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Grand pianos!

by David Alston - 13:01 on 19 October 2012

In September I visited my daughter in New York and was entranced by three attractions - all of them free. Here's one of them.

New York 2012 - Grand pianos.

I hadn’t thought much about pianos until I took the free, 2½-hour tour of the Steinway Piano Factory in Astoria, New York. Actually, they lied. It was a 3-hour tour and our guide, a retired design engineer with the company, still ran out of time. There was so much more he wanted to tell us. Now, I look at pianos differently and marvel at how Steinway maintain and develop such astonishing levels of craftsmanship on a factory scale.

Our guide kept returning to this simple truth: a piano is a wooden instrument, no two pieces of wood are the same, and so no two pianos are the same. Each one has to be individually crafted to take into account the nature of the raw materials, with a Steinway designed to mature, taking up to thirty years to reach its full potential.

They have their own folklore to illustrate their knowledge of wood. During WW2 they made gliders, overseen by US Airforce engineers who regarded themselves as operating to the highest possible standards of precision. Their inspector rejected one Steinway glider because it was a ½ inch too short. After he had left the factory, the master of that section shrugged his shoulders. “It’s not a problem,” he said. “Put it out in the yard. It’ll be the right size in the morning.” It was.

That knowledge and craftsmanship run in the grain of everything they do. The team of men who not only create and bend, in bespoke presses, the laminate of the outer rim, but also source the wood, can tell the direction of the prevailing winds which blow on the hard rock maples; the women who make the actions for the keyboards work to tolerances of one thousandth of an inch and some pieces of music can only be played on a Steinway because they require the speed which comes from this precision; the ‘belly-men’ who, lying on their bellies, work in the ‘belly’ of the piano, must make multiple decisions in three-dimensions as they bring together the frame, the sound board and the metal ‘harp’ in just the right relationship; only two men in the United States know how to make, from Hebridean wool, the blocks of felt, uniformly tapering in density, from which the  hammers are cut . . .

One of our group asked, “Whose your main competitor?” The answer came without hesitation, “We are. We’ve been making and trying to improve the same piano since 1850. If you don’t think one of our new pianos is good enough, you’ll buy one of our old ones.” And, sure enough, there is a steady stream of old ones returning for reconditioning. Of course, Steinway & Co know the name of every person – every craftsman and craftswoman – who has worked on every piano they have ever produced.


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