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Dynamics of piano industry in transition PDF Print E-mail
Written by Darci Tomky   

Overcommitment keeps students from piano lessons; others experience lifelong benefits of piano study

For some, music is a way of life. That is, they couldn’t imagine life without it. And for others, music is put on the back burner, so to speak. It’s an added commitment they just don’t seem to have enough time for.

Specifically, private piano instruction in Holyoke has seen a transition over time. A few are still in love with the instrument and the passing on of their piano knowledge, yet the piano seems to be a vanishing art form, or at least something completely different from what it was a century ago.

“It is this disappearing thing,” said Sharon Strauss, a piano teacher of 16 years.

Since moving to Holyoke a few years ago, it has not been hard for Strauss to fill the 10 piano lesson slots she has allowed herself, with several more on a waiting list. Yet she acknowledges a “self-perpetuating cycle,” where teachers cut back when they have no students and students quit when they can no longer find a teacher.



Piano student Erin Andersen, at left, concentrates on her chords as she works with music instructor Sharon Strauss. As one of the few piano teachers in town, Strauss has a full lineup of students, with some even on a waiting list.  

—Enterprise photo


Teaching piano is a commitment which might be too confining and time-consuming for families who have busy schedules of their own.

“We are blessed to have found her when we did,” said Monica Powell, who has three daughters taking private lessons with Strauss.

The Powells’ piano is not collecting dust, as many are in American homes—that is to say, the ones that haven’t found their way to the local dump.

This is not a new trend. The “Golden Age” of piano was actually a century ago, between 1900 and 1930. According to the National Piano Manufacturers Association, the peak year for piano sales was in 1910, with 365,000 pianos sold.

The prized instrument was used for evening entertainment, and to have a piano in one’s home meant prosperity.

Once the radio and other technology came along, America began consuming music in different forms, a transition from live music in the home to studio recordings over a technological device.

It isn’t that society doesn’t need music anymore. People listen to music a lot more now, said Strauss. They depend on it—in their car, in every room of the home at almost every hour of the day.

“Everything is so instantaneous—quick and easy,” said Pat Wiebers, former piano teacher for 20 years and former band director. She explained today’s society is more quick-paced, and things like eating supper as a family, which her family was always accustomed to, have now fallen by the wayside. There is a change in society from that core, she said.

“How busy we’ve made ourselves!” said Strauss. “Our kids feel like they have to participate in every activity all year long.”

Not saying that one activity is better than another, Strauss and Wiebers agreed there are just a lot of activities pulling kids in lots of different directions, and communities are expecting more from children at a younger age.

“There’s a limit to what they can do,” said Wiebers.

It’s overcommitment, said Monica’s husband Merle Powell. Few people have the arts as their “main thing” here, he explained, so things like piano lessons become an “added commitment” and can easily be pushed aside. “Sports in any area seem to have more of an emphasis,” he said.

It’s that combination of a time commitment for practicing and going to lessons as well as the investment of money for piano teachers and a big bulky instrument.

“You can’t pass three levels in an hour!” said Strauss. Students must practice!

The Powells admit it’s hard to find time to practice, so they put piano on the afternoon schedule just like homework assignments, which all must be completed before turning to the TV, video games, etc.

Instruments like guitar are becoming more popular, possibly because of their visibility, use in pop songs and portability.

But according to Strauss, the instrument isn’t the hurdle when it comes to taking piano lessons.

Digital instruments have completely changed the industry. Society has become more mobile, and since digital pianos and keyboards are more portable, it just makes sense to invest in one when families move so much, not to mention the cheaper cost when parents just aren’t sure their kids will stick with piano lessons.

“However, it seems like plenty of people are willing to give pianos away!” said Monica.

According to Music Trades, 41,000 pianos were sold in 2011, with an additional 120,000 digital pianos and 1.1 million keyboards.



Even though many families simply use their piano as another
shelf for picture frames, the Powell family puts theirs to good use.
From left, Madysen, Havyn and Whitney Powell sit by their
grandmother’s old piano that was passed down to them.  

—Enterprise photo


Strauss, Wiebers and the Powells all have pianos with a story, whether they were passed down from their parents or a decades-old instrument that has been restored.

Strauss noted the benefits to having a parent who was also involved in music, remembering how her mother could, even from another room, point out that wrong note while she was practicing—something that helped her build and perfect her piano skills.

For the Powells, all the children must take three years of piano lessons beginning in first grade, and then after that, it’s up to them whether they pursue it further.

“I’ve started to enjoy it and realize it’s what I want to do,” said 14-year-old Whitney Powell, who wants to possibly use her piano instruction to compose, teach music or give lessons as a source of income. For right now, it’s helped her to pick up other instruments in band, and she’s even gotten experience accompanying the choir.

“God has given Whitney a gift,” said her mom Monica.

“It’s her passion,” added Merle.

For Whitney’s two younger sisters, 9-year-old Havyn and 8-year-old Madysen, they said their favorite part of lessons is the candy they get at the end for a reward. But they’re quick to rattle off how they are learning their note names, chords, scales and theory homework.

Strauss said it’s important to learn the basic fundamentals of music theory, which can then be applied to any genre. She gets most excited about teaching piano when students are excited about making music.

For Strauss, she was drawn to music partly because of the strong mathematical components as well as the creative side of music. It helps a musician use both sides of their brain. “I loved how all of this beautiful music could be explained!” she said.

Some people use the Internet and YouTube videos to teach themselves a song, but if they can focus on learning the basics, they can then use it on whatever is meaningful to them.

Music helps people develop emotionally and socially and be more well rounded, Wiebers said. And studies have shown kids who are involved in music do better in school and on things like the SAT test.

Not to mention that going in a room, shutting the door and pounding on the keys is a great stress reliever.

“It’s more personal when you’re actually playing it” rather than listening to an iPod, explained Wiebers. “It’s a means of expressing myself from the inside out. I can’t imagine a life without music.”

There’s something so rewarding in being part of something beautiful, echoed Strauss. “Piano is something you can play as long as your fingers work.” It’s a lifelong gift, so if students stick with it, it will enrich their lives long after their school years.

“Music is a lifetime skill,” said Wiebers. “If you take the time to do it, it’s yours for life.”


Holyoke Enterprise October 3, 2013