By Cathy Johnson
So I read an article recently that really resonated with me and I thought I’d share the gist of it. The title was “I’ve Got the Old Piano Blues” by Neil Wertheimer. It ran in the October 2017 issue of the AARP Bulletin, so its audience was definitely people “of a certain age.” Wertheimer was prompted to write it by the need for his family to “find a new home” for the Steinway upright piano which had been in their family since the early 60s, although the piano itself had been manufactured in 1890.
Does this song sound familiar to anyone? Does someone in your family still have “the family piano” and are they facing the same issue, if not now, someday soon? Wertheimer noted that “for much of the 20th century, most every self-respecting home in America had a piano. It was the home entertainment system long before the era of electronics; families would play and sing together, or listen to their children’s recitals. The peak year for piano sales was 1909 when Americans bought 364,500 new models.” Sales fluctuated throughout the first half of the century, but started a definite downward turn in the 19070s. By 2016, “sales of new acoustic pianos hit a low of 30,000 units.”
And so what happens to all those family pianos, which may have great sentimental or emotional value for their owners – after all it was Mom’s piano – but have little “meaningful value on the open market.“ The reasons are clearly evident: a “tremendous oversupply “of pianos, less interest in them in the electronics age, and the easy availability of “inexpensive, realistic” digital pianos (which have the added advantage of being much easier to move than their acoustic counterparts. Just ask anyone who has had to move the “family piano.”)
Wertheimer had much more to say in the tale of his family’s piano, which ended with the upbeat note that although piano ownership has declined, the interest in piano lessons has not. One studio owner noted that “younger students are brought in to promote a love of music and personal development [while] adult students come in for personal growth and stress relief.”
And, to allay anyone’s fears about disposing of a piano that is still in its prime, it was also noted that “a piano’s life span is typically 50 years; at that point it needs rebuilding if it is to be played as it was meant to.”
Full disclosure here, and much gratitude to Mrs. Helen Smith of Rose Avenue who taught all of my siblings and me so we could play on our mother’s family piano, that instrument is still in our family. Three of us have an acoustic piano in our home, one has an electric keyboard, and one teaches in a music conservatory full of pianos of all kinds and sizes.
I’ll bet there are other piano sagas out there. Thanks to Neil Wertheimer for the great trip down memory lane, complete with a soundtrack from years of piano lessons.