Note: This is the second part in my series about the piano lifecyle. Read the first part here.
In reading reactions to the New York Times article on the rise of throwing old pianos away, I was struck in particular by this Letter to the Editor published in the Syracuse Post-Standard, as well as this article proclaiming that We are Witnessing The Second Great Piano Die-off.
A common thread between the two posts seems to be a pervading sense of alarm that pianos will soon be obsolete due to our wired society in which these hulking acoustic instruments no longer seem to fit.
There is no question that advances in technology, especially devices that allow us to enjoy music in a passive (listening-only as opposed to actively playing) way, have drastically changed the position of pianos in the average American household.
Through the 19th and into the 20th centuries, prior to the advent of the phonograph, the piano was the main source of entertainment in people’s homes. After all, the piano, the most versatile of instruments except for its lack of portability, provided recreation in the form of listening to, playing, and singing along with music. A piano could be the melody, the harmony, the accompaniment, or all of the above all at once. The popularity of pianos was reflected by the number of piano manufacturers that existed in the United States, which numbered well into the hundreds into the early 1900s, then plummeted due to the quadruple-whammy effect of the record player, the radio, the Great Depression, and World War II. Today, the number of piano manufacturers in the US can be counted on less than one hand.
Additionally, the increase in popularity of electronic keyboards and digital pianos (different from keyboards in that they are meant to simulate the sound and feel of an acoustic instrument as accurately as possible), would seem to give the credence to the idea that the final blow to acoustic pianos is not far off. After all, between ipods, Twitter, smart phones, Mad Men, football season, Goodreads, video games, and music education budget cuts in schools, how can the piano be expected to compete?
In my six years of working in a piano store, it is my observation that the piano is still an extremely desirable item in our society.
Schools, churches, and theaters still make purchasing quality instruments a priority. They view investing in a piano as a benefit to the culture of their organizations. All musicians, not just piano players, revel in the versatility of the instrument, and recognize the value in having one for practice and performance. Parents delight in finding just the right instrument on which their children can learn and practice. Children delight in seeing (and banging on) the different types of pianos, from the the small spinet models that saved the piano industry during the Great Depression, to the most modern of player pianos that merge the instrument’s unparallelled acoustic power with ipad and iphone operation (Yes, there really is an app for that!).
The piano endures because, while it is not the everyday household item that it once was, it has reached a level of ubiquitousness in the human psyche and our culture that would be nearly impossible to erase. In all its forms, the piano remains one of the most recognizable items on the planet.
After all, what other musical instrument exists that is a centerpiece of home decor, that any person, young or old, can operate because almost everyone can push a note, or two, or three, or even 10 down and therefore know the delight of making music, albeit in a very basic form? There is simply a mystique to acoustic pianos that enthralls and delights something in all of us, which I see everyday when people peer through the windows of the workshop or walk through the door and view the showrooms.
Pianos also endure because many manufacturers, rather than resisting the rise of technology, have embraced it and found a way to incorporate it into traditional acoustic pianos in the most innovative of ways.
Take the Yamaha Corporation, for example. Many people know of Yamaha as a maker of motorcycles, audio equipment, and countless other products.
But Yamaha actually originated as a piano and reed organ company in 1887, reflected in its logo of three intersecting tuning forks. Today, Yamaha’s Keyboard Division is still one of the largest and most important sectors of the company. Alongside its abundant line of acoustic pianos, Yamaha has developed an outstanding, wide-ranging line of digitals, known as Clavinovas, player pianos known as Disklaviers, that have internet connectivity for lessons and performance and multi-track recording capabilities, as well as their line of hybrid Avant-Grands, which merge an acoustic playing mechanism with digital sound sampled from an acoustic concert grand. Together, the innovations of the Yamaha Keyboard Division support the piano in all its forms to provide everything that a student, teacher, hobbyist, and performer could possibly desire.
The PianoDisc Corporation, founded by brothers Kirk and Gary Burgett (also owners of the storied Mason & Hamlin piano company), is another instance of adapting while maintaining tradition. With every advance in playback equipment, from cassettes to floppy disks to ipads, PianoDisc has adjusted every step of the way with its aftermarket player systems that can turn any piano of any brand, grand or upright, into a player without sacrificing any acoustic functions. This type of willingness and ability to adapt only helps maintain the piano as a relevant asset in our modern times.
Ultimately, no matter what other new-fangled technology comes along, I just don’t see the piano, an item that has survived for centuries through the industrial revolution, the rise of broadcasting, two World Wars, and the internet, going anywhere. Similar to the radio, it has become more of a niche item rather than an everyday one, but one that is still considered valuable and useful in our culture. If anything, technological advances, especially interactive ones, can only help us more quickly spread and foster a love and knowledge for pianos to the most remote of people and places.