The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Is it piano neglect? The University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music should take better care of the piano used for student concerts. Plus, Madison Symphony Orchestra maestro John DeMain gets raves for conducting an opera in Washington, D.C. | February 21, 2016

ALERT: Did you wonder what Madison Symphony Orchestra maestro John DeMain was up to since the MSO concerts last weekend used a guest conductor?

Well, the hometown maestro was guest conducting a week-long production of Kurt Weill‘s opera “Lost in the Stars” for the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

A number of  critics didn’t particularly like the opera itself, which is based on the famous anti-apartheid novel “Cry, the Beloved County” by Alan Paton, and some criticized the theatrical aspects of the production.

But music director and conductor DeMain received praise for his part.

Here are links to various reviews:

There is more praise in a mention on Page 2:

By Jacob Stockinger

Calling it piano abuse it would be a stretch. That sounds too accusatory and too sensational.

But calling it piano neglect certainly seems justified and fair.

When The Ear attended some recent student recitals, he noticed the unfortunate treatment of a concert grand piano in Morphy Recital Hall, on which many students perform their degree recitals.

From a distance, and under the glare of stage lighting, the piano (below) seemed more or less OK.

Morphy piano 1

But when he went up close, The Ear saw just how chewed up the wood was in so many places.

Morphy piano 4

Now some wear-and-tear seems normal, especially for a piano that gets so much use for solo recitals and chamber music. And truth be told, it probably plays pretty well and is maintained in good shape internally.

But the outer condition of this piano nonetheless seemed as if it had indeed been neglected over the years — though maybe there are other reasons.

There were eye-catching scrapes and gouges that just look junky.

Now The Ear knows that the talented piano technician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music is very busy. After all, there are a lot of pianos to tune and regulate.

And The Ear also knows that budget cuts are presenting challenges to the School of Music and its staff.

But that seems all the more reason to take care of the pianos the school has. The likelihood of replacing it with a new one seems little to none.

After all, these days a Steinway concert grand Model D sells for pretty close to $125,000.

If you had a car worth that much, you would surely not neglect its maintenance and upkeep. So why would you do it to a piano, especially one that gets so much use and is in the public eye so frequently?

So on the eve of more student degree recitals, which will only increase as the end of the spring semester draws closer, here is The Ear’s plea:

Please use the padded covering that can protect the piano when it gets moved, and try to be careful about bumping or scraping into things that can cause permanent damage.

Also, if there are times that the piano’s finish gets marred, please use that specially made piano dye to restore the ebony finish and please repair any chipped keys, which are plastic not ivory, by the way.

The Ear doubts other instruments — strings, brass, woodwinds — would be allowed by their owners to fall into such a state.

If you doubt all this or think it is overstating the case, here are some close-up photos that The Ear took.

It hurts The Ear to see such a fine instrument neglected and deteriorate. He assumes that the students who use it feel the same way – and he hopes the public does too. Owning such a fine musical instrument imposes a certain responsibility on the owner, and it should be repaired.

Morphy Piano 2

Morphy piano 3

Morphy piano 5

Morphy piano 6

Morphy piano 7

Is The Ear being too hard or fussy?

He would like to know what students who play the piano and what other audience members think.

Use the COMMENT section to let him know.

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. Bravo Jess for your response. I myself have assisted in moving pianos in Mills and Morphy on numerous occasions – most recently when my wife and I had to move the concert grand from offstage in Mills Hall onto the stage for a rehearsal…employing the infamous up-hill push and down-hill roll through the barely-
    wide-enough doorway technique that is required. On that occasion, the wheel of the piano’s back leg took a
    roll over end of my big right toe. The bruise is still there.

    I cite this incident because it was necessary for us to
    move the piano OURSELVES, since there is no one else to do it on the many, many occasions when it must be used on stage, and moved from offstage, most often by the performers themselves.

    Everything Jess says is spot on. Baoli is a wonderful,
    wonderful technician and tuner who does an amazing job with very little support.

    I would like to take issue with the words neglect and abuse. There may indeed be some occasional abuse from students and faculty, but really the issue is that
    the design of the concert halls makes it impossible to move and store the pianos in a way that protects them adequately. The design makes it almost impossible to
    avoid occasional accidents when pianos have to be moved daily by people (some like myself) who are not
    really equipped by nature to push pianos uphill.

    We all feel sad when we see damage to the outside of one of the beautiful pianos at the School of Music. We feel even sadder about some of the issues the School and the University at large are trying to deal with in this time of draconian budget cuts.

    I say Bravo and Three Cheers that the School is doing so much to produce and promote wonderful music of all kinds…including Jess’s magnificent recital on Saturday evening.

    Bill Lutes

    Comment by BL — February 22, 2016 @ 9:06 am

    • Hi Bill,
      Thank you for responding.
      Like Jesse’s, your response tot he posting is most informative and most appreciated.
      Still, the condition of the piano is a shame, although I do not blame any one person. And I did take pains to praise the technicians and to point out the challenges posed by the anti-intellectual governor and legislature who seem bent on disassembling and destroying the great University of Wisconsin.
      Although you think the words “neglect” and “abuse” are uncalled for, I would argue that that is exactly what the designers, architects and builders of the School of Music’s physical facilitates committed. You should not have to roll pianos uphill or downhill through doors that are too narrow or store pianos inappropriately. (Had I known about that sooner, I would have said that in the blog post. But the public does not get the behind-the-scenes story.)
      Such bad design poses the threat of physical injury to the teaching and technical staff as well as damage to the instrument.
      One would not put up with such treatment of an expensive instruments in one’s home. Why should it be justified in a university or academic setting?
      I certainly hope that the architects of the new music building take the use and storage of pianos and other instruments into account more seriously.
      And I still think it would be worth a small investment to do some “cosmetic” work on the concert grand piano that remains in use in Mills and Morphy halls. Great instruments in great condition often lead to better playing and to pride in the performance.
      Finally, I couldn’t agree more with your praise for what the School of Music does with its ever-diminishing resources and staff. I spend a lot of time there and am rarely, if ever disappointed.
      Thank you again.

      Comment by welltemperedear — February 22, 2016 @ 9:54 am

  2. Dear Jake,
    As Chair of the Keyboard Area at the UW-Madison School of Music, I would like to respond to your query about piano neglect. The Steinway pictured in the photos was originally the instrument used in Mills Hall, where it obtained the majority of those scratches and dents. Have you ever seen the space backstage where the pianos are housed in Mills? It is probably the most epic architectural fail in the history of concert halls. The entire area is sloped, requiring us to first push the piano (in a very tight space) uphill, followed by rolling (in as controlled a fashion as is possible) DOWNHILL through the doors into the hall. Even with two strong people moving the instrument with the COVER on, it is highly probable that the instrument will make contact with the door, however slight. I have nearly been trampled by the piano a few times myself. I invite anyone to take a peek back there; or better yet, offer to assist with a piano move. You will quickly come to understand how the piano could get beat up rather quickly.

    Likewise, the backstage area in Morphy Hall is exceedingly small, doubling the risks to our instruments, which at this point do not have a separate “box” for storage (there is no space in our current facilities for such a storage box). The keyboard area has a strict protocol for how pianos are to be handled, stored and moved to insure the best outcome. Stage workers and faculty at large are all trained in adhering to this policy.

    To make matters worse, the School of Music, as the rest of the campus, has been deeply impacted by the state budget cuts. This includes everything from cuts to custodial work (if you want to complain about the dust) to reduced budgets for piano technician staff and piano repairs. We definitely realize the importance of maintaining our valuable instruments and indeed concert pianos are incredibly expensive. Our extraordinary technician, Baoli Liu, has literally hundreds of pianos to maintain throughout the building (and campus!). His top priority with a reduced staff is to make sure the pianos SOUND as best they can, particularly in the concert hall.

    Perhaps the beat up piano is a metaphor for the whole situation? Frankly, I’ve been amazed at how beautiful that piano has been sounding, reflecting the true artisanship of Baoli and his assistant, Mark Ulstch, both of whom do incredible jobs with a nearly impossible inventory.

    I appreciate all that you do on behalf of the arts in our community, but I must say that this essay felt like a dagger to the heart. I’m sure that you are well aware of the struggles we have been facing, yet the School of Music has made every effort to continue to offer the highest quality faculty and students concerts, most of which are free to the entire community. We face continued cuts and anti-higher ed rhetoric everyday. But we march on, bringing wonderful music to everyone.

    There has been no neglect of our pianos.

    Jess Johnson
    Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy
    Chair of Keyboard Area
    UW-Madison School of Music

    Comment by Jess Johnson — February 22, 2016 @ 8:11 am

    • Dear Jess,
      Thank you for reading the post and replying so eloquently, and with such convincing and enlightening detail.
      First, let me offer my congratulations on your downsizing workshop and concert about using a smaller keyboard.
      They were a terrific success, as is so much of what the School of Music does.
      I am sorry that you felt the blog was a stab to the heart.
      It was not in any way intended to be a personal attack on you or anyone else. I have only the highest regard for your department and for the whole UW School of Music.
      And in the essay, I did try to recognize the importance of budget cuts and staff cuts as well as the talents of your piano technicians.
      My intent was simply to point out that help is needed, not only cosmetic help for the piano but also help in correcting the architectural and design circumstances that make such damage a given. It now seems scandalous to me that the storage areas were so poorly designed for piano storage and mobility. Pianos, after all, are central to a school of music and its mission. So they should be central to the design of a building that houses them.
      You know that I highly respect the education that you offer at the UW School of Music. That much is not in question.
      Indeed, it is my hope that the photo essay and text will not cause the public to criticize you as much as to see the problems you and your students face every day and the effects of budget and staff cuts to the school and department.
      Thank you for pointing out problems with the design of the building that make moving pianos so difficult. I was unaware of those, and am pretty sure the general public is also unaware of them.
      But with all that being said, there must some kind of solution to the condition of a concert grand piano used by students. Several readers did say they found the condition shocking. Granted they are outsiders, not insiders who know the history and causes as you do. But surely some kind of remedial restoration can and maybe should be done.
      It is good for the public to be aware of the difficulties you face. Maybe someone could come forward to offer at least a reconditioning of this particular piano and carry it over until the new music building is open. And I hope the new building will have much better designs for storage facilities that will not cause damage to the instruments they are supposed to protect. If there is no neglect of the piano, there certainly was neglect and incompetence on the part of the building’s architects.
      Please accept my apologies for any bad feelings and my sincere thanks for your explanations.
      I would like to think that my posting will, in the end, help you — not hurt you — and help the School of Music’s pianos. Such fine and expensive instruments deserve better treatment — a point I am sure you and all the piano staff agree with. Plus, the staff does not deserve to be exposed to the possibility of physical injury when pianos have to be moved form hall to hall.
      Please accept my best wishes, my thanks and my best hopes for a solution.

      Comment by welltemperedear — February 22, 2016 @ 8:53 am

  3. Although musicians and music students well know that a piano is a musical instrument, I have encountered far too many people with pianos in their homes who seem to think it’s a piece of furniture. I’ve seen a Steinway baby grand spread with appetizers, a Yamaha 6 ft. as a bar, and a number of consoles and uprights treated as shelves for plants. Does this subconscious attitude also affect the way pianos are treated in the School of Music?

    Comment by slfiore — February 21, 2016 @ 8:17 am

    • Probably not. It just reflects heavy use and probably age. This is probably quite an old one too.

      Your observations on the non musical use of pianos are sad at the same time they are amusing. I think it reflects on who we are as a people; mostly, our values are all wrong.

      Comment by fflambeau — February 21, 2016 @ 8:56 pm

  4. DeMain conducted a 13 piece orchestra!

    And here’s a less positive review of the opera including this: “John DeMain, who has experience with musical-operas (Show Boat, Sweeney Todd) leads a shaky orchestra with a couple off-pitch moments.”

    Comment by fflambeau — February 21, 2016 @ 12:47 am

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