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piano's status in U.S. living rooms is declining

Posted By: Piano World

piano's status in U.S. living rooms is declining - 07/17/09 02:07 PM

An Article in the LA Times

The piano's status in U.S. living rooms is declining
They were once a symbol of success and a love of music.

By Mary MacVean
May 16, 2009
© LA Times

Giovanni Lovatelli and his family lucked into a long-term loan of a 1948 baby grand piano when a friend moved to New York years ago. Five-year-old Giacomo began taking lessons, practicing diligently for a year or so.

"We had to keep pushing a little bit," Lovatelli said, adding that he promised a basketball hoop if his son persevered through his teacher's recital.

Giacomo got the hoop but soon stopped playing piano, and now, at 11, he plays acoustic and electric guitar.

The piano stayed. Friends play, and children pound on it from time to time, but its long-term place in the family is uncertain -- as is the piano's future in American culture.

The piano has been the center of many American homes for generations, not only a proclamation of a love of music but also often a statement about striving for success.

"In a very traditional sense, the piano did stand for something. It was a symbol of mobility, moving up," especially among immigrant families, said Joe Lamond, president of the International Music Products Assn., based in Carlsbad and known as NAMM. Some real estate agents still will move a piano into a house that's for sale to class it up, he said.

In many homes these days, a piano isn't so much a musical instrument as it is just another piece of furniture. Christiane Cuse didn't want that to happen in her Sherman Oaks house. During some renovations, a decorator suggested moving her family's grand piano to a nook off the living room. She objected.

"I always put the piano in a place people would walk by a lot," she said. "If it's off the beaten path, it's not used."

And so, a dining table sits in the nook, and the piano remains in front of a big window with a view of the pool. Cuse said she often sees pianos topped with framed family photographs, and that's a tipoff.

"Obviously, no one is playing that," she said. "So we've never had anything on the piano."

But the Cuses may be going against the tide. In the 21st century, the acoustic piano seems to be a relic of another era.

Jeffrey Lavner, a piano teacher at the Colburn School in downtown L.A., puts it this way: "I think piano playing is a little like black-and-white movies."

It isn't that our need for music has diminished, said James Parakilas, music department chairman at Bates College in Maine and author of "Piano Roles: 300 Years of Life With the Piano." In fact, our opportunities to hear music seem to be increasing: at home, in cars, even as we walk or jog, buds nestled in our ears. It's that there are so many ways to make and listen to music, and most of them are less demanding and expensive than actually playing the piano.

Many forces have contributed to the acoustic piano's troubles. Start with electronic keyboards and digital instruments, with their improving quality and alluring gadgets such as metronomes, USB ports, headphones and recording devices. Not to mention their generally lower price.

"We live in a digital age," said Brian Majeski, editor of Music Trades magazine. "You have to redefine the instrument."

And in a time of foreclosures and downsizing, the expense of a traditional piano -- which can run from a few thousand dollars to $100,000 or more -- may seem untenable, especially for a child who may be eager to play but has no track record in the rigors of daily practice. What's more, for students, there is ferocious competition for the hours between school and sleep: Homework or video games? Soccer or ballet? Facebook or TV?

In a survey of piano teachers conducted in 2005 for the Piano Manufacturers Assn. International, 89% said that the primary reason a child drops lessons is "too many other activities." That worries Ellen Collins, a piano teacher in Hancock Park, who said the piano has been replaced by a television as the center of the living room or den.

"It saddens me," she said. "How many grown-ups are out there on the soccer field? But music? That's a whole lifetime."

Other reasons: Piano lessons were harder or less fun than children expected, or they were too inconvenient or too expensive for parents.

A branch of society still believes that the ability to play piano has great value, said Adam Chester, who has been playing for most of his 45 years. Not only is he the manager of a Keyboard Concepts store on Beverly Boulevard, but he's also the rehearsal pianist for Elton John.

"I will admit there are a lot of other distractions in today's time-crunching community," he said. "This is the way life is now."

In the world of competitive child-rearing, many parents have a reputation both for spoiling their little darlings and for scheduling them out of all reckoning.

"Kids have résumés when they're 12," Bates College's Parakilas said. "Parents don't ask their children to choose, they ask them to do everything."

That doesn't always mean those parents -- perhaps recalling their own childhood practicing -- insist that their children play scales every day. And again. One more time. Until it's perfect.

"People think it's important, but they don't make it a priority," said Elizabeth Yaron, a piano teacher. "No one will miss a baseball or a basketball game for a piano lesson. . . . It doesn't go the other way."

Sales of new acoustic pianos, which peaked three decades ago, have been harmed by the crash of the stock and housing markets, Lamond said. Figures from NAMM and Music Trades reveal that in 2000, 105,000 acoustic upright and grand pianos were sold in the United States. In 2007, the total was just 54,000. (Electronic piano sales rose from 82,000 to 121,000 over the same period, and Americans bought 1.2 million portable keyboards in 2007.)

By contrast, sales for a generally cheaper instrument -- the guitar -- have risen: From 1998 to 2007, acoustic guitar sales grew to 1,348,000 from 611,000; for electric guitars, the numbers grew to 1,520,000 from 543,000.

"The guitar has displaced the piano in a lot of the music people listen to -- and not just kids," Parakilas said.

People see the guitar -- mistakenly -- as easy to master, and "kids want to see themselves as guitar players," he said.

Garrett Sullivan, the manager of Adams Music, a popular spot on the Westside for lessons, said that electric guitar lessons have been gaining ground for years. It's by far the most popular in the Pico Boulevard studio, with band and orchestra instruments and piano competing for second place.

Not surprisingly, Lamond believes the piano has some staying power. "I think it might be a tad early to call for the demise of the acoustic piano," he said.

Colburn teacher Lavner, in turn, hopes to boost piano culture. "I think it's our job to figure out how to keep it alive," he said.

One of Lavner's students, 15-year-old Isaac Wilson, plans to do his part. An upright Yamaha piano sits in his small bedroom, and he puts in three to four hours each day toward his goal of becoming a professional jazz musician. He can play just before he sleeps and as soon as he wakes, he said.

Christiane Cuse's daughter Caroline, a senior at Harvard-Westlake School, began playing at age 8 on an orange, hand-me-down upright piano. Now, she plays the grand piano that sits in a window of her family's Sherman Oaks home.

"I'm really, really happy that I've taken piano for so long. I think it's a really good form of self-expression," she said one afternoon before sitting down, feet bare, nails painted silver and red, to play Chopin from memory.

The goal of most parents is to make music a permanent part of the child's life, said Kathleen Summerland, Caroline's teacher.

"Occasionally I have the honor of working with someone who will make music a career," Summerland said. But she considers herself to be teaching the audiences of the future.

Those who remain in the business of selling pianos emphasize the mental agility that supposedly comes with practice and the nostalgia value.

"Will the Wii provide those long-term skills that will carry you through?" asked Brian Chung, senior vice president at the piano manufacturer Kawai America Corp. in Rancho Dominguez. "I think pianos are very dear to people. They represent generations of family life. They imprint the memories of a person upon them."

Pro pianist Chester said his older child, who is 5, and will start lessons this year. If the going gets rough, "I'd whip out a couple of old tapes with me at the piano and lots of people around having a great time." Or he can bring on the secret weapon: tapes of Chester with Elton John.


Times staff writer John Vande Wege contributed to this report.
Posted By: Jeff Clef

Re: piano's status in U.S. living rooms is declining - 07/17/09 02:14 PM

Not true in my living room. And I wouldn't miss a piano lesson for a ball game, either.
Posted By: Piano World

Re: piano's status in U.S. living rooms is declining - 07/17/09 02:25 PM

She obviously didn't attend our LA Piano Party...

Or read the LA Times Article about "Grand Obsession" and the PWPF...
LA Times - Grand Obsession - Piano World Piano Forums

Posted By: Arghhh

Re: piano's status in U.S. living rooms is declining - 07/17/09 02:43 PM

Many forces have contributed to the acoustic piano's troubles. Start with electronic keyboards and digital instruments, with their improving quality and alluring gadgets such as metronomes,

Since when are metronomes alluring? If I may quote Gyro, "The metronome. Take that loathsome device and throw it away."
Posted By: sotto voce

Re: piano's status in U.S. living rooms is declining - 07/17/09 02:58 PM

Here's the discussion thread from last May when the article was originally published:

LA Times fun read

Posted By: Piano World

Re: piano's status in U.S. living rooms is declining - 07/17/09 03:04 PM

Thanks Steve,
I missed the original post.

Posted By: turandot

Re: piano's status in U.S. living rooms is declining - 07/17/09 04:59 PM

Thanks for the article. Though most of this has been said before, it is usually not stated as comprehensively or with as much balance.

Since I've been a parent-in-training for more years than I can remember, I'm particularly drawn to the comment:

" In the world of competitive child-rearing, many parents have a reputation both for spoiling their little darlings and for scheduling them out of all reckoning."

as that statement applies to this moment in time in the US.

Admission to an upper echelon college or university in the US has become extraordinarily competitive (not to mention expensive) in the last few years. I was chatting with a high school counselor in my local school district the other day. Due to a concern about federal funding guidelines, the district decided two years ago to open the enrollment in AP and Honors high school classes to all who requested them rather than their previous system of class availability to those who satisfy minimum GPA and teacher/counselor recommendation requirements. The counselor told me that the driving force behind student enrollment in these courses now is parental prodding, and that the prodding usually stems from the panic of ever-stiffening college admission criteria rather than the need for a bright student's ability level to be challenged. He added that many parents are inducing their kids to load up on AP classes to shorten the time they will need to complete college or university, and thus lessen the parental out-of-pocket costs.

If you add together the home study time requirements of two or three Honors or AP classes with the need to enhance a college application with a portfolio of extra curricular activities and school or community service embellishments, there are often not enough hours in the day to support serious study of any musical instrument. And the simple fact of the matter is that, outside of conservatory type schools, fairly accomplished teenage pianists do not impress college admissions folks nearly as much as students who can show a diverse portfolio of extra-curricular, athletic, and volunteer service activities. An accomplished school band musician may be viewed as having some value to a college that an accomplished pianist may not. (Factoid plagiarized from Piano Dad.) wink

To me it's not surprising in the least that kids in this situation of 'being scheduled beyond all reckoning' want to apply what time is left to dumb-time activities like Wii or xBox.
Posted By: Woody-Woodruff

Re: piano's status in U.S. living rooms is declining - 07/17/09 05:47 PM

Maybe it's the company I keep, have kept, or have been exposed to, but I have never, in my 62 years, seen another piano in someone's house. I currently live in an upper middle class neighborhood and have been in numerous houses but not one other piano have I seen. I have always assumed that the decline of the piano started years ago (before the 1950's) and is not anything recent because of this.
Posted By: Piano World

Re: piano's status in U.S. living rooms is declining - 07/17/09 06:15 PM

I'm 57, grew up in a small town north of Boston (Nahant).

Many of our neighbors had pianos (albeit typically verticals).

We currently have about 43,000 registered members on the Forums.
Although only a small percentage stay active on the forums, at least 30,000 choose to still receive our newsletter.

Most have or are planning to get a piano.
Some have multiple pianos.

We also average over 400,000 unique visitors a month.
The majority of those visitors are interested in the piano or they wouldn't be here. Piano World is obviously a destination site for people with some interest in the piano.

I will agree that many people today are opting for an electronic piano, with acoustic piano sales declining.
However, there is still plenty of interest in the piano, including lots of younger folks.

I often mention in our newsletter that those of you who already play piano should share your enjoyment of the instrument with others. I got interested in playing because my father and my sister played. In other words, I was exposed to live piano music, and it caught my attention.

Instead of sounding the death nell of pianos we should be encouraging others to get interested.

Any time I'm out in public wearing one of the Piano World Piano Forums t-shirts (with the giant PW logo on the front), people come up to me and want to talk about the piano.
Very often they start with a variation on "I always wanted to learn to play the piano". And I always tell them, it' never too late.

Posted By: eweiss

Re: piano's status in U.S. living rooms is declining - 07/17/09 06:17 PM

Are we forgetting about "digital" pianos? Seems more of these are being sold than acoustics.
Posted By: Norbert

Re: piano's status in U.S. living rooms is declining - 07/17/09 06:25 PM

Piano are not just pianos.

Measuring by overall volume of instruments sold or put in homes is only one part of the equation.

The other is that certain niche markets of special pianos are definitely happening,some of them even growing.

When checking with some of the top makers, their production is sometimes even sold ahead of time.

There may be 'less' overall pianos in homes, but definitely *more* of certain segments.

Diversity is happening and expected even more so in future.

By the way, accordeons are also down....

Norbert grin
Posted By: Glenn Grafton

Re: piano's status in U.S. living rooms is declining - 07/17/09 07:02 PM

There was an interesting article the other month in one of the music magazines. Basically echoing some of the things mentioned here. The jist of the article is that the typical US parents have their kids running ragged with soccer, travel soccer, Tball, basketball, etc. in lieu of music lessons.

The typical Asian family however still values music lessons for their kids.

I had some grandparents in the other year wanting to get an inexpensive used piano for their grandson. They were not wealthy people.

Their daughter was in the store before at another time. I had some fun with them. Putting my fingertips on my temples and closing my eyes I said:

I see that your daughter and her husband live in a 5 bedroom house, with a 3 car garage. It has a soaring entry way, a large family room with a big plasma TV on the wall. Your son in law has about a $4000 lawn tractor and a late model car that he paid over $30,000 for. Oh - and he's an avid sports fan and has season tickets.

They were stunned and asked me how I knew all that.

I said it was easy; I knew the town they lived in and most of the homes fit that description. The other part was that he had never been in the store - which told me that he was not too interested in the whole idea of his son starting piano lessons — he was unfortunately a typical American dad.

The grandparents bought a lower priced used spinet from us for their grandson.

Contrast that earlier this week where there was a part of the morning news about a high school student who scored a perfect SAT score - all without taking any SAT prep classes. Three things stuck out:

1. He was an accomplished pianists and they had a grand.
2. They showed him playing his cello.
3. He was Asian.

Posted By: pippo

Re: piano's status in U.S. living rooms is declining - 07/18/09 02:07 AM

The piano MAY be on thedecline, but so is cooking a good meal at home. That does not mean the value of the piano, like that of a home cooked meal is declining too. But when that meal is prepared right, there is no comparison the more popular and available meals derived elsewhere, quicker, faster, cheaper.
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