Friday, June 13, 2008

Can I have those 15 minutes back, please?

(Warning: This is my longest post ever. It will probably take you longer to read than it did for me to experience. Oh well. I am on a train, and have lots of time to be wordy. Deal with it.)

The other day, I had a 1:30 meeting scheduled at a customer site in the Northern Suburbs. I had arranged for two others to join me, since I am not smart enough to answer the questions this customer (well, any customer) might have. One of these gentlemen met me at the door:

“They canceled.”

Ugh. And I had driven 23.7 miles to get there, or so says the expense report I submitted this morning. The good news is that I suddenly had a couple of hours to kill before a 4:00 PM team call, so I headed home to get some unexpected piano practice. After all, I knew the rest of the family was out looking at the still-under-construction-house. (It's coming along great, the new close date is August 20, thanks for asking.) I am in that painful early period of learning The Entertainer… you know, that stage when it’s best that nobody else hears, because I play the same small snippets over and over and over, and make lots and lots of mistakes in doing so.

Anyway, I got in my car, talked briefly to Sue, and had just hung up the phone when, Holy Cow, there’s a Guitar Center! Sue’s mom has a work friend who recently purchased a digital piano from Guitar Center. “They got everything there! They really hook you up!” I stopped in.

Based on various forums, I had some preconceived notions about Guitar Center. Based on my extremely limited experience, I can now confirm some of these, and refute others.

Preconceived Notion #1: Guitar Center is loud.
Status: Confirmed. And how.

When I opened the front door, three sound sources competed for my attention. The first was the store’s PA system, tuned to a local radio station. The second was a room on my left of amps and speakers playing some hip-hop. The door to this room was wide open, exposing everybody in range to the sounds. The third was a kid testing out a guitar, with the amp cranked up high. As I moved through the store, some of these sounds (except the PA) died out, only to be replaced by others. It’s a loud, chaotic place, and I would go bonkers if I worked there.

Preconceived Notion #2: Guitar Center employees will let you test out instruments in peace.
Status: Highly dubious.

I found the keyboards. Wow, did I find the keyboards. Workstations, synthesizers, small keyboards, giant keyboards (wow, is that Yamaha CP33 huge!), and of course, digital pianos of all sorts… stand-alone portable keyboards through full cabinet models that looked just like console pianos. I tried to avoid eye contact with any employees, which should have been enough to convey that I wanted to be left alone. But out of the corner of my eye, I saw that I had been spotted and was being followed.

“Hi, welcome to Guitar Center, my name is Danny.” I turned and faced a college-age Hispanic kid with Kojak’s shiny head. “Faced” is probably not the correct verb… I was easily 15 inches taller than Danny. He smiled, and offered his hand. As I shook it, I formed two additional impressions. First, apparently Danny’s hand muscles didn’t work, because as I shook his, it did not respond at all. Second, he was missing his upper right front tooth. (That would be the Maxillary Central Incisor, and yes, I had to look that up.)

“Do you have any questions about keyboards? Is there any model in particular you’re interested in buying today?” Wow, aren’t we accelerating sales cycles? I did go in there with questions, to be sure… questions like:

• Does the Casio PX-120 feel like an acoustic piano?
• How do the PX-120, PX-200, and PX-320 compare in terms of sound and touch?
• Can I tell the difference between Yamaha’s GHS and GHE keyboards?
• Do the pedals on any of these look and/or feel like real pedals?

In retrospect, it might have been interesting to pose these questions to a salesperson, and next time, maybe I will. But these are highly subjective questions, and only I can answer them for myself. Which is what I tried to communicate when I answered, looking away, “Ok, thanks, but I am just here to play a couple of models I’ve been looking at.”

“Well then, I would suggest you start out by comparing these two. They are, by far, our most popular models.” He motioned to a Yamaha Arius YDP-140 and YPG-625 placed back-to-back.

Yamaha YDP-140

Yamaha YPG-625

Mind you, I have already tried the YPG-625, and was duly impressed, especially by the sound. But at the going rate, to say nothing of Guitar Center’s sticker prices ($999 and $849, respectively, and hold that thought), these are simply not on my radar. I like that the YDP-140 sort of looks like a piano, which is sort of important to me. But from what I know about it, you aren’t getting much for your $1k, compared to, say, a Casio PX-800. It took me a few moments to process all this, and all the while, Danny patiently waited for me to respond in some way to his suggestion. When I didn’t, he asked, “Do you have any questions about them?”

I picked up the YPG-625 price tag, looked straight at the missing tooth, and said, “I thought these were being discontinued. When are you getting a 635?”

“A what?”

“A YPG-635. Yamaha is replacing this model with a new one, the YPG-635. I heard that these were supposed to be available soon. I’m wondering when you will have any in stock.”

“Well, I know a lot about keyboards, and I haven’t heard of a 635. This 625 is, by far, our most popular model, and everybody who buys one likes it. I really can’t image why Yamaha would want to replace it.”

“Well, maybe I am mistaken.” (I wasn’t, and I knew that.) “Could you go check that for me? I’ll be here.”

“Oh, sure, I can go ask.” And away he went. Which was, as you probably suspect, the point. This gave me some time to do what I wanted to do in the first place, which was to play some of these DP’s.

Preconceived Notion #3: Bring headphones to Guitar Center. Status: Confirmed.

Danny left, but there were three other people in the keyboard area with me: a teenaged girl, her friend, and her dad, who paced anxiously. The girl was an outstanding piano player. I know this because she maxed-out the volume of the piano she was on. She played some extremely sophisticated Baroque-sounding pieces. Frankly, if I played as well as she did, I’d crank the volume, too. Her friend... er, not so much. In between comments like “You’re going to have to teach me to play piano some day,” The Friend flitted back and forth between various keyboards and workstations starting rhythms. She had a lot of fun getting a rhythm started on one keyboard, then finding something complementary on another. The even got three going at once. After a few minutes of this, the Piano Player decided to do some experimenting of her own. She changed the sound of piano she was at into something that sounded like a Wurlitzer at a hockey arena, and then went back to playing Scarlatti (or whatever it was). This cracked them both up. It was sort of funny, I had to admit, but I was also trying to concentrate.

I had found the DP’s I wanted to try, and was busy forming my opinions. I played Scarborough Fair on the Casios and on a couple of Yamahas. I had the volume turned down as low as possible, lest somebody (other than me) hear. I had forgotten about Danny. Then there he was.

“Ok, we have a YPG-635 in back, but it’s in the box. Do you want us to set it up?”

I said to the missing tooth, “Oh, Lord no, don’t do that. But does that mean you are going to start stocking them? Maybe I’ll come back in a week or two to try it out.”

“No, we have the one, but we aren’t going to get any more. Yamaha stopped making them. They got a couple of bad reviews. People really like the 625 better. So Yamaha is going back to making those instead. It’s by far our most popular model, have you tried it out? We have like six or seven of them in stock, you could leave with one today.”

(I'll pause a moment while you digest that last paragraph. Re-read it again, if necessary.)

Sometimes Jason, our giant five-year old, gets preposterous notions in his mind. Things like “I saw a bug crawling through my spaghetti.” When he gets this way, it makes no difference what you do or say in response, he persists in his belief. It’s a very frustrating feeling for us, his parents, because you know he is either lying, or fervent in his mistaken belief, but there is no swaying him either way. It’s futile. That futility is exactly what I felt at this moment.

This post is long enough, and my train stop is coming soon, so I won’t deconstruct how illogical, misguided, and mistaken Danny’s statements were. I thanked him for looking up this information and getting back to me, and wished him a good afternoon.

Preconceived Notion #4: Guitar Center prices are competitive. Status: Doubtful, but TBD.

There were no sales, no markdowns, no clearance items, no demo / floor models. Everything was stickered at least 10% above the prices I have seen on the Internets. The PX-200 was priced at $699 (about $200 too high). Perhaps Guitar Center is willing to negotiate, but it’s hard to consider a YPG-625 for $850 when I could go to my local music store and buy theirs for $200 less. The Guitar Center sticker doesn't even make me want to start a conversation.

It is, however, by far, Guitar Center's most popular model. Don't know if you knew that.

My time wasn’t a total waste, though. Let’s review the questions I had hoped to answer:

Does the Casio PX-120 feel like a piano? As a matter of fact, it does. I was extremely impressed with the Casio Privias, and would be happy to own one. Even the older PX-575 was impressive in terms of touch and sound, despite the fact that it uses an older sound source.

How do the PX-120, PX-200, and PX-320 compare in terms of sound and touch? I could not distinguish between these three in any way that was important to me. Same touch, same sound.

Can I tell the difference between Yamaha’s GHS and GHE keyboards? Unfortunately, yes. The GHS keyboards that I played (the YPG-625, YDP-140, YDP-S30, and P85) had a loud thunk at the end of their travel, felt plasticky to me, and bounced back very quickly on release. (Note to self, add “thunk” and “plasticky” to spell check, they belong.) The GHE keyboards, on the other hand (which would be the P-140 and YDP-223), were much quieter, felt more substantial, rebounded naturally, and were superior in every meaningful way. Of course, GHE keyboards cost twice as much as their GHS counterparts... they should be better!

Do the pedals on any of these look and/or feel like real pedals? Some did. Plastic pedals (like on the Yamaha YDP-S30, or in the Privia 3-pedal unit) felt very light, fragile, and insubstantial. Metal pedals (like on the YDP-140, YDP-223, and the Casio cabinet models, like the AP-500) felt like the real McCoy.

Thankfully, this whole ordeal took only 15 minutes. Of course, with that time, I could have made it through The Entertainer twice, maybe even three times, had I just gone straight home.


ral said...

Lately I have been travelling a lot for work and I try to find somewhere to practice wherever I go. Sometimes the hotel can find me a piano, maybe off in a corner down by conference rooms where it's not totally public, maybe a local church or music school.

I have had good luck at Guitar Center -- usually I go in the evening (after calling to ask permission first) and bring my own headphones. They just let me practice. I guess it depends on the staff in the particular location.

Now 5 years on I'm not ashamed to play in (semi-) public although I don't try to practice sight-reading where others can hear me! I still get nervous but I play anyway.

My teacher holds get-togethers every few months for her students (all adults) to play for each other. Most of them are more advanced than I and boy was I shaky the first time. This has helped me tremendously -- I may still get nervous but I can play through it.

Always Wanted to Play Piano said...

Thanks for the comment, ral. Tell me, in your experience, what are your preferences in terms of digital pianos? Do they all sound pretty good through headphones?

ral said...

I don't have extensive experience but yes, the ones I've played lately all have pretty good piano sound.

One thing to watch out for is having lots of controls near the keyboard. I practiced on a fancy one a couple of months ago (LCD display, lots of buttons) and while playing I would brush against a control and suddenly switch to a different instrument. Very distracting.

I have an actual baby grand at home now and it makes a big difference. For the first couple of years I was practicing on an (old) Kurzweil I had bought years before (when I was in the trying to teach myself phase). It has very good sound (especially for its age) but the keyboard is only partly weighted so it doesn't have the good feel of the more modern instruments. Still, I lent it to my teacher once (she had to play at an outdoor wedding) and she said it was fine.

Come to think of it, I bought that Kurzweil at a Guitar Center. It was a floor demo and I did get a discount as I recall. However, later I had to have it repaired and the technician found cigarette ash in the keyboard (the cause of a problem)!

2ndsoprano said...

I've never had problems at Guitar Center. They always let me play as much as I want and no one really bothers me. They are loud and if I know I am going there, I always bring headphones. Different stores, different employees, I guess.