The Piano: Its Present and Future

The following article by Jeffrey Chappell appeared in Piano & Keyboard Magazine, March/April 1996 issue.

The Piano: Its Present and Future

What is the present and future state of the piano? Looking for answers, Dr. Paul Pollei, founder and artistic director of the Gina Bachauer International Piano Festival, convened a symposium at Steinway Hall in New York City on September 27, 1995. I was one of two dozen participants, which included performing artists, educators, piano manufacturers, and journalists. Over the course of the day, the assembly unpacked the subject from many different angles, ranging from the private piano lesson to the trends of history, and from “gloom and doom” to “there’s no problem.”

Much was said that was inspiring, informative, and interesting. The flexible format alternated prepared presentations with open discussion. As can happen in these situations, there were few conclusions drawn nor agreements reached, which was mostly the result of a lack of mutual points of reference among the speakers. I would delineate these points of reference as follows: the piano as an instrument; the piano as a pedagogical instrument; the piano as a performance instrument; and the piano as part of the cultural landscape.

What is the present and future of the piano as an instrument? Since no major changes in its design have appeared for the last hundred years, it is safe to say that the piano has stopped evolving. Therefore, the answer to this question is easy: the future of the piano as an instrument will be the same as the present. No one at the symposium challenged this assumption.

The instruments that are evolving are electronic keyboards. Does this mean that the piano will be replaced by electronic keyboards? Not at all, according to David Pollei, member of the Board of Trustees of the Bachauer Foundation. The radio did not end when television began; it only broadened the market.

One of the strongest advocates for the use of electronic keyboards was Richard Chronister, editor of Keyboard Companion. He pointed out that many acoustic (non-electronic) pianos used by students are in poor condition, whereas the digital piano is always in tune, has working keys, is portable, etc. Electronic keyboards are often more affordable as well, and are especially useful for students whose major instrument is not the piano.

Carol Montparker, editor of Clavier, came out against the use of electronic keyboards for piano lessons. She expressed the belief that students should be trained from the beginning on the unique feel of a piano action.

A distinction needs to be drawn. The art of piano-playing is specific to the instrument. The piano has its own sound properties and techniques of drawing forth those sounds, especially in the way one touches the keys. The skills of keyboard playing, however, are not specific to the piano, because the keys on every keyboard instrument are arranged alike. Therefore, one can teach “piano” on an electronic instrument, but only up to a point. Electronic keyboards serve composers, pop musicians, and students learning the layout of a keyboard, but not classical pianists.

What is the present and future of the piano as a pedagogical instrument? At the symposium, answers varied. Dr. Pollei declared that there is an alarming drop-out rate among piano students, and he traced this to deteriorating musical training in public schools, the lack of solfeggio training in the United States, and the overall decline of cultural standards.

What is so alarming about the drop-out rate?, asked Morty Manus, president of Alfred Publishing Company. The drop-out rate for other instruments is much worse. Manus estimated that two million students begin lessons each year, based on sales of first-year beginner books, and the second-year books sell at 90% that amount. He traced drop-outs to the fact that people spontaneously do what they want, including playing the music that they like to play, which is no cause for worry. Also, some people simply reach the limit of their potential, beyond which no amount of instruction will carry them, and wisely choose to stop studying.

Dr. Pollei cited statistics which indicate that 90% of students who drop out still wish that they could play the piano. I would ask, in that case, what happened to drive them away? Students are driven away by lessons which stifle the original enthusiasm and love for music that made them seek instruction in the first place. Sometimes the pressure to perform in recitals and competitions extinguishes the joy of musicmaking. Sometimes a teacher imposes a method which disregards the goals and individual musicality of the student.

Sadly, the piano lesson in the present often includes some of its past: a narrow teaching focus, misguided rules and concepts thoughtlessly passed down (middle C is not, in fact, the middle of the keyboard), routine choices of repertoire, and even psychological and/or physical abuse. The future of the piano as a pedagogical instrument should consist of supportive, client-oriented approaches which recognize the study of music as a means for fulfillment and self-expression. The path of training to be a concert pianist needs to be seen as a guideline for growth, not as the definition of success in life.

What is the present and future state of the piano as a performance instrument? The demand for piano recitals has been in steady decline for a long while. At the same time, thousands of piano majors graduate from music schools every year. Either there are too few audiences or there are too many pianists.

There was some agreement that our principal challenge is to build audiences. Margaret Lorince, former president of Music Teachers National Association, maintained that education is the answer, and that we should train young people to be the musically literate audiences of the future. Stuart Isacoff, editor of Piano Today, countered that it is not necessary for audiences to be musically literate in order to be attracted to concerts. Huge crowds came to hear Anton Rubinstein when he toured the United States in the 1870’s, and Horowitz always drew large numbers of all kinds of people. David Dubal, author and piano faculty member of the Juilliard School, said that people love music when they hear it performed with passion. But performers have been intimidated by critics into careful, conservative musicmaking. If they were allowed to be themselves, they might be able to produce the same kind of excitement as Horowitz did and to draw large audiences.

It seems to me that, despite these issues, the piano recital remains strong, even if demand for it is smaller at some times more than others. Considering the many times that it has been declared dead, it has proven its durability. It will continue to last as long as piano music enlivens the passion of human beings–and that should be forever.

What is the present and future of the piano as part of the cultural landscape? At the symposium, this specifically meant American culture, and some members found that to be wanting. Massimiliano Frani, associate artistic director of the Bachauer Foundation, objected to the practice of inviting entertainers to appear as soloists with American symphony orchestras, and to the president of the United States publicly playing jazz on the saxophone, something that would be unthinkable for a European head of state. Dean Elder, senior contributing editor of Clavier, confirmed that the cultural situation in Europe is superior to that in America. He linked the rise of crime to the fall of the piano recital, and pointed out the association of drug use with rock ‘n’ roll.

This strain of opinion brought a backlash from other participants. Robert J. Silverman, former editor and publisher of Piano Quarterly, said that he had studied rock ‘n’ roll extensively and found it to have high artistic merit and to be an important twentieth-century medium of expression. Robert Sherman, broadcaster for WQXR radio in New York City, denounced making elitist value judgments between different styles of music, and challenged negative comparisons of American culture and pianists with those of other nations. We must be doing something right, said Robert Duke, music faculty member of the University of Texas. Given the huge numbers of people from other countries who come here to study music, how bad could it be in America?

America is a land of the vernacular, not of the formal. Popular music and jazz express that spirit in the most direct fashion, and they are twentieth-century styles of music which cannot be ignored. There is a big wide world out there beyond the Beethoven sonatas, and the non- classical musicians in that world invest just as much energy, devotion, and concentration in their music as do the classical ones; jazz in particular requires an equivalent level of skill and intelligence. Having studied both jazz and classical music, my self- perception is of someone who has two legs to stand on. Of course, not everyone is interested in embracing both areas, but to place judgments on what is outside of oneself is limiting.

Other participants in the symposium were: Robert Blocker, Dean of Yale School of Music; Sally Coveleskie, Peter Goodrich, and Henry Z. Steinway of Steinway and Sons; Douglas Humpherys, piano faculty member of Eastman School of Music; David Jutt, performing artist and educator; James B. Keller, contributing editor of The New Yorker; Shirley Raut, executive director of Music Teachers National Association; and Peter Simon, president of Toronto School of Music.

On the night before the symposium, Nicholas Angelich presented his New York recital debut at Alice Tully Hall. The 1994 gold medalist of the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition gave terrific readings of the Schubert Sonata in C minor, D. 958, Ravel’s La Valse, and the entire set of Etudes-Tableaux, opus 39, by Rachmaninoff.