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Nordstrom bids farewell to in-store piano players

April 15, 2011 |  6:00 am

Nordstrom

Most people pay scant attention to the lilting elevator music that wafts through most department stores. Intended to be soothing, unobtrusive and barely there, the music functions more or less as aural wallpaper. One of the big exceptions has been Nordstrom, the high-end department store that has traditionally employed piano players to perform live for shoppers — a modest touch of class in a world of soulless muzak.

But Nordstrom has been gradually cutting back on its in-store pianists in recent years. The Nordstrom store at Brea recently laid off many if not all of its piano players — an in-store manager declined to comment — while the store at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa also has terminated a number of people from its musical team.  Some newer Nordstrom stores lack pianos altogether. Last year, the Orange County Register reported that the new Nordstrom at Fashion Island in Newport Beach opened without a piano.

Ron Kobayashi, who was a pianist at the Nordstrom at South Coast Plaza and Brea, said in an email that he was laid off from both locations after more than 20 years of service. He said that he was called into a meeting this week and was given the boot with no notice.

"The piano is one of the things that sets Norstrom apart. To get rid of that branding is baffling," he said by phone.

Stephan Haager, a pianist at the Brea store for nearly 20 years, said that all of the pianists at his location were laid off as part of a staff reduction. "It's such a small price that they pay," he said. "They're not thinking about their brand name."

Nordstrom has traditionally hired its pianists part time, with many performing one or two days a week. The repertoire is varied, but pianists tend to perform a mix of jazz, Broadway tunes and pop.

Joaquin Nunez, a manager at the Nordstrom at South Coast Plaza, said that the reduction in piano players at his location was a practical matter. He said that the company operates in a decentralized way and that it is up to individual stores to decide whether to employ pianists.

The Nordstrom at South Coast Plaza continues to employ pianists, but they will appear mainly for special occasions.

A spokesman for Nordstrom said in a statement that the company has "learned that most customers like the energy and environment that a more contemporary, recorded music offering helps create."

The spokesman also said the company is "not getting rid of pianos in our stores completely, but the fact is that most of our stores across the country don't feature a piano... We’re really sorry if some of these changes may disappoint some of our customers."

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— David Ng

Photo (top): A Nordstrom store in the Los Angeles area. Credit: Associated Press.

Photo credit (bottom): Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times.

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