The Piano Market

Glen Barkman’s thoughts on the present condition of the piano market.

Bechstein Restoration – As Good As Old

I was asked to tune a piano recently that i had restored about 10 years ago.  What struck me as i sat there tuning was the quality of this instrument from yesteryear.  More than that, from turn of the century… ok i guess we need to qualify that right? hahaaa… from the turn of the 20th century, great piano design was well under way.  In fact, some of these piano designs are still revered and respected and are from a time known to many as the ‘golden era’.  Although i agree with many that there are SOME pianos from 100 years ago that were brilliant, there were many many more that were just coming of age.  The highest level of pianos however – the Bechsteins, the Bluthners, the Steinways, Bosendorfers… the list goes on where pianos were made to such a high degree of craftsmanship that they became manufacturers by royal appointment…  I find those pianos are very musical indeed.

The problem i have though is that many say “Oh nothing beats my grandmother’s old piano”… did they just refer to this old beat up, worn out piano as the apex, the very pinnacle of piano design? I must go on record by relating a saying that a wise old piano technician once told me when i first entered the business.  He said:

“Glen, there are two myths in the piano world: Older is good. And newer is better”.  Sounds paradoxical but it’s true… i’ve played old pianos most of which are just mediocre.  I’ve also played brand new pianos that you would think are brilliant and are sub-standard.  The moral of the story: quality in manufacturing and design still create beautiful music but you need to wade through the myriads of pianos to search for the gems.  If you had the chance to play this old C. Bechstein, it would without a doubt confirm that some will remain memorable.

Art Case Pianos – Part 2 – The Classics

In part one of this series we looked at the very FIRST art case made by Steinway.  Oh sure there have been many MANY other manufacturers before and after 1856.  That was just a small story introducing the concept of “art case” – if you weren’t familiar with the term.  Now we’re going to look at a few examples of modern art case pianos.  To begin with, i thot i’d introduce a recent photo of a piano named Grotrian – high end, beautiful and such a classic art case.  To me an art case is all about proportions – note how the cabriole legs (double curved 18th century type) give a certain elegance to the design. The music rack is embellished with scroll work. Repeated again under the keyboard. Even the side rims are notched and accented with motifs. Though i prefer satin art case instruments, this one has been high polished. In England, they’re called ‘bright’ finishes. Check out these other examples of art case: a few vintage Steinways – one with ornate carvings, the other with detailed inlays. While some would call these garish, if you’re a woodworker of any kind, you’ll appreciate if nothing else, the labour that went into the meticulous detail.

 

And finally, some modern day examples of art case – Bosendorfer designed by Audi. Steinway’s year 2000 “Rhapsody in Blue” limited edition (commemorating George Gershwin). And one of my all time favorites, Schimmel’s Pegasus. Click on the picture to see the enlarged photos.

Art Case Pianos – Part 1 Steinway #1225

A friend of mine (who will remain nameless) is a bit of a legend in the piano industry.  One day we started talking Steinway and he asked if he ever told me about “Twelve Twenty-Five”.  “1225? What’s that?”  He proceeded to tell me about this piano that is the oldest known “Art Case” Steinway ever found.  He and a business partner bought it! (before it entered into Steinway museum).  Here it is if you want to take a look. So art case refers to anything aside from standard traditional looking grand piano. “Traditional” means straight legs, no frills cabinet in either black, walnut or mahogany. “Art case” refers to paintings, carvings, fancy legs, scroll work, inlays, exotic woods and recognized designers.
But let me first continue with the 1225 story. So… apparently (as legends take on a life of their own…) this piano was part of an estate. But here is where it gets tricky because the piano didn’t say STEINWAY anywhere on it. Well… how do you know if you have a Steinway if it doesn’t have those letters anywhere on the cabinet? There were only 2 clues: One was that the music rack was carved with the same pattern as Steinway. The second clue was that the designer was definitively the same designer Steinway had used in later projects. On a gamble, these two men bought the Steinway… or what they THOUGHT was a Steinway. Some time later an entourage came from the factory to authenticate the piano and… sure enough it is the oldest art case piano presently in existence from Steinway & Sons. By the way… 1225 is the serial number of the piano dating it to 1856.

 

Piano Manufacturing Today… Is It All a Numbers Game?

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ODzO7Lz_pw[/youtube]

Ok so there’s some homework attached to today’s post – it’s a TED talk -if you haven’t yet seen TED tv you should… FABULOUS encouraging and often humorous talks to feed the soul.  Anyway, i watched this post some time ago about a guy building a toaster from scratch.  Click on it (above). So it’s about a guy who decides he wants to build a toaster, gather the necessary components of iron, copper, mica and plastic to form his toaster.  ANYWAY… the reason i mention this is because i once thought to myself… “i wonder how i would go about building a piano from scratch”.  Think about the cast iron frame alone – let alone the grand rim, the pressure fit soundboard, the 3000+ action parts, the strings, the hammers… The piano manufacturing process is the evolution of about 200 years of tinkering and design to the point where we have it today.  Seguay.

I had the privilege of speaking with the CEO of Pearl River/Ritmuller piano company this year.  He said that they have about 1.3 MILLION… that’s capital M as in Million square feet of manufacturing space (2.8 million of land!)  Annual productions run nearly 100,000 pianos.  So… think realistically about the fact that it might take many months to produce one mediocre piano by yourself.  Pearl River is putting out – completed pianos 800 PER DAY.  800 completed, tuned, regulated, finished, polished pianos PER DAY.  Now this brings about one other point – Productivity necessitates efficiency.  Did you catch that? The more you create of one product, the more efficient the manufacturing becomes.  If i made one piano, it might take me a few years.  Two pianos… let’s just double up every stage of the manufacturing and build twos of everything.  Thirty per year, you need a small team to accomplish this.  (Approximate numbers) 450 per year – as in Bosendorfer – roughly 37 per month… that takes some thought as to efficiency.  Steinway – around 5000 pianos – 400 per month.  See where this is going? Now when you get to 90,000-100,000 pianos annually you have two options.  You hire an incredibly large work force of people with many inconsistencies or you did what Pearl River did and bring in VERY expensive machines to streamline the process.  This is where my radar perks up.  If you can maintain and supply for consistent sales at nearly 100,000 instruments annually, then by reason, should not their refinement in manufacturing tolerances also become very acute? Productivity lends itself to efficiency because you CANNOT manufacture that many pianos without being consistent time and again.  Before you have the audacity to wipe off a brand of pianos without thinking through what it is they accomplish in a year, better make sure you know that of which you speak.  At 100,000 pianos a year, 800 per day, they’ve hired some of the best in designers in the world (Lothar Thomma).  At a staff of nearly 4000 employees, this piano company will soon be (if not already) one of the largest forces in piano manufacturing the world has ever known.  If that were not enough, Pearl River/Ritmuller is one of (i believe) only 2 piano companies in China to receive the highly accredited ISO (International Organization for Standardization) stamp of approval.  Check out the promo video below… now THAT’S impressive!

[flv]http://www.pearlriverusa.com/flv/pearl_river_01.flv[/flv]

 

How Much is My Piano Worth?

This is a quick and easy guide to price out what a piano is worth.  But before i get into that, let’s pretend for a moment that i know nothing about pianos… who knows… you, the reader might be in that situation.  Let’s say… i’m shopping for a houseboat (which i know nothing about BTW).  If i started my search, this would be my process:  I’d investigate new ones… I’d search for “BEST OF” makes and models, look at used ones, find out which ones hold value, which are most sought after and above that look at location and condition.  Pianos really are no different. There are about 4-5 parameters that i constantly bear in mind when evaluating instruments:

  1. Find out new value (if at all possible… many pianos have gone out of biz in the last 100 years…more on that later)
  2. Look online to find used comparisons
  3. This will determine what value retention is like
  4. Condition condition condition
  5. Location location location

So… case study #1  Let’s say you own a studio yamaha upright piano (pictured above).  Let’s say you own a model E108.  The new versions of those pianos locally sell for about $4000 CDN.  My rule of thumb is used pianos in mint condition sell for about half what a new one lists for.  Why? Well put the shoe on the other foot being a consumer.  Let’s say you want to buy a piano.  What would motivate you to buy used vs. new? If a new piano is $4000 and a used one is $3500… i’d usually buy the new one for a few more dollars and have warranty etc.  If the used one is $2200 (with no tax being a private sale) and a new one is $4000 plus tax (roughly $4400), the used savings are substantial enough to warrant buying used (at a cost savings of $2000 or more).  Finding out used comparisons… there are ones listed between $1800 and $3200… so you need to decide then what condition your piano is in.  Ask yourself “How close to new does my piano appear?”  Then examine again what other examples locally are selling for.  If yours is a MINT version of what you see locally… you may want to price it a bit higher.  Condition drastically affects piano value.  I’ve had beat up grands and excellent condition grands – same model and have a HUGE price disparity due to condition.  Look for evidence of condition – rust, cracks, chips, scratches.  Generally outside condition is often indicative of inside condition as well.  Finally… location.  I’m AMAZED at how pianos sell for different dollars in different locations.  It’s called supply/demand.  If the demand is higher, the price is according. Locally economic health also affects many used items. 

Case study #2… old piano… a Nordheimer (see below)… you can tell it’s old because of the fact that it looks like an antique.  It looks NOTHING like a new piano.  These are trickier to price in some ways. Some have had new parts, some have been refinished.  But the fact remains that most tall pianos (55 inch) that look kinda crusty are usually better part of 100 years old.  Now before you get all wound up about the fact that you’re holding on to an ‘antique’ artifact, let me dispell the myth that there are only 2 kinds of pianos: modern design and ‘early’ piano.  Early pianos ARE collectable and are specific models made between 1800 and about 1850 but even those aren’t necessarily valuable.   The ‘modern’ piano as we know it almost became standardized by the year 1900.   So… looking online… see the wide range of value? $100 – $3000!  Find some that look reasonably the same.  Quite quickly you’ll realise that value is more a product of supply/demand than condition.  Most old pianos these days are valued locally here at about $500-800.  “But… but… but… we put THOUSANDS into the resoration of our piano” you protest.  I hear ya… and i feel for ya… but refinishing, new parts will only bump up the price somewhat. 

Finally, bear in mind the name… with name is associated price.  Steinway for example fetches many times more than weird and obscure pianos REGARDLESS of quality.  Why? They’ve managed to stay on top of their game (let alone they’re still in business today).  Other names such as Yamaha, Kawai, Baldwin, Young Chang, Samick, Pearl River etc… are also household names.  These pianos will always have better value retention because of the name association.

OK OK OK one last note… if you’re STILL stuck, contact either a store or a technician. I field questions ALL the time about value and what people should price pianos at.  Good luck! And happy selling. Cheers!

Piano Frames – Steel or Iron?

My gears about this post started in January of this year.  I briefly discussed the concept of steel frames in pianos with piano designer Del Fandrich at NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) in Anaheim, California.  Until recently steel hasn’t been really considered as an option for a frame in a piano.  It’s relative brother iron is just so much easier to work with and cost effective… and let’s face it, the development of the piano is shrouded in tradition.  “If it ain’t broke” some would argue, “don’t fix it”.  Well enter the age of the super-piano.  Pianos designed with extreme accuracy, pianos manufactured by computer assisted tools called CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) – lathes that can cut out parts within thousandths of an inch.  We are also living in an era where there are giant piano manufacturers but also boutique makers who put out pianos in excess of $250,000.  With the holy grail of pianos much more in view than 100 years ago, mark my words that change is in the wind.  Seguay.

As a kid do you remember those REEEEEALLY bouncy small rubber balls? Do you? I grew up in a house that had a central hallway.  Well you can imagine what fun those balls were when you bounced one at any angle.  Our cat was wide-eyed and mystified at such a toy.  The success of those bouncy balls is due in part to the density of the ball but ALSO, equally important is the reflective surface.  Try bouncing it on a soft rug and all energy is lost.  So the guiding principle then is that the harder the reflective surface, the more the energy is transfered outward correct?

Pianos are no different.  Lately i’ve been working on a 1923 Steinway.  The action rail is a long rail which holds all of the hammer, shanks and flanges in place.  Interesting to note is the METAL rail.  While 98% of the companies in that day simply used wooden rails, Steinway was using cast rails.  Yamaha in about 1970 redesigned all of their pianos to have alluminum rails.  What does that mean? Well when the hammer strikes the string, it means that the harder surface (ie metal) is like the cement floor with the bouncy ball.  It pushes the energy outward.  Wood, though firm doesn’t hold a candle to metal of any kind.  With energy loss also comes sound projection loss.

Fast forward over one hundred years from Steinway’s action rail.  Now make no mistake that iron in pianos is the backbone and is the rigid frame in any piano.  But what happens if you use a substance whose strength is MINIMUM three TIMES greater than that of iron.  Back to the bouncy ball.  Firmer structures make for greater projection.  When i interviewed Petrof at NAMM, their new designs which can’t be seen are some of the more exciting changes i’ve seen in years.  One technician who was at the show told me all about the implementation of steel in their keybed.  Interesting.  The keybed is the framework around the keys.  Again… hate to sound like a broken record but… harder the surface, the greater the projection.  And now what have they gone and done? Check this out…. STEEL frame – not just iron.  Kudos to them.  Now this may not be news to some… but it’s news to me.  Change is in the wind… and we’re going to see it in our lifetime.

Oh and BTW, due to increased strength, somewhat less steel is used thus exposing more of the soundboard.  See how the frame is almost like a spider’s web? Brilliant.  The Petrof model is called the Monsoon.  When it rains it pours…

Piano Soundboard Tension???

It was a funny afternoon of visitors in my piano shop.  One such visitor was a friend of mine… another guy named Glenn (although i keep reminding him that 2 ‘n’s are redundant… but then again, i named my youngest son Quinn…)  ANYWHOOOO… he comes in, sits down and states “Glen… i have a REALLY hard time reading information from piano ‘authorities’ when in the first paragraph, there are GLARING errors. It’s rubbish”.  Now you have to bear in mind that most of my friends are critical thinkers.  Glenn is no exception – structural engineer by trade but also piano lover.  He continued “I was reading from a leading expert who was writing about piano soundboards being under tension”.  Me being the non-intellect of my friends… i get dragged by my collar into such discussions… i’m a little slow to the draw and reply… “Ya… uh huh and your point?”  (I’m surprised he didn’t have my head at that response.)  “Glen think about it!!!  Tension by definition means to pull apart.  Take a rubber band. Stretch it apart. THAT’s tension.  Compression means pushing together.  He held one of my business cards bending it slightly – THAT’s compression.  It’s ridiculous that a soundboard would be under tension… it would be KINDLING! Pull apart a soundboard??? Pianos aren’t under tension at all… they’re under compression.  The Roman arches were designed with compression – pushed together”.  After thinking about it for awhile i recognized how he was right.  Piano soundboards are compressed – slightly arced with a crown.  The more i think of that concept, the error in logic almost seems humourous.  We’ve somehow slipped into bantering terms about that incorrectly define the piano.  We then have a scenario of the blind leading the blind don’t we? When the so-called experts are educating their followers down a slippery slope.  Starts to make one wonder however as to the validity of other information given. Just sayin’.

The Piano Market: General Trends

Ok let’s be honest here… companies are coming to recognize that their name is worth more than their product.  And i’m not talking just of pianos – the Japanese company Sony manufactures many of their products in Mexico… Martin guitars partially the same. Delta, HP… they’re all savvy to the fact that their names bring about reliability amongst consumers.  They then trade their name for cheap labour and high profits… albeit quite often for a short season.  I have a friend who used to always say “In biz, you can either have a quick nickel or a slow dime”…. meaning that you can either sell out, for tomorrow the market may be gone… make the quick money now… or you build a quality product (the slow dime) for higher dollars that require longer to sell and have a smaller market share etc.  So how does this apply to the piano biz? Glad you asked.

In January of this year i attended the NAMM show (the National Association of Music Merchants).  And i took this opportunity to play every piano at the show but also, i talked to each manufacturer and asked what their ‘selling advantage’ is.  Interesting to note that name branding has gone a layer deeper… not only is the piano name a brand, but now the parts are name branded.  Terms are bantered about such as “Roslau wire”, “Abel hammers” etc.  The cheapest of designs (i was told) are copies of expensive pianos.  In fact, i heard on more than one occasion how these pianos were from ‘German tradition’.  Well… i wouldn’t have really cared much until i have started hearing these same catch phrases from consumers.  People like name brands and buyers want confidence – that comes from innovation, design, tradition.  So… me being the skeptic… what happens if those elements are all but smoke and mirrors?  I’m not saying that the parts are not what they say they are but… what happens if those parts don’t equal the whole? If they don’t truly give the entire picture?  Let’s say you’re buying a car.  The motor is great! But what about the frame? What about the transmission? The body? The performance is all dependant on the entire package correct? And so i see the general trends of piano making presently moving towards name branding the significant parts while glossing over other less noticeable ones hoping that consumers won’t somehow notice.  The sad part? Is that most consumers buy it… hook, line and sinker.

So how do you avoid being horn-swaggled? Look deeper into the piano manufacturing… do your homework… talk to performers and technicians, teachers and friends.  Be a smart and edumacated consumer.

Full Size Grand Pianos

So… over the years there have been many terms bantered about with regards to pianos – terms like “upright grand” or “baby grand”.  In this blog we’re going to discuss what a “full size” grand is.  First of all, i would just like to point out that there is no official guide to piano sizes.  These names have evolved and so their usage is also vague at best.  For what it’s worth, however i’ll give you the ‘insider scoop’ on how retail stores and piano dealers categorize grands.

First of all, let’s set a few ground rules shall we? Full size seems to imply that smaller grands are somehow missing something – as if there is such a thing as a half size or 3/4 size piano… not so.  All pianos have the same amount of keys. All pianos have roughly the same amount of strings.  So what exactly is changing then from one size to another? It’s the length.  The term ‘baby grand’ in my mind is anything 5’5″ and under.  Today we see modern manufacturers producing really small pianos at 4’9″, 4’11″… 5’0″, 5’1″ etc.  In the olden golden days Steinway (among others) consolidated sizes to 5’2″, 5’7″, 6’1″, 6’10”, 7’4″ and 9′.  Yamaha has had huge success with a 6’6″ piano as opposed to Steinway’s 6’10”.  Regardless, pianos under the 5’7″ mark have usually been considered baby.  Full size refers more than anything to string length.  Once you surpass the baby grand size in strings, the piano blossoms.  More so even on the 6’1″ grand. Now at the extreme other end, the term ‘concert grand’ has been reserved for 9′ pianos while semi-concert is the 7’4″ – 7’6″ range.  So if a baby grand goes up to 5’5″ and the semi-concert is at 7’4″, then the term ‘full size’ would fit in the middle there.  So the way i define full size is a piano between 5’7″ and 7′ in length.  Hope this gives you an idea about what we’re talking about.  Just FYI, you won’t magically step over the threshold from one piano size to another, you’ll just hear the difference that length makes when you gradually increase the size.  Take a look at the pics below and see how the rim (the curved end part on the piano) is quite different.  Pictured: Yamaha A1 (4’11”), Yamaha C5 (6’7″), and Yamaha CF (9′).

Why should I buy a big piano instead of a small one?

I regularly get asked this question in my shop.  What IS the difference between big pianos and small pianos?  Well i’m going to preface this by asking you a question, “Do you ever see small pianos in concert halls?”  The answer unequivocally is a resounding NO.  Logically then, ALL piano makers have come to the same conclusion that bigger pianos are somehow better.  And you could argue that big pianos fill big rooms with sound.  And there is a measure of truth to that, HOWEVER… my nephew who is in his 20’s has a stereo system in his car that is a 1000 watts of output.  Now when you consider an average home stereo might be 200-400 watts and a clock radio might be 1-2 watts, a whopping 1000 watts seems overkill right?  Well the bigger the stereo system, generally speaking, the greater the fidelity.  In pianos too, the longer the strings (thus making a bigger piano), the richer the fundamental… generally speaking.  The what? The fundamental? What is that? Glad you asked.  The fundamental is the base frequency of a note.  Within every note on any instrument, there is a rainbow spectrum of harmonic tones.  The fundamental then is the base… the one we hear the most – the pitch of the note.  So if you play an E on the piano, primarily you will hear frequency corresponding to E.  Within the body of that note though are other notes – namely the 5th, the 7th, the 10th etc.  So within an E note are also present “overtones” or “harmonics” of B, D and G#.  They all are embodied in that same note.  A trained ear will hear them.  In fact, piano tuners tune a piano way more based on the sonority of the overtones than the pitch of the note which brings me back to the original quest for the truth about large pianos: Large pianos generally have more fundamental and more pleasing harmonics than small pianos.  And THAT is precisely why you should always find as BIG a piano as your space and budget can afford.  You will be MUCH happier with a taller upright and a longer grand because the fundamentals will be more present and there will be less conflict with ringing overtones.

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