Some critics think so

Guest post by Michael Johnson

The crisis in the piano world hit home last week when I realized nobody was interested in buying my Baldwin upright. I can’t even give it away. In fact I would have to pay transport costs to dump it in the knacker’s yard. What a heart-breaking finale for a fine middle-range instrument that has given me 35 years of pleasure.

As in many modern homes, the standard upright or grand takes up too much space, needs costly visits by tuners, and doesn’t even make that much music any more. In the long term the 88-tooth monster looks doomed like the dinosaurs.

The piano mechanism under the lid is based on a 130-year-old design and many specialists believe it is time to dispense with those delicate moving parts. An Australian piano builder Wayne Stuart told me recently, “The piano has been crying out for a rethink for over a hundred years.”

How will the art of the piano survive? By going electronic or at least hybrid. Here’s an indicator. Try staking out the best hotels on the eve of a concert and you might spot the star pianist checking in with an electronic keyboard slung over his or her shoulder. Is this is the future? It would seem so. With headphones, pianists can run through their programme in their hotel room, limbering up fingers for the real event and not bothering anyone.

I recently gave a talk at Escola Superior de Musica de Catalunya in Barcelona on these trends. I constructed a one-hour presentation complete with videos and slides, warning of impending doom. Everyone in the audience went ooh and ahh except the local Steinway dealer. He approached me afterward, fuming. “We are not going away,” he grinned nervously.

The clunky, heavy, expensive classic piano, critics argue, may eventually end up in a museum, displayed as fine furniture.

Only a few piano makers survive in the United States compared to dozens just a few years ago. Some 80 percent of piano production is now in China, mostly for the Chinese market.

New electronic models storming in from Asia are undercutting the classic piano in price and performance with digital or hybrid keyboards that feel and sound just about right. Young players love them. Yamaha, Casio, Guangzhou Pearl River, Samick, KORG, Kawai and others are competing in this transition period.

Sales projections for electronic keyboards exceed a million units worldwide annually. Steinway, the market leader in high-end acoustics, says it can produce only about 3,000 a year.

Another sign of decline is the destruction of the classic wooden model as a popular sport among college-age boys who enjoy tipping a upright (like my beloved Baldwin) from their dormitory rooftop, capturing it on video as it hits bottom.

Others have derived pleasure out of stuffing the case with explosives and, amid raucous laughter, blowing it to bits or dragging it behind a pickup truck, watching it disintegrate.

Over the years, the Steinway influence has been mixed. Critics such as Stuart refer to the brand as “Stoneway” for its innovation lethargy. The latest new thing, the Spirio, is the best Steinway can come up with. Aggressively marketed at as much as $200,000, it seems to be a toy for the very rich, delivering recordings of leading pianists to run on an electric player piano in private homes. Will a hologram of the player be the next step? The technology is there. But who wants Lang Lang in their living room?

Upmarket brands struggle to maintain smaller share of the market in Steinway’s shadow. Each has its personality, measurable in tiny increments. Boesendorfer, Bechstein, Fazioli, Grotrian, Sauter, Shigeru Kawai, Steingraeber and Yamaha all claim to be the world’s best. In my mind, the American aphorism applies: “Even if you are on the right track, you will still get run over if you just sit there.”

This is not to say the world has fallen totally out of love with the classic piano, whatever its drawbacks. No instrument quite manages to produce such a range of sound, loud or soft, to convey the beauty of our great music. Leading players help keep seats filled in concert halls by staging dramatic performances in short skirts, low tops, high heels, and – for the men – eye makeup and acrobatic writhing, hair flicks and in Lang Lang’s case, the occasional wink at the audience.

We are lucky to be alive as the piano undergoes this metamorphosis. It will be an unsettling, disturbing period, just as Christofori, Erard and Heinrich Steinway dared to rethink the instrument in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Now it’s our century. Now it’s our turn.

Michael Johnson is a music critic and writer with a particular interest in piano. 

He has worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is a regular contributor to International Piano magazine, and is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux, France. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to try Casio’s latest addition to their Celviano range of digital pianos. The Celviano Grand Hybrid takes the digital piano to a new level: produced in collaboration with renowned German piano maker C Bechstein, Casio have succeeded in producing a top-of-the-range instrument with an affordable price tag and a compact size.

The demo took place at Metropolis Studios in west London (where both Adele and the late Amy Winehouse recorded albums) and it was a privilege to meet acclaimed young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, who praised the instrument for its superior touch, tone and a host of other features which enable one to practise at all times of the day and night. There was also a chance to chat with Benjamin generally about his busy year of concerts (including performances at the Proms and his debut at Carnegie Hall) and his plans for the forthcoming season. I was then able to try the Celviano Grand Hybrid myself.

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I owned a digital piano when I first started playing again, about 15 years ago. It did the job, at a time when I had neither the space nor the funds to purchase an acoustic piano, but it always felt slightly unsatisfactory, particularly in its limited range of sound and inauthentic touch.

Touch is very important to the pianist and from the moment anyone commences playing, as a child or adult, an awareness of how touch affects the sound we produce is crucial. A keyboard simply cannot reproduce the weighted touch of an acoustic piano. But Casio have achieved something that comes very close to a real piano by combing the same spruce wooden key material used by Bechstein with a hammer action which replicates the action of a grand piano (real hammers inside the instrument follow the same path as the hammers inside a grand piano). This allows the player to fully utilise arm weight in the production of sound, which means that when one goes to play an acoustic piano, the difference in touch is very slight. The player can also adjust the touch to make it heavier or lighter, thus reproducing the differing touches of acoustic pianos.

The other significant feature of this instrument is its sound. Using the Bechstein concert grand as its template, Casio has created deep, nuanced sound, tonal palette and rich resonance. You can also open the lid to increase bass resonance. Settings on the instrument allow one to utilise a Berlin grand sound (Bechstein), Hamburg (Steinway) or Vienna (Bosendorfer), and there are also options to adjust the sound to suit the composer, recreate the reverberation of a concert hall, record oneself playing, playback, and tempo changes.

I was impressed with the quality and range of sound and the touch of this instrument. For the teacher, student or professional pianist, the Grand Hybrid offers superior sound and touch plus a host of other features to enhance the playing experience. In addition, one can practise with headphones, which means you can play any time of the day or night

For more information, please visit

(Photos courtesy of Casio UK)

Key features and technical specification:

  • It is the only piano that has the distinct blend of classical workmanship from world class piano manufacturers C.Bechstein, teamed with the technology that Casio has brought to all of its digital pianos for over 35 years.
  • It is the only piano that combines the world’s most famous piano sounds ­ The Hamburg Grand and the Vienna Grand ­ as well as having The Berlin Grand sound, which was exclusively developed as part of the Casio/C Bechstein collaboration just for this piano.
  • It actually feels like a Grand Piano unlike other hybrids… right down to the weight of the keys under your fingers. It combines spruce wooden key material as used in C. Bechstein grand pianos, and a new unique action mechanism that delivers the right hammer movement, which has a huge impact on the playing response of a grand piano

AiR* Grand Sound Source:

  • Enables beautiful sound and rich reverberation just like a grand piano.
  • It provides the sound profiles of three grand piano styles with a long history: the Berlin Grand, which is known for its elegant clear sound and a reverberation that gives each performance rich melodic color; the Hamburg Grand, which delivers gorgeous power and strength with plenty of string resonance; and the Vienna Grand, which provides a calm and stately sound with rich bass and beautiful tones when the keys are played softly.
  • Of the three, the Berlin Grand sound was developed in collaboration with C. Bechstein, a piano maker with a history of over 160 years. As a result, the new models have moved beyond the realm of conventional digital pianos, demonstrating a commitment to nuanced sound creation.

Grand Acoustic System:

  • Represents the sound of a grand piano as it emanates from above and below the soundboard. The system delivers three­-dimensional sound with tonal elongation, expansion and depth.

Natural Grand Hammer Action Keyboard:

  • Combines spruce wooden key material as used in C. Bechstein grand pianos, and a new unique action mechanism that delivers the right hammer movement, which has a big impact on the playing response of a grand piano.
  • This allows the pianist to produce nuanced sound with a delicate touch that is essential for demonstrating the expressive power of the piano, while also enjoying reliable key response and supple playing comfort.

Scene feature:

  • Consists of 15 preset types for different composers such as Chopin and Liszt, as well as musical genres such as jazz and easy listening. The presets combine the best optimal tones, reverberation, and effects for the type of piece being played.
  • Users can also create and save their own presets.

Concert Play:

  • The spectacular sound of a live orchestra is recorded in a high­-quality digital format. By playing the piano together with the recorded orchestra, users can enjoy the feeling of performing at an orchestral concert.
  • The technology can also be used in practice, as it allows the tempo to be slowed, and also features rewind, fast forward, and repeat playback of A­B sections.

Hall Simulator:

  • Allows the pianist to enjoy the immersive sound found in different types of venues such as an Amsterdam church, or a classical concert hall in Berlin.
  • Also, the GP­500BP and GP­300 models enable users to switch between the Player’s Position, which provides a sense of playing a real grand piano, and three types of Listener’s Positions, which gives the pianist the effect of listening to the performance from the audience.