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What’s in a Name?

by Steve Cohen

Dean Hathaway, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Towson State College, called to make an appointment to play our Yamaha CF concert grand. A few years earlier, we had rebuilt his Mason & Hamlin A. Now, for duet work, he was interested in adding a concert grand to his home studio. This was in 1974, and Yamaha pianos, imported only since 1960, were gaining in reputation, but were not yet accepted as fine instruments nearly as widely as they are today.

When Dr. Hathaway began to play, I could immediately see that he was lost in the music. It was obvious that the piano sang with a voice that moved him. I left him in the showroom and went into my office to get some work done. I knew it might be a couple of hours before the piano let him go. Three hours later, the music stopped, and I heard a knock on my door.

“When do you want it delivered?” I asked, only half joking. He said he was still shopping, but readily admitted that he loved the instrument.

Two weeks later, Golden Arrington, head of Towson’s music department, called. He explained that Dean Hathaway had asked him to play the concert grand and share his thoughts. He played for about two hours. A few weeks later, it was Towson’s star instructor, Renaldo Reyes. The following week, another few hours with Dean Hathaway. Then, for a month or so, nothing — no more evaluators, no phone calls, nothing.

Sometime later, having just finished a meeting near the Towson campus, I thought I’d take a chance on catching Dean Hathaway at his office without an appointment. I explained to his receptionist who I was, and she went into his office to see if he was available. He came out with a smile and welcomed me into his inner sanctum.

Dr. Hathaway was a very personable man. We enjoyed a good hour sharing stories, but I knew that, eventually, I had to ask him to share his thoughts on buying the Yamaha. It was a big sale for me — my first concert grand — but even more important was having as a customer a person of Dr. Hathaway’s reputation. I was only 26 at the time; such a sale would greatly increase the respect my father had for my ability to eventually take over management of the business.

Dr. Hathaway candidly said that he absolutely loved the Yamaha. He had evaluated other concert grands, from the Steinway D and Mason & Hamlin CC to the Bösendorfer 290, but his favorite by far was the Yamaha. Still wondering why he hadn’t yet purchased it, I asked about Dr. Arrington’s and Renaldo Reyes’s evaluations. He explained that each of them had evaluated the same pianos and had come to the same conclusion, not only in terms of value per dollar, but also for overall tonal quality, and especially for the incredible musical control they experienced with the Yamaha. It would be a great understatement to say that at this point I was confused as to why I hadn’t yet made the sale!

Finally, I had to pop the question: “Dr. Hathaway, you said you liked the Yamaha better than any other contender. You say that Dr. Arrington and Renaldo Reyes also preferred our concert grand. And it is well over $20,000 less expensive than the other instruments. What is between you and buying the Yamaha?”

He let out a big sigh. “I started playing the piano as a young child. All my life I have had this dream of owning my own concert grand. And in every dream I see ‘Steinway & Sons’ on the fallboard. Now that I am in a position to buy whatever I want, I find that I like the Yamaha best, and I know that it’s the piano I want — but I can’t seem to get that ‘Steinway & Sons’ label out of my mind!”

I was almost at a loss for words. (As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am never at a complete loss for words.)  After gathering my thoughts, I said, “Let me see if I’ve got this straight. You really want the Yamaha. Your peers whose opinions you respect also advise buying the Yamaha. What’s stopping you from making the purchase is not having that ‘Steinway & Sons’ label on the piano.”

“Yes. That is exactly where I feel stuck.”

“Well, here’s a solution,” I replied. “We refinish many brands of piano all the time. As a part of that process, we routinely replace fallboard decals. Suppose we remove the Yamaha logo from the concert grand and replace it with a ‘Steinway & Sons’ decal. That way, you can get the piano whose performance you prefer and have the vision in your dream come true!”

He thought for a moment, then said, with a shocked smile, “That’s ludicrous!”

To which I replied, “While I understand that a Steinway is the fulfillment of your dream, you say that you like the Yamaha best by far, that its tonal quality and action satisfy you better than the Steinway’s, the Mason & Hamlin’s, and the Bösendorfer’s. The Yamaha is far less expensive, and the peers whom you hold in high esteem agree that it’s the right choice. Yet you hesitate to buy it. Isn’t that ludicrous as well?”

“So now, what are you going to do?”

He just laughed, took out his checkbook, gave me a $10,000 deposit, and asked when I could deliver the Yamaha.

I smiled. “And just what name did you want on the fallboard?”

He laughed again. “‘Yamaha’ will do just fine!”

Steve Cohen
Jasons Music Center
Pasadena, Maryland

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Pianos are unique among consumer goods in the extent to which deciding whether or not to purchase a particular instrument combines hardheaded choices about price and features with emotional responses involving art and passion. For many, buying a piano is more like finding a marriage partner than like buying a refrigerator or washing machine. Selling a piano, too, has its special challenges and fulfillments: satisfying the famous client, the donated instrument that helped launch a career, the sharing of a touching moment involving the importance of a piano in a customer’s life.

In Piano-Buying Stories, we bring together tales, from both consumers and retailers, of their experiences in buying or selling pianos that were somehow unusual, surprising, touching, or instructive — or all of these at once. We invite the submission of additional stories; please see our submission guidelines below. — L.F.

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