The long, slow fade
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 resumes 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.
Video: the future
Hear piano players sound off on their passion -- and talk about its place in the home.