Hartford isn’t Connecticut’s largest city; it’s number four. The large, coastal cities of Bridgeport, Stamford and New Haven now have populations that exceed that of Connecticut’s 380-year-old capital city.

Still, for a relatively small city, Hartford occupies a big place in American history and culture. In the music business, Hartford has given us a panoply of entertainers, including vaudeville’s Sophie Tucker, “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas”; early rock ‘n’ roller Gene Pitney; and the Porcaro brothers from the rock group Toto. The Grateful Dead’s “official clown,” Wavy Gravy, hails from neighboring West Hartford. Bass player Doug Wimbish is a native of suburban Bloomfield. Meanwhile, Quiet Riot guitarist Alex Grossi comes from South Windsor.

Today, Hartford is very much a daytime town for commuters who work for the state government or for one of the dozens of insurers that call the city home. More recently, however, downtown Hartford has witnessed the construction of a sparkling new convention center, swanky, loft-style residences and a host of new music clubs, restaurants and galleries.

In line with The Organization’s latest mission, I explored music stores in the Hartford metro area for an electric keyboard for a 14-year-old boy just starting to learn piano. I focused on stores that offer a robust range of choices. I eschewed those that just carried small keyboards—49 or 61 keys—as well as big-box retailers and stores that mainly carry acoustic pianos.

Several stores didn’t stock electric keyboards at all. Instead, they offered guidance on ordering one. I held onto their names in case they proved useful. However, I was able to find a sufficient group of other stores to visit.

Middlesex Music Academy
440 Main St.
Middletown CT 06457

Middlesex Music Academy occupies a busy corner location on Middletown’s broad, old-fashioned Main St. Although just 17 miles downriver from Hartford, Middletown is distinctive in its own right. Downtown Middletown used to have an abundance of department stores, five-and-dimes and smaller clothing shops; in their place now are art galleries, performance spaces and bookstores. Those pay homage to the presence of Wesleyan University, which is about half a mile from downtown.

Middlesex Music Academy is the latest musical establishment to occupy this corner of downtown. I appreciated its worker-friendly store hours: It’s open from noon to 8pm on weekdays, and from noon to 6pm on Saturday. So, one fine Saturday, I spent about 10 minutes taking notes on the seven keyboards arranged on the store’s left wall. Sheet music, guitars and horns occupied the store’s center. Two workers observed me for what seemed like a long while. I caught a glimpse of them looking my way from the corner of my eye.

I chalked it up to a regional peculiarity: New Englanders are notoriously reluctant to approach strangers, and Connecticut shoppers can be downright brusque. “I’m all set!” they will proclaim, before a salesperson can even inquire about their needs.

That was clearly the case in this instance because, as soon as I walked in the direction of the counter, a salesman lit up with a smile and demonstrated some serious musical prowess.

“I usually recommend something with a little bit of key spread for teens,” he said. “That means a minimum of 76 keys. For what most kids in your son’s age range want, these models will provide quite a big range.” Smaller keyboards, he explained, are suited for children with small hands…something that is not typically the case with a teenage boy.

The salesman showed me the Casio WK-6600, which the store was offering for $299. “One feature that’s really cool about this keyboard is its weighted hammer action, which mimics the feel and sound of a true piano,” he enthused.

Models offering a full 88-key array, as well as weighted keys, cost in the $300 to $500 range, I was told, depending on other features. The store also does a brisk business in selling well-kept used instruments on consignment. And, as with the other music stores I visited, Middlesex Music Academy had on-site lessons available.

Music & Arts
989 Farmington Ave.
West Hartford CT 06107

West Hartford perennially ranks among the top suburban towns in the U.S. And, if you visit, you’ll see why. There are blocks upon blocks of solid brick and clapboard Colonial houses built before World War II, as well as older “Victorians” with front verandas. Blue Back Square is a trendy dining and shopping mall right in the town center. It’s no wonder, then, that West Hartford has been selected by Travel + Leisure as one of America’s 10 “coolest suburbs.”

National retailer Music & Arts has a sizable store on the corner of Farmington Ave. (which is West Hartford’s main drag) and Lasalle Rd. The chain also has Hartford-area stores in Avon, East Hartford and Vernon. A note to out-of-towners: Parking is ample in West Hartford Center, but most spots are metered, so you’ll first have to visit a town parking kiosk to pay. After doing so, you’ll get a receipt to display on the inside of your windshield.

Being a secret agent with a devil-may-care attitude, I threw caution to the wind and parked illegally for the 35-minute stop at Music & Arts. Inside were a dozen electric keyboards of differing prices and sizes. A 20-something salesman lent his expertise almost immediately.

“Because your son is 14, I would recommend a 76-key model at a bare minimum,” he said. He explained that most 14-year-old boys have hands that are almost adult-sized; therefore, anything smaller than 76 keys would have a cramped feel.

Then, the salesman acquainted me with another element to consider when choosing an electric keyboard: weighted versus unweighted keys. “A weighted keyboard gives you the ‘feel’ of an actual acoustic piano,” he noted. Should I wish to provide that feature for my son, he continued, the Yamaha P-45 would fit the bill. It was selling for less than $500.

Another excellent buy that the salesman recommended was the YPG-235, which was on sale for $249. That Yamaha keyboard lists for $519, and the salesman actually owned one himself. “It provides a great range of features on a 76-key model,” he pointed out. “The tradeoff with a 76-key model is, of course, that you’re missing the extreme high and low notes.”

Size is beneficial for either the 76-key or the full 88-key model. “If your son likes this keyboard, he’ll be able to keep it—he won’t outgrow it,” the man affirmed. “I love my own YPG-235.”

The Music Shop
405 Queen St.
Southington CT 06489

More than a decade ago, I had a coworker who transferred from outside Detroit MI to the Connecticut ’burbs. The price tag of homes along the Connecticut shoreline made him blanch. He also had to locate a high school with a marching band for his teenage daughter.

He made his home in Southington, which is a large town along Interstate 84, southwest of Hartford. Southington High School’s robust music program was very much on my mind when I visited The Music Shop. The store occupies a corner of a strip mall in the sea of similar shopping venues that line busy, six-lane Queen St., Connecticut’s Route 10.

Inside the shop, I found the Owner of the three-decade-old business. Moments later, he found a keyboard platform that was bereft of all but keyboard stands. It was an odd fluke, he said.

“For some reason, we’ve sold all but our biggest model,” he explained. “But, we’re expecting a new shipment in a few days.” He continued, “Before Christmas, we sold out on all our drum sets. This, however, is the first time we’ve sold most of our keyboards!”

For my 14-year-old novice pianist, the man recommended two Yamaha models: the 76-key YPG-235 and the 88-key YPG-535. The YPG-235 was selling for about $250; the YPG-535 was closer to $500.

“Unless you’re playing classical music, you don’t need the keys at the extreme ends of the keyboard,” the man explained. He added that their own music classes utilize those models.

“What if my son really wants all 88 keys, though?” I asked. In response, the man showed me a new Casio Privia PX-130. He pointed out that the store frequently offers used PX-130s for considerably less.

“In the under-$1,000 category, you can find great models from both Casio and Yamaha,” the man said. However, in his opinion, the Casios tend to give you more bang for the buck.

Unlike a “real piano,” there’s little to go wrong with electric keyboards, and such instruments never need tuning, he added. Teenage musicians, in particular, like the ability to connect their keyboards to computers and, thus, to upload their music and share it with friends.

The Music Score
2315 Silas Deane Hwy.
Rocky Hill CT 06067

The Music Score is a longtime retailer along Silas Deane Hwy., one of Rocky Hill’s main thoroughfares. This middle-class suburb is best known as the home of Dinosaur State Park, which features one of the world’s largest collections of bona-fide dinosaur footprints.

The Music Score is a family establishment. The Owner is usually there, either helping a customer or fine-tuning a vintage piano. On the day I visited, his mom and dad were there, too, along with his toddler son and a well-behaved fox terrier.

There’s a full-featured, console-style electric keyboard in the middle of the floor at The Music Score, but it isn’t for sale. The Owner makes it available as a rental for beginning piano students, whom he teaches. The keyboard rents for $89 a month, which he will credit to the purchase of one of the new or reconditioned acoustic pianos that the store sells.

Should you wish to purchase it, the keyboard, which is a Suzuki DP-77, goes for about $1,500. However, the Owner suggests a variety of other instruments made by Yamaha and Casio, instead.

“I play on both Casios and Yamahas,” he affirmed. “At one time, Casios were considered ‘cheap.’ However, they’ve improved to the point where they now have a much better reputation. I have a Casio Privia at home myself.”

He urged me to obtain a full, 88-key keyboard for my son. Although doing so would set me back $700 or more, he noted that a full keyboard would offer a budding pianist versatility. “With a brand-new pianist, you never know how far he’s going to go with it,” he said, “or what he might end up wanting to play.”

The Music Score opened in 1983 as a sheet music retailer, but, later, it evolved into a full-service music store and teaching studio. It continues to offer a wide variety of sheet music, performance books and method books, as well as accessories.

The Owner worked at the store for nine years, and then took over from the previous Owner three years ago. He brings an extensive knowledge of music—especially pianos—to the enterprise. The store provides pianos for a variety of area jazz and salsa events.

Should the day ever arrive when your kid wants to move up to an acoustic piano, you can buy reconditioned models ranging upwards to Baby Grand and Grand. A starter spinet piano at the store typically sells for $1,500.

The Sale

Each of the four stores provides outstanding service, based upon my undercover assignment. The people who work in the establishments also know their music…and their keyboards.

At The Music Shop, the Owner’s passion for music—and customer service—impressed me immensely. Middlesex Music Academy’s staff similarly offered in-depth knowledge of everything I needed to know. I loved visiting The Music Score and exploring the Owner’s knowledge of keyboards, pianos and music in general.

I also tend to favor locally owned, mom-and-pop establishments over national chains. However, the gentleman from Music & Arts in West Hartford did something that truly tipped the scale: He called me to follow up.

We’ve all been conditioned to distrust salespeople. Yet, those who are apt just to exclaim, “I’m all set!” and hang up the phone will quite often pay a price for their dismissive attitude. They won’t take the time to listen to what another person—often, somebody who has a larger body of knowledge—has to say. Then, they’ll rant and rave about the high price they paid, or the poor quality of their purchase. Moreover, most of them will keep on repeating the same old mistakes.

I, too, was busy when the man made his follow-up call. And I wasn’t truly shopping for a keyboard, after all…just pretending to. But his forthrightness, combined with his music credentials, truly impressed me. The store itself offers a respectable selection of merchandise, and I have no doubt that I’d make a wise purchase with his careful guidance.

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