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Piano forte: sound business move strikes right chord in west

Hold the requiem, the piano industry sounds like a carnival in Melbourne’s outer west. Sarah Harris strikes a chord.

For Jim McCorry, a good piano movement is less about practicing scales than distributing weight – about 500kg in the case of a nine-foot concert grand.

McCorry is a piano man of the muscular kind, having been in the piano removals business since the early 80s.

“We move between 200 and 300 pianos a month,” the owner of Campbellfield-based JM Piano Moving says. “We used to also do furniture, but the last seven years all I’ve done is pianos.

“We’ve taken concert grands as far as Rockhampton. Most people are surprised to discover that we run a semi-trailer between Melbourne and Sydney. People don’t think of a truck that size running round full of pianos.

“Some are new, some are collector pianos — you do get a lot of heirloom stuff.

“We’ve had to get them into some tricky spots over the years. We’ve been bogged on farm properties in our prime mover. There are a lot of beaut old pianos out there. We still move a lot of Wertheims.”

Wertheim pianos are the product of Hugo Wertheim – the great grandfather of former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett – who followed Octavious Beale into the local piano manufacturing business.

Between them — at their peak in the early 1920s — the Wertheim factory in Richmond and the Beale factory in Sydney produced upwards of 5000 pianos a year.

Today Beale and Wertheim pianos are made in China under licence – among more than 30 imported brands including Yamaha, Alex Steinbach, Kawai, Samick, Schumann, Petrof & Bechstein

While Australia no longer mass-produces pianos, there are still two companies producing bespoke grand pianos, Overs and Stuart & Sons.

Stuart & Sons have recently begun producing a mega-piano with 102 keys — 14 more than the modern instrument and 32 more than Beethoven had at his disposal when he first began playing.

But even this distinctly Aussie innovation seems unlikely ever to supplant the maestro of piano production — Steinway.

The Essendon-based Exclusive Piano Group (EPG), Victoria’s only licensed Steinway dealership, in which trucking magnate Lindsay Fox is the major shareholder, reports there is still strong demand for acoustic pianos, in spite of the economic downturn.

“People are still very interested in pianos and learning music,” EPG managing director Mark O’Connor says.

“And honestly, if you have a child who comes home and says, ‘I want to learn the piano’, as a parent it’s really difficult to say no.

“We have parents who come in who maybe want to start them on an electronic piano in the low range of maybe $1500.

“Then we have people who come in who just decide they want a Steinway and spend over $250,000 on a concert grand.“The nine-foot concert grands we sell a lot to institutions. Last year the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and Adelaide Symphony Orchestra all bought them from us, as did the Arts Centre, Scots College and Monash University.

“But we also had a couple of people buy them privately and nine-foot concert grands you don’t sell every day to private individuals.”

One of the buyers, a Niddrie businessman approaching retirement, decided a Steinway model D worth $285,000 was a better investment than shares and, although he couldn’t play a note, was likely to get far more enjoyment from it.

“He just loves music and his wife loves music,” O’Connor says of the buyer who asked to remain anonymous. “He wants to have concerts in his home and have musicians come around and play it for him. I gave him 10 lessons so he can at least start to play the thing.’’

A $200,000 limited edition concert grand based on John Lennon’s famous white Steinway was recently sold to a family in Point Cook. They also bought a white upright so their daughter could continue her practise upstairs in her room.

EPG has been selling so well into the Point Cook-Tarneit area, they are now scouting for a location there to set up a music school.

“The Asian community is a big customer base for us,” O’Connor says. “The kids seem to be a little bit more focused. They have more of an understanding that you get out of things what you put into them.”

The interest of a new generation is music to the ears of Graeme McGowen. The Mt Macedon resident is the last blind piano tuner in Victoria.

Time was the blind and partially-sighted were actively encouraged to train as piano technicians and there’s still a School of Piano Technology Tuning for the Blind in the US.

McGowen, who went to the Royal Victorian Institute of the Blind School when he was three and later through its training centre, has enjoyed a 40-year career which has seen him tune pianos for the like of Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, Liberace, Cat Stevens (before he became Yusef) and the band Chicago.

But like many tuners he is nearing retirement age and laments the lack of apprentices committing to learn the trade.

While there is a critical national shortage of piano tuners, McGowen is confident the acoustic piano will endure.

“I don’t think the piano will ever die – not as long as there are people who love music and children to find middle C.’’


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