why you see knowledgeable players in a new-piano showroom playing one after another to find the one with a voice that fits their requirements.

Charlottesville Piano's showroom has been designed to let a piano sound as it would in a living room. There's wall-to-wall carpet, low-hung plaster ceilings, and other furniture to deaden the sound. And if that's not what your living room is like-if you've got wood floors and lots of glass, for instance-they'll wheel the piano into the workroom next door, so you can hear what it will sound like in that environment.

If you go there on a cool, dry day, you'll notice the humidity when you walk in. The showroom is kept at about 45% relative humidity year-round, for the good of the instruments, and you are urged to provide some measure of humidity control in your home as well. The piano will stay in tune longer, but mainly, the wood will be happy.

The future of the hand-crafted grand piano

The future of the traditional piano lives in northern Italy, at the modern factory of Paolo Fazioli. Signor Fazioli combines two unusual elements: he's an accomplished pianist and he is a trained engineer. He has studied the acoustic properties of fine instruments, and combines current computer technology with traditional craftsmanship in making a small number of high end pianos, intended primarily for the concert stage and the music academy.

His website promises the creation of a tech center to further the study of musical instruments and to combine that knowledge with craft and materials in pursuit of perfection and control.

You may recall we started with a discussion of the price of a six-foot piano. The Fazioli F183 (183 cm in overall length--six feet) sells for about $84,000 (based on a dollar at about 1.25 to the Euro). And eighty years from now, someone will probably still be using 19th century methods to restore it. (Dave Sagarin, March 17, 2004)

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