No more room for the piano
The piano used to be the heart of the home across social classes but now it's a luxury for those with the space. The FT's Thomas Hale went to St Pancras public piano in London to hear classical pianist Alisdair Hogarth and speak to people eager to play when they get the chance
Produced and directed by Juliet Riddell and Gregory Bobillot. Shot and edited by Richard Topping and Gregory Bobillot. Presented by Thomas Hale
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So Camden, just around the corner from here, used to be the centre of the global piano industry. A hundred years later, not a single piano is being manufactured in London. Eighty per cent of pianos globally are now produced in China. And across the UK you can pick up a piano for free. Many of them are unused, unwanted. Some of them end up in train stations where the public can play them. So does anyone still care about pianos?
Music has always been in my blood, half my family's blood. Went onto the piano at the age of 16 and realised I really liked it. Come the age of about 26 I realised that I could sing and play, because I've always had a singing voice.
It's a stress reliever. When I see piano, I have to stop and listen to the one playing, or if possible, I have to play.
A lot of customers who are passing they stop and they listen to them. It relaxes you. You feel happy. Sometimes you even get young kids or parents, and they're sitting and playing, and they play very well. And you got people, not only me alone, when they hear a good piece we just clap and say, well done, well done!
My grandpa played lots, so everytime we went to visit them, my sister and I. I guess we used to fight over playing piano sometimes. In my family home we have an electric piano.
Well, what's the reason you've got an electric piano rather than an acoustic piano?
Cost, I think. If you add in the acoustic then you got the ongoing cost of having to keep it in tune.
When I was a kid my parents bought grand piano, but the parents' house is so small, it's very hard to put grand piano. And that's why I think...
As a professional pianist, you spend your working life surrounded by pianos.
Well, what's your sense as a pianist of how the wider world sees pianos?
It's difficult for me because I'm in that world. I'm so ingrained in that world, so you know, at home when I wake up, my piano's in the main room in our house. So you know, I'll be eating my breakfast and it's there, and then I'll go to work, and whether that is teaching piano, I'm going to be with a piano there, whether I'm at someone's home. They're going to have a piano in their home. So every home I go to has a piano in my day to day life.
Looking in from my world, I guess, I think the piano is quite a magnetic instrument. I'm not talking professionally, but just you know, amateur pianists, or just you know, even in a space like this, when there's a piano there, people want to push the keys down, you know, even if they can't play.
Well, we've seen that today, I think.
Yeah. I mean, this guy's great.
In London, it's quite difficult to fit a piano in your home.
But you must live in a home that can accommodate a very large and good piano.
I do. I do. Well, I have two pianos, but I live slightly out of London because I wouldn't be able to fit two pianos into a house that I could afford in London. So I have a Steinway model A from about 1925. It's a really old instrument. It's quite nice. I have kids, and they're sort of drawn to it. Sometimes hate it, because I'm, you know, practicing and they're trying to watch Peppa Pig. I also have like an electric keyboard.
Even the best pianists are using electric alternatives now.
I don't know if I'm one of the best, but I certainly use one out of necessity, yeah. Yeah.
And tell us a little bit about the social side of the piano. I mean, obviously, a couple of generations ago, it was a purely social instrument.
Maybe nowadays, people with some exceptions play it very often on their own.
And certainly in your line of work, you have to spent a huge amount time on your own with your piano.
Can we call it a solitary instrument? Has there been a big shift in the social role of the piano.
Maybe. I mean, I think one thing that's been really valuable is people doing tutorials on YouTube, and making piano playing very accessible. And I think there's nothing wrong with kids or adults picking up a YouTube channel and learning to play by that. You can get enormous enjoyment. You don't desperately have to read the notes. You can improvise. You can have fun with it. You just get a few basic starters, and that could be the routine, and you know, maybe one of them go on and have lessons.
And it's social in a way. I mean, people are sharing their experience with the piano.
Maybe they're not in the same place.
My friend Dominic runs an amazing thing on Instagram where he does live requests, and people just post what they want. He plays it. It's a really nice world to be in for being a piano nerd at the moment, and I count myself very much as one of those.
Have you got a piano at home?
No, I haven't, but I've got a keyboard. It's very sad when people cannot afford pianos at home, because remember, parents always send their children to do music lessons, and that's what's coming out here, because they remember and they start playing some of the pieces.
Have you got a piano at home?
No, I'm actually in a homeless situation for another couple of days. Moving on Friday, and when I get one, to begin with I'll probably get a digital piano, which sounds like a piano but doesn't have the harmonics. There's a lovely piano here, and I like coming here for other reasons, meeting different people. I'm a fervent European. Lovely practicing my French here.
So do people still care about the piano? Well, I've been here just over an hour, chatted to us about their experiences with it, played, drifted off into their own little world. You've got to ask how many things can make people stop in their tracks while they're rushing for a train?
If not I'll just die.