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
"I've never heard of a Fazioli!"
When they take the stage at Florida State University's popular summer piano camp, students often are surprised at what they find. They might just as well say, "I've never heard of a Bösendorfer!"
Or a Blüthner. Or a Wendl & Lung. Or a Sauter or a Seiler. The names go on.
Each June, FSU's two-week Honors Piano Camp and Institute draws junior high and high school pianists from all over the U.S. and abroad. They not only get to study with a diverse group of instructors, they also get to play a stunning range of instruments representing piano makers the world over.
Now in my 29th year at FSU's College of Music, first as piano technician and now as a faculty member, I have profoundly enjoyed working with these young pianists in a setting that has few peers in American academe. By the time they leave campus, these summer-camp students will have been immersed in both piano technology — in workshops in my own campus-based piano shop — and piano performance on five different stages. They will have explored new composers and repertoire, and played instruments that are seldom available to pianists anywhere. Access to such rare resources remains one of the top reasons many of these talented young visitors wind up choosing FSU as the platform from which to launch a musical career. This article explores the reasons for the success of our multi-brand piano inventory, and offers a sense of its ideal fit for the third-largest music school in the nation, and one of the most comprehensive.
During the academic year, my roles include serving as concert piano technician and program director for FSU's Master of Arts in Piano Technology degree, one of the first in the U.S. Piano technicians who have received their primary piano-technology training at other institutions come into the FSU program to continue honing their skills in piano restoration, concert tuning and voicing, and grand-action balancing. These students are assigned a cross section of the college's inventory of 240 pianos to manage throughout their two-year tenure. They soon become familiar faces in a variety of performance venues, faculty studios, classrooms, and practice rooms.
Young technicians can expect to encounter many unusual and eccentric pianos in their service careers. Given that the piano world is colored by countless technical vagaries, hands-on experience is a major emphasis of our program's curriculum. When these students graduate, they will have worked with pianos made by Steinway & Sons (both New York and Hamburg), Mason & Hamlin, Baldwin, Yamaha, Kawai, Bösendorfer, Seiler, Sauter, Fazioli, Wendl & Lung (made by Hailun, a Chinese company), Charles R. Walter, and Blüthner. Students also care for four harpsichords, two clavichords, a fortepiano, and a continuo organ — historical instruments that serve our robust early-music program.
To defray the cost of their travel to conventions and piano factories, our students raise funds by taking on local piano-reconditioning projects sponsored by program donors. These instruments represent makers of long ago — Ivers & Pond, Kranich & Bach, Conover, and Hazelton are a few examples. Such old instruments provide unique glimpses into the storied past of piano design and manufacturing, and give students an invaluable perspective on the evolution of piano technology.
Steinway pianos are found on most of the world's stages, including FSU's. The university has five performance halls, and Steinway is represented in each. But in each of those venues, these fine instruments serve side by side with concert grands of other makers. This diversity is most appreciated by the members of our piano faculty, artists who come from very different backgrounds across the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and Europe. Collectively, they've played a broad range of instruments that have served them well, from their childhoods through their disparate career paths. Our students discover how fascinating it is to work with these artists' individual tonal palettes. Each is distinct, and defined not only by differences in language and cultural roots, but also by the different pianos these artists have connected with emotionally. As Dr. Read Gainsford, Associate Professor of Music at FSU, explains, "One of the most wonderful things about going to a very fine restaurant is the pairings the artistic chef can create between an array of wines and food. The opportunity for a pianist to create different pairings between pianos and music is a rare treat, and not one I should like to give up!"
Visiting artists, too, appreciate the choices they have at our college when they arrive here to perform. Joseph Kalichstein, Ann Schein, and Simone Dinnerstein are recent visitors to our stages who spent considerable time auditioning the pianos in the hall they performed in, and each eventually chose the Fazioli. Garrick Ohlsson performed here last spring and chose the Steinway in another one of our halls. Grammy award winner John Legend's contract required a large Yamaha grand for his performances. We were able to accommodate this request for his recent performance in our largest hall.
Each fall, I have the opportunity to teach a survey class in piano technology for pianists and other interested students. One of the first things I ask these students is to tell me about the pianos to which they've developed a particular connection. Which pianos invite them to stay on the bench? Answers typically run the full gamut of manufacturers. Then I ask, "How many pianos have you played?" Not surprisingly, most have played only a dozen or so pianos in their young lives, and in predictable settings: the home, their teacher's studio, their school or church.
Among these narrow experiences, opinions run very strong. Some students express a willingness to open up to let in new colors, others don't. Some never hear tonal color at all. Some are entirely dependent on the opinions
of professors and peers, and have not yet developed the courage to listen on their own. To address this, I often try an experiment: mask the brand names on the fallboards and gather opinions about the instruments. Players are usually surprised to discover which pianos really speak to them. It's a wonderful example of leading students to the joy of thinking for themselves.
Our inventory of instruments spans nearly 250 years of piano history, starting with a copy of a 1780 Walter fortepiano, built by Barbara and Tom Wolfe — even longer, if you count our harpsichords. I've often suggested to pianists that they gather the courage to program a recital using one of our harpsichords, our fortepiano, and two contrasting modern pianos, and play a chronological program, from Bach to Zwilich, showcasing our evolutionary chain of instruments. Bringing composer, instruments, and performer together in this way can really open historical understanding in both the listener and the performer. Over the last few decades, the explosion of historically informed performances on period instruments, along with their associated historical tunings, has added enormous depth to our modern performances.
The piano was invented in Italy around 1700; in the three centuries since then, builders, composers, and performers have all put their stamps on schools of tone and touch, thereby creating a huge menu of designs and colors. The piano was prominently featured at 19th century world's fairs and expositions, at which each builder was exposed to and copied the best the world had to offer, further distilling the designs and colors available. The number of piano manufacturers swelled from dozens to hundreds during this time, and soon pianos began showing up in the salons and living rooms of not only the wealthy, but also of the burgeoning middle class. Suddenly, everyone had to have a piano.
But with the rise of other forms of home entertainment, and in the wake of two world wars and a depression, the number of piano makers worldwide dwindled, and the piano industry began on a path toward homogenization. Perhaps, with any run of a great object or idea, the journey toward sameness is inevitable. If so, finding a way to slow that trend, to keep a diverse stable of pianos with which students can develop their listening skills, seems a noble and worthy goal. As our dean, Dr. Don Gibson, says, "It's essential for a large, comprehensive, collegiate music program to have broad diversity in its piano inventory. Given that the world of performance is populated by many different brands of piano, it seems critically important for aspiring piano students to be exposed to the broadest diversity of fine instruments."
Maintaining a large, diverse piano inventory that broadly represents the piano industry through the ages is undeniably expensive and time-consuming. But at Florida State University, we have found it easy to justify the effort. This rare inventory enriches our curriculum, broadens the creative horizons of our students and faculty, and thus fits the mission of a large music college with a global reach in ways that no other approach ever could.
Here is a breakdown of the piano inventory at the Florida State University College of Music (all grands except as noted):
Five formal halls and four auxiliary performance venues
Classrooms, seminar rooms, small-ensemble rooms, and practice rooms for piano majors
Studios for piano faculty
Studios for other music faculty
Other practice rooms (all verticals)
Out of service — being restored
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