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

The Solution to The Big Mess Part 3

Posted by glenbarkman on October 14, 2009

Bosendorfer art The following is a very biased opinion of what the solutions are for the present piano market based on 3 needs.  And what exactly are those needs?  Simple.  Some people look for quality name brands, some people look for vintage, still others look for new pianos.  Finding used quality pianos is relatively easy.  Look no further than the top of the line Yamaha or Kawai pianos.  Most technicians and teachers would agree that there is a very high level of high quality manufacturing among these two companies.  They are the largest global high level piano companies in the world.  Some could argue that there are higher quality ones… indeed there are – but consistent volume of great sounding/playing instruments – these companies are some of the best.  In a 25 year average, Yamaha put out about 100,000 pianos per year (according to the Pierce Piano Atlas).  Kawai -roughly half that many.  The ever-so-popular Steinway – same averaged years manufactured 2,500.  I must say, there is strength in numbers.  If one company has built into the MILLIONS of pianos… that’s M as in MILLION – think about that.  Their design, servicability, acceptance around the world must be significant.  One small problem… over time their prices are what i deem almost unaffordable now.  In CDN$, a new professional U3 lists at approx. $14,500.  Used versions of these are GREAT investments.  You can usually find them hovering around the $5000 mark.  And if you look around, you’ll find one with plenty of tread still left on the tire.

The second purchase is looking for old and vintage.  Just don’t be snookered… those old pianos are only worth between $300 and $1600 PERIOD!  If you’re paying more than that… you’re paying too much.  If the asking is more – there needs to be a reason – new hammers, new dampers, new bass strings… SOMETHING!  See the previous post on my position pertaining to that.

Ok here’s the biggie… new pianos.  The biggest part of the biggest mess.  Why? Companies have been bought and sold for their name brands.  Old traditional piano companies are now simply a name brand for something cheap (usually).  So who do you trust? What makes a good piano?  Well… here are some words of advice: back to consistency – i’ve owned Chinese pianos, Korean, Japanese, German, North American, Russian, Indonesian, British, Scandinavian – and here’s the world scheme of things… ok i’m gonna do something most would consider faux pas – and that is to compare the piano market to the car world.  At the top… leader of the engineering team… i gotta say is still our German friends.  They have that je ne sais quoi that is like rich dark chocolate… and i also have to say -comes at a price… a VERY expensive price… those are the BMW and Mercedes or pianos.  The Toyota Honda are the Yamaha Kawai.  Brilliant design – less cost.  Next we have domestic and Korean in cars… Young Chang and Samick build solid, decent instruments.  My preference is leaning towards Indonesian construction.  The lower end pianos are ALL Chinese built.  When you consider Indonesian vs. Chinese… every step in manufacturing is cleaner, nicer, more polished in the Indonesian pianos.  If you’re looking simply for price?  Buy something black and shiny – you’ll find it. 

If it were my nickel?  I get enjoyment out of each category.  I love the vintage – i find that the quality in manufacturing back then (1900-1940) was second to none.  BUT they NEED restoration.  The used Japanese – also a FABULOUS option.  If you’re looking for new… then my vote is for Indonesian.  Beautifully finished, nicely crafted… designed by one of the bigger Asian companies (Samick and Young Chang).  But don’t take my word for it… go out and try lots of pianos… see which way you lean.

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What's in a Name… the Big Mess Part 2

Posted by glenbarkman on October 10, 2009

stringsIn the blog entitled As Good As Old  I talked about the fact that restoring old pianos is becoming cost prohibitive unless you find the right instrument.  The whole piano market seems to be in a bit of a mess right now because the old pianos are really too old (without restoration) to be viable instruments and the other problem is that ‘affordable’ pianos quite often are less than desirable.  Five years ago, i never used to talk about country of origin and subsequent name brands.  Presently, this is one of the first things i address.  Why? Because many companies who manufacture are trading in their wares on the name/reputation of another piano company.  In the world today there are approximately 105 piano manufacturers alone in China.  Each of those manufacturers represent upwards of 5 names each… we’re talking mayhem!  Since Chinese names in North America quite often don’t sell well, they’re conveniently slapped a traditional name on the front of the piano.  In essence they’re hoping someone will pick up on the reputation and buy it.  Here in Canada for example, Heintzman was considered the piano supreme.  They folded the company in 1979.  It was then resold about 4 times.  Now, the name exists as a brand of Chinese pianos.  Now before you get your knickers in a knot and think i’m prejudiced, let me just state that i’ve seen substandard workmanship in pianos from around the world.  But what i can tell you is that consistency is the key.  I’ve consistently seen quality from Japan and Germany.  I’ve seen shoddy workmanship consistently from China.  I’ve seen decent work out of Korea and Indonesia.  One thing that continues to be a huge problem in pianos with substandard workmanship is that the quality of parts is poor and the wood used has not been properly kiln dried.  This poses many problems in the not too distant future.  Now before i go on too much more of a rant, i must say that the piano market is in turmoil because ‘affordable’ pianos – which are the ones most consumers are apt to buy are the ones made with substandard parts and workmanship.  Like everything else in the world, apply more technology and do it for less money.  So the good news is that prices are coming down… bad news – the pianos are hardly what i would call ‘artistic’.  So what’s the answer?  Check out the Big Mess Part 3

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What’s in a Name… the Big Mess Part 2

Posted by glenbarkman on October 10, 2009

stringsIn the blog entitled As Good As Old  I talked about the fact that restoring old pianos is becoming cost prohibitive unless you find the right instrument.  The whole piano market seems to be in a bit of a mess right now because the old pianos are really too old (without restoration) to be viable instruments and the other problem is that ‘affordable’ pianos quite often are less than desirable.  Five years ago, i never used to talk about country of origin and subsequent name brands.  Presently, this is one of the first things i address.  Why? Because many companies who manufacture are trading in their wares on the name/reputation of another piano company.  In the world today there are approximately 105 piano manufacturers alone in China.  Each of those manufacturers represent upwards of 5 names each… we’re talking mayhem!  Since Chinese names in North America quite often don’t sell well, they’re conveniently slapped a traditional name on the front of the piano.  In essence they’re hoping someone will pick up on the reputation and buy it.  Here in Canada for example, Heintzman was considered the piano supreme.  They folded the company in 1979.  It was then resold about 4 times.  Now, the name exists as a brand of Chinese pianos.  Now before you get your knickers in a knot and think i’m prejudiced, let me just state that i’ve seen substandard workmanship in pianos from around the world.  But what i can tell you is that consistency is the key.  I’ve consistently seen quality from Japan and Germany.  I’ve seen shoddy workmanship consistently from China.  I’ve seen decent work out of Korea and Indonesia.  One thing that continues to be a huge problem in pianos with substandard workmanship is that the quality of parts is poor and the wood used has not been properly kiln dried.  This poses many problems in the not too distant future.  Now before i go on too much more of a rant, i must say that the piano market is in turmoil because ‘affordable’ pianos – which are the ones most consumers are apt to buy are the ones made with substandard parts and workmanship.  Like everything else in the world, apply more technology and do it for less money.  So the good news is that prices are coming down… bad news – the pianos are hardly what i would call ‘artistic’.  So what’s the answer?  Check out the Big Mess Part 3

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As Good as Old??? the Big Mess Part 1

Posted by glenbarkman on October 9, 2009

Vintage Steinway

Vintage Steinway

The piano market seems scattered… people are more confused than ever.  The pricing seems all over the map.  Name brands are being traded and ‘re-invented’ and in general the whole scene is ONE BIG MESS!  Why is it more of a mess now than 20 years ago? Why, i’m glad you asked that question.  2 things have changed: one is that the ‘old pianos’ from 1900-1930 are now even older.  A piano built in 1925 – 60 years later takes us to 1985.  A 60 year old piano could still be a viable instrument.  But now, fast forward to 2009 (almost 2010) – that same instrument is 85 years old.  When you meet an older person who is 60 or one who is 85 – they’re quite different aren’t they?  What happens if the piano was built in 1905? That instrument is now 105 years old!  Without question it needs restoration.  Is it worth it? Well… the answer is a definitive MAYBE!  Some pianos at the point of manufacturing were cheaply made.  Some were the Rolls Royce of pianos.  When restoring, you need to have a great candidate for restoration before starting.  What that means is – a good soundboard and bridges, a good cabinet (one that has been taken care of) and also a decent name…. now what’s in a name? Pianos, like every other product have some provinence.  If you have an old Steinway or Bosendorfer, those reputations are valuable because they manufactured the VERY BEST instruments in the world.  The thing that every consumer NEEDS to be aware of is cost.  Sure you can restore an old piano…but at what cost?  Take an old upright piano for example… the piano might be able to be purchased for $500.  The parts, however:

  • hammers $1200
  • bass strings $1000
  • dampers $500
  • bridle straps $250
  • key bushings $450
  • refinishing $2000

Tally that up and including the instrument, you’ve spent nearly $6000!  So why would anyone want to do that?  Well… simply put – 2 reasons: one is that you quite often can’t buy the quality or size of instrument for even $6000 at new.  A taller piano made by Yamaha in CDN$ lists at $14,500.    Second reason, is that you have a unique vintage instrument.  They sound different, they look different and overall, they’re just beautiful not only to look at and listen to, but they’re quite often artistic in the approach to design of the cabinet.

The second thing wrong in the marketplace today and why it’s one BIG MESS… i’ll leave you hanging… that’s for another day…

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