For a Steinway, I Did It My Way

Concert pianists select Steinways the way rock stars favor Fenders. And while I’m neither, I’ve always wanted the grandest of pianos.

In recent months, and after years of not playing, I’ve reconnected with my instrument, practicing sometimes for hours a day, the way I used to when I played seriously before college, a job and life in general took over. For the most part, I’ve been practicing on a tinny hotel grand tucked in a conference room a few blocks from the office. Then I began hankering for my own, and resumed my dream of owning one made by New York-based Steinway & Sons. I began saving my pennies — or, more accurately, my C notes — and started scouring Internet and newspaper classifieds.

For me, buying a Steinway was the only way to go, as it is for many of the best pianists in the world. But it was also out of my price range: A new Steinway grand can retail from around $40,000 to well over $100,000 for a full-size concert piano.

Of course, there are many other highly reputable piano manufacturers, such as Mason & Hamlin, based in Haverhill, Mass., and C. Bechstein of Germany. But Steinways have a special place in the world of pianists. International star and Uzbekistan native Yefim Bronfman recalls when the Tashkent concert organization acquired a new Steinway. “Nobody local was allowed to touch the instrument,” says the Grammy-winning Mr. Bronfman, who was a teenager at the time and already playing concerts. “I was begging the promoter to even play one note of it. It was a very guarded commodity.”

Today, he performs exclusively on Steinways. “A good Steinway has a way of inspiring a performer,” he says.

And while I’m no Grammy winner, I still wanted that Steinway sound. To my surprise, I found loads of used Steinways for sale, perhaps reflecting the sorry state of the economy. Fewer people buy such pricey instruments when money grows tight. And more people with grand pianos gathering dust in their living rooms “take a second look” at the hulking instruments when they consider liquidating some assets, says Rochester, N.Y., piano technician Joe Ross, who runs piano-sales Web site “If you’re in the market for a used piano, this is a good time for you.”

Piano Sales Dip
Indeed, the number of new pianos sold declined 19% in 2007, the second consecutive annual decline in unit sales, according to Englewood, N.J.-based Music Trades, which tracks sales of new musical instruments. .

Experts say it’s much harder to track sales of used pianos, but Boston-based piano technician and author Larry Fine speculates that there are five to 10 times more used pianos sold than new, with a wide range of brands and conditions.

But buying one proved more complicated than I expected. Just because I play the piano doesn’t mean I understand the mechanics of it, any more than the fact that I can drive a Porsche means I could evaluate its transmission. A look under the “hood” is daunting: More than 200 strings, attached to a harp-like plate, are struck by hammers. The hammers are linked to a series of intricately connected parts with names like “jacks” and “wippens.”

From the library, I borrowed Mr. Fine’s guide to piano shopping, “The Piano Book,” which diagrams the guts of a piano and discusses what consumers should look for. In it, Mr. Fine states flatly: “The most important thing you should know about buying a used piano is that you should have it inspected by a piano technician before putting your money down.”

A technician will charge anywhere from $75 to $150 for a consultation. But a good tech is money well-spent, since he has the experience to know whether the price a seller is asking is fair, and how much it can cost to restore a piano that needs work.

“Pianists, even the most wonderful pianists, for the most part don’t know very much about the instrument,” says Irving Faust, owner of Faust Harrison Pianos, a dealer in Irvington, N.Y.

Some pianists maintain that the best pianos are the older Steinways built before World War II. Founded in New York in 1853, the House of Steinway experienced waves of immigration, deaths and a patchwork of family members running it at different points in its history.

“The new ones don’t have as much three-dimensionality, they don’t have as much color. They don’t have as deep a soul as the old ones do,” says Sara Faust, who along with her husband, Irving, started a business around rebuilding vintage Steinways while working as a concert pianist in the 1980s.

For its part, Steinway says that’s a myth. “Our point of view is that technical innovation means that the Steinway today is the best Steinway ever,” says Leo Spellman, senior director of communications for Steinway & Sons, the New York-based piano unit of Steinway Musical Instruments Inc. Still, Steinway began its own restoration operation in 1987, which has grown steadily to capture 13% of total sales in 2007, compared with 8% a decade earlier. It got into the business to hedge its bets: “The biggest competition for a new Steinway,” says Mr. Spellman, “is old Steinway pianos.”

Granted, they may need rebuilding, which can run around $30,000 or more for such things as new strings and refinishing. That doesn’t include the price of the used piano itself, which added together, can wind up costing more than a new one. But you can still find a Steinway that has been lovingly cared for and rebuilt over the years, which can result in a very good piano for a fraction of what a new one would cost.

My search began on the Internet, where there exists a whole world of used pianos. Web sites like eBay and Craigslist abound with listings claiming “like new” or “completely rebuilt” or “excellent working condition.” Which means a lot of traveling to try out a lot of pianos.

A glance at Craigslist resulted in trip to Philadelphia to look at a smaller Steinway grand. Described as having been recently performed on by a concert pianist, the visit revealed a tattered instrument with numbers and letters taped to keys. The seller was asking $16,000 for a sad-looking beast whose sound vibrated and whirred ominously. I gingerly tried to play a Chopin etude before flitting out the door.

On the way home to Washington, D.C., I stopped at a piano store in Wilmington, Del., that advertised “everything must go” because it was going out of business. It had two Steinway grands; the first, a small model from 1900 that the dealer said was rebuilt with Steinway parts. The second was a similar model from 1917, which the salesman said was also rebuilt but didn’t specify the type of parts until prompted. (They weren’t from Steinway). The price on the first was $29,000; the second was $22,500. The pianos didn’t sing to me; the older one felt a bit sluggish to the touch; the other sounded brassy.

Going to College
Then there was the college used-piano sale. In the local paper, American University announced the sale of its music department’s pianos, “sold at substantial savings during a one day event” in March.

But besides a fine-print mention of service provisions, the ad didn’t specify who was really running the event: Local piano dealer Jordan Kitt’s Music.

In an arrangement common throughout the industry, the company lends pianos at no cost to colleges. In return, the school agrees to provide space for a sale of those and other pianos from the dealership. “It’s a good partnership all the way around,” says Chris Syllaba, executive vice president.

But for the consumer, maybe not so much: The pianos are generally only 5% to 10% below the store’s retail price; the ones that have been used by the schools sell for about 15% below retail. Steinways I looked at were generally at least $40,000. They sounded lovely and full, but were far more than what I could afford.

Not having any success on the Internet or in advertised sales, I started scouring local newspaper classified ads. As it happened, I noticed one placed in a New Jersey paper for a larger model Steinway than the ones I’d previously seen. It was “with bench, #156245, Honduran mahogany case, concert condition.”

I called the phone number listed. The piano’s owner, 85-year-old Richard Stobaeus, had arranged for a church to house it — while keeping rights to practice on it — some 15 years ago, and decided the time had come for him to sell. We made arrangements for me to test it out.

For $100, I hired a technician to give me an assessment of how the piano looked and whether the price was fair. Because technicians often have their own sales business and may want to buy a piano for themselves in order to resell — or try to sell you one of their own — I made it clear that he would be acting as my agent, and that he shouldn’t discuss pricing details with the seller.

On a Friday night, I drove the four hours to Summit, N.J., and pulled up to a large stone church. Mr. Stobaeus was waiting for me in the music room, his hand lovingly resting on the nearly seven-foot piano, its long tail gleaming of rich mahogany and its 88 perfect black-and-white keys beckoning. I prayed that it played as beautifully as it looked. So I tested some Bach, Chopin, Debussy and a bit of jazz. The sound was incredibly rich, and the touch, or “action,” was very responsive.

It was built in 1912; Mr. Stobaeus had owned it for the past 35 years, during which time he had it gradually restored, first with a new Steinway soundboard and in the past decade, new German-made action parts installed by a prominent technician in New York. It had ivory keys when it was first made — a material that is no longer used — but they’ve been replaced with synthetic keys. This was one of the better pianos I’d ever played. The technician gave it a clean bill of health.

A Grand for $22-Grand
He already had another offer on the table, but Mr. Stobaeus said he was moved by my playing. “It’s yours if you want it,” he said. We settled on $22,000 to compensate for the competing offer and to pre-empt any bidding war. Then we hugged and cried.

It would cost me $1,200 to bring it to suburban Washington. Having it tuned and the action “regulated” in a few weeks will probably set me back another couple hundred.

But first they’ll have to pry my hands off of it.

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