Getting pianos for a song

Partnership: A music store offers 27 new instruments to Anne Arundel schools.

November 09, 1999|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

How hard could it be to give away $500,000 worth of new pianos? Just ask area music store owner Steve Cohen.

Nearly a year ago, he dangled the offer of free instruments before the music directors of three county school systems: Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard. Cohen also threw in free delivery and some piano tuning services.

Baltimore County politely declined. Howard also said no thanks. Only Arundel expressed interest. Last week -- after extended negotiations with lawyers and school administrators about whether to accept Cohen's proposal -- 19 of 27 new pianos were delivered to Anne Arundel schools. By month's end, the total will be 15 uprights, six grands and six electronic models.

"It's amazing. We offered Anne Arundel County free pianos almost a year ago, and it took them a good 10 months to say yes," said Cohen, who owns Jasons Music Center stores in Woodlawn and Pasadena.

Chesapeake High School music teacher Karen Simmons had just finished rehearsing musical numbers from "Grease" with her choral class late last week when Jasons' Moving Service rolled a new upright Young Chang piano into her classroom. The instrument will replace Simmons' Yamaha piano, which has a fair amount of scratches and chips after more than 20 years of classroom duty.

The teacher praised the partnership, saying that some classroom pianos are in "really rough shape" after decades of daily wear and tear.

Compared with other academic departments, "music tends not to get as much equipment," Simmons said.

"Some of them [school pianos] are deplorable. They don't stay in tune because they're so bad," she said.

While it's not unusual for music stores to provide free instruments to college-level music departments and private schools, the arrangement between Jasons Music Center and Anne Arundel schools is most likely the first of its kind in Maryland, said Cohen and music teachers from Baltimore-area school systems.

"No one ever made the offer to us before Steve," said Bruce Horner, the music director for Anne Arundel schools. "I was delighted for the opportunity, and we pursued it pretty energetically, trying to make it work right for just about everybody."

Cohen's offer might appear to be a "can't lose" proposition for schools, but it's not an outright gift. In exchange for use of the pianos, county school officials agreed to let Cohen sell the pianos at the end of the school year in a school-system-owned warehouse in Millersville. Letters written by Cohen and Horner announcing the sale will be distributed in the schools, and Cohen will cover the cost of printing 85,000 letters. Also, the school system must insure the instruments.

If the partnership is successful, Cohen said that Anne Arundel schools may choose to renew its contract with him to provide pianos on an annual basis.

Horner said it took so long to reach an agreement with Cohen because the proposal had to work its way through many levels of the county's education bureaucracy.

"As a school system, we've got to be neutral in terms of all vendors, and we couldn't be endorsing this particular manufacturer over all others," Horner said.

Clinton Marshall, music director for Baltimore County schools, said lawyers for the school system had concerns about accepting the new pianos.

Marshall said he appreciated Cohen's offer, but noted that his department is not in dire need of the pianos. He said Baltimore County allocated $3.1 million this year for replacement instruments.

Howard County's music supervisor, Barbara King, said that most of the pianos in the school system are in good shape.

Cohen pitched his idea to Anne Arundel schools after his piano supplier -- Korean company Young Chang -- introduced a new piano with its tone-producing mechanism patterned after Steinway's classic handmade inner workings. Cohen says that the Young Chang piano has a good sound, and in some cases costs a third of the price of a Steinway.

A 5-foot-9-inch Young Chang grand piano has a list price of nearly $18,000 and would probably sell for about $11,000 at a discount, Cohen said. A comparable Steinway model can cost three to four times more. Cohen and Young Chang representatives figured that putting the new pianos in schools would help to build name recognition for the new instrument.

"They're backing this program so they can get pianos into the hands of students," Cohen said of the piano manufacturer.

Horner, who described Anne Arundel's music budget as "austere," was glad to accept the pianos.

"We've never had enough new or replacement equipment to keep our inventory totally current," he said.

Horner said a piano's interior hammers and felts become brittle and dry with age, and have to be replaced or repaired. Cracks can form in the instrument's sound board unless the piano is maintained at a consistent temperature and humidity -- conditions that don't exist in county schools.

Tim Simmons, a piano technician with Anne Arundel schools, is responsible for maintaining the county's stock of more than 1,000 pianos. He said about half of the instruments are more than 40 years old, and in some cases it's not cost-effective to continue repairing them. The lifespan of an acoustic piano in a school setting is about 25 years, and an electronic piano is good for about 15, Simmons said.

"We're using them every day. The heat is on and off. It's a rough environment," he said.

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