In January of 2011, I wrote a blog called “Finding the Ultimate Worship Keyboard” hoping that my experience as both a worship leader and a professional piano consultant would help other Music Ministers better navigate the confusing waters of piano (and keyboard) retail. To my surprise, that blog quickly exploded into the most read – and one of the most commented upon – blogs in Gist history. Now, over six years later, new technologies and considerations have given me reason to revisit this topic and (perhaps) expand upon it. As always, it is my sincere hope that my experiences will help you find the worship tool that best fits your needs and those of your ministry. I am sure some folks will disagree with my conclusions, but (God willing) the meat of these discussions will nourish all of us! Thank you for reading and God bless!
Last weekend, Roland introduced the highly-anticipated sequel to their wildly popular “Piano Partner” app: Piano Partner 2… and we couldn’t love it more.
Unlike the original Piano Partner, Piano Partner 2 is available for BOTH iOS devices (like the iPad) and Android devices. Also, unlike the previous app, Piano Partner 2 connects to the piano wirelessly via Bluetooth (instead of the quirky and less reliable WIFI technology featured in the previous app). These two upgrades alone would be praise-worthy, but the biggest news is what the new app does! Like Piano Partner, Piano Partner 2 allows compatible Roland Digital Piano Owners to change the sounds on their piano or play on-board songs with a simple touch of the tablet screen. Users can adjust the playback speed, mute one or both hands, and play along with metronome or customized accompaniment. Also like the previous app, Piano Partner 2 includes a powerful flashcards game that challenges the player with either note recognition or ear training skills at a variety of experience levels. NEW to Piano Partner 2, however, is the Rhythms feature. With Rhythms, Piano Partner 2 users can build their piano skills with intelligent accompaniments that follow the chords you play.
…and the best part? Piano Partner 2 is FREE.
One of the great joys of working in The Piano Business is meeting people around the World who share your love of music. Invariably, when I travel, I encounter at least a few people who ask me what I do. When I tell them I work in The Piano Business, they light up – full of personal stories that either make them glad they play or wish they did. The second inevitable question they ask me is really The Great Question of our Business: Which Pianos are the Best? I usually try to deflect the question – citing personal presence, differing student needs and budgetary limitations… but every once in awhile, I encounter someone who really wants to know how I determine which pianos to represent and what criteria drive my interest in new brands. Obviously, that question requires a more detailed answer… so I thought I would make it the topic of my next blog.
Growing Up Steinway
Every piano store has a “headline” brand (a company they promote heavily due to a number of factors, including quality, value, reputation and performance). My company is no different. In fact, Gist Piano Center began their relationship with Steinway & Sons in 1975 – a year before I was even born. You can read more about how that relationship formed here. For almost 39 years, Gist Piano Center promoted Steinway as “The World’s Finest Piano” due to its handcrafted quality, vast history and brand name recognition. The truth is, however, there are many other pianos who could claim to be “The World’s Finest Piano,” including such illustrious brands as Bosendorfer, Fazioli, Grotrian and more. Gist selected Steinway & Sons because they were made in America and because they were far less expensive than their European competition. This is what made Steinway & Sons a fantastic “headline brand” during those years.
I worked part-time in the piano business during the mid-90s, but I joined The Piano Business as a career officially in 2001. I started at a small piano store in Illinois that also used Steinway & Sons as their headline piano brand. They also carried the Steinway-designed Boston piano, Essex, Kohler & Campbell pianos, Knabe and Roland Digital Pianos. It was a great mix. I grew up in The Piano Business fully immersed in Steinway product (as well as a few others). I even went through five years of Steinway training and to graduate from “William Steinway University” (a marketing initiative designed to help piano retailers learn the Steinway system of brand promotion). Thus, when I decided to move out of my small town and into a larger community, Gist was a natural fit – considering that they carried all the same brands I did in my small town piano store.
The Changing Face of Retail
When I first came to Gist, I was surprised at how comparable most things were to my experiences in Illinois. Granted, folks in Kentucky preferred mahogany woods over walnut, but things were otherwise very similar. The winds of change were blowing, however, and I eventually began to see problems with our piano selection.
First of all, The Great Recession of 2008 made it very difficult to sell high-priced, handmade pianos in Kentucky. There just wasn’t much market for a piano that retails for over $50,000. We had no problem selling used ones (a practice we have continued to this day), but selling NEW American pianos became increasingly difficult.
Secondly, despite a total lack of inflation, these high-priced pianos continued to increase in cost annually. Having just seen this phenomenon in the housing industry, we realized that carrying new, high-cost pianos with inflated price tags would only push clients to shop for used or rebuilt pianos. It was a bad decision for our clients and for us.
Around this same time, we began to see how mobile devices were changing the face of piano education. More and more students were purchasing digital copies of print music and using play-a-long material in their daily practice. In order to stay relevant in to today’s piano students, we needed to partner with a company who understood the future of the piano industry.
It was time for us to make a change.
Finding New Brands
Immediately after cancelling our relationship with the American piano brand, we decided to take on a famous Japanese brand. …and, at first, we were pleased with the decision. They we were well-respected, they had a ton of great resources and they had a strong focus on technology. Unfortunately, we discovered that they had their own set of problems.
First, their technology was pretty expensive. Most of the technology they offered put their pianos out of reach for beginners with a limited budget. Instead of buying a piano with factory-installed headphones system, our clients would purchase a “silent” system and have it installed on one of our other piano brands – for a lot less money.
Secondly, the acoustic piano market was flooded with used pianos shipped in from Japan and China (with just a little cabinet polish and hammer filing). In many cases, these used pianos were better deals than the new ones – and the “Grey Market” argument we were given to disavow them was so shaky even my factory rep had a hard time believing it. Again, selling used pianos was easy. Selling new ones… not so much.
Finally, after only two years, we made arrangements to go our separate ways.
A Way Forward
During this low point, I began to look back over our brand history and I noted that Gist has carried over 35 different piano brands throughout its 45-year history. Famous brands like Petrof (1996-2003), Estonia (2009-2011), Kawai (1998-2005), Kimball (1988-1996), Story & Clark (1979-1981), Wurlitzer (1975-1981) and Pearl River (2004-2005) had all been a part of our past. We sold a TON of them even though they weren’t our “headline brand.” …and that made me question whether or not we needed a “headline brand.”
With all this in mind, I went to the big music trade show in Anaheim – a showcase for piano brands from all over the World. I spent four days playing everything – from starter-level pianos to high-end designer grands. I even played a $450,000 piano that looked like a peacock! Phew.
My goal was to find The Best Piano for my store. It had to have a familiar name, a solid reputation, top-notch construction, great warranty support, a magnificent sound and touch and the ability to interface with modern technology. It also had to be affordable for more of the people in my community… and I’ll admit that I was not optimistic that I would find a brand that fits this tall order.
Luckily, The Piano Business is going through a strange metamorphosis right now. Over the past several years, economic factors have caused brands like Baldwin, Wurlitzer, Chickering, Ellington, and Story & Clark to go out of business – selling their brand names to larger companies who have consolidated their own offerings down to just a handful of pianos. The Business has shrunk so much that we’re actually starting to see NEW brand names (like Kingsburg, Brodmann, Geyer and more) emerging from the ashes. Thankfully, I was able to find the perfect solution for our company.
Finally, after months of research, teacher trials, performance testing and brand vetting, I am proud to say that we have found THE Best Piano… for now: Brodmann. …and that is really how it works. Because brands in The Piano Business come and go so rapidly, it’s really impossible to shop by brand anymore. THE Best Pianos are the ones who give the best performance and longevity for the best possible price… and that is an equation that can change overnight.
Thankfully, our staff of highly-trained technicians, piano historians and business leaders are constantly evaluating our inventory – making sure that our clients get THE Best Piano for THE Best Price. …and while I’m sure everyone says that about their pianos, I can offer you something they can’t: proof. That’s right. After 45+ years and over 35 different brands, we at Gist can tell you not only which brands are wonderful today… but we can tell you which ones will hold up well over their 40-year lifespan. …and we can take pianos apart and show you what makes ours better than anyone else’s in town.
Like Gist Piano Center, I am far less impressed by a fancy logo or a high price tag. I have seen how brand names can lead folks astray time and time again. Instead, I am much more interested in the quality of a piano’s construction – much more concerned about the instrument’s design than its marketing… and I’m much more attracted to its performance than to its luxury price tag. THAT is what makes Gist different. We are working hard with our community partners to build a new generation of piano players and we are dedicated to making sure we outfit those players with THE best instruments their money can buy. Which piano is best? Once you take the time to get to know us, I can say this with confidence. The best piano is the one we recommend just for you. Come in today and see what’s new! Better yet – ask us why we picked it! You’ll quickly see why an investment at Gist is truly a “sound” one.
Very few people know that Halloweekend actually began in 2007 as a piano sale. I was working for a music company in Iowa at the time and, as luck would have it, we were forced to reschedule our Fall event due to a scheduling conflict. The only available weekend was the weekend before Halloween, which is not a traditional time to talk about piano playing. As I was setting up for the sale (and struggling to find a marketing plan for the event), I received an iPod player piano system (new technology at the time) and I decided to make it the centerpiece of the entire weekend. Friday and Saturday night, we hosted “ghostly performances” by “Ludwig Van BOOthoven” (who performed “not quite live” in our recital hall). The kids were in awe of what looked like a ghost playing the piano. The concerts were very short, we gave out some free candy and we even hosted a pumpkin decorating contest. It was a fun weekend, but not a great piano sale.
Early the following year, one of our piano teacher friends (a member of a program that I would eventually retool and call Partners In Education or PIE) mentioned to me that she would really love to have a fun and informal performance event around a theme. Christmas was too busy… so we needed another holiday that would make sense. My mind immediately went back to Halloweekend.
Thus, in 2008, we launched our first Halloweekend piano recital. It was a simple matter (without all the “SAVE YOURSELVES…a ton of money” puns), but the kids LOVED it. We even invited a local TV personality to come in and read spooky stories to the kids. We didn’t have all the flashy lights and our tiny fog machine was too small to make any difference, but Halloweekend 2008 is still one of my favorite memories from Iowa.
In April of 2009, I moved to Louisville and joined the Gist Piano Center family. My first priority was reaching out to piano teachers and their students as I had done in Iowa. With some help from the very supportive and enthusiastic folks at Gist, I was able to build what is now our Partners In Education program – the largest piano student and teacher outreach program of its kind in the US.
Over the years, Halloweekend has grown into the largest Halloween-themed piano event in the United States. This year, we’re expecting over 300 students to participate…if they dare. Halloweekend has been featured in national magazines, area newspapers and even the local TV news. Everyone who has participated in the spooky fun has gone home with some lasting memories.
Who knows what horrific future awaits us at Halloweekend 2015?! Only those brave enough to attend will find out…
Probably the most common question I get online is “What the heck is so SuperNATURAL about Roland’s piano sound?” …and it’s a fair question! Since Roland invented the first digital piano in 1975, they have been known throughout the World as a leader in digital music technology. If they’re excited about a technology, then it must be something big!
Well, I decided that SuperNATURAL Piano was too intricate to describe in a text blog. Who’d want to read that anyway?! …so for all of you who’ve wondered but never asked – and, of course, for all of you who asked, here’s my latest video: “What is SuperNATURAL Piano by Roland?”