Roughly about a year and a half ago, I decided to start a search for a grand piano. Aside from several local stores & dealers in the Boston area, my area of exploration extended to out of state New Hampshire, Connecticut & New York businesses as well. Adding to this were helpful friends, local musicians, teachers and piano technicians – willing accomplices in my search, who would inform me of a potential instrument if it appeared on their horizon. (Thanks to Victor Belanger, whose largesse included cheerful and complete responses to my many technical queries). And of course Craigslist, which can be a bit of a wild card, but worth a try nevertheless. To find the ‘perfect’ instrument would be complicated, as perfection is elusive, but my checklist was tangible.
- Size: between 5’8” – 6’8”, preferably larger than 6′
- Manufactured after 1950, it’s age preferably 5-20 years, requiring little or no major repair or maintenance for the next 20 years
- Width not greater than 61” or else it wouldn’t fit through the studio entryway. (The concrete bulkhead could be modified, but I wasn’t prepared to undergo a demolition to accommodate a piano)
- Deep, warm, rich sound, with notes in the upper and lower extremities that you’d actually want to play and not shy away from
- It would serve well for both classical as well as jazz repertoire
- Suited to my budget, which would place it somewhere in the mid-level range of pianos
- This one a phantom stipulation but of great importance – a piano that would inspire my creativity and compositional flow
Almost all research was done on the internet – piano companies, model specifications, dealers, customer reviews, Larry Fine’s The Piano Book, and browsing through piano forums. Among the stores visited were Darrells Music Hall (Nashua, NH), Londonderry Piano (Salem, NH), Steinerts, Boston Organ & Pianos (Natick, MA) & Allegro Pianos (Stamford, CT).
My early search started with Steinways in mind – not the new pianos – despite the revered name and surrounding hype, I wasn’t enamoured with the sound or price,
but older models, preferably built after 1950, something I could put to use immediately without any major repair or work. On the other hand, there were custom re-built pianos, but at the prices quoted, I figured I might be better off purchasing a new piano with manufacturer support and 10-year warranty in hand. Another piano that I kept on my radar was the Petrof. I had played on it a few years ago at the NAMM expo, and had enjoyed the touch – warm, expressive, European sound, but none of the dealers in my area stocked it. And because they didn’t, most dealers did not view them in a favourable light. Which was understandable, as it made business sense to be partial to the manufacturers they represented. And lastly there were the Kawai’s – used pianos could be bought at a reasonable price, and I gave the new RX series serious thought, in fact was almost close to purchasing one.
With the arrival of June, my search intensified – by now, the Steinway & Petrof were dropped from my list and Schimmel, Vogel & Seiler added. This because I had the opportunity to play these instruments in stores, and although slightly beyond my budget, they were good instruments worthy of consideration. Bundled with the Schimmel or Vogel purchase came the expertise and pleasant disposition of Darrell’s Music Hall technician Russ, who promised that the instrument would be tailored and voiced to respond in the best way possible to my touch and playing style.
By the end of June, having made multiple trips to dealers, I narrowed down my choices to the Kawai RX3 and the Schimmel C182. My bank account was to be depleted by a larger margin. The spec sheets for both looked impressive, reviews were good, the Kawai dealer was even amenable to making a deal. I got the movers to measure the entryway to the studio to check if the move would go smooth. And this is where I wish I could be clear about why I didn’t purchase either. For one, I wasn’t filled with excitement or glee, and that is odd for a chronically chipper person like me about to make the biggest purchase of her life. Would saying “I didn’t connect with the instrument” suffice? Some might suggest the problem was mine – that in seeking some sort of mystical connection with the instrument, it had morphed into a psychological dilemma that had me confused, because for all practical purposes, they were good instruments. Perhaps I was not hearing the finer aspects of these instruments that the glossy brochures were talking about. Perhaps the piano would only reveal its true colors after the in-home voicing session by the technician. I write this as an pianist who was looking for a warm, rich, singing tone on an instrument which would guide my creative instincts toward writing and making more music. So yes, I’ll say I had to ‘vibe’ with the instrument – it would be my imaginative and inspirational partner in my artistic endeavours, and that’s a tall order.
Frustrated by now and eager to start all over again, I widened the search to New York & Connecticut. I researched August Forster, Estonia and the Shigeru Kawai. All well beyond my means, but where my initial search embraced a used piano with the possibility of ensuing repairs, I was now gravitating towards a higher quality, low maintenance instrument. The dealers call it an ‘investment’. They also had a penchant for comparing pianos to automobiles which I kind of went along with, albeit with some amusement.
A 4-hour drive to Stamford, CT brought us to Ori Bukai’s Allegro Pianos showroom. We arrived at 3:00PM, and after a cordial welcome by Ori were taken on a very professional and well-staged tour of the spacious two-storey showroom that housed an impressive array of pianos. Ori spoke at length on the intricacies of piano building, craftsmanship and how the materials used for the soundboard, strings and other parts eventually affect the resonance and acoustic properties of the piano. It was fascinating to listen to and watch him demonstrate an acoustic principle across a Blüthner, Bösendorfer, August Förster and Estonia in the same room. This was the very best way for comparison, in addition, it was great to meet a knowledgeable dealer who could also actually play well :-). Over the next few hours, Ori expounded on further facts, theories, possibilities and answered every query of ours, breaking off at intervals to execute a classical or blues/jazz influenced demo on the pianos.
And that mystical connection? Boy, was I on a roll! I was making connections with not one, but multiple pianos – the Bösendorfer, magnificent, full-bodied, sensual, its buttery feel the the icing on an strapping, beautiful instrument. The Steingraeber – its spectacular sound urging me to take chances, play lines I might otherwise have felt insecure about executing – it was like riding a wild black horse, my hair streaming in the wind, going “wheeee”! Damn yes, that’s what playing a piano should feel like sometimes – an exhilarating joyride! Just one minor deterrent, the price tags on these :-).
I spent several hours playing many of the pianos in the showroom from mid range to the super high end focussing on the experience not the price – the idea being to evaluate the relative differences from purely a performance aspect. An interesting fact emerged after a few hours. It became apparent that the difference between the majestic Bösendorfer, Blüthner and Estonia, was more subtle than I had expected, at least for my playing style and requirements. Beyond the price tags of course!
I spent a long while playing the Estonia L190, this one with a handsome African bubinga wood veneer, and my, oh my – I think this was it… it had a unique character, the action was great, the sustain long, the treble sang, the bass was round and had clarity in the lowest register, the instrument had the warmth, color and ‘spiciness’ I was looking for – I may have just found my heaven.
Our private appointment lasted 5½ hours (that’s how Ori works), we were home by 11PM. Suffice to say that the conversation on our return drive home centered around the pianos I had played on, the eloquent Ori, his magnificent showroom and the Estonia. I would be reviewing a few of the recordings in the week to come… I had played the same tunes on different pianos, in this way the density of notes, range of octaves, touch & dynamics would be more or less standardized, hence making it easier for comparison.
Yes, it’s about nuances of timbre, complexity of tone, workmanship and more, but ultimately for me, it was the difference between being content with a piano or being inspired by it. While this post is not an endorsement for any piano, for those ready to embark on this journey – there is the perfect instrument and then there is the perfect instrument for you, so know what you want, keep the doggedness alive, and don’t give up until you find it.
Through this whole process, which involved playing consumer grade as well as fine ’boutique’ pianos, my respect for those involved in the art of piano craftsmanship and the otherwise much under-appreciated art of piano tuning/voicing has risen several fold. As a final note, I made the decision to purchase the Estonia L190 from Ori Bukai. My hand-crafted European piano was shipped from Tallinn, Estonia in August, and after a month arrived at the NYC harbor where it passed customs and was delivered to his Stamford, CT showroom. It was here that is was uncrated, and prepared by Ori personally (Ori’s involvement in the prep being an important factor in this purchase) after which I made another trip to his showroom to play on it. The following week it was trucked to my address, and amid much excitement (barring the nail-biting move down the narrow stairs) was housed in my studio. The celebration soon after included a christening, complete with minister & champagne. To be fair to both sexes, the piano was christened ‘Toni’.