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Striking A Chord: Used Pianos

With the Prices of New Grand Pianos Reaching the High Notes, High-Quality Used Pianos Have Become an Increasingly Attractive Alternative
Miles Chapin
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

Chances are there's a piano lurking somewhere in your childhood--maybe it was in the music room in grade school or in your grandmother's front parlor. But though we may be familiar with pianos, few people can say with any certainty what makes them work, or can articulate the difference between a flea market special and a concert grand.

The piano has held the central position in Western music for two centuries and, according to the Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments, more music has been written and published for the piano than for any other instrument. We carry images of the grand piano and its players in our hearts and minds--everything from Frédéric Chopin and his romantic compositions and Irving Berlin with his popular melodies to the flamboyant Liberace and the rambunctious Jerry Lee Lewis, who was reputed to have once set fire to a piano onstage. But regardless of who is striking the keys, be it an old-time master or a popular contemporary artist, a few intractable facts about grand pianos cannot be avoided: they are big, they are usually immobile and they are terribly expensive. But there is a lot more to the story of the piano, and the history of the instrument is far from finished.

A grand piano may be the most complicated piece of machinery made by hand in the world today. More than 12,000 parts, mostly wood and mainly fashioned by manual labor, go into a grand piano, and it can sometimes take up to four years to go from the tree to the concert hall or living room, depending on the manufacturer. The metal frame, hammers, strings, tuning pins and woodwork that you see underneath the top of a modern grand piano embody nearly 300 years of technological progress that has evolved toward one goal: to create a musical instrument with the greatest sensitivity to the artist's touch and with the highest potential for the production of sound. Yet these instruments are also capable of great delicacy--the music of French composer Erik Satie must be played on the same instrument that can handle a Tchaikovsky concerto. Or, to put it another way, the same piano that can serve the delicious trills and runs of a jazz virtuoso such as Art Tatum must also handle a flat-out rocker like Little Richard.

However, unlike many other highly engineered objects (sports cars are a good example), pianos are often thought of as mere decoration. Isn't there a white baby grand piano in every New York penthouse in every MGM musical? What about the magnificent White House piano that sits in the East Room--a gilded mahogany case embellished with scenes of Americana, seeming to float above golden legs carved in the shape of eagles? Do these instruments ever get played?

In the case of the White House Steinway (the company's 300,000th instrument, presented to the country as a gift from Steinway & Sons in 1938), the answer is yes, occasionally. For the baby grand in the Hollywood films, the answer is probably no. In fact, it's likely that the piano at the old MGM studios wasn't even a musical instrument at all, but simply a white, piano-shaped object used as set decoration. The music, if the piano was to be played at all in a movie, was added in post-production.

For many people, a piano is something that simply sits in a corner of the living room collecting dust, a grand symbol of civilized living. If the name on its keylid is a prestigious one, so much the better. Others with a more musical bent may want an instrument that has a good touch and a nice sound at the lowest possible price. This dichotomy has affected the piano market for decades, making the purchase of a piano, new or used, a stressful event for many buyers.

In recent years, as many people's incomes have soared, a new buyer has emerged--one who is as interested in the musical qualities as much as the decorative, status or investment aspect of the instrument. The market for high-quality used instruments that satisfy both criteria is soaring.

Maximiliaan Rutten, a Manhattan dealer in the high end of the market, describes this new breed as "very sophisticated, very well-educated, wealthy individuals who are at a point where they want to reward themselves and their families with the best of the best. If they have a serious piano education, they may emphasize the decorative aspects of the piano less. If they do not have that background, they are very often admirers of music, and they go after a piano that is not only high quality, but also an instrument that in style and design matches their interior."

In choosing a piano, you are looking at a commodity that must serve several purposes at once. Whether you choose an instrument for its looks, its sound or its investment potential, you should proceed cautiously. There is today, and historically has always been, a large measure of chicanery in the piano trade. Fortunately, quality pianos are tremendously durable and the basic design hasn't changed much for almost a hundred years. Pianos are plentiful, and numerous options are open to the buyer in terms of new instruments, older instruments both refurbished and not, and the specialty trade in one-of-a-kind or limited-edition pianos.

But you must look carefully; two pianos that appear nearly identical may carry vastly different price tags: one could go for a few hundred dollars while the other might cost a hundred thousand. Is there a difference between them? You bet. It gets confusing very quickly, though, when you are dealing with a two-headed beast like a collectible piano. To appreciate some of the subtleties, it helps to have a little historical background.

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