Is buying a new high-tech Steinway Spirio player piano for a junior college, with your tax dollars, an appropriate use of the federal CARES Act Emergency Relief slush fund?

I’ve had a piano in my home for all but a handful of years. My mother plays piano. I took many years of formal lessons and played, poorly, in a country band as a teenager. I am such a fan of jazz piano that I have flown an accomplished pianist into town to play for a family event. One of my best friends is a world-class classical pianist who is a respected annual participant in the International Keyboard Institute and Festival in New York City. In fact, he is so good that his instructor is a former Russian concert pianist who is in demand as a teacher by the best in the world.

Why the litany of personal association with the piano? To dispel the knee-jerk reaction of some in the “arts” who think anyone who doubts their spending is a philistine with no regard for such.

I appreciate the arts, and I “do” arts. I’ve been a season ticket holder to the Dallas Opera, I collect paintings, and I even pal around with one of the world’s most respected sculptors. But, unlike many, I do not much like forcing other people to pay for the art I enjoy.

Using taxpayer money for so-called “public” art is often justified as a public good, and that is an argument for another time. Odessa College, a community college, using COVID “emergency relief” money to buy a Steinway player piano is so wrong that it lends itself to that analogy of it being unsporting to shoot fish in a barrel.

Television station KOSA reported: “Odessa College’s Fine Arts Department unveiled a new piano and they’re the first institute in all of West Texas to get this specific kind. The Spirio piano was purchased through the Cares COVID relief fund to support distance education.”

The piano is partly electronic and can record what someone plays, “live performance capture” it is called by Steinway. (Learn more here.) One website reports: “Spirio Models start at just over $100,000 and reach over $200,000 (depending upon size, features, and finish). The Spirio Play model adds an additional $25,000 to the price of a Steinway Model M or Model B grand piano.”

“From here in Odessa, the students can be playing at Baylor, they can be playing the University of Houston, they can play at any other institution in the world simultaneously without lagging, so the moment you press down on the note, it’s going to play another Spirio system in real-time”, says Bryan Elmore, the institutional sales and services representative from Steinway & Son’s, according to the KOSA report.

What kind of “distance learning” is it when a student still has to come into the college campus to play, record, or link up to other such pianos? Odessa College is a community college for the local area, not for people at Baylor or in Houston. And even if enhancing distance learning is a justification for a massively expensive piano, this application doesn’t appear to provide for distance learning for local O.C. students in the way generally understood—you can’t play the piano, linked to others or not, from Kermit or Andrews, for example.

What this purchase shows me is how insanely overfunded some institutions are, especially in the realm of education. It also demonstrates how questionable the judgment is of many who work for and lead such places.

The “emergency relief” fund, and all of it is our money, was created to provide financial relief for institutions hit hard by WuFlu shutdowns. Apparently, taxpayer-supported Odessa College didn’t actually need relief, but unlike the City of Brady (which recently sent such money back to the feds), good ol’ O.C. used the funds to purchase one of the world’s most high-tech and high-priced pianos. Maybe this is an “arts” version, for a junior college, of fancy football palaces.

By any measure, Odessa College’s piano purchase is a perversion of what funding for local distance learning is meant to be, and it certainly hits a sour note as a use of “emergency relief” funds due to lockdowns.

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