I am rather a weird tourist– the first thing I did when I arrived in Shanghai was to visit bookstores. I have visited quite a few since then and plan to visit more. Another thing I did was visit Jinling East Road, or Shanghai’s “music” street, where in approximately one square kilometer, there are around 100 stores selling instruments, 50 or more selling pianos. In my life, I have not played too many piano brands (alphabetically: Baldwin, Boston, Chickering, Kimball, Mason & Hamlin, Pramberger, Steinway & Sons, Yamaha, Young Chang), so as an amateur pianist, I was excited to have the opportunity to look at other brands.
I went into at least twenty of these stores and sampled various pianos. I do not have a great memory, so I just mainly played the beginning two sections of Lutoslawski’s Paganini Variations for two pianos, which was my main repertoire piece in the spring. Doing this, I could hear a good range of the piano, from the top of the register to the very bottom. Playing scales, I also fiddled around with the damper pedals– the damper pedal is the ‘seasoning’ and ‘spice’ of piano– while the sostenuto and una corda pedals are important, the damper pedal must be first-rate.
In China, importation of European and American brands are extremely expensive, almost amounting to a 40% tax. Therefore, in Shanghai, top-notch European and American brands (e.g. Fazioli, Steinway & Sons) must be specially ordered and cannot be “tried” in the stores. Therefore, I only could try Chinese brands and a few Japanese brands like Kawai and Yamaha. With the exception of Yamaha (used by most Chinese conservatories), everything else was terrifyingly terrible. One of the important things that a piano should have is a long sustain period– that is, after a key is pressed, the sound should not immediately dissipate but should still be held for a reasonable length of time. Sustain was minimal in the majority of Chinese-made pianos. Second, the responsiveness of these pianos was all together too uniform– for example, if I hit the key faster than usual or if I hit the key slower than usual, the tone still came out relatively the same. (Hint: they are not supposed to sound the same. I like to describe the former more as “angry” and “sharp”, and the latter more as “resonant” and “full.”)
After I finished my examination of the pianos, the most common comment was, “Are you a piano major?” accompanied by looks of awe.
The most prescient salesman said to me, “Where did you learn piano? You don’t play like you came from a Chinese conservatory.”
The most disappointing salesman said, “Stop playing. It’s too loud.”
The first and last comments bothered me a lot.
First, any piano salesperson worth his or her salt knows how to differentiate customers– including how proficient they are in piano. At this time, I had not touched a piano for almost a month and kept missing notes. Plus, I was bound to be missing notes anyway, as I was playing one part of a two-person piece. I became very embarrassed when they asked if I was a 钢琴专业, or a piano major.
Second, any piano salesperson worth his or her salt knows that the most important thing before buying a piano is playing the piano. We are not all filthy rich, so chances are that we will only buy one piano at that window of time. So committing to buying a piano is like saying you will eat only this type of vanilla ice cream for the next forty years (the approximate lifespan of a well-maintained piano). We need time to explore its subtle flavors and find out what it goes well with (I like vanilla ice cream with red velvet cake), before finally settling down with it. Moreover, no two pianos are the same. I can buy two Steinway Model Ds, made in the same year with nearly identical materials, made by the same craftspeople, but they can have fundamentally different touches and sounds. If one is serious about piano, it is foolish to buy a piano without playing it. Therefore, when I was asked to stop playing, internally, I was seething.
These two observations bothered me for the greater part of the night. Perhaps with the exception of the one prescient salesman, the majority of salespersons I encountered had no freaking idea about pianos. At one store, in my limited Chinese, I tried talking to one of the salesmen I encountered, saying that the Pramberger was “harder to press” than what I was accustomed to. He just nodded, having nothing else to say– whereas a piano salesperson in America would then ask me what touch I preferred and usher me to another piano. The Chinese salespeople simply looked on, not quite sure what to do with someone who knew her way around the piano– they were just selling pianos because it was just another business, it was not something they liked, it was not something they knew much about, it was something that they just happened to do.
Between the horrid quality of the Chinese branded pianos and the clueless salespeople, I began to understand where China is in terms of music education for the masses. Yes, there is a very beautiful veneer, very beautiful storefronts, but behind the facade of technicalities, the artistry and dedication is still missing. I respect the business of piano selling, but there is something extra that goes into it, something beyond just the economics.
That night, as the ebbs of irritation from the impolite salesman died down, it hit me– China is still so obviously a developing country. For China, pianos are just another cheap good of dubious quality to be manufactured and hawked, indeed, many of the pianos I saw were unplayable– for they were still shrink-wrapped in plastic. Unconsciously, my mind changed direction, and I thought about the Steinway Model D that I performed on this spring multiple times. I thought of its warmly responsive keys, allowing me to produce the closest possible thing to magic on earth.
China is still so obviously a developing country.
I cannot wait to have a Steinway beneath my fingers again in the United States.