The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand

James Barron

Times Books


By These People, in This Place
Steinway No. K0862 on its way to becoming a concert grand
The piano being a creation and plaything of men, its story leads us into innumerable biographies; being a boxful of gadgets, the piano has changed through time and improved at ascertainable moments and places. . . . Indeed, for the last century and a half, the piano has been an institution more characteristic than the bathtub—there were pianos in the log cabins of the frontier, but no tubs.
—Jacques Barzun
Eighty-eight keys, two hundred and forty-some strings, a few pedals, and a case about the size of—yes—a bathtub: every piano has pretty much the same curves outside and the same workings under the lid. But the biography of a piano is the story of many stories. It is the story of the fragile instruments from which all pianos are descended. And it is the story of contrasts. It is the story of nineteenth-century immigrants who struck it rich making pianos, and of more recent immigrants from Europe and Central America who are paid by the hour. It is the story of the family that virtually invented the modern grand piano, of brothers and cousins who drank, who hated the United States, or who dabbled in bulletproof vests and subways and land deals and amusement parks and the earliest automobiles. It is the story of a few workers who have exceptionally good ears and many who have never read a note of music or set foot inside Carnegie Hall. It is the story of men with a passion for motorcycles who have taught themselves snippets of Beethoven and Chopin and of others who tack photographs of Frank Zappa above their workbenches. It is the story of workers who have brought in special radios that receive the audio portion of television broadcasts so they won’t miss their talk shows while they drill out the bottoms of keys and shove in tiny lead weights. It is the story of the place where they work, of factory floor camaraderie, of pleasant, unhurried work.
This book is the biography of one piano that was made by these people in this place. It is a concert grand that was built at the Steinway & Sons factory in New York City in 2003 and 2004. The main character will not make a sound for months. A big supporting cast—the most experienced workers in a factory with a payroll of 450—will fuss over it and fume at it.
Like all Steinways, that main character goes by a number, not a name: K0862. Like all other newborns, K0862 comes with hopes for greatness and with fears that it may not measure up to the distinguished family name it wears, and not bashfully. On its right arm the Steinway name is stenciled in big gold letters that an audience cannot miss; on its cast-iron frame the name is stamped in black letters that a camera closing on the pianist’s face cannot miss. There is no mistaking K0862 for a Baldwin or a Yamaha or a Bösendorfer.
Yet K0862 looks just like every other Steinway concert grand. It is eight feet, eleven and three-quarters inches long. It contains the same bewildering assortment of moving parts, thousands of tiny pieces of wood and felt and metal that bend and twist and rise and fall on command.
Pianists always say that a good piano has “personality,” but the workers know that a piano is a machine, or the eighteenth century’s idea of one. Talented tinkerers refined it later on—improvisational wizards of hand tools who, little by little, made a good thing stronger, tougher, and, above all, enduring. But the piano remained an invention from an earlier time. Nineteenth-century inventions had mechanized guts and world-changing goals, like doing in an hour what human hands took days to do. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Eli Whitney had invented the cotton gin. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Robert Fulton made his steamboat, Cyrus McCormick his reaper, and Isaac Merrit Singer his sewing machine. No one would say that a sewing machine has a personality. It is just a machine.
What a different machine is a piano: a machine with emotions, if that is possible, or at least emotional attachments. There are pianists who kiss their pianos every day, who touch the case as tenderly as they would touch a lover’s cheek, who talk to their pianos in a way they talk to no one. Musicians regularly talk about the individual characteristics of this or that piano, the traits that make one a pleasure to play and the one next to it an agonizing slog. They dream of one that can deliver what Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny called a “holy, distant and celestial Harmony.”
Even before its first note sounds, the question hanging over K0862 is the question that hangs over every Steinway: How good is it? Will it be a lemon or the piano-world version of a zero-to-sixty delight? Will it sound like celestial harmony or “a squadron of dive bombers,” as the pianist Gary Graffman said of a Steinway he hated on first hearing (but came to love)? Will it surprise the Bach specialist Angela Hewitt, who considers Steinways made in New York to be “powerful but rather strident, and in my opinion, clumsy”? Will it match the piano that was the onstage favorite of Rachmaninoff and later Horowitz and, after retiring from concert life, became the living room piano in Eugene Istomin’s apartment? Will it be anything like the piano that Van Cliburn discovered during a late-night practice session before a concert in Philadelphia? That piano so captivated him that he offered to buy it then and there. Steinway told him to wait—it was booked for at least nine months. He waited, and took it home in February 1990.
Will K0862 be good enough for a place in Steinway’s stable of concert pianos, the three hundred or so instruments that dominate the nation’s concert stages and recording studios? Will it be good enough to spend five years on a very fast track with a different rider every night?
A Steinway’s life begins far from center stage, in the gritty complex of red-brick factory buildings that was laid out when Ulysses S. Grant was president. The factory is dingy, just as it always was. At quitting time, the workers track sawdust home on their shoes, just as they always have. Many of the machines are older than the men who operate them—and most of the workers at Steinway are men. The factory floors are so worn that everyone has memorized where the dips are. If they open the grimy back windows, the workers can watch the airplanes taxi into position, nose to tail, at La Guardia Airport, on land that the Steinways once owned. A real estate ad would note that the factory has “partial rvr vus”—a narrow channel leading to the East River is just beyond the runways. Something a real estate ad would not mention is that New York City’s largest jail is on an island a quarter of a mile from the shore.
The windows on the other side of the factory look toward Manhattan, a few miles away. Just inside those windows are the workbenches of the bellymen, called that because the only way to do their work is to climb inside a piano on their stomachs. The bellymen talk about how they watched the twin towers of the World Trade Center burn and collapse on the morning of the 9/11 attacks. The bellymen remember it as one of the few days when the world beyond their windows intruded on the timelessness of the factory.
In so many ways, the factory is a dusty leftover from the days before computers, televisions, even recordings—scratchy old 78s, not compact discs or MP3 downloads. It is nothing like the huge television soundstages that have filled the shells of old factories a few miles away, or the art galleries that have taken over other old industrial buildings. Nor is this the world of pristine white rooms and bright lights and smooth surfaces and the ultramodern machinery that turns out computers. This plant remains rooted in a world that was. Old etchings combined this factory with a second Steinway plant a mile away, as if a composite image would be more impressive. The other factory has been turned into pricey condominium apartments.
The piano factory that still is a piano factory still has the shadowy old workrooms. And it still sends its products off to a life of white tie and tails in some of the swankiest concert halls in the world. The hands that will eventually touch K0862—the hands of the pianists who will play it—could not be more different from the hands that will build it and shape its character, its personality. These hands are calloused and chapped and cut, and there is dirt and grease under these fingernails—most of them, anyway. One worker, a woman, has half-inch-long painted nails.
These hands will shape, spray-paint, polish, and tune K0862, and then work on it some more. K0862’s wooden parts will be aged in a room as dim as a wine cellar. Its 340-pound iron plate will be lowered in and lifted out ten or twelve times. It will spend long hours in rooms where workers wear oxygen masks to avoid getting headaches, or getting high, from smelly glues. It will be broken in by a machine that plays scales without complaint, unlike a student.
Someone walking through the factory, following a single piano as it takes shape, could forget a basic fact: Every Steinway is made the same way, from the same materials, by the same workers. Yet every Steinway ends up being different from every other—not in appearance, perhaps, but in ways that are not easily put into words: colorations of sound, nuances of strength or delicacy, what many pianists call—here’s that word again—personality. Some Steinways end up sounding small and mellow, which is fine for chamber music. Some are so big and muscular and percussive that a full-strength orchestra cannot drown them out. On some, the keys move with little effort. On others, the pianist’s hands and arms get a workout.
Why is one piano different from another? No one really knows.
In its first fifty years, Steinway made nearly one hundred thousand pianos (99,517 to be exact; No. 100,000, delivered to the White House in 1903, is now at the Smithsonian Institution). The next thirty-five years were Steinway’s busiest. It made two hundred thousand pianos. No. 300,000, the Steinway that is still in the East Room, was delivered in 1938.
K0862 will be built the way those ancestors were built. The process is labor-intensive and has not changed much over the years. Nor has the design. Planned obsolescence is not a concept that came to the piano industry the way it came to the powerhouses of the twentieth century that made cars and refrigerators and rubber boots. The wood in a piano does not rust or rot, and a sounding board can last seventy or eighty years, or maybe longer. There is very little to keep a piano from functioning long after it has been paid for, long after it has been passed on to the next generation, or the next. There are no annual model changes. The basic design of concert grands like K0862—their shape, their length, the layout of their strings—has gone unchanged since the 1890s. Steinway’s newest model, a baby grand almost four feet shorter than K0862, has been on the market since the 1930s.
K0862 and the pianos next to it on the factory floor are products of one of the last outposts of hand craftsmanship in what was once a boomtown for piano makers. Steinway outlasted rivals like Sohmer and Weber, as well as apparel makers who turned to lower-wage factories in Asia and printers who turned to newer, automated plants in the South. Just by staying put, Steinway became one of the last large manufacturing operations in New York City, which lost 666,400 factory jobs between 1962 and the end of 2002. Nowadays, the city’s largest factories bake cookies and squirt soft drinks into cans and bottles that are made elsewhere, and Steinway is a relatively small concern in an industry dominated by foreign giants that can turn out as many pianos in a day as Steinway makes in a month. Some of Steinway’s competitors also make everything from guitars to motorcycles to stereo components. But Steinway, for most of the twentieth century, remained focused on its pianos.
When the Steinway factory was new, barges loaded with raw lumber docked at the edge of the eleven-acre compound, and the company operated its own foundry to make the cast-iron plates it had patented. Anywhere but in New York City, a 440,000-square-foot factory like Steinway’s would be horizontal, a sprawling single-story wonder. There would be no need to make appointments for the freight elevators to haul the pianos from floor to floor, as foremen do at Steinway. There might be mechanical booms to lower the cast-iron plate into the rim, instead of the heavily muscled arms and hand-cranked winches at Steinway. But this factory is a warren of interconnected structures, of bare fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling, of workrooms where a mouse occasionally darts across the floor. It is a place where the day is paced according to the company’s union contract, where workers sometimes spend their two fifteen-minute breaks napping on a storage shelf the size of a Ping-Pong table.
Once, the youngest workers were sent to a nearby bar on Friday afternoons to fetch buckets of beer. Fridays have been dry for years, but the timelessness of the factory remains. As Joe Gurrado, a foreman, says when showing off World War I–era photographs of Steinway workers, “The only thing you’d have to change is the clothing on those guys.”
Over the years, the Steinways sold most of their land, and in 1972 they sold the company itself. But their name remains on Steinway Street, and the company wraps itself in its history. Its high-ceilinged showroom in Manhattan is filled with outsized paintings of the nineteenth-century matinee idol Ignace Jan Paderewski and busts of Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninoff, and the company boasts that it produces “the instrument of the immortals.” K0862 has a long way to go before it reaches the world beyond the factory, the world of concert stages, finicky impresarios, tantrum-throwing performers, dour critics, and perfection-minded tuners. This is its story.
Copyright © 2006 by James Barron