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The few pianomakers left in US borrowing a tune from Japan

Americans used to buy American-made pianos as a matter of course, just as they drove American cars. But when Toyotas and Datsuns hit the American market, so did Yamaha and Kawai pianos. The results have been devastating to the piano industry in the United States. Whereas imported cars amount to 15 percent of automobile sales, imported pianos represent a staggering 75 percent of (grand) piano sales in the US: Seventy percent are Japanese and Korean, 5 percent are German-made.

In mid-1985 the largest piano-plate manufacturer in the US closed down because of ``too much product offshore.'' (The metal plate is what withstands the enormous tension on the piano's strings.) That leaves just one plate manufacturer in the entire US -- which limits the possibility of production to 100,000 American pianos all year. In 1984, 178,000 new pianos were sold in this country.

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The piano manufacturing business has been so hard hit by foreign imports as well as other economic and social trends (including Casio synthesizers and other electronic keyboards) that, of the 160 piano manufacturers in the US operating in the 1920s, there are only four major American producers left: Steinway, Baldwin, Kimball, and Wurlitzer; a fifth, Aeolian Pianos, went bankrupt last year.

Most of the individual survivors, however, are doing surprisingly well.

Steinway, with its ``instrument of the immortals,'' actually increased its sale of grand pianos by more than 20 percent in 1984, and grand pianos represent 7 percent of Steinway's total US business.

Baldwin went through a dramatic turn of events when its parent company, the financial conglomerate, Baldwin-United, filed for bankruptcy in 1983. A subsequent leveraged buy-out allowed the piano part of the company to extricate itself and resume the original structure at its founding in 1862 as the Baldwin Piano & Organ Company.

Baldwin, the largest piano manufacturer in the US in dollar volume, has incorporated several innovative Japanese management techniques into its Southern-based plants. One of them has met with distinctively resounding success: quality circles, in which management encourages workers' participation.

``It's a microcosm of solving problems on the employee, rather than the management, level,'' says Charles Faulk, quality-control manager at Baldwin's grand piano factory in Conway, Ark. ``We're asking our employees to work with us to make a better instrument.''

Baldwin has nine such circles in its Conway plant, with similar ones in four other plants.

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``They pick the problems they want to work on and solve them through statistical means, by quantifying them,'' says plant manager Michael Selligman. ``There's a sense of teamsmanship.''

Baldwin feels that although there are few real technological innovations in piano-building -- a 275-year-old craft steeped in tradition -- what is new is management and how the workers are perceived. Their own plants could represent a step closer to the Yamaha factories in Japan, where piano workers, wearing their company T-shirt exercise together every day and sing the company song.

Formerly, it was Germans and East Europeans who became skilled piano builders and technicians in the US, handing their skills down to the next generation through apprenticeships.

Today, piano workers are representative of what the American labor market has become.

At Steinway, there are many Latin Americans, Italians, blacks, Asians, and other new immigrants. The master tone regulator at Steinway's factory in Astoria, Queens (New York City), is Spanish. At Baldwin, piano workers are people ``off the street who receive on-the-job training.''

Anyone can be hired except in the piano tuning area, where tests are given for acoustical aptitude and preference goes to those with musical experience.

Baldwin feels that the Southern location of its factories gives it an edge. Mr. Selligman points to the work ethic and the nonunion climate as advantages. Another plus may be the high percentage of women piano builders at Baldwin -- they make up 85 percent, for example, at the grand piano factory.

Ironically, now that the American piano manufacturing industry is being pressed to the wall by outside influences, the pianos, as well as the pianomakers, are improving.

Paul Majeski, who is editor of Music Trades magazine, notes: ``Many people consider American pianos made today to be vastly superior to older instruments due to many technological factors: better wood, better manufacturing processes, better kilns and finishes. . . . Pianists have ideas they hold on to which prevent them from being objective about this, but scientifically, it's so.''

American piano manufacturers are adapting Japanese techniques and at the same time continuing to strive to make the best product possible. The greatest challenge they face is to improve the quality of their product on a continuing basis -- the only way they can survive in such a competitive market.

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