Technology closing grand gap between acoustic, digital pianos

Jan Hart sits at the keyboard of a Yamaha AvantGrand piano at Hart Music. The electronic piano offers a variety of different keyboard sounds.



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Jan Hart sits at the keyboard of a Yamaha AvantGrand piano at Hart Music. The electronic piano offers a variety of different keyboard sounds.

If it sounds like an acoustic grand piano, looks like an acoustic grand piano and feels like an acoustic grand piano, it must be an acoustic grand piano, right?

Wrong.

The Yamaha AvantGrand is the first digital piano invented that musicians from around the world, including renowned pianists Ikuyo Nakamichi, Cyprien Katsaris and Chick Corea, have proclaimed to be as close to an acoustic grand as they have ever heard.

Although no musician has gone so far as to say that the AvantGrand produces the same rich depth of sound of a full-length concert grand, it has been noted that the AvantGrand’s sound quality, coupled with its authentic action and pedal feel, makes it as good or better than any smaller grand piano around, said Arthur Houle, director of keyboard studies at Mesa State College.

“My God, for the price and what it is, I’d give it an A-plus,” said Houle, who began playing piano at age 4.

The AvantGrand is compact. It’s nearly 4-feet long and retails at $19,000.

By comparison, the acoustic grand piano that resides in the Recital Hall of Mesa State’s Moss Performing Arts Center is a 9-foot Yamaha Grand CF3 that can’t be moved out of the Hall without considerable effort.

Houle didn’t know how much that grand piano cost when the college purchased it years ago, but he said high-end acoustic grand pianos can cost more than $100,000.

Houle was so impressed with the quality of the AvantGrand that the piano will be showcased at the Festival for Creative Pianists, which began Thursday and continues Friday and Saturday, April 8–9, at Moss Performing Arts Center.

The festival’s piano performances for judges are open to the public for $5 per adjudication or a flat fee of $20 for all adjudications.

The festival’s evening concerts also will be open to the public and will be at 7:30 p.m. on both nights at the Recital Hall. A Judges and Director Program will be Friday, April 8, and a Winners Recital and Awards Ceremony will be Saturday, April 9. Tickets cost $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and $5 for students and are available at the Mesa State Box Office, 248-1604.

The festival will give participating pianists the opportunity to play an AvantGrand.

Houle said one of his colleagues, Monte Atkinson, a festival judge and director or choral activities at Mesa State, is skeptical that a digital piano, even if it has an acoustic feel, could ever measure up to an acoustic grand. Atkinson has said he will try the AvantGrand at the festival.

Houle doesn’t fault Atkinson. Houle himself was skeptical when he was introduced to the AvantGrand in 2009 — the piano was rolled out by Yamaha in January 2009 — during the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy in suburban Chicago.

Then, Houle played it. He was “blown away.”

“Before this instrument came out, I often said, ‘No way digital technology can truly duplicate the sound of a real grand piano,’ ” Houle said.

Industry experts such as Stephen Fortner with Keyboard magazine and those aforementioned pianists, Nakamichi, Katsaris and Corea, all have praised Yamaha for its vision to blend technology with all the things about acoustic grand pianos that pianists love — the sound and the feel.

Fortner’s testimony in the August 2010 edition of Keyboard magazine and can be found at http://www.keyboardmag.com.

“With aplomb, Yamaha has pulled off not just a major technological leap, but a seeming contradiction: a virtual piano for people for whom nothing but a real piano will do,” Fortner wrote in his review.

The three pianists submitted endorsements at avant-grand.com.

“Initially, I thought that the AvantGrand was just going to be another advanced digital keyboard, but when I tried it I was astonished to find that it had a real grand piano action. It feels very natural to the touch,” Nakamichi wrote in her review.

Jazz pianist Corea’s “standard of comparison” for the AvantGrand was “the Yamaha CIFIIIS concert grand piano with a gorgeous, beautiful sound.”

“I thought, ‘look at this little thing, what’s it going to do?’ It blew me away” Corea said on the website.

“This piano possesses qualities not present in any digital piano thus far, and it would be no exaggeration to say that it has in itself created a new genre of pianos,” Katsaris wrote in his endorsement.

Jan Hart, owner of J.B. Hart Music Co., 417 Main St., has been in the music business for nearly 60 years and said it is no surprise that Yamaha was the company that first found a way to bring grand pianos into the modern, digital age.

Yamaha has been making grand pianos since 1902 and also makes audio and digital products.

“Yamaha already had a reputation as a progressive company,” said Hart, whose store is the only AvantGrand dealer between Denver and Salt Lake City.

The AvantGrand has an earphone jack and a volume control because the sound of the piano is pumped through 12 speakers and 16 amplifiers.

Another AvantGrand advantage is that it is always in tune, Houle said.

David Bauguess, of David Bauguess Piano Service in Grand Junction, has been tuning pianos for more than 30 years, including all pianos at Mesa State.

Fluctuations in heat and humidity can alter a piano’s pitch, and it may take anywhere from an hour to four hours to fix.

Bauguess has never played an AvantGrand. His only familiarity with digital pianos is through relatively inexpensive keyboards.

“I don’t think the sound is the same,” Bauguess said of the discrepancy between digital and acoustic. “I don’t think it’s too hard to discern the difference between a recording of a digital piano and an acoustic piano.”

Bauguess’ acute sense of hearing aside, making an association between the sound of an inexpensive portable digital keyboard and that of the hefty AvantGrand may not be all that accurate.

In the creation of the AvantGrand, Yamaha consulted with its acoustic grand piano makers so the digital piano would be more closely linked to an acoustic grand than its digital predecessors, according to an AvantGrand brochure from Yamaha.

But whether the AvantGrand or any digital piano really measures up to an acoustic grand doesn’t bother local piano teacher Lisa Bush of Lisa Bush Piano Studio.

Although Bush, 49, enjoys playing a 9-foot Baldwin grand piano every Sunday at Crossroads United Methodist Church, she does not think digital pianos are inferior.

“My philosophy is: I just want kids to have music,” Bush said.

Some piano teachers may disagree vehemently, but Bush has no problem teaching children on digital pianos. She enjoys technological advances.

She has never played an AvantGrand, but she sees it as welcome addition to the market, as do Houle and Hart.

It is doubtful it will ever replace the largest acoustic grand pianos because of the individuality of sound of each piano, but it doesn’t have to, they said.

“In this age, technology is everything,” Bush said. “I think it has its niché.”



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