Piano production par excellence at Steinway & Sons
BY NADINE PELZER & LARA VIRIOT
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2018)
Rich, powerful and unmistakable – this is how classical pianist Lang Lang, jazz star Diana Krall and pop icon Billy Joel describe the sound of a Steinway. For more than 160 years Steinway & Sons has stood for the finest grand pianos and pianos. Uncompromising and lovingly made from the best materials, they are high quality instruments that are second to none. Last but not least, the professionals who are committed to the highest perfection ensure that every Steinway is a benchmark for sound, touch, beauty and investment.
Mr Losby, what personal connection do you have to music and – above all – to Steinway?
As a child, I gravitated towards the piano at a young age and began to receive lessons. I was lucky enough that my family owned a Steinway piano, so the connection with this great company began very early on. I must say that I believe owning a great piano – and not just any piano – played an important role in my love of the instrument and learning piano. Today, one of the most common things our sales representatives hear from parents of young piano students is that their child is not at “Steinway level” yet and that they will upgrade their piano down the road as the child improves. We try to educate them to let them know that having a student practice on a Steinway today will get them to “Steinway level” sooner – because their music will sound better and the piano will respond better to their touch – encouraging them to play and practice more.
Completing the first grand piano in his kitchen back in 1836, Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg laid the foundations for subsequent worldwide fame. What does working for such a long-established company mean to you?
It is a privilege and an honour to follow in the footsteps of Heinrich and subsequent generations of Steinways and others who helped to lead and shape this great company. Working for a company with such a long and rich history keeps us humble, as we realise that what might be a very long tenure in our lives is quite short in the overall scheme of Steinway & Sons, which has been in business for more than 165 years and has roots dating back more than 180 years to Germany, as you alluded to. By the same token, this long track record of success does create some feeling of responsibility – as every generation at Steinway strives to leave the company – and our great piano – in a better position than when they first arrived.
A Steinway grand is considered the ultimate musical instrument. How do you preserve such a great heritage over so many years?
It really is the people. As long as my tenure with Steinway has been, there are many, many craftspeople in our factory with longer tenures than mine. It is these craftspeople that hand the essence of what makes a Steinway so great down to the next generation. We have many literal families within our factory – including a four-generation family with two generations still working for the company today. However, the family type atmosphere is abundant in our New York and Hamburg factories, with many long tenured employees and many “parent” type role models for our younger employees looking to learn a craft and help to work on something special that is known worldwide.
In your opinion, what are the most distinctive differences between a Bechstein, a Blüthner and a Steinway?
I can’t really comment on other piano brands, but what I believe, and what I hear from many great pianists from all genres of music, is that a Steinway offers the widest palette of tonal colours of any piano that has ever been built. The fact that over 1,800 great pianists chose to be Steinway Artists speaks volumes as these are not paid endorsements, but rather pianists who choose Steinway for the love of their music and craft.
Many musicians claim that there is no other instrument that is as close to their hearts as a Steinway. Where does this powerful emotional bond come from?
I think this varies somewhat from musician to musician, and you would likely get a different story from each one. However, I believe that the fact that our piano is built by artisans has a lot to do with this. Each Steinway has its own unique personality – and when a pianist falls in love with a specific Steinway, there is definitely some magic in that connection and the bond that is formed.
The woods are dried and aged for an average of two years before they can be optimally used– and it takes a further year before a Steinway is finished. To what extent does the type and quality of wood influence the sound?
The type and quality of the wood used is absolutely one of the most important factors to the sound of a Steinway. We often talk about three pillars to a Steinway’s construction which are design, materials and workmanship. Without any of these three pillars, you cannot have a great piano. For this reason, Steinway takes the utmost care in selecting the very best woods for each part of the piano, based on the function of that part within the piano.
What are the greatest challenges when manufacturing a piano?
Since there are over 12,000 parts in a piano and hundreds of distinctive processes, it’s tough to select one process – but rather I’d say the greatest challenge is having all of those parts and processes moving through our factory in a coordinated fashion and being executed in a Steinway-calibre manner. Any single part or any single process that is not up to par would mean a piano that is less than a Steinway. Getting everything right, every time, takes a huge amount of skill, focus, quality control, and attention to detail.
For those working on a piano, how important is it have a certain sensitivity and devotion to music?
A relatively small percentage of the artisans in our factory are pianists. Most have the perspective that it is their job to build great pianos and it is the job of other great pianists to play them. However, I do believe there is a certain reverence of music among almost everyone in our factory. Everyone knows that they are a part of something special, and that all comes together when they witness a great Steinway in performance by a great pianist. A few times a year we bring a great Steinway Artist into our factory for a performance for the entire factory – we call this series “Live from the Factory Floor” – and it’s great to see the mutual respect between the pianists and our artisans.
How have the manufacturing procedures and methods changed over the years?
This is very dependent upon the process. In some situations, like the bending of the rim and the hand-notching of the bridge on the soundboard, things have changed very little – the handcrafted way it was done 100 years ago is not very different from what you would see in our factory today. In other situations, things have evolved to the point where the process is completely different – and those doing the equivalent process 100 years ago might not even recognise what is happening in the way it is done today. Steinway has always been forward-looking and has always looked to incorporate technology wherever it can improve the piano. Through our process of continuous improvement and incorporating the latest technology where it can improve the instrument, I have no doubt that the very best Steinways ever built are the ones we are building today.
The sound of the Steinways manufactured in New York for the American market differs from that of the pianos produced in Hamburg for the rest of the world. Why is that?
The main difference between the two pianos is that they use different hammers and so the wool and felt have some differences. In general, the average Hamburg piano starts out with a “brighter” sound and the average New York piano starts out with a more “mellow” sound. However, this varies from piano to piano, and any good piano technician can make a piano brighter or mellower by working on the hammers. We like the fact that every Steinway gives some variance in sound from the one next to it – whether those pianos were both built in one of our two factories or whether they were each built in a different one.
Does a Steinway continue to get better with age – like a good wine?
Steinways do endure and maintain their performance qualities longer than other pianos, since they are handcrafted and built to last for generations. However, the best Steinways are new Steinways (there is generally a “breaking in” period of a few months where the sound of a Steinway will, indeed, round out and improve, but once it has been broken in the piano is at its peak and will be the best it is ever going to be). They will maintain top-level performance for years in a concert hall setting and decades in a home setting, but they do not get better. For this reason, the pianos in our Concert & Artist Bank of instruments are typically a maximum of five to seven years old. After that time, we look to retire them from C&A service and bring in new Steinways from our factory.
How do you succeed in uniting traditional craftsmanship with future-oriented technologies – creating new inspiration in the process?
There are many places within our factory where you can see a decades-old machine or process just feet away from something computer-controlled and high tech. Though in many cases seeing these very different processes next to each other can look a bit strange, I think the fact that everything is dedicated to the same goal – that of making the best piano possible – makes it all somehow work together. Additionally, although computers and some of the other technology we use today wasn’t even a concept back in the early days of Steinway & Sons, the Steinway family were forward-looking and embraced technology in any way that it could be harnessed to improve the pianos they were building. I have no doubt that the Steinway family would be amazed at what we’re able to do today and the massive improvements to the instrument that advanced technology has brought us. And I have no doubt that they would fully approve!
Please tell us about the latest ‘Steinway & Sons Spirio’ development.
The biggest technological innovation in the history of Steinway & Sons is undoubtedly Spirio, our high-resolution player piano. We call Spirio a “re-performance” piano because it is recreating a piano performance exactly as it took place and was captured in our studios. Steinway didn’t offer a factory-installed player piano system for many years because we didn’t feel that the technology was sufficient to incorporate into a Steinway piano. With this system, we finally had the technology that we felt was commensurate with the Steinway name and reputation. We made a huge investment in incorporating this technology into our factory process and a huge investment in creating an enormous and ever-growing library of amazing piano performances captured in every detail from some of the greatest pianists in the world. Through proprietary technology, we are also able to recreate from captured audio the performances of some of the legendary pianists in history, such as Vladimir Horowitz, Glenn Gould, and Duke Ellington. This product is also a game changer for Steinway, because it opens up a world of great piano music to those who love music but who are not great pianists themselves.
Ron Losby was appointed President & CEO of Steinway Musical Instruments on 15th August 2016. Prior to this role, Mr. Losby had served as President of Steinway & Sons for the Americas since 1st January 2008, and started his career with Steinway as a District Manager in 1987. Ron is an accomplished pianist and has studied at both the San Francisco Conservatory and The Juilliard School in New York City.
Picture credit © Steinway & Sons