Back to Basics: Piano Retailers Embracing Education
It’s certainly not a new idea, but it’s being embraced with renewed enthusiasm: the successful piano retailer must delve deeper into the educational community. From many industry leaders’ perspectives, it’s not just a good thing to do, but potentially a matter of survival. “Those who are really struggling aren’t addressing education on any level,” states Hailun’s president Basilios Strmec.
It does appear that retailers are expanding their outreach to piano teachers in the community. Showrooms that have thinned out their inventory are starting to set up studio space for lessons. Adult piano classes are started or expanding. Heck, even print music is showing up in high-end showrooms. Manufacturers and suppliers are supporting the effort in many ways – from piano giveaways to more awareness of their educational programs.
No one can deny the “why” of it: the piano landscape has changed dramatically. If it’s not gone forever, as some industry leaders quietly believe, the “pianos as furniture” aspect of the market – the idea that with the new bigger house comes a piano whether one has an intention of playing it or not – is certainly not coming back in the foreseeable future.
What does it mean? Education is, if not “the,” certainly “a” solid path to financial success. A retailer engraining himself or herself with the local piano teacher is more important than ever. “Dealers who get involved with the piano teachers, the local associations, are really ahead of the game,” declares Al Rich of Petrof. “They are going to get the good, serious piano buyer, the one more interested in quality.” This is important because, “there’s a perception problem. Customers think all piano retailers are on the ropes – and they may be!” he laughs. “But you can’t sell under those conditions.”
“In some markets like the U.S. and Asia it seems to be very helpful to have education program inside the store,” says Burkhard Stein of Grotrian. “To sell ahigh end instruments these days there needs to be much more effort than, let’s say, 10 years ago. Customers like to feel safe with the decision to spend a high amount of money for a nice instrument. So you need to build a relationship with your customer. And running a music school helps a lot to build this long term relationship.”
“Times have changed, and people don’t want to be pressured into buying,” Gilroy adds. “They don’t respond to the hard sell. So it becomes more about establishing a relationship, about being patient. They are piano students, but they are also your future customers. And you want them in your show room.”
Waiting for the New Normal
“Money was very easy for many years, particularly in the 1990s and well into the 2000s, but when we had this economic downturn the money available for expensive pianos … well, to be frank, it disappeared!” laughs Kawai’s Brian Chung. “People were re-financing their homes and getting a little money out of it and would often spend it on pianos. The big question for all of us is: When housing returns, when employment is better, what will the new normal be? Durable goods like pianos will come back, but to what extent?”
Then answering his own rhetorical question he adds: “None of us know.”
“The best dealers are putting efforts in education and seeing results,” says Steinway’s Anthony Gilroy. “Our industry has had growing pains from the recession and piano sales have decreased by about 40 percent overall, and I think the dealers that have adapted through education programs, and seen opportunities with hosting recitals and getting students involved in their showrooms end up seeing sales out of it.”
“We have seen a lot of stores addressing or trying to find a way to address the teaching component of the business,” says Strmec. “The reasons include needing to raise cash for the business overhead and to build a relationship in the community that turn into sales leads.”
Stein offers a large perspective on this: “We’ve noticed a lot of dealers, especially in Asia and the U.S., who have installed their own education program,” he says. It seems especially true for stores that don’t run a full range of MI instruments, but sell only pianos. In those cases, how are you going to get more people to come in the store? “A good way is to install your own music school in your store. This brings students, their parents and also teachers in your store. These all are potential customers and if they will buy an instrument the chance is very high that they will do it in your store.”
“Right now the piano industry goes hand in hand with the teaching profession, and we all have to do everything possible to create music makers,” Chung adds. “That’s really been part of our industry’s history, but when things were good some of our fundamentals were a little lost. When things are good, we tend to not focus on these critical areas that can feed the future. I really believe every dealer expanding their music education [component] is doing the very best thing for our industry.”
Finding the Right Approach
Strmec notes that some have approached education better than others. “We have seen those who have just invited teachers into a space and charged them rent and they sometimes do not get the returns they could,” he says. “The relationship can be less a partnership, which you want, and instead a client/customer relationship. I have seen stores that just rent the space and I can tell you the connection is not as strong in turning [sales] leads. While some dealers are happy with the traffic such arrangements generate, rarely does it turn into a real win-win situation. The teachers feel simply as customers who rent a space and do not form any attachment to the piano operation and its challenges, itself. The more successful approach is to put the teacher on the payroll, make education an integral part of the business, and push it as such.” This way the teacher is more invested into the overall business – including moving pianos out the door.
He says Fort Bend Music in Houston has been successful in building their music program this way. “There are approximately 380-450 students who pass through the store every week and make the store operation a viable undertaking. Rick Cochran, the owner, has made teaching a priority, which reflects in his steady growth.”
Al Rich of Petrof sites Cooper Pianos in Atlanta run by Blake Cooper as an example of a dealer who has become deeply entrenched in the teaching community. “They teach in store and he sometimes supplies pianos to piano studios,” Rich says. “They have teachers on site, plus work with them in the field.” They also have the Liberty Theatre, where Cooper Pianos holds piano student recitals and concerts with a Petrof Concert Grand. They make it easy for teachers to book the space for recitals, and on their website they have a page dedicated to the theatre featuring videos of past performances.
For Yamaha, part of the key of the piano program is looking beyond the instrument itself. “For instance, the program involves activities like singing, clapping, movement – it’s all-inclusive and that’s one of the reasons it’s so successful,” Calvin says. Otherwise, there is their Yamaha QuickPlay program. It instructs by lighting up which key to hit next, and is “very effective for all these people who absolutely believe he or she don’t have the talent to play. It encourages them from the first note. It’s so important to give the new player a little experience at what it feels like to play that first song. Anybody who knows how to play remembers what it was like to get to the end of his or her first song and think, ‘Hey I did that!’ We need to create experiences like that more than ever before.”
None of this is easy, however. “You have to persevere,” says Chung. “It takes a while for word to get out, but if they are having fun and having a meaningful experience, the word will indeed get out. The challenge is not giving up after not having initial success.” It doesn’t have to take too long, but with the right mix of teachers and groups, it will be worth the effort.
… and the Right Teachers
“The key to an in-store education program is like anything else – you need to bring in people who understand it,” Calvin advises. “Every market has a teacher who has run a studio before or had success with group teaching. He or she can tie it together. In the case of Yamaha, we’re fortunate to have the Yamaha Music School programs, so we can make experts available to help set up a retailer who has never had an in-store program before. We can coach the dealer, train the teacher, and provide business plans. We have a turnkey solution.”
Yamaha’s program dates back to 1956, with the philosophy behind it being not only to develop new customers and products, but also to give something back to the community. “It’s actually supported by the Yamaha Music Foundation of Japan and has reached over six million students around the world.”
Strmec points out that some teachers are naturally going to be more business savvy than others. “There are those who have a good student base, but are also familiar with what it takes to expand a studio. Sometimes it’s tougher for a dealer to understand the teaching structure business models. Some bigger stores can’t relate, and/or it’s been a long time since they’ve had lessons. But there are teachers out there who know what it takes and have an easier time starting or expanding a program.”
“It is important that your education program has built a good reputation, so that the school program and reputation fits to the reputation of a brand like Grotrian,” says Stein. “We have a successful dealer in the Toronto area who runs a big music school and is selling the Grotrian brand very well. So this constellation seams to work.”
Stein offers a perspective of what is being done in Germany – and not done. “The situation in Europe, and especially Germany, is very different to the situation in the U.S. There are some piano stores which do have their own education program, but these are only very few. Most of the dealers do have a long tradition with their stores and are well known for selling pianos. They try to stay in close contact with teachers and conservatories. Networking is a very important part or their work.” However, in Europe in general, customers might think that a company can’t be good at both selling and teaching. “This is a more conservative thinking. If you do both the risk is high that one of it could not be perfect. There is a German saying: Schuster, bleib bei deinen Leisten which freely translated means: You should stay with the thing you have been trained in and you are good at.”
More than just offering leads or encouraging a new instrument involvement, could teachers actually become salespeople as well?
Strmec cites the ARTI-ST Music Education Center in Baltimore founded by music educators Irene and Jarl Hulbert as a potential trend: “These are teachers who opened a studio, but also recently started selling some instruments on a small scale and that has worked really well.”
Rich wonders aloud if the piano market could go the route of accordions. “A lot that are sold today are done through educational programs. Most [MI] stores don’t even stock them on the shelves, but accordion teaching schools have them and their teachers are all involved in retailing.”
Getting Creative with the Space
“Teaching in-store has numerous benefits,” says Chung. “It builds relationships within your community. You have repeated visits from them. They buy sheet music. Ask any dealer who has a thriving educational program and they will tell you it’s essential and drives their business.” Dealers can be successful without an educational element, but a commitment to music education can certainly help during periods like the present.
However, there is the physical space to contend with. Calvin points out that sometimes space for an in-store program can be a challenge. “You built your store with a particular business plan in mind years ago that may not have included a teaching program,” he says. Some in say, a strip mall, have been able to expand into a space next door and nearby stores that have closed, and others have found that getting a space just for teaching nearby works. Otherwise, “you find a corner in the store or you convert an office – some retailers have been creative in finding space.”
Gilroy of Steinway also acknowledges that many dealers don’t necessarily have a showroom that allows for in-store lessons. But recital space for them to use, usually for free, is more easily done and so, “off-site is a viable alternative. We have the Steinway Hall dealership in Dallas/Fort Worth/Plano that does a really good job with recitals – they literally have thousands of students coming through during recital season.”
“Piano merchants who do not want to be in the teaching business have found that they can provide a lot of value for teachers by creating performance halls,” Strmec says. “Terry Winstead, store manager at Northwest Pianos, reached out to teachers across Bellevue and Seattle and books many concerts. Mr. Winstead told me that he had several dozen performances scheduled during May and June.” (To prove the overall point he adds that sales of Hailun product at the store increased by 32 percent in comparison to last year.) “Terry has created a nice space in part of his store for teachers to do performances. And I just noticed that May and June were completely booked out every day and had at least three performances happening at the store on the weekends. That’s another bridge.”
Stein says he’s also noticed that some stores have been a music school first and only later became a store. “For example in China we do have a working cooperation with our business partner who started a private music school 14 years ago and four years ago he added selling pianos [to the operation]. He is very successful in selling our instruments because the parents of the students trust in the recommendation of the teachers and, so buy the high end instruments from the store which belongs to the music school.”
Adults & Recreational Music:
“About ten years ago there were retailers who didn’t think an educational component belonged in their store,” says Calvin. “But now there are many more retailers interested in creating new customers, not only the typical young student but also for adults. So we’re seeing growth in Yamaha music schools. We’re expanding more than ever, and we’re seeing an up tick for our retailers getting involved with adult group piano lessons.”
Reaching out to adults comes down to basic business fundamentals: “We know there are a certain number of people who will start their child on lessons, but there are probably another 80 or 90 percent who wish they could play. We need to get out there and show them that they can do it and it’s fun. That will be the rebirth of our industry and get us through the current economic hard times. There are plenty of opportunities for retailers to do this.” For adults, the educational experience is enhanced with a play-along aspect for which software has provided. As for the group piano class, Calvin adds that no one should underestimate the social aspect that people enjoy.
Chung actually co-authored with Brenda Dillon a book for piano teachers called The Recreational Music Making Handbook. Published by Alfred Publishing, it’s part of an effort to build awareness about this aspect of the business and to encourage teachers to embrace a way of teaching where the focus is on fun. “If we can reach out to our existing network of teachers and embrace the concept we have created, if dealers can do that too, we can all work together,” he says. “This would not take away from the ‘achievement model’ of teaching, but there are many people who think learning the piano is too difficult under that model. We have to work hard to advance the concept of playing for fun.”
But Chung cautions the dealer that not just anybody can start a recreational music program. “The number one challenge is finding the right teacher,” he explains. “Traditionally teachers have been trained in the achievement model and that’s a good model, but it’s not for everybody. This is not an either/or situation, but both models need to be available.” He suggests that the industry as a whole has come up short to some degree in terms of successfully reaching out to the masses of people who always wanted to play but “were never really invited to on his or her own terms. So finding a teacher that can reach out to them, and present music making skills on their own terms can be a challenge.”
And an open mind about who these programs are for: “Recreational music is not age specific, though we tend to focus on aging baby boomers because they have more discretionary time and money. But recreational music is for everybody.”
“We Want Businesses to be Strong and Survive”
Stein says that their company has long been engaged in the apprenticeship of young musical talents. “We demonstrate this by holding the International Grotrian Piano Competition in Braunschweig/Germany, which was founded in 1954; supporting the ‘National Grotrian Competition for future Teachers’ in Weimar, Germany which has taken place since 1990 and by the Grotrian Piano Competition (Asian/Pacific) in China which began in 2008.”
Hailun launched an initiative in August that’s putting three new pianos in the homes of two teachers and a student. Called “Test the Best,” Strmec sees it as an opportunity for retailers to reach out to the teaching community and build better ties. “This promotion will help build a strong alliance with music teacher. We want businesses to be strong and survive. We want to share resources, help them with their goals, and in turn help us reach our expectations.” The promotion invites teachers and music students alike to come and test a Hailun Piano at their store and submit their name for a local drawing. The grand prize will be an HU 1 Professional. Hailun will reach out to teachers and students in mailings and online promotion. Winners will be announced on December 21st 2011.
Technological advancements could play a part in this “rebirth.” Yamaha’s RemoteLive technology was on display this past Winter NAMM, and those in the room got to enjoy a performance by Roberta Flack from New York City recreated on a Yamaha Disklavier Grand. But aside from the entertainment possibilities, Calvin reports that they are exploring the educational opportunities. Imagine gathering students into a Midwest retailer’s store for a Master Class from a great pianist at a Yamaha studio in New York City.
There are other ways to reach out to the community. Gilroy says they opened up a new showroom in West Hollywood earlier this year, which is actually factory-owned. They are proceeding with a way to engrain the new Steinway store with the local teachers. “We gave away three different pianos with the goal being to establish relationships with music teachers,” he says. It was a sweepstakes for both teachers and students. “The teacher had to be present, and it really helped us get the word out about or Boston Performance Edition.” He says while the piano has been out for two years it’s been “under the radar”: – “One teacher who played it said it was the closest to being a Steinway that wasn’t a Steinway.” As far as the sweepstake goes, he adds that he sees other dealerships doing something similar in the future.
All the manufacturers and suppliers were clear on the importance of education. “The time is over for us to box ourselves in, to have walls between us and the teaching community,” Strmec states. “Only those dealers who make a point to reach out will be successful.”
“It’s really more important now than ever, especially for Petrof,” Rich says. “Our product is not usually the first piano a family buys. Most of the time we’re the second piano. The typical family starts with an entry-level instrument, and because the average person on the street has likely not heard of Petrof, it’s important that the teaching industry be familiar with us.”
“It’s not always a quick-fix,” Gilroy says. “You have to build a relationship over time. They likely have an old piano at home and come in just for the lessons … but when the time comes to wanting to buy a better one, they will go to a place that they trust and have a relationship.”
“Hailun Pianos that are equipped with the HLPS system allowing for the grand piano lid to be easily lifted safely and slowly closed are reaching piano merchants’ stores,” reports Basilios Strmec. He adds that the system was shown off at the National Piano Technician’s Guild Conference in Kansas City in July and was positively received by the technical community. At that same conference they also introduced the new HU116, a 45.5-inch upright piano aimed at the institutional market. “A technician who played it declared it a workhorse that sings beautifully!”
Hailun USA has also upgraded Hailun instruments by using premier quality hammerheads by two German suppliers. “Hailun pianos will come equipped with hammerheads from Renner Hammer Company and Abel Parts Company from Germany.”
Al Rich of Petrof reports that they are still feeding off the buzz created from MusikMesse in Frankfurt, where they showed a Petrof off with Wessel, Nickle, & Gross action. “We showed one in a semi-concert grand and it was really well-received,” he reports. While using composite material in a piano bucks tradition in the extremely traditional piano market, increasingly more and more players are appreciating the allure of a piano not so susceptible to the weather. “The piano has 6,000 moving parts, and having some of it not affected by climate temperature constitutes a tremendous advantage,” he says. “I’ve been pushing the new technology for a couple of years because it makes for more accurate instruments.”
“One of the hottest instruments out there today is the Lennon Pianos, which were introduced at the end of last year,” says Steinway’s Anthony Gilroy. “There are two new designs coming out and also an upright version of the K-52.” So now there are four different versions of John Lennon’s famous white piano: Come Together, Freda People, Self Portrait, and Grand Piano. He reports that are all already spoken for. “It’s actually pretty cool because a year ago you wouldn’t see a white piano in our factory – it’s not typically a popular color by any stretch of the imagination.”
The new designs will be created in limited series of 25 pianos each. The end game will be to have seven John Lennon limited edition styles of 25 each, for a grand total of only 175 Lennon pianos built.
Frank West of Lowrey says they’ve unveiled a new entry-level keyboard, the E-Z2. “It’s a traditional Lowrey 61 note keyboard for the first time player, but it features our virtual orchestra and performer technology,” he says. “It’s aimed at a broader audience.” It has the traditional Lowrey style, but if the player wants to play piano-oriented music, they push the piano button; guitar, the guitar button.
Then there’s the E-ZP8, which is essentially a digital piano that comes with a Lowrey operating system. “There’s the one-finger chords, the E-Z harmony, and all those features, but it’s for people who want to play the piano. It features weighted keys so it’ll appeal to those who have piano on the brain.” He thinks they are positioned to do well it because “what we’ve found is a lot of people think they want to play piano, but the piano is actually difficult to play. With this they get the E-Z way to play.”
“We’ve continue with what our symbol of elegance in pianos, our Blak Series,” says Kawai’s Brian Chung. “We feel we made an important statement with this in that not only are they proven to be of exceptional quality, but they communicate style.” The RX series in particular continues to be strong for the company, which has evolved from the popular KG series of the 1980s and 1990s. “We see our instruments as the most advanced pianos because we’ve always been willing to embrace new materials, particularly composites. We’re proud that the composites on this material don’t shrink and swell with the climate.”
Grotrian has launched a new grand piano studio series aimed at institutions, the studio models 192 and 208. “The demand for these models came from universities, conservatories, and educational institutions,” says Burkhard Stein. “The models have the same excellent touch, sound characteristics and strength of build for which Grotrian has been famous for centuries.” He adds that they’ve developed a scratchproof, easy-care surface of lacquer particularly appropriate for school use. “However the inner side of the fallboard is finished in a high gloss to reflect the image of the pianist’s hands. The studio line is offered in sizes 192 and 208 cm as these models are most popular as school instruments.” All studio instruments are equipped with single attached strings, fallboard brake, and a Sostenuto pedal. “All Grotrian studio grand pianos are available for institutional use only.”
“We have a new product, the T121SC which features the Soft-Close fallboard which protects the players hands,” says Paul Calvin of Yamaha. It’s similar to the popular U1 and features full-length ribs into a notched liner, solid spruce soundboard and ribs, hard maple bridge, and spruce keys with hardwood buttons. There’s also Yamaha designed hammers with T-fasteners.
There’s a new player in the keyboard market.
Niels Larsen of Nektartech explains that he was working with Chinese factories supporting other brand development when over time he realized that he could get better in touch with the customer. “I saw that there was a way to supply a better value to the customer in the keyboard and digital drums market,” he says.
First to be shipping is their Acorn Masterkey 49 keyboard controller, with the Masterkey 25 quickly following. “There are other products out there, but we felt we could add more value by providing lower priced controllers with a few extra features. At the entry-level controller, you usually get little else than a keyboard and a few wheels. We felt there was a need for a more complete package. For example, on our keyboard controller you can tweak parameters – I always hated not knowing where I was on oscillating keyboards.” There are also LED displays, and features that allow the player to quickly change MIDI channels, transpose, and more.
What will likely draw the most attention is that these keyboards come with Presonus Studio One Artist software built in. “You get a full version that features unlimited tracks, tons of plug-ins and lots of extras.” The street price on the 49-key Acorn is $99.99 and the 25 will be $79.99.
Gabe Whyel of American Music & Sound offered up several new products from several keyboard companies they distribute.
First there is the Nord Stage 2, which comes in three versions: an 88-note hammer action, a 76-hammer action, and the 73-note semi-weighted waterfall action. “All support three split zones,” he says. “The Nord 2 is built to be a performance instrument, so most of the controls are on the face of the keyboard. With a Nord, you never have to sift through menus to find things.”
The Nord Electro 3HP is 73 hammer action version of the popular Electro 3, which “has really become the standard for great organ and piano sounds.” All versions of the 3HP are especially portable, with the 61 note version weighing a mere 15.3 pounds.
Kurzweil has unveiled the PC3K8, “a synth workstation of the highest order,” Whyel says. “It features their dynamic Variable Architecture Synthesis Technology (VAST), and supports up to 32 layers of sound across 16 zones and splits. It’s the most powerful keyboard workstation on the market, period.” He adds that the Kurzweils by designs allows for easily adding old aspects to the new. “If you have a 10 year old Kurzweil and you really like the sounds you created on it, you don’t have to reprogram the new keyboard – you can simply move the sounds over. It’s completely forward compatible.”
Studiologic, primarily a software company, has consulted with jazz great Joe DeFrancesco himself and come up with the Numa Organ. “He had a hand in where the controls are placed, and spent years developing this with the company,” he says. “It’s been incredible. And now it’s getting a lot of attention because players really wanted that authentic tone wheel organ in an instrument you didn’t need a forklift to carry it around!”
The Lowrey Paradigm: If You Teach, They Will Buy
Lowrey Organs has long been in the education business. “In our minds, that’s the path for success,” Frank West says. “If you can teach them to play, they will buy your product.”
This is an organization that has long made education an integral part of sales. “We have a strong in-store teaching program, and I think it’s the best program out there,” he says. “If you’re a music retailer and want to get into the recreational music business, all you need is the Lowrey Magic program. It has people playing a song in their first class. And it’s scaled: It’s for those who has never touched a key and for those who played a little when they were younger, [et cetera]. Any person of any skill level can get plugged into the program.”
Today, though, they are aiming for a broader audience, one that is no mere change of semantics: “We don’t call them organs any more,” West declares. “We call them virtual orchestras.” They’ve re-issued their Lowrey Magic program to reflect the changing demographics of their customers. “We’re pulling titles from the 1950s through the 1980s for the most part,” he says. “Recreational music making is for everybody at any age.”
They are dabbling in the digital piano market as well, building instruments with weighted keys, but enhanced with their virtual orchestra feature. “We’re trying to dig a little younger into the adult market – though when we say ‘younger’ everybody laughs!” Sure, an artist such as Tina Turner still has appeal, but she turned 73 years old this year. So the likes of “Proud Mary” are becoming more prominent in their program.
West cites the lectures of industry legend Karl Bruhn (“who should be required reading for anyone in our business, and who some have referred to as the father of recreational music making”). Bruhn lectured that the songs that are popular during a person’s 18th through 24th years are the most enduring. “So if someone is 55, you want the 1970s hits. Those songs will stir their emotions because it’s when they first started dating, becoming an adult, et cetera. We’re getting really good responses by doing that.”
But whatever tweaks and updates happen to the machine that is Lowrey, their dealers have always signed on to the in store teaching program, and that part has not changed, nor will it. They encourage and support a heavy advertising aspect. “It’s kind of funny – if you want a customer, you have to go after them! And to support that, Lowrey instruments are not available through catalogs or online. Why would we do that? Sales are not going to happen that way because I can’t teach those people every week. I don’t have a store!”