Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The History, Mechanics, and Economics of the Piano

N. reading The Piano Book.
This August, Tim, N., and I started shopping for a grand piano.  We bought a cheap Chinese upright when N. was 1 year old and it served its purpose well: he banged around on it for years before beginning lessons, getting to know it, and it had a bright, clear, pleasant tone that helped make the piano an appealing instrument.  He's been taking piano lessons for two years now; he's developed very good technical skill but also has a really strong musicality and expressiveness in his playing, which would only develop further on a better-made, more responsive piano.  Plus we'd read The Piano Shop on the Left Bank and got drawn into the romance of the piano!

So we spent a lot of time this fall reading about the piano.  We pored over Larry Fine's invaluable guide The Piano Book.  We learned the history of the instrument, how they were made in different eras, the histories of different piano companies world-wide, the different sounds preferred by different pianists and composers.  We learned about how the piano produces its sound, about manufacturers' experiments with different parts, materials, and shapes.  We learned about global economics as we read about the impacts of labor and material costs, consumer tastes, and corporate consolidations on piano manufacturing.

But books couldn't tell us everything.  We spent many many hours visiting new and used piano dealers in our region, returning to some repeatedly.  Several dealers ushered us into their repair-and-restoration shops and patiently explained parts and tools to a fascinated N.  N. played a wide range of pianos over and over as we learned to discern subtle differences in their sound.  Though all of these pianos were beyond our budget, we learned that I prefer the bright, clear upper register of European pianos like the Bechstein and Bosendorfer, while N. prefers the more robust lower register of the Mason & Hamlin and the Steinway.  We marvelled at the sound produced by the extra resonating string on the upper notes of the larger Bluthners.  We were wowed by the huge, bell-like tone of the Fazioli.  One evening when the pedal on our upright stopped working, N. and I opened the piano up to explore how it worked.  He loved watching the hammers move while he played.  Eventually N. figured out how to fix the pedal.

Playing our partially disassembled upright.
We talked about the tricky concept of value as we tried to pick information out of the sales pitches of dealers and the reports of our tuner-technician.  We were tempted by a 40-year old Bosendorfer with a crystalline upper register that brought tears to my eyes when N. played it, but the soundboard and pin-block were cracked.  The price was already at the upper end of our budget; what kind of restoration work would it need in a few years?  Tim liked a Kawai R that was at the lower end of our budget and made in the same factory in Japan where Steinway has its lower-priced line, the Boston, manufactured, but I didn't like the sound enough to feel it was worth even its low price.  There were several pre-war Steinways and 1980s Baldwins available in our area for a good price, but until they were restored it was impossible to evaluate their sound, touch, or action.  Tim was continually checking Craigslist and online used piano dealers just in case the perfect piano for us was somewhere on the internet.  For a short time I was obsessed with a Bechstein we'd seen and had worked out a justification of its price relative to the years of private school tuition we aren't paying (or the luxury cars other people buy!), but Tim and N.'s teacher both felt this was too much piano to burden an 8-year-old with, and it wasn't N.'s favorite instrument anyway.   Yet it was also hard to know how much weight to give N.'s opinion; we wanted to pick an instrument that he could grow with, but how could he, or we, know which best answered that mandate?

Finally, after flirting with the Bosendorfer, Bechstein, and several 1920s Steinways, we made a safer and more conventional choice: a Boston GP178 5ft. 10in. grand piano.  It seemed like the best value for the price.  If it is not the most interesting instrument, it will likely provide the most consistency over the next ten years, and if we ever need to it will be easy to resell.  N. really liked the sound and the feel of the action, and I think he still will as he gets older, assuming he continues to play.  I think it is very likely that he will keep playing because he really loves it, but Tim and I repeatedly told ourselves that buying this piano does not mean N. is married to the instrument.  Without holding its price over his head, we talked with N. about what it means for our other financial choices to buy this piano, and we talked more generally about what things cost.  N.'s favorite analogy was with comparing the price of the piano with a Prius hybrid car or other cars.  

Playing the new piano (with temporary marble run in foreground!)!
Our piano was delivered in mid-October and tuned and voiced a few weeks later after it had a chance to adapt to our house.  The day it arrived was so exciting, and for a couple weeks afterwards N. told everyone we knew about it and repeatedly stayed up late playing it.  It is such a pleasure for us to hear N. play the new piano; it's so beautiful! 

We had a lot of fun throughout this process and we all learned so much about the piano.  I am sure that N.'s playing will continue to develop in interesting ways not only because he now has an excellent instrument, but because he has a much richer understanding of its mechanics and its history.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.