HEN AN INSTITUTION is ready to purchase a large number of new pianos, one of the major decisions to be made is whether to buy all from a single manufacturer, or to maintain a diverse inventory of instruments of many brands. The decision has artistic, technical, financial, institutional, and, often, political dimensions. On the single-brand side, probably best known is the All-Steinway School program, with more than 150 institutions participating. The College of Music at Florida State University is one of the largest music schools in the country to maintain a diverse inventory of many brands. Below, proponents of the two schools of thought put their best feet forward to explain the reasons behind their respective choices. — Editor
Recently, I asked pianists, technicians, and administrators from All-Steinway Schools to talk about Steinways in general, and the impact the All-Steinway School program has had on their schools, performances, and teaching. To my surprise, instead of dry e-mails containing boilerplate comments, I received voluminous e-mails and lengthy, enthusiastic phone calls from pianists and technicians. This article explains the All-Steinway School program, and explores the reasons why these professionals are so passionate about Steinway pianos, particularly in the institutional setting.
The All-Steinway School designation is given by Steinway & Sons when an institution meets certain criteria concerning ownership and maintenance of Steinway and Steinway-designed pianos. Steinway & Sons manufactures Steinway pianos in New York and Hamburg, Germany, and also sells the Steinway-designed brands Boston and Essex, made in Asia. Below are highlights of the All-Steinway School program:
*The program requirements are subject to change. Until recently, for example, Steinways were recommended for practice rooms for piano majors, but were not mandatory.
Pianists and technicians gave a number of reasons why they prefer Steinway pianos for institutional use, among them the instruments' durability, stability, serviceability, and the technical support available from the manufacturer; their musical qualities for performance and teaching; and their versatility and malleability to accommodate diverse musical styles and personal tastes.
"When you see what happens in practice rooms every day, you come to appreciate the materials that go into the Steinway," says John Ellis, head piano technician at the Curtis Institute of Music, in Philadelphia, an All-Steinway School since 1924, with 93 Steinways, of which 22 were recently purchased. Ellis, who has worked almost exclusively on Steinways for the last 25 years, says that if he were buying pianos for a school, he would insist on Steinways because of their durability, as well as their tuning stability. The reason for the Curtis Institute's initial decision to purchase Steinways belongs to history, but the recent purchase was made based on that experience.
Scott Higgins, at the University of Georgia's Hodgson School of Music, in Athens, Georgia, takes care of more than 100 Steinways. He said he would not have applied for the job had it not been at an All-Steinway School. Higgins, who has had a lot of experience at the university level, was very complimentary about the longevity of the pianos. "Take a look at a 10-year-old Steinway in a practice room, and you'll see a piano that has been pounded mercilessly and holds up remarkably," he volunteered.
Pianists, too, have taken note of Steinways' exceptional stability and durability. Lydia Artymiw, a Steinway Artist since 1973, is currently the Distinguished McKnight Professor of Piano at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, an All-Steinway School since 2005. Artymiw says that Minnesota's harsh climate proved too difficult for other brands purchased in the years before the School of Music became an All-Steinway School, and that the Steinways have performed remarkably well under the extremely dry conditions during the school year.
The technicians I spoke with agreed that it's this almost indestructible construction quality that sets these pianos apart for institutional applications. The sheer mass of exceptional materials, the quality of which has not changed substantially since the development of the modern Steinway around the turn of the 20th century, also makes the instruments worth rebuilding when they eventually wear out. The oldest Steinways at Curtis were built in the 1890s, but have since been restored at the Steinway factory and are still in daily use today.
John Cavanaugh, head technician at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, in Oberlin, Ohio, is in charge of an extraordinary 235 Steinway grands. Oberlin has the distinction of being the oldest All-Steinway School — since 1877 — with the oldest piano currently in use dating from 1883. Cavanaugh, a true example of the technician in the trenches, has many Steinways older than he to be kept working at optimum levels. He says that, at Oberlin, sets of hammers and shanks are budgeted to be replaced every three years because of the huge amount of use they get. The Oberlin technicians rebuild their own Steinways, and Cavanaugh notes that Steinways of all ages, even the much-criticized ones from the 1960s and ‘70s, present no special problems in the rebuilding process. Cavanaugh also credits the Oberlin administration for his success in managing the huge workload by giving him the budget to properly maintain the pianos.
Cavanaugh, Higgins, and others also credit Steinway for the company's technical support, and laud it for its ongoing technical refinements to the pianos. Higgins, who has also serviced all the Steinways for the Spoleto Festival since 1987, mentions especially the recent action refinements, noting that the new parts fit all the older pianos. He finds it amazing that he can order parts for a 1920s-era Steinway and, in days, get exactly what he needs from the factory. Christopher Purdy, the technician at Middle Tennessee State University, another All-Steinway School, who services more than 60 Steinways, says that the technical support offered by the Steinway technical training academy "has complemented my 30 years of experience nicely, and helped provide me with everything I need to keep a large music school playing."
Of course, the finest pianos use materials and construction techniques chosen not only for their durability, but also for optimal acoustical and performance properties. Judging by the comments I received, Steinway's choices in these regards have amply fulfilled all of those objectives.
Some, like renowned pianist and Naxos recording artist Steven Mayer, who teaches at the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver, wax rhapsodic about the Steinway. Mayer cites its "steak-rich tone, different in each of the piano's registers, as well as its mechanical ability to convey tonal nuance with subtlety and huge and lasting sonority. As long as humans retain the innate potential to differentiate complex emotion and beauty from adrenal rush and dry intellect, Steinway will be king." Oberlin pianist Peter Takacs says, "A beautiful instrument is like a great automobile: responsive, nuanced, powerful, and, ultimately, exhilarating. Anyone who has played a Stradivarius or a Steinway, or has heard Maria Callas sing, will instantly know that unequaled pleasure."
Others are less poetic in their descriptions, but no less ardent. Lydia Artymiw, of the University of Minnesota, uses the word strong to describe the projection and orchestra-cutting power available to the pianist with a Steinway concert grand. She describes the singing tone in all registers, especially the treble, and the depth of the bass sound, as elements that allow the pianist to re-create the orchestral quality needed for the major piano repertoire. She also relishes the crisp articulations and wonderful repetition that a pianist can achieve on a well-regulated Steinway. Artymiw emphasizes that the listener's experience is enhanced by the pianist's increased control over the sound. She cherishes her memories of the best Steinways she has enjoyed over the years, noting that half the pressure to provide the audience with a top-quality musical experience is eliminated by the presence of a great piano. John Ellis, of the Curtis Institute, raves about the new, improved hammers just installed in one of their concert grands. He says that, for the first time, the disparate opinions of the faculty have merged into an agreement: Everyone likes the sound.
But while the presence of great concert pianos is important to a university or conservatory, perhaps the greatest contribution that Steinways make in an institutional setting is in the teaching and practice studios. Pianist Sandra Rivers, Professor of Collaborative Piano at the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, is enthusiastic about the improvement in the piano department because of the purchase of Steinways in 2008. Rivers states that, in her opinion, the level of the students' work and their ability to re-create what their teachers ask of them have been considerably elevated by the new instruments, and that it's a huge advantage to be able to demonstrate on a performance instrument exactly what you want the student to accomplish. Now, she says, the quality of the pianos matches the expertise of the faculty. Rivers, who has shared the stage with such artists as Itzhak Perlman, Kathleen Battle, Joshua Bell, and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, purchased a new Steinway Model B for her personal use because she was so impressed with the quality of the new pianos at the school.
Oberlin faculty member Haewon Song concurs: "My work as an artist-teacher at Oberlin is made immeasurably easier by having a wealth of Steinways for faculty and students. We are also blessed with fabulous technicians, and that really makes everything work." At Columbus State University, in Columbus, Georgia, piano major Hsin-I Huang summed up the impact of the pianos on the students. He says he didn't realize how inadequate his piano at home was until he had the opportunity to practice daily on the Steinways at the school. "If you can imagine the sound, you can effortlessly achieve it."
Sandra Rivers also emphasized that most of the high-level pianos the students will one day play as professionals, especially in performance, are likely to be Steinways — virtually every concert hall of any importance has a Steinway, and you don't have to be a Steinway Artist to play one. Therefore, according to Rivers, learning to work with Steinways in a school setting is very important. Steven Mayer shares Rivers's sentiment, adding, "It's not an accident that the majority of the world's greatest pianists through the ages have played the Steinway. . . . Given exposure to the piano's golden age through recordings and proper teaching, I have found that talented young pianists will recognize the value of the Steinway's properties." Mayer says that he is grateful that one of the most beautiful Model B Steinways he's ever played sits in his studio at the Lamont School.
Although there are many brands of piano with beautiful tone, some are quite limited in their appeal and application, both as to pianist and to repertoire. Steinways, on the other hand, are well known for their versatility as to repertoire, and their ability to be voiced to the preferences of individual artists. According to Artymiw, the ability to use the same instrument for a solo piano concert, or a concerto, or for a vocal recital without overpowering the singer, is one of the Steinway's great virtues.
Furthermore, in the university setting, intimate relationships develop between pianist and piano, and between piano and technician: learning what each pianist prefers, the technician eventually customizes the piano to the pianist's taste. The technicians I spoke with pointed to this tonal malleability as the key to why so many pianists fall in love with Steinways. Some of the piano faculty with whom I spoke had played the same piano in their studio for years — ample time to become accustomed to each nuance of sound, and sensitive to incredibly small changes in tonal quality. One faculty member said that the worst thing about his impending retirement would be saying goodbye to "his" Steinway, his "best friend for over a third of a century."
Teachers are not the only ones to fall in love with their Steinways; students do too. The Curtis Institute shows an enormous consideration for the needs of pianists by traditionally providing Steinways for the use of its students in their homes while they study at Curtis. Piano technician Ellis is philosophical about taking care of not only the pianos in the school, but also the 30 or so Curtis-owned instruments placed in the homes of the student pianists, conductors, composers, and organists. He states that the students are extremely grateful for the use of the Steinways in their homes, and returning graduates often mention it on visits to the school, thanking him for taking such good care of the loaned instruments.
Ellis also tells the story of Mieczyslaw Horszowski, who performed until he was 100 years old. When asked how he got such a beautiful tone from every piano he played, he said, "You have to make friends with the piano." Ellis feels that what makes the Steinway so valuable for the students is that they have the opportunity to practice and perform on pianos that are worthy of that bond.
Although the principal advantages of using Steinways in institutions stem from the characteristics of the instruments themselves, administrators and development staff at All-Steinway Schools describe the program as having a domino effect on the entire music program that positively affects the recruitment of students and faculty. At the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, Professor Eugene Pridonoff says that the decision to purchase Steinways was "the final link in the completion of our new facility at CCM. We now hear from prospective students that their decision to attend CCM was due in great part to the quality of our pianos."
Shortly after a gift of 68 Steinways to Columbus State University made becoming an All-Steinway School possible, Alexander Kobrin, the 2005 Van Cliburn winner, joined the faculty as the result of another gift endowing the position. Talented international student pianists followed. Rex Whiddon, Director of Principal Gifts and University Stewardship at CSU, himself a pianist and former President of the Music Teachers National Association, states unequivocally, "The Steinway pianos have been a significant part of the transformation that has made all of this possible."
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