Why piano lessons are not in tune with modern times

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The Independent Online
THERE WAS bad news for British piano-makers last week. The end of free tuition in schools, the influx of cheap pianos from the Far East and the popularity of the electronic keyboard have combined to put at risk one of the oldest firms in the business.

Herrburger Brooks, of Long Eaton, near Nottingham, has gone into receivership, costing more than 40 staff their jobs.

The crisis at Herrburger, which makes the moving parts, or "actions", for the instruments, is just part of the picture. Thirty years ago there were around 40 manufacturers in Britain. Now just two large factories put together entire pianos. It has been a story of mergers and diminishing returns since the twin enemies of the British piano industry started to hit in the early 1990s. First, Japanese and Korean manufacturers began to export cheaper instruments. Then schools began to drop free lessons.

"When free lessons faded out, that had a big effect on the market," said Roger Wilson, managing director of Whelpdale Maxwell and Codd, makers of pianos in Clapham, London, since 1935. He believes the British industry is turning a corner. "The market has not yet recovered to 1980s levels," he said. "Then there were around 15,000 new pianos sold each year. Now it is more like 7,000 or 8,000." But add the hidden market in second-hand pianos and you have a brighter picture. "If you include them, the national figure for annual sales comes closer to 25,000."

English pianos cost around pounds 1,900; those produced in China around pounds 1,000 and an electronic keyboard costs as little as pounds 99. But Mr Wilson warns against the cheaper foreign imports. "It is a false economy. They do not last as long and they do not go up in value."

A reconditioned 1955 Weimar will re-sell immediately. "We would buy something like that back in a shot as it would walk out of the door tomorrow."

The biggest new threat, according to Mr Wilson, is posed by the Chinese industry, which is expanding very quickly.

The official receiver appointed to administer Herrburger remains optimistic that it will be able to recall the staff. "We are hoping to sell the company as a going concern," a spokeswoman said.

And if the homegrown manufacturer manages to make it through the slow movement, the finale may not be so bleak.

Richard Morris, chief executive of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools, says the piano is still the most popular instrument for grade examinations. "Numbers have improved again. Although we are not back at 1980 levels, they are still going gently back up."