The Making of a Steinway Grand
By Michael Lenehan
This article was published in slightly different form under the title "The Quality of the Instrument" in the Atlantic Monthly of August 1982. An update follows the text.
The Steinway & Sons piano company, founded in a Manhattan loft in 1853 by a German immigrant named Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg and his sons, is based today on a ten-acre factory site in the northwestern corner of Queens, New York, in the area commonly called Astoria. Steinway Creek connects the property with the Bowery Bay and the East River to the north. The office door opens onto Steinway Place, and just a block beyond is Steinway Street, one of the main thoroughfares of the neighborhood. From the factory's south windows, you can see a bus depot operated by the Steinway Transit Company, and if you walk up the block a bit you can visit Steinway Auto Body, the Steinway Electrical Supply Company, and the Steinway Homing Pigeon Club.
This section of Queens was mostly farmland when the family began buying and building there, in 1870, but under their influence-- particularly that of William Steinway, one of the founder's five sons--it became a busy community of mostly German-born tradesmen and their families. After only twenty years in the United States, the Steinways had firmly established themselves as the country's--and, many would say, the world's--pre-eminent piano makers, and they were quick to take up the civic and commercial activities that went with the role of successful New World businessmen. For the children of their neighborhood they supplied a park, a kindergarten, and a library, and they subsidized the teaching of music and German--the common tongue of their factory--at the local public school. For the adults they built public baths and row houses for sale at agreeable terms. As commercial ventures, William Steinway, who dabbled in Democratic Party politics and claimed Grover Cleveland as a lifelong friend, brought to Astoria a ferry company, a streetcar line, and the Daimler Motor Company, an American licensee of the German firm that later made the Mercedes-Benz. Officially, the area was called Long Island City--as it is today--but to the post office and the residents it was Steinway Village.
Little remains of William Steinway's sidelines in Astoria, and most of the land originally held by the family was sold long ago. The factory, once a model of efficient design and construction, is noisy, dirty, and poorly laid out by modern standards, and its neighborhood is sometimes smelly and often desolate. The company, once one of the largest of more than 250 American piano manufacturers, is now, in terms of unit volume, a relatively small concern in an industry dominated by giants: the New York factory produces about 3,400 pianos annually, less than 2 percent of the total U.S. market. (A branch factory, opened in Hamburg in 1880, produces another 1,900 yearly for the European market.) Held closely by the family for nearly 120 years, the corporation was sold in 1972 to CBS, whose musical- instruments division also produces Gemeinhardt flutes, Fender guitars, Rogers drums, and Lyon & Healy harps. When John H. Steinway, now sixty-five, great-grandson of the patriarch, retires as chairman of the board, he will leave Steinway & Sons in the hands of non- family members for the first time in its history
Still, as the multitude of Steinways in the Queens telephone directory suggests, something lasting was established there in the nineteenth century, and much at Steinway & Sons remains the same. Henry Z. Steinway, John's older brother and his predecessor as board chairman, still serves the company as a consultant, working in offices above Steinway's showrooms on 57th Street in Manhattan, about a block away from Carnegie Hall. John Steinway, who may make a similar arrangement, can be found most days at his plain desk in the large, open office room adjacent to the factory, working in his shirtsleeves. One floor above him, draftsmen and engineers study drawings created by his forebears a century ago, and the piano produced out in the factory is essentially the same as the one with which the company revolutionized the industry in the 1860s and 1870s. Though the workers today come more often from the Third World than the Old World--Spanish is more likely to be heard in the lunchroom than German--and though many of them now work at huge, floor-rattling veneer presses and sanding machines instead of at quiet benches, they are still, like their predecessors, immigrants who came to New York to seek work for themselves and something better for their children. And, as some of the taxi drivers in Astoria will tell you, they still make what is known in many quarters as the finest piano in the world.
When I first visited the Steinway & Sons plant, on a hot, sticky morning last summer, Peter Perez, then the president of the company, took me on a hurried tour of the premises. I recall very little of the tour's middle parts, but I was struck dumb by its beginning and end-the lumberyard and the loading dock, where I saw essentially the same things I would have seen a hundred years before. The lumberyard, just outside the south wail of the factory complex, was a most unimpressive sight. Perez told me that I was looking at more than a million dollars' worth of wood from many faraway places, but all I saw was stack after stack of boards discolored by the elements; to my unschooled eye, they looked unfit for a little boy's tree-house. Seconds later, however--or so it seemed--I stood on the loading dock, at the north end of the factory, and there I beheld a Steinway model D, the eight-foot, eleven-and-three-quarter-inch, $28,000 concert grand piano on which the company's coveted reputation rests. It seemed to me a sculpture. This was the model played by Josef Hofmann, Vladimir Horowitz, and countless other great artists. The pianist and historian Arthur Loesser, a man not given to syrupy enthusiasms, had once described its sound as "a tone that craved to stream out of itself, to blend with all other tone, to merge ecstatically into a universal ocean of tone." According to a much-repeated estimate made years ago, it comprised some 12,000 parts, from inch-long bits of maple to a 340-pound plate of cast iron. It had taken nearly a year to build and had passed through the hands of more than 200 workers. None of these facts, however, impressed me as much as the look of the thing: the sinuous curves of its open top, the bold diagonals of its bass strings; its satiny black lacquer, vivid red felt and cloth, brilliant white keys, and lustrous brass-colored metal. It reeked of quality. I marveled that it had been made from a pile of dusty, weather-beaten wood, and I returned the next day to see how it had been done.
On August 21, 1981, I went to the fourth floor of the plant to meet a few parts: a rim that had been constructed in early February; a soundboard that had been finished in June; a cast-iron plate that had been delivered from a foundry in Ohio at about the same time. A model D--its name would be K 2571--was about to be constructed from these parts and thousands of others, and I planned to attend the creation. A supervisor on the floor heard of my intention and amused himself with it. He made a few quick mental calculations and announced, grinning, "You'll be with us for Christmas!" I was.
WOOD, GLUE, AND A LARGE HUNK OF METAL
The wood that is transformed into a Steinway model D is of several different kinds, each with its own characteristics and purposes. Yellow poplar, which is soft and relatively cheap, is used as the "core wood" of such fiat, tablelike parts as the piano's top; it is veneered with mahogany to give an attractive appearance. Maple is used where extreme hardness is necessary--for example, in the pin block, also called the wrest plank, which must hold the tuning pins tight against the tension of the strings, and in the action, whose hundreds of tiny moving parts must be machined to precise tolerances. Sitka spruce, light in weight and high in strength, is used for structural cross braces; also, because it has long, parallel fibers that vibrate freely, it is used in the soundboard, the thin panel inside the case that amplifies the vibrations of the strings and projects their sound into the air.
Before these woods can begin their year-long journey through the factory, they must wait outside, drying and curing, for nine months or more. Warren Albrecht, Steinway's lumber buyer and wood technologist, told me that some of the lumber arriving in the yard is actually up to 80 percent water. The water has to go. Wood expands and contracts as it takes on and loses moisture; before being fashioned into parts that will fit together, it must be dried to a water content of about 6 percent, to minimize the possible changes in dimension. Breathing the New York air for several months is the first of two drying steps; despite rain and snow this reduces the wood's water content to about 25 percent. Wringing out the remainder usually requires several weeks of kiln drying, in cavernous rooms where temperatures of up to 160 degrees Fahrenheit shrink the lumber to about nine-tenths of its original volume. I asked Albrecht to take me into one of the kilns, but found standing for a few seconds at the open door of one quite sufficient to satisfy my curiosity.
After drying, the wood goes to the crosscut department, on the first floor of the factory, to be prepared for the woodworkers. Here the discolored surfaces are planed away--the wood looks new again. Boards are cut to convenient lengths according to their destinies, and all sections containing knots and other intolerable imperfections are thrown on the scrap heap. Another third of the lumber's original volume is lost in this way. Along with the cuttings, shavings, and sawdust produced elsewhere in the factory, the scrap goes into a wood- burning boiler that supplements the plant's conventional oil furnace. All told, as much as 60 percent of the lumber Steinway buys either evaporates or goes up in smoke. The rest goes into pianos.
In various departments on the first and second floors of the factory, the wood is transformed from boards into rough approximations of piano parts. A naif in the ways of woodworking, I found in these departments the answers to questions I had never thought of asking. For example: Given that maple trees grow up and down, as a rule, how does one obtain the curvaceous contours of a grand piano’s rim? If the top of a piano measures roughly sixty inches at its widest point, does one need a five-foot-thick poplar tree to make it? If birch, the wood from which piano legs are carved, is generally available in the form of boards no more than three inches thick, whence come the blocky chunks of wood with which the carvers start?
In a word, the answer to these questions is glue. The block from which a model-D leg is carved is made of two pieces of birch glued together. The large sheet of poplar that becomes a top is simply fifteen to twenty boards glued together along their lengths. Much of the gluing is done on gangly "glue wheels," which look vaguely like giant metal Rolodexes; their "cards," a dozen or so per wheel, are clamp assemblies that hold the pieces of wood in place while the glue sets. The blocks and panels that result are slapdash--irregularly shaped, and patterned with streams of hardened excess glue--but when they have been planed and sanded the seams virtually disappear, and the pieces look almost as if they had been cut whole from oversize trees.
Having heard comments around the factory about the difficulty of obtaining wood in convenient sizes, I asked Warren Albrecht if this gluing of blocks and panels was a traditional woodworking practice or a new one made necessary by the limited sizes in which lumber is available today. He answered that it was a little bit of both. "We don't have the selection of trees we used to have, because trees of the quality we need take, let's say, a hundred years to grow to full size; they don't grow them to full size anymore. So the boards are getting narrower, and we probably have to put more boards in a panel than we used to. But woodworkers have pretty much always glued up panels. The concept itself, I guess, has been around for the entire history of the piano. You have to do it, for certain items."
Albrecht went on to correct the mistaken assumption implied in my question: that a built-up block or panel is weaker, less stable, or somehow inferior to a piece of wood cut solid from a log. "The glue is stronger than the wood," he said. "If you do a proper job of gluing a panel and then try to break that panel, you'll find the wood is going to break rather than the glue joint. Gluing also helps because any one board might have a tendency to, say, shrink or swell more than another board. By putting boards of varying characteristics together, you can compensate. You'll get an overall average of stability"
The most difficult gluing job in the creation of a Steinway--and the most spectacular, a favorite on the factory visitors' tour--is the construction of the rim. Actually there are two rims: the outer rim, the piano's exterior wall; and the inner rim, a shallower interior wall that forms a ledge to which the cast-iron plate and the soundboard are attached. Most piano makers build the two rims separately: they make the inner rim first, build the piano's works onto it, and then glue the outer rim around it. Steinway builds the inner and outer rims together, as a single piece, which makes for stronger, more integral construction, perhaps a better sound, and certainly a lot more work.
The rim begins as quarter-inch-thick slats of maple, which arrive at the lumberyard in various lengths and widths, none of them appropriate to the task. Some of the slats must be "paneled," or glued along their lengths, to a width of about twelve and one-half inches--the approximate depth of the model D's outer rim. Others must be "ripped," or sawed along their lengths, to about half that width-the inner rim. Boards of like width are glued and tongue- jointed to a length of twenty-two feet, which is roughly the measure of the piano's perimeter from the bass side around to the treble. (There is no left and right in a piano factory, only bass and treble.) Typically a "book" of boards--one rim's worth--consists of nine narrow maple boards, five wider ones, and four layers of other types added for strength and decoration. At this point the rim wood is about 10 percent water instead of the usual 6. The extra moisture is needed for pliability because the eighteen layers of wood, some three and one-half inches thick in all, are about to be coerced--bent, shoved, and grunted over--into the impossible curves that make up the shape of a grand piano. Not one at a time, but all at once.
This happens in a large basement room where eight massive piano- shaped forms of steel, their perimeters fitted with gargantuan screws and clamps, stand along two walls almost like instruments in a showroom. These are rim-bending presses, the tools of the maple's fate. The model-D press goes into service most mornings at 9:45, when the rim-department crew returns from its coffee break. As a special precaution--one of many taken throughout the factory for the model D-- one man stays behind at break time to mix a new batch of urea-resin glue, which is most effective when it is fresh. This is done because the D rim is the largest Steinway makes--and therefore the most susceptible to failure--and because the model D is the flagship of the Steinway line. Not that it happens, but if the rim of a baby grand model S were to spring apart at the seams one day, it would most likely be in the living room of a kindly old music teacher somewhere in the Midwest; if a model D were to come unglued, it might be on the stage of Carnegie Hall.
The crew of six, some with glue buckets, rags, and brushes in hand, line up in single file along a narrow bench about two feet high. At one end of this bench is an automatic glue applicator, a wringer-like machine through which the department's foreman, Ralph D'Alleva, feeds the wooden layers one at a time. The long boards have been scored on both sides to give the best possible gluing surface. They have also been arranged so that the "inside" of one board--the side that grew closest to the center of the tree--faces the "outside" of the next; each layer will thus counteract the warping tendency of its neighbor. As each board emerges from the gluing machine, the workers line it up on the bench. Some spread glue over spots the machine has missed, and one cleans excess glue with a wet rag. D'Alleva yells "Glue!" and a man appears at his side with a bucket, emptying it into the machine. The work is hurried. Once the glue is applied, the crew has twenty minutes to get the wood clamped into the press. In the old days, when they used hot glue made from animal matter, they had even less time.
Within a few minutes, the "book" has been assembled and aligned on the bench, the wider layers of the outer rim on top. Now the crewmen, protecting their hands with thick sheets of sandpaper, lift the heavy mass of wood and struggle hurriedly with it to the press. Starting at the front, or keyboard end, of the piano, they lay and clamp the book first along the straight bass side of the press--the easy part. Next, however, comes an extremely difficult part, the virtual ninety-degree bend at the back. D'Alleva says, "All right, start movin'," and there follows a flurry of heaving, shoving, and pulling against the wood's desire to remain straight. A few men apply clamps and tighten screws with T-bars bigger than tire irons. Another evens the layers with a block of wood, setting it against their edges and pounding it from above with a large hammer. The block he uses is itself a section cut from an old laminated rim--a reminder, perhaps, that this crazy process will really work, that the wood will stay in place once the glue dries.
The wood's resistance increases as the men wrap it around to the treble side of the press. One of the crew takes up a wooden lever about five feet tall, shaped roughly like a lowercase letter b, and, as a couple of others pull the last section of rim into place with a block and tackle, he and a few mates apply the bulbous end of the lever against the wood and press it into the graceful curve near the front of the piano. They look remarkably like the Marines who raised the flag over Iwo Jima. "Push!" "Get it!" "Once more. . . .
"Okay!" Suddenly, the frenzy subsides. The rebellious wood is locked safely in the press. A couple of crewmen casually tighten clamps, and the rest walk off to their next task.
The rim of K 2571 was bent in this fashion on February 6, 1981. The next workday, it was removed from the press, upended, and ten weeks placed in a brace that kept its ends from flying out. It spent in the humidity-controlled rim-bending room, during which time the maple's water content was slowly reduced to about 6 percent. By then, the wood had "forgotten" its original shape. In April, it was taken to the frazing department, where workers sawed, planed, and sanded it to specifications, and from there it went to the case- making department, where cross braces, a key bed, and a pin block were installed. Now a "case" instead of a "rim," it went in June to the lacquer department, where, except for very rare special orders, each model D receives five coats of functional, basic black.
At about the same time the lacquering began on the fourth floor of the factory, a soundboard and a cast-iron plate were taking shape on the first and second floors. The soundboard's function is to amplify the sound of a slender string into a sound capable of filling a concert hall, and every detail of its construction is aimed at maximizing its ability to vibrate. The wood is an expensive grade of Sitka spruce, with no fewer than ten grains, or growth rings, per inch. It is sawed from the log so that its grain lines--and thus its vibrating fibers-run straight along the length of each board. The soundboard panel, made of about twenty boards glued together along their lengths, is thinned in places, like the face of a fine violin, to encourage movement. Finally, and most important, the board is made to bow out slightly in the center: the bridge, the long, snaky strip of laminated maple on which the strings will rest, is affixed to the top of the panel, and ribs are affixed to the underside, such that the board is distorted into a slight crown, increasing its ability to project sound waves into the air.
The cast-iron plate, made by the Wickham Piano Plate Company, of Springfield, Ohio, arrived at the factory an intricately shaped but roughly finished hunk of dull gray metal. Workers in the plate department, on the first floor of the factory, ground down its rough edges, smoothed its surface, painted it gold, and buffed it to a soft, brassy luster. Also, with the guidance of templates prepared and maintained by the engineering department--"patterns," they are called--they installed the pieces that would later determine the crucial placement of the strings: the agraffes, the guideposts through which the strings emerge at the front of the piano, and the hitch pins, around which they loop in the back.
The cast-iron plate embodies the two major design elements that propelled Steinway & Sons to the top of the piano business in the mid- 18OOs. One of these elements was the use of the plate itself, which permitted much higher string tension than could be borne by pianos made entirely of wood or of wood fortified with metal bars. The added strength allowed the use of bigger--and thus louder--strings. The second design element was the piano's "scale," which is essentially the arrangement of its strings--their vibrating lengths, their placement on the bridge, and the point at which they are struck by the hammers.
The most important feature of the new Steinway scale was the "overstringing" technique, in which the bass strings, instead of running parallel to the others, are fanned over them diagonally in a second tier of strings; this permitted longer bass strings and, again, more volume. Neither of these design elements was radical: overstringing had been used in square pianos since the 1830s; the metal plate had been developed by the Boston piano maker Alpheus Babcock in the 1820s, and Jonas Chickering, also of Boston-- the foremost American piano maker before the Steinways came along-- had been using it in his grand pianos since the 1840s. The Steinways' masterstroke was to combine the two ideas in a new design, which also included heavier hammers to excite the heavier strings, a subtly improved action to permit control of the heavier hammers, and a repositioning of the bridge from the rear of the soundboard toward the middle.
The result was an instrument unlike any heard before. Hector Berlioz, encountering the Steinway at the international exposition of Paris in 1867, remarked not only on its "splendid and noble sonority" but on the ingenuity of its scaling, which subdued the "terrible resonance of the minor seventh," an undesirable overtone occasionally heard from other pianos of the time. The exposition's jurors were likewise impressed: even though none of them was an American (patriotism was often an important factor in these international trade shows), they awarded the Steinway their gold medal. Within a few years, the prestigious old piano houses of Europe were fading into obscurity, and the rest of the industry was quickly adopting what had come to be called the "American system" or "Steinway system" of piano design. Those terms are not used much today, because today there is no other system.
THE AMERICAN WAY
Like many things called "American," the American system of piano making is rooted in another place entirely: the town of Seesen, in the Harz Mountains of central Germany. There, at least according to the family legend, Heinrich E. Steinweg, a cabinetmaker by trade, built his first piano as a spare-time project in the kitchen of his home, in 1836. Fourteen years later, when he sailed to the United States and became Henry E. Steinway, he was a rather atypical immigrant: fifty-three years old, apparently prosperous, and so uninterested in the New World adventure that he refused to learn English. He must have come as much for his children's sake as for his own. That, at least, he shared with hundreds of men who would be employed by him and his heirs in the years to come.
John and Henry Steinway, the founder's great-grandsons, are probably the last piano makers in the line. I met them one morning at Steinway Hall, in Manhattan, to hear about the roots of the company that made them rich men. Henry, who since retiring has been trying to sort through family records and memorabilia, brought a large cardboard chart showing the Steinway genealogy. He started at the top, explaining what he knew of his great-grandfather's decision to come to America.
"What I think took place--and this is pure speculation based on no facts--is that they had a pretty successful piano-manufacturing business there in Seesen in the 1830s and '40s. And from what little I know of the history of Germany at that time, it was layered in small states. It was the town of Seesen within the duchy of Brunswick within the grand duchy of something else, and if you wanted to ship a piano a hundred miles you had to go through three tariffs to get it there. I think we like to say that leaving there was for freedom and all that. The hell it was. It was an economic decision. According to something I ran across somewhere here, the oldest son, Theodore, had filed some kind of papers that he wanted to emigrate in--I'm guessing--1845 or '46. And then he didn't go. But then Charles and Henry, the two next-younger brothers, did go. The family liked to tell the story that Charles left Germany because he was in that 1848 revolution, and was a liberal. I really don't think that's So. I think they were sent out to scout for a place to go. The conventional wisdom was that when Charles wrote back or came back--I guess he physically came back, but nobody knows for sure--he said that New York was the place, and the family made the decision to uproot themselves and sell the property and the factory. That was 1850. They loved to tell the story later about how they were poor immigrants and they built this business, but I think they started with capital. They came first-class to America. That boat they took was the latest steamer, and you can see from the passenger list that they were no ignorant immigrants coming here. They were some guys with some dough and an idea."
Although they apparently had the wherewithal to go into business immediately upon arriving in the United States, Steinway and his sons first schooled themselves in the ways of American manufacturing, by working for other New York piano makers. The patriarch made soundboards for a manufacturer named Laucht, earning a salary of six dollars a week. (A letter in the family archives informs us that he could have earned seven dollars if he'd bothered to learn English.) His son Charles became a keymaker at the respected firm of William Nunns, and Henry Jr. worked for James Pirsson, who had invented an odd double piano with keyboards at opposite ends. They regrouped and formed Steinway & Sons in 1853.
Henry: "In the early days, the prepotent guys were Charles, Henry, and the old man. Charles was the business guy Henry was the inside man in the factory. He drew up our B scale, still basically the same today [the model B is Steinway's second-largest grand piano]. In 1865, Henry and Charles both died young men--they were in their thirties. Then their brother William persuaded the oldest brother, Theodore, to sell the business he'd started over in Germany and come to the United States."
Henry said the company "really took off" when the skills of Theodore, who is generally considered a piano engineering genius, were paired with the entrepreneurial and marketing talents of his brother William. "To me, this fellow William is the really interesting character, not because he's my grandfather but because he came here at age fourteen, so I'd say he was the first true American of the gang--totally bilingual, of course. He spoke French, too. He saw the opportunities in this country in the post-Civil War period, and so he developed the dealer network, he developed our system of agents, which everybody else has today. Of course the others had seen early on the idea of promoting the pianos through concert artists--it's credited to Henry junior--but William brought the artists in for technical reasons. He wanted to have these guys play the pianos and tell him what was wrong. They helped him develop the very quick, responsive Steinway action. Also he had an enormous capacity for public relations, in my opinion. I'm sure you've heard all about his Astoria ventures. He was very civically oriented, got involved in the anti-Tammany crusade and Democratic politics and all that stuff, but the purpose, in my opinion, was to sell pianos.
William Steinway invented the piano industry. The idea that your daughter is a schlumpf unless she plays the piano, and you are not a cultured guy unless you have a piano in your house--that didn't come of itself, that was invented. And William Steinway did more to invent that than anybody"
The pattern established by Charles and Henry Steinway Jr., and continued by William and Theodore, endured through the succeeding generations. Time after time, control of Steinway & Sons passed to a pair of male family members active in the day-to-day operations of the firm, one an "inside man"--a builder--one a financier, promoter, or salesman. Of the pair most recently active in the company, Henry Steinway was the president and factory man, while his younger brother John concentrated on marketing and promotion. (A third brother, Theodore, who retired in 1979, was an engineer.) I asked Henry and John how they were brought into the family business, and soon, with a little prodding, the talk turned to reminiscences of different days.
John: "None of us, not one of us, was ever pressured by our father--'You must, my son, learn all about this because you will inherit the business one day.' There was never that in our upbringing that I remember."
Henry: "We never worked on college vacations."
John: "I worked one summer, but that was more a thing to do to keep out of trouble and earn a few bucks--and it was damn few, by the way, in those days. I don't remember until I was a senior in college and about to embark on some kind of employment, my father saying, 'Well, there is Steinway & Sons. If you want to work at Steinway & Sons, you report to the factory at 7:30 in the morning and you start in the lumber pile"--which is exactly what I did."
Henry: "I graduated from Harvard in 1937. I'd never done a goddamn bit of useful work in my life. And '37, if you look at the charts, was the time of the junior depression--you know; things started getting good, then in '37 it fell out of bed again. So finally as the cold weather came, I said well, I guess I'll try the piano business. I went, and I was sent over to Theodore Cassebeer, the factory manager, and the people there were thrilled, because of the old emotional thing.
"The factory, in the fall of '37, was working one day a week. One day the workmen came in--there was no union at the time--but the foremen were kept on. So the other four days, for me, was talking to the foremen, who at that time were almost a hundred percent Germanic background, and sopping up what I could of the tradition and the background and the type of personality that really makes the piano. And this was a big education for me, for a snotty Harvard guy to be sitting around with these fellows who had worked with their hands all their life and had enormous respect for education--too much respect. They thought I was terribly brainy because I could read and write and all that sort of thing."
John: "Back when we were apprentices, the foremen had more power. We didn't have a big personnel department. The foreman did the hiring and firing in the department. I remember some of those departments broke down ethnically. Because the foreman happened to be Swedish, there were five Swedes in the department, because they were all landsmen of his."
Henry: "Oh, absolutely. We encouraged nepotism in any way--people coming from Europe, referral of relatives. We believed in it. The belly department was Scandinavian--not only Swedish, but Scandinavian. The grand regulating department was Hungarian. That was a scream because these guys were mostly first-generation, and none of them was over four foot six. You'd go into the department, they were behind the pianos--you'd think nobody was there! The whole finishing end was Irish. And then the Italians, they were considered a subject race by everybody. The Germans and so on said, oh, stick 'em with the Irish. Of course now the Italians are the aristocrats of the factory."
I commented that, given all the years of tradition and nepotism, one might expect the Steinway factory to be filled today with third- and fourth-generation piano makers. Yet it seemed still to be manned mostly by first-generation immigrants. Henry said, "I have always believed in our hiring, when I was in charge down there, that the immigrants were a good source. Because they're hungry, they're willing to work.
"At one time, we had many many second-generation guys, a lot of them sons of employees. They had German names, but they were as American as apple pie. We still have certain families--Walter Drasche is still with us, up in engineering, and Bobby Moffa is the end of a whole line. But in general, it's the upward mobility of the American worker. It's one of the things that really makes this country good. I don't know how many guys worked at Steinway and sent their sons to college and they became teachers or accountants, went into business-- improved themselves. I run into guys all the time--and, John, I'm sure you do, too--who say 'Oh, I had an uncle who worked at Steinway’ What did he do? They never know what the hell he did. Very frustrating."
John: "I had a letter the other day from the grandson of old Matthias Heitzman; remember him, the top-making foreman? The grandson lives in California, he's a lawyer. But grandpa had worked at Steinway. And I wrote him back and said sure, I remember him well, I worked with him in his department when I was an apprentice."
Henry: "Before the union came, in 1939--and I don't blame the union for this, you just can't fight it--a craftsman was a craftsman, and he did not associate himself with the floor sweeper. This guy had a trade, he was a woodworker, and he felt himself a class apart."
John: "In the thirties, still, the senior craftsman would arrive at the factory with a bowler hat and a collar, a separate collar and tie. And he'd take the collar and tie off but leave the collar button, and that was the sign of the craftsman. He didn't come in any work shirt--hell no, he put his apron on. He was a top-skilled craftsman."
These were the people who felt the "old emotional thing" that Henry had mentioned in describing his first days at the factory--a sense of joy and relief that the boss's son was going to enter the family business and continue the lineage. I remarked that today the boss's son would probably be resented instead.
"I think you're right," Henry replied. "There was an old- fashioned familial feeling then. It's indescribable. I don't know what it was. It was not only these guys who were born in Europe, but a lot of workers were still living in the Steinway community in Astoria, and they were second- and third-generation, regular Astoria guys, but they lived together. It was while the thirties was going on that this move of the workers toward buying a house farther out started. I would say in '37, when I was there, well over half of our people walked or took the trolley car to work. And by now I bet we don't have ten guys out of 400 that walk or take the bus to work. They almost all drive in from somewhere. Why? The guy wants to have a house, he doesn't like attached houses, he wants to go out far enough so he can get his plot of ground around him--and that's the American way."
Steinway’s manufacturing methods are careful and traditional, but they are not primitive. In the rim-bending room, where a century ago the use of hot animal glue required that grand- piano rims remain locked in their presses for the better part of a day or more, synthetic glue is now cured by high-frequency heating, allowing most rims to be removed in little more than an hour. (The high-frequency curing is not necessary in the case of the model D, which is produced at a rate of fewer than 200 a year.) In the plate department, which once ran chiefly on steam power and elbow grease, paint sprayers and electric grinders abound. Where the soundboards of old were shaped by patient craftsmen with hand planes, giant planing and sanding machines now do the job automatically.
This modernization, however, has been confined largely to the areas where individual parts are made. On the third and fourth floors of the factory, where the parts begin coming together for assembly, the machines and up-to-the-minute industrial techniques fade into the background. To a remarkable extent, Steinway has eschewed the assumption that piano pieces can be made to specifications and fitted together interchangeably. It is much more common for parts to be built originally to excess dimensions, so that they can be painstakingly matched one to the other by the same means used in the 1800s--human hands, eyes, and sweat.
The fourth floor of the factory is the home of the "belly" department, which performs one of the first, and one of the most critical, in a long line of custom-fitting operations. The title of the job's description makes it seem a rather simple affair--to fit and glue a soundboard into the case--but it actually involves the installation of several ancillary parts and takes roughly eight hours, usually over the course of two days. The bellyman who worked on K 2571 was Valentine Toussaint, an immigrant from the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts, and he was something to see. A lithe, muscular man of thirty-four, wearing a rugged leather apron to protect his trousers and a headband to keep the sweat out of his eyes, he stalked the perimeter of the piano with the single-mindedness of a man possessed. Like most Steinway hands, he is paid for speed, on a piece- work basis. More than most, however, he obviously comes to the factory to make money. At one point well into the job, he opened a locker, popped a few pieces of candy into his mouth, and announced that he was taking a break. He was back at work before three minutes had passed. The job comprised long sequences of minute, interdependent steps, and, because it involved considerable gluing, he worked on two pianos at once, moving to one as the glue set on the other. Despite this, he never had to pause to consider his next move. The tools he needed always seemed to be right at his fingertips. His drill always seemed to have the right bit in it. Joe Pramberger, Steinway's vice president in charge of manufacturing, passed Toussaint's "station" on a walk through the factory and stopped for a moment to watch. "Look at him," Pramberger said in a low tone of admiration, "he doesn't waste a move." Pramberger pointed out a long row of cubbyholes, each containing one tool, on a workbench behind Toussaint. "See those tools he's got back there? Move one of them and you'd throw his whole routine off."
He was fast, but not hasty. The cast-iron plate, which had been fitted to the case the day before, was now suspended from a ceiling- mounted winch, and Toussaint must have raised and lowered it at least half-a-dozen times in the course of the job, each time making certain measurements, placing certain parts. For a while I wondered why he didn't make all the necessary measurements and guide marks at once-- wouldn't that be faster?--but I learned that the repetitiveness is an essential part of the custom-fitting process. He had to adjust the height of the bridge, but he couldn't do that until he knew how the soundboard would sit in the piano's case. He couldn't know how the soundboard would sit until he had prepared and installed the rail to which it would be glued at the front of the case. He couldn't know exactly where the front rail would go until he had planed the soundboard to fit the back of the case. Patterns helped him to place the pieces, but the patterns merely represented a design; Toussaint was working on a piano.
Determining the height of the bridge--or "taking the bearing" as it's called at Steinway--was the most critical part of Toussaint's job. In the finished piano, the bridge extends upward from the soundboard through cutout sections of the cast-iron plate above, meeting the strings at a point slightly higher than the top of the plate. For the strings effectively to transmit their vibrations to the bridge, which in turn transmits them to the soundboard, they must bear down on it with a force of between 600 and 900 pounds. Too little pressure, and the piano will sound weak; too much, and it will sound muffled. Because the position of the plate, and thus the height of the strings, has been determined at this stage, the height of the bridge must be adjusted, by planing, to result in the proper pressure. The bridge is built originally to excess height and capped with a layer of easily planed wood to make this adjustment possible.
To take the bearing, Toussaint arranged the soundboard and plate in the case as they would fit when glued and bolted in permanently, then produced a small wooden box from which he took a few lengths of green string and several "bearing blocks"--thin rectangular pieces of metal, smaller than postage stamps, each marked with its thickness. He ran one of the green strings through an agraffe, across the bridge, and back to the rear of the plate--as though it were a true piano string. He placed a one-millimeter-thick bearing block on the plate and held the string down on it with his finger. The string thus rose from the agraffe to the bridge, and from there descended to a point one millimeter above the surface of the plate. Toussaint's object was to adjust the bridge so there would be no rise and no descent. Later, when the piano was strung with wire and no bearing blocks, this would give just the right amount of rise and descent-- the right amount of pressure.
With a thick handsaw; Toussaint made a shallow gash in the bridge's cap, passed the string through it, peered at the string, wiggled it around a little, and deepened the gash, continuing in this fashion until he was satisfied that the string was just resting on the bottom of the gash, with no upward or downward deflection. Then he blackened the bottom of the gash with a lead pencil. After performing this operation with different-sized bearing blocks at fourteen different "notes," from the bass side to the treble, he had fourteen black gashes on the bridge. He hoisted the plate, removed the soundboard, and hand-planed the bridge until the pencil marks just disappeared. Presumably the bridge was now precisely the right height.
Plenty of work remained, however, before Toussaint would know for sure. He drilled holes in the bridge for the bridge pins that would guide the strings across it. He painted the top of the bridge with lubricating black graphite, then chiseled notches in it, by hand, so that each string would come in contact with only a carefully defined section of wood. He hammered the copper-colored bridge pins in, 486 of them, again by hand, and filed down their tops--twice. About two hours after taking the bearing, he was ready to glue the soundboard to the top of the inner rim. He lifted the board out of the piano and placed it in a "steam box"--a heated locker--a few yards from his station. He closed the window behind him, and, without any signal that was apparent to me, the man at the next station closed his window and appeared at Toussaint's side with a glue bucket in hand. Hastily the two brushed hot animal glue onto the inner rim. The glue, which is useless once it begins to cool, was the reason for the haste, for the steam box, and for the closed windows--even though it was August. When Toussaint set his brush down and hurried to the steam box for the soundboard, two more workers materialized, one of them dragging a cart holding more than forty large C clamps. Toussaint slapped the board into place, and all began clamping and tightening. When it was done, no more than a couple of minutes later, the helpers disappeared as quickly as they had come.
The glue was allowed to set for several hours. After removing the clamps and performing a few final tasks, Toussaint bolted the plate into place over the soundboard, and reached once more into his little box of green strings and metal chips to check the bearing. It had been six hours since he had first threaded those strings through the piano, and much had happened to K 2571 in the meantime. I was amazed to see that now, as he threaded them again, they still lay perfectly flat across the bridge. I felt like exclaiming, "It worked!" I recorded this sentiment in my notebook, and when I looked up, Toussaint was bent over another piano.
Two weeks later, as Vahe Fesdjian installed a set of 243 strings on K 2571--one each for the lowest eight notes, two each for the next five, and three each for all the rest--workers on the floor below him prepared the piano's action, the device that would impart to the strings the energy of the pianist's fingers. This device is the essence of the piano: when the reference books say that Bartolommeo Cristofori invented the instrument sometime around 1700, they really mean he invented the action. The rest, after all, was just wood and wire, things that could be found on any harpsichord or clavichord.
Before the eighteenth century, stringed keyboard instruments were severely limited--at least in comparison with the modern piano--by the means they employed to excite the strings to vibration. In the harpsichord, the strings were plucked by a quill, an arrangement that gave off the same volume regardless of how firmly the keys were struck. With the clavichord, the player could control the volume of individual notes, but there wasn't much volume to control. The instrument was small, and its strings were struck with a "tangent," a small metal blade embedded in the back of each key; the sound it produced was similar in character and volume to a single note on a modern autoharp--if the autoharp is played softly. Another drawback was that the tangent had two functions: in addition to exciting the string, it stopped the string--that is, determined the length of its vibrating section, much as a guitarist or violin player does with his finger. As soon as the clavichordist removed his finger from the key the tone would disappear. A modern piano maker would say that the clavichord had no "carry"
Cristofori's solution to these problems was the gravicembalo con piano e forte--"harpsichord with soft and loud"--the earliest extant examples of which date back to the 1720s. Though rather basic by modern standards, Cristofori's action performed all the essential functions of the modern action save one: the "repetition," which allows a note to be restruck before the key returns to its original position. This may not have been necessary in Cristofori's time, but later, as piano cases grew stronger and their strings and hammers larger, the touch of the keyboard became deeper and heavier, and players began to find that they could not repeat notes as rapidly as they wanted to. This problem was ultimately solved by a French piano maker, Sebastien Erard, who, in 1821, patented the "double-escapement" action that is the basis for all grand-piano actions made today.
The modern grand action is a marvelously complicated device, a contraption of wood, felt, leather, spring wire, and small bits of metal that must accomplish a bewildering variety of functions simultaneously. First, it must multiply the motion of the key in both speed and distance: the hammer must move farther and faster than the key does. Second, so the hammer will not remain pressed against the strings if the key remains depressed--thus muffling the sound it has created--the hammer must be thrown free from the rest of the action, so that it travels independently over the last fraction of its path and rebounds immediately after striking the strings. Third, the hammer must not bounce back up to the strings with its momentum; the action must catch and hold it as it makes its downward arc. Fourth, because the player will want to restrike a note without waiting for the key to come back up, or without having to lift his finger entirely off the key, the part that propels the hammer must return to its original position, ready to strike again, while the hammer itself and the rest of the action are still in motion. Meanwhile, the damper that has been sitting over the strings, preventing them from vibrating in sympathy with other notes, must be lifted so the strings can sound cleanly, and must fall back promptly to cut off the sound when the key is released--unless the player wants the sound to continue after the key has been released, an eventuality that must also be taken into account. Finally of course, the action must do all this without making the slightest sound of its own.
Most piano manufacturers buy their actions ready-made from suppliers to the trade. Steinway buys actions for its upright pianos, but all its grand actions are made in the Astoria factory, mostly in two long, narrow rooms on the second and third floors. These rooms are the domain of John Scalera, the action-assembly foreman, who hired on at Steinway shortly after arriving in the U.S. from Italy. He had a cousin who was employed in the mill department. Scalera spends most of his working day walking the aisles of the department, solving problems, answering questions, and peering into the innards of recalcitrant woodworking machines. As he goes, he carries with him the image of a sort of universal pianist--"he"--whose needs define the job and remind him of its importance. Once, as he loaded my cupped hands with the seventeen small wooden parts that go into each note's action assembly, he told me that most of them wouldn't be necessary if "he" wanted to play a note only once, but "he" sometimes wants to repeat notes rapidly. Another time, he explained the necessity of the back check, which catches and holds the hammer on its way down, by saying, "See, he doesn't want a second sound. He wants to play when he feels it's necessary to play."
In the action department, the Steinway plant comes closest to the popular conception of what a busy but aging American manufacturing facility looks, sounds, and smells like. In the second-floor room, where wood is cut and machined into the elaborate shapes of the action parts, sawdust hangs constantly in the air, despite an impenetrable tangle of vacuum pipes designed to suck it toward the ceiling and dispatch it to the wood-burning boiler; it is mixed with the smell of lubricating oil and just a touch of the burning odor produced by the friction of automatic knives and saws against wood. The machines emit high-pitched whines as they shape the wood, and parts of them seem to move up and down, in and out, of their own volition, gasping with bursts of air pressure as though they were breathing. In one corner of the room, a woman feeds a slat of wood into one end of a machine and collects several dozen small action parts from the other. In an opposite corner, an automatic tumbler spins continuously, rolling parts against one another to eliminate the tiny splinters and imperfections left by the cutting machines. Next to the tumbler, a woman behind a desk sorts through a pile of parts, occasionally plucking out a reject and discarding it.
Directly above the machining room, in a space identical in layout but somewhat more genteel in ambience, workers glue felt to the wood at nearly every point where the parts will meet, to prevent noise in the finished action. At three especially troublesome locations, where the collisions will be particularly high in impact, they apply the skin of a small Brazilian deer to cushion the blows. This skin is especially prized for use in the "knuckle," the part of the hammer shank that bears the full brunt of the pianist's enthusiasm. In the early 1970s, when the Brazilian government put a temporary embargo on the export of these skins, Steinway engineers tried replacing them with materials as familiar as cowhide and as exotic as the skin of an African antelope called the kudu; nothing they tried seemed to have the right combination of durability, thickness, and grain structure. They now buy the Brazilian deerskins in year's-supply lots and keep their fingers crossed.
The action parts are joined by tiny metal pins, each pin constituting a hinge, or "action center," around which the parts must move freely. A set of eighty-eight finished "repetition" assemblies is then screwed into one side of a metal frame, and a set of eighty-eight independent hammer shanks into the other. Finally the shanks are fitted with felt-covered hammerheads, manufactured in a separate department adjacent to the action rooms. Here again, Steinway departs from conventional practice by making its own hammers, for both grand pianos and uprights. The felt strips and wooden slats from which the hammerheads are made are tapered from one end to the other, with the result that the shape of the hammers changes from the bottom of the scale to the top--from plump, pear- shaped masses of felt to thin, hard, felt-covered sticks. The strings at the treble end of the piano are very short and rigid, and it is difficult to coax much sound from them; the graduation of size and shape in the hammerheads is one of several measures taken to even the responsiveness of the instrument across the scale.
K 2571's action was finished on September 16, when Jorge Nieves inspected and regulated it to ensure that its parts would move the way they were intended to. When he dispatched it to the forefinishing department, to meet the rest of the piano, most of the instrument's major parts were complete, and things began coming together rapidly. On September 24, Eddie Carrasco matched the action to a set of keys manufactured by Pratt, Read & Company of Ivoryton, Connecticut. (There hasn’t been much ivory coming out of Ivoryton lately; Steinway switched to plastic-covered keys in the 1950s.) Then, in a woodworking operation no less exacting than the bellying job, Carrasco fitted the key-action assembly into the case in a way that accommodated two impossibly contradictory demands. So that the wooden frame on which the keys rested would not clack against the case's key bed in fortissimo passages, the two surfaces had to fit so snugly against each other that they would act as virtually a single piece of wood. At the same time, the entire key-action assembly had to be able to move about an eighth of an inch toward the treble side of the case when the left, or "soft," pedal was depressed, so the hammers would strike only two of three unison strings in the three-string notes, and one of two in the two-string notes. Carrasco achieved this miracle by hand-planing the wooden surfaces in a convoluted arrangement of concavities, convexities, and clearances. It was custom work.
When he was finished-when, in the words of his foreman, Tony Fernandez, the action and case were "man and wife"--workers in the grand-finishing department made the union irrevocable by installing wood blocks and hardware around the inside perimeter of the case to hold the action and guide its motion. A couple of days later, the action was reinspected, and any parts that did not move freely enough were taken apart and repinned. On the morning of October 16, K 2571 was wheeled into a sound-proofed room and subjected to the "banger."' an eighty-eight-fingered robot that played a rumbling composition of almost unbearable atonality, striking each key some 10,000 times in a span of forty-five minutes; then Paul Juganaru spent about eight hours fussing with the keys and broken-in action. On October 21, after being tuned for the first time, the piano went to the work station of Earl Baldwin, who made and installed a set of dampers, and from there it went to the rubbing department, where its shiny sprayed-on coat of black lacquer was reduced, largely by hand, to a smooth, dull softness. On November 3, almost nine months after taking shape in the rim-bending room, K 2571 finally looked and worked like a Steinway. Now all that remained was to make it sound like one.
SEARCHING FOR THE MASTER PLAN
As I followed the progress of K 2571 through the factory, it gradually dawned on me that the people I was watching were assembling a very difficult jigsaw puzzle--one made up of tiny but critical details--without ever referring to the complete picture. Some of these details seemed to exist only in the heads of the workers who needed to know them. For example, the man in the case- parts department who made the cores for grand-piano tops, gluing boards of poplar together into large, L-shaped panels, had to know that poplar isn't strong enough to hold the hinges that attach the top to the case; the last board on the bass side of the top has to be maple. How did he know this? His foreman told him. Did the men who veneered the tops or attached the hinges know? Maybe they did, but they didn't have to.
Other details were on paper. Frank Urich, the foreman of the belly department, had a construction order from the engineering department telling him that in winter, when the steam heat was on in the factory, the tuning-pin holes that his workers bored into grand-piano pin blocks should be 0.255 inches in diameter; in summer, when humidity might cause the wood to expand, the holes should be 0.253 inches. No other foreman received a copy of this order, because no other foreman needed to know
A great many such details were embodied in patterns, the plastic bars and wooden arms and perforated metal plates that the workers were constantly using to measure and shape their materials. For example, after years of use, the most-often struck keys on the piano, those in the middle of the scale, tend to sag in height with respect to the others. To compensate, the height of the keys in a new Steinway rises, gradually and imperceptibly, from the ends to the middle: the middle keys on a model D are one thirty-second of an inch higher than the keys at either end. The various workers who set and check the height of the keys do so visually, using long wooden rulers whose bottom edges are arched. Presumably a worker might never notice that the middle of his "straight edge" was a fraction of an inch higher than the ends, yet he would still set the key level according to the wishes of the piano's designer.
I stumbled over details like these only by accident, and as they accumulated I began to sense a presence in the factory that refused to reveal itself. Where, I wondered, was the big picture? Where did the design of this piano reside? I put my questions to Joe Pramberger, and he led me out of his office into the large, open room that accommodates the company's engineering and research-and- development departments. In one corner of the room, a young man sat at a video-display console, feeding lists of parts and details of assembly into a computer, but Pramberger wasn't taking me there. Against one wall, tall metal cabinets held rolled-up engineering drawings, but Pramberger wasn't headed there, either. The room was lined with bookcases, and one of them contained black loose-leaf binders stuffed with sketches, specifications, and descriptions of various procedures, but instead of stopping there, Pramberger pointed me toward the far end of the room, where a short, white-haired, nattily dressed old man was smoking a Camel cigarette and poring over a letter written in German. "You want to talk to John Bogyos," Pramberger said. "He's the guru."
I introduced myself to Bogyos and told him what Pramberger had said about him. He replied, in an accent that seemed to contradict what he was saying, "Well, that's just 'cause I'm so long here." He told me he had been working at Steinway for fifty-one years, and that his father had worked there as a tuner before him.
"I was to be a professional musician," Bogyos said. "That's what my father was, in Europe, and that's how come he was able to get in here--they only took those days professional people entering from our areas. His ambition was to come over here and work maybe three years and make enough money to build this dream house in the city of Nagyvarad, in Hungary where we lived, and go back and live happily ever after. This is the basics of most people who come here. He had to wait six years to get his citizen's papers; that's when we came. In other words, he then saw that life is better here. Although we built the house--the house was there, everything was ready for him to come back--he just said no, the life is better over here, you come here and that's it. He never saw it.
"I studied music in Europe, but by then there wasn't anything at all for musicians here, so I couldn't get a start on that. But Steinway & Sons had a band specifically for the workers, and they just at the time happened to need a flute player, which was my instrument, and that's how I got the job here. Besides, my father worked here, that helped."
Bogyos worked in various departments at Steinway and studied drafting at night in anticipation of getting a job at Con Edison-- which also had a concert band. The Depression destroyed that possibility. When World War II came, Steinway began making wooden parts for gliding airplanes, and the young draftsman was moved into the pattern shop, which was then undergoing quite a transformation.
"When I got into engineering we called it the pattern shop. It was in Ditmars [an ancillary factory building in Astoria, since sold], up on the seventh floor, up in heaven, sort of. You were left alone. And the way they worked it, Frank Walsh, who was my boss at the time, he was the chief engineer, he came up like I did in the factory--from an office boy he became plant manager and engineer. He had his own book, and he just wrote down everything he ever saw, how it was done, how it was made. And every foreman had a little book, like littler than yours, in his back pocket, for his department. It was everything more or less verbal--passed down from son to son, as far as the Steinway family was concerned, and from foreman to foreman. There was no such thing as specifications. There were some drawings, and where there weren't drawings, they had patterns. And that's why it was called the pattern shop. The major pattern was hanging on the wall or, if it was small, in some drawer. And if something had to be made, and something happened to the secondary pattern which was in the factory, okay then they came here and we compared, or made a new one from this, et cetera. But there were very little drawings, as we know them today."
As Bogyos remembered it, this all began to change when the glider contracts came in. "The Army insisted on a drawing for anything, even a screw, which you don't manufacture, you purchase: you say 'I want a two-and-a-half-inch number twelve flathead screw'--boom, period. But they insisted on a drawing of it. Frank Walsh, from learning what he did in building gliders for the Army, where they had strict dimensions and specifications, he theorized that this might be a good idea for our industry, that you could have something to hold on to, and you could say now, you know that this string, when it's tuned to A 440, should have a tension of about 187 pounds. So these are the things we eventually set down on paper.
"Over the years, as I had time--and Frank Walsh, he was a very good draftsman, he loved drafting--we made drawings of the parts. I think I started out with a little upright, model 1073, I think; I took each part, and made a drawing from it, so now we could say here is part number so-and-so, and this is the way you got to make it. And the next thing my boss asked me was for each department, to write out every operation as it is done at the time. So we have books now over there, we call it the bible, where every operation is written out."
As a tuner played a single-note melody in a room nearby I asked Bogyos if I was understanding this correctly Was he saying that the model D, for example, was not made from drawings or specifications? That the drawings and specifications had, in effect, been made from the piano? He walked to one of the tall metal cabinets. "The only D scale drawings we have passed on to us," he answered, "are from finished pianos, after the fact. . . The original Steinway, that's Henry Engeihard Steinway, he built a piano, in Europe, in his kitchen--I think you must've heard this story--and he had a tremendous success with his first piano. And following then most of his sons were interested, and they improved, kept on improving. They'd lay out a scale, build the piano, and they'd make changes until they had it so it sounded right. After they had the success, then they would make a drawing of that scale, of everything. And so, okay, in this closet, these are all old drawings--I hate to take 'em out, they might fall apart. There's not one here that says 'This. is the original D layout and this is what we're gonna build, This is what they built ."
Well, I asked, was the process of copying the piano's design onto paper complete? Did the design of the D reside in any of these old drawings, or in the drawings that Bogyos and his boss had made after the war,. or in the "bible." they had written? "I don't think anything is ever completed," Bogyos said. "No, no, there's a whole lot now; and you see they're working over there trying to put it all on computer. And they've been working on it for three years and I don't think they got it yet" He was laughing. Was there enough information on hand, I asked, to extrapolate the design of the model D? (I was determined to find the master plan.) "Pretty much," Bogyos said. "In other words, we have the most important thing, the scale, which is the beginning of everything. The scale is simply a layout, divisions." "Peter," he said, addressing a young assistant who was working nearby, "get me a scale stick." "Okay."' he continued, "the scale is not laid out always equally throughout, the divisions are not equal. But the scale shows where the hammer should strike the strings, and where the keyboard in back should be, and so you make up a set of keys, you make up an action, and the parts should then fall into place. The first thing you do when you design a piano, you draw a straight line on a piece of paper--a big piece--and you divide your scale. Then you build everything around it." Peter, by this time, had returned with the scale stick. "That's handed down from maybe the early 1900s,." Bogyos said. It was a long stick of wood with lines on it. From this, Bogyos was telling me, he could build a piano. I tried asking the question another way What if you went on vacation, I said to Bogyos, and while you were gone a fire swept through the plant and destroyed all the drawings, all the loose-leaf binders, all the patterns, and you had to start building the model D from scratch. Where would you turn? What would you do? "Well."' he said, "assuming all our records would be lost, I would do what I did with this upright." He was pointing toward the wall at a new model K, a fifty-two-inch-high upright; discontinued by Steinway years ago, it had recently been put back into production, under Bogyos's direction. "We had no prints of this K 52. It's an old upright, old-fashioned, and I had one of these home, so I brought it In here, took it apart, made drawings of it, and this is how we made them. Now; the problem with that is, if there were any wrongs in there, I probably would copy the wrongness, right? Well, I don't do things that way I did find some questionable things in this piano that I didn't think should be that way, and I looked at the records of what they did in Hamburg--they also built that piano at one time. And from an old foreman, I got some very valuable information. He had his old black book, and he let me have it to make copies of this prime information that was bugging me. The specifics of it was, the soundboard, which is a very important segment for tone in the piano, was an even thickness throughout, and I know that this is not so. From all history as far back as you can go, they wouldn't ever make the soundboard one thickness throughout. They'd make it that way but then they'd take away from certain areas to make it more flexible. But I could not find this on my piano. And when I got the foreman's pictures, showing me where, I found it on my piano too. I really looked, I drilled holes in the damn thing. But you see, just by looking, I couldn't see it. Everything is so hidden." Just as I was thinking that this was precisely the sort of problem that would be avoided if one had a complete set of drawings and specifications, Bogyos taught me a little lesson in the value of drawings and specifications. He took me to a counter and showed me a drawing he had made, a very detailed and precise-looking draftsman's rendering of a metal bar that fit over the plate of the model K and pressed down on its treble strings. He opened a drawer that held several prototypes of this bar, all made from the drawing by an independent foundry and all rejected by Steinway Picking up one of the bars, he showed me a smidgen of excess metal that had not been machined from one of its corners. Had the bar been a part for a truck or an airplane, the error surely would have been insignificant. But Bogyos knew; even if the foundry didn't, that one of three unison strings had to fit beneath the gap that wasn't there, and that the improperly machined bar would soften one note of the piano's eighty- eight. The necessary engineering information was all on the drawing; it was the piano-making information that was missing. TRUE VALUES
Well, I asked, was the process of copying the piano's design onto paper complete? Did the design of the D reside in any of these old drawings, or in the drawings that Bogyos and his boss had made after the war,. or in the "bible." they had written? "I don't think anything is ever completed," Bogyos said. "No, no, there's a whole lot now; and you see they're working over there trying to put it all on computer. And they've been working on it for three years and I don't think they got it yet" He was laughing.
Was there enough information on hand, I asked, to extrapolate the design of the model D? (I was determined to find the master plan.) "Pretty much," Bogyos said. "In other words, we have the most important thing, the scale, which is the beginning of everything. The scale is simply a layout, divisions."
"Peter," he said, addressing a young assistant who was working nearby, "get me a scale stick."
"Okay."' he continued, "the scale is not laid out always equally throughout, the divisions are not equal. But the scale shows where the hammer should strike the strings, and where the keyboard in back should be, and so you make up a set of keys, you make up an action, and the parts should then fall into place. The first thing you do when you design a piano, you draw a straight line on a piece of paper--a big piece--and you divide your scale. Then you build everything around it."
Peter, by this time, had returned with the scale stick. "That's handed down from maybe the early 1900s,." Bogyos said. It was a long stick of wood with lines on it. From this, Bogyos was telling me, he could build a piano.
I tried asking the question another way What if you went on vacation, I said to Bogyos, and while you were gone a fire swept through the plant and destroyed all the drawings, all the loose-leaf binders, all the patterns, and you had to start building the model D from scratch. Where would you turn? What would you do?
"Well."' he said, "assuming all our records would be lost, I would do what I did with this upright." He was pointing toward the wall at a new model K, a fifty-two-inch-high upright; discontinued by Steinway years ago, it had recently been put back into production, under Bogyos's direction. "We had no prints of this K 52. It's an old upright, old-fashioned, and I had one of these home, so I brought it In here, took it apart, made drawings of it, and this is how we made them. Now; the problem with that is, if there were any wrongs in there, I probably would copy the wrongness, right? Well, I don't do things that way I did find some questionable things in this piano that I didn't think should be that way, and I looked at the records of what they did in Hamburg--they also built that piano at one time. And from an old foreman, I got some very valuable information. He had his old black book, and he let me have it to make copies of this prime information that was bugging me. The specifics of it was, the soundboard, which is a very important segment for tone in the piano, was an even thickness throughout, and I know that this is not so. From all history as far back as you can go, they wouldn't ever make the soundboard one thickness throughout. They'd make it that way but then they'd take away from certain areas to make it more flexible. But I could not find this on my piano. And when I got the foreman's pictures, showing me where, I found it on my piano too. I really looked, I drilled holes in the damn thing. But you see, just by looking, I couldn't see it. Everything is so hidden."
Just as I was thinking that this was precisely the sort of problem that would be avoided if one had a complete set of drawings and specifications, Bogyos taught me a little lesson in the value of drawings and specifications. He took me to a counter and showed me a drawing he had made, a very detailed and precise-looking draftsman's rendering of a metal bar that fit over the plate of the model K and pressed down on its treble strings. He opened a drawer that held several prototypes of this bar, all made from the drawing by an independent foundry and all rejected by Steinway Picking up one of the bars, he showed me a smidgen of excess metal that had not been machined from one of its corners. Had the bar been a part for a truck or an airplane, the error surely would have been insignificant. But Bogyos knew; even if the foundry didn't, that one of three unison strings had to fit beneath the gap that wasn't there, and that the improperly machined bar would soften one note of the piano's eighty- eight. The necessary engineering information was all on the drawing; it was the piano-making information that was missing.
What this means exactly is difficult to say. It is a commonplace around the Steinway factory that no two pianos sound alike. For this reason, people who buy large grands--model Bs or Ds--are invited to come to the plant to select their purchase from three or four new pianos of the same model. Similarly Steinway's concert-and-artists department, which lends pianos free of charge to artists for public performances, maintains a bank of more than forty pianos in the basement of Steinway Hall in Manhattan, and an artist who needs one may be permitted to choose from as many as a dozen. (The artist is responsible for the cost of tuning and transport. Similar but smaller banks--some as small as one piano--are maintained by Steinway dealers all over the country. Steinway boasts that 95 percent of all public piano performances in the U.S. are played on its instruments.) In attempting to explain the difference between one piano and another, an artist, or a piano technician, might say that one is "brilliant", the other "mellow"; he might say that one has a "warm, round" tone and describe the other as "metallic" or "brittle"; he might use terms like "carry" "singing," "power"--in other words, he might as well not bother to try explaining. The concept of tone is impossibly nebulous, and so, as a result, is the job of the tone regulator.
Physically the mysterious part of the job, called "voicing," is a fairly simple matter of hardening and softening the felt of the hammers--hardening by impregnating it with a "juice" made of lacquer and lacquer thinner, softening by picking it with needles to separate its fibers. But to what end? Some visitors to the Steinway factory leave with the impression that the tone regulator determines the character of any particular piano; he decides what it will sound like according to his personal preference, and perhaps according to his mood. To counter this myth, some Steinway executives imply that voicing is just another operation, albeit a very important and painstaking one; the tone regulator, they tell you, merely tries to bring the piano’s sound to an agreed-upon standard of excellence, and in that respect the job is different from no other. The truth of the matter, as near as I could determine it, lies somewhere between these extremes. Given a certain level of quality in construction, sound, and touch, what artists seem to want most from a piano is range-- piano e forte, the ability to produce the most delicate passages and the most thunderous. At Steinway a large grand piano is most likely to be deficient in the forte department when it reaches the tone regulator, and to correct this deficiency he must harden its hammers with lacquer. But as the hammer felt absorbs lacquer, the sound it produces, in addition to becoming louder, becomes less "mellow" and more "brilliant." Beyond a certain point--a point that varies from one piano to the next, depending on numerous variables of construction--further volume is accompanied by an unpleasant metallic tone, one that is noticeable and grating to the ear even in soft passages. At this point, the piano is "giving back all it can give." The tone regulator's job is to identify this point and bring the piano to it; to make the piano as "brilliant" or "powerful" as possible without destroying all its "warmth" or "roundness." Of course, one regulator's idea of what is unpleasant may differ from another's, and it may even change from day to day. But pianists also differ, and they have their moods, as well as needs that vary according to the material they intend to play and the hall they must play it in. In the end, as long as the pianist is free to choose from a number of pianos, it all works out.
Raymond Parada, who regulates about half the 150 to 170 model Ds that come through the New York factory every year, explained it to me this way: "Sometimes you get a piano that is nice and even and mellow at the same time, and you will disturb it too much if you try to make it brilliant, make the hammers hard. It gives you the feeling that it's better the way it is. How could I give you an example? Say I would like to take a picture of something, a person, and I would like to have a lot of light in there--full light. And I don't have it. Yet with a subdued light, the object shows certain qualities, certain mysteries. Especially if you are taking a picture of a beautiful girl--her features and things like that. And you don't want to disturb that, risk it, by exposing it to full light. So some pianos are mellow. See what I mean?"
While most of Steinway’s tone regulators are of Italian ancestry, Parada is "Spanish, from Spain." He was born in the United States, but his parents took him back to the old country when he was two or three, and by the time he returned he was a young man. Most of his colleagues in the Steinway aristocracy had risen to it slowly, coming up through several departments in the plant, but Parada was hired specifically to train as a tone regulator. He has been on the job for twenty-three years, and he handles many of the special assignments that come through the department.
He works in a large private room that is supposed to be soundproof but really isn't. His walls are decorated with a couple of Spanish travel posters and a button that reads, "I'M A HARD-WORKING NEW YORKER." Like many of the workers I encountered in my travels, he was overly apologetic about his English, but unlike most he was not shy about using it. As he worked on K 2571, over the course of about a week, he delivered himself of opinions on a great variety of subjects, including politics, his family, rock-and-roll, and, of course, the piano:
"I feel that many people do not understand the difference between a machine and an instrument. An automobile will perform for everybody the same. An auto has no heart, no soul, no brains. But a piano, I believe, is close to having these things. It is like a human body, it functions at the service of your brain, at the service of your soul, your spirit. It is a bunch of mechanical things that produce at the end, yes, a spiritual value. It's like the piano has got a heart of its own, or a mind. The man that is there expresses beauty through the tips of his fingers in musical sounds. The piano is very close to a man; it's an extension of a man."
Parada is proud to be a part of it all. "See, every time I see a concert, or hear one on television, I feel privileged, because I feel myself behind that guy that is playing the piano. The artist might triumph, but behind him, in an anonymous way, I triumph with him. I feel like an artist, in other words. I feel I create something in my pianos. Tone is a creation. It's an extension for me, too."
"You see," he explained at one point, "I am a romantic.
When Parada began working on K 2571, I asked him if he could tell what sort of piano it would turn out to be, or if he knew yet what he would try to do with it. He said that the hammer felt was a little too soft for his taste, but not so soft that he was ready to relegate the piano to the ranks of the mellow. "We'll have to see," he said. "This one, I'm gonna try to bring it up. I like a little volume on the piano, so I like to make it a little harder. Some people do want kind of mellow pianos, you know; but I like them full--a true value. No half here, half there. That's what I'm looking for in life, in everything--true values."
Before he could set off on his quest, however, Parada had many hours of routine mechanical work to do. First, with a small file very much like a thick emery board, he rounded the hammers to a shape that twenty-three years of experience had burned into his memory. In the highest seventeen notes, the ones least inclined to sound powerfully, he cut small bits of felt and wood from the hammers to lighten them, so they would travel to the strings with greater velocity. (The level of the strings also lowers from the middle of the scale to the treble end, decreasing the distance that the hammers have to travel.) Then, sliding the action into the piano, he began the tedious, exacting process of reregulating its moving parts. Raising each hammer by hand and examining the way it met its strings, he made chalk marks on the keys to indicate errant hammers, then removed the action to make the necessary adjustments. His goal was to place each hammer and adjust its motion so that, in the three-string notes, for example, it would hit the three unison strings squarely but move off one string entirely when the soft pedal was depressed. He had three different ways of doing this. He nudged the hammers one way or another by tapping their mounts with a hammer and chisel; they were screwed into the metal action frame, but the screw holes were oversize to allow for this adjustment. He also tilted some hammers, thus changing the plane of their arc, by inserting shims of gummed paper beneath their mounts, to one side or the other of the screws that held them in place. Finally, he "burned" some hammer shanks, heating them with the flame of an alcohol lamp to make them momentarily pliable and twisting them to the position he wanted.
Parada made these adjustments, and many other similar ones, without referring to any patterns. "I do it by ear, see. And everything I do here, I do eighty-eight times." Actually he did everything no fewer than 264 times. Before finishing the piano, he went through this routine on three separate occasions. Each adjustment had been made several times before the piano had reached his department, and each would be made several times more as technicians prepared the piano for use. This, Parada explained, was the consequence of using such a capricious substance as wood for precision moving parts. "If the action were made of steel, we would do it once and that's it. But this is wood, wood keeps twisting. It reacts to the temperature, the weather, even though it is seasoned wood. That's why the idea of checking and rechecking so many times-- to make sure everything stays where it is supposed to."
As Parada worked on the action, he was visited by a trio of dignitaries--not an uncommon occurrence for him, because he, like the rim-bending room, is one of the highlights of the factory visitors' tour. The tourist this day was the pianist Andre-Michel Schub, who was being escorted by Peter Perez and vice president David Rubin, manager of the company's concert-and-artists department. Schub, a bookish-looking twenty-eight-year-old, seemed to be the artist of the moment at Steinway; an enthusiastic endorser of the product, he had recently won the quadrennial Van Cliburn Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, and had agreed to play a short recital for Steinway employees before Christmas. He and Parada chatted about a fine point of action regulating for a moment, and then David Rubin suggested that if the timing worked out, it might be a nice touch for Schub to play K 2571-- which by this time was known as the Atlantic Monthly piano--at the employees’ recital. I said I was afraid that the piano might turn out to be a lemon, because I had been peering over the shoulders of the workers who had built it, taking notes, asking questions, and looking, no doubt, like a time-study engineer or some other sort of management spy. Rubin assured me that Steinway made no lemons, but the idea was left hanging in the air as the tour departed. When they were safely out of earshot, Parada whispered, "Who's gonna play this piano? That kid? And who's he, the winner of what?" I told him. "And he's gonna play my piano? Holy cow! Oh, my God, I'm not gonna sleep. I might make the first lemon."
After working on the action for about three and a half hours, Parada removed it from the key frame and slid the keys into the piano to set their level. A small jig, a rectangle of metal that fits between the lip of a key and the top surface of the key frame, showed him that keys number one and eighty-eight were both at the correct height, so on them he set his "straight-edge" pattern--the ruler whose bottom edge rose to a crown of a thirty-second of an inch in the center. To check for low keys, he looked for light between the tops of the keys and ruler; to check for high ones, he tapped the stick gently across the outer keys and looked for any in the middle that moved. He raised and lowered the errant keys by adding and subtracting punchings of paper that fit between the keys and the key frame. The punchings were of five different colors, each representing a different thickness of paper. For the most part, Parada ignored the thinnest punchings and worked with the blue and white ones. Later, when I looked up the specifications for the punchings in the engineering department's bible, I learned that he had been discriminating between gaps of nine thousandths of an inch and gaps of sixteen thousandths. He did it visually or, as he might say "by ear."
A little after three o'clock--about seven hours after he had begun work on K 2571--Parada rose from his seat and announced, to his audience of one, "Gentlemen, this piano is ready to be weighed." Lead weights had already been added to the keys, before they were matched to an action, but these weights gave only a rough approximation of the "touch" desired in the end. Now Parada would do the fine work, determining how much extra lead to add to each key and where to place it, so the keys would behave as a pianist would expect them to. He reached into a locker and brought out a small, felt-lined box containing round lead reference weights, each marked with its mass in grams; these represented the pianist's fingers. Also in the box were several square weights, unmarked, of two different sizes; these represented the lead that would be added to the keys. With the key-action assembly on his workbench, Parada placed a fifty-gram reference weight on the front part of key number one, and a couple of the smaller, unmarked weights near the key's center. He moved the square weights back and forth on the key, substituted a larger square for one of the smaller ones, tapped the action frame lightly with a closed fist, and kept fussing in this manner until the hammer rose slowly to its striking position under the weight of the fifty grams. Then he removed the fifty-gram weight, replaced it with nineteen grams, and fussed some more until the hammer descended slowly to its rest position. He had to weight the key so that it would do both: rise with a minimum force of fifty grams; and fall whenever the force, or the pianist's finger pressure, fell to nineteen grams or below. When he had to compromise, he always favored the fall, the idea being that the speed of the hammer's return is more important to the player than slight variations in the pressure needed to raise the hammers.
The keys were remarkably dissimilar: sometimes Parada had to add only one small weight to achieve the desired effect; the adjacent key might require two larger ones. When he had the weights placed the way he wanted them, he marked the side of the key with a red pencil for the workers who would install the leads, a group referred to almost universally in the plant as "the girls." The girls themselves perform this "weigh-off" operation on most pianos, but on the model Ds they merely install the weights according to the tone regulator's instructions. As he proceeded up the scale, Parada changed the reference weights several times, with the result that notes on the treble end, where most fancy trills and runs are played, would play more easily and repeat faster than the bass notes.
The 4:15 quitting whistle was long gone by the time Parada finished this chore, and the plant was dark and quiet. Before leaving for the night, though, he wanted to juice the hammers with his solution of lacquer and lacquer thinner. Later, he would apply the juice deliberately--three drops on this hammer, ten on the next--but for now he soaked the hammers indiscriminately. "I don't have to think now" he said. "I know this felt is pretty far off, pretty soft, so I'm gonna give it as much as it can take. I always do this at this time, so it dries overnight. This stuff smells horrible."
On Tuesday, one of the girls came and wheeled away K 2571's keys, to install the lead weights. Parada worked on another piano. On Wednesday morning the keys came back, and he spent most of the day reregulating the action, which had been thrown out of whack by the new lead. He also juiced the hammer felt twice on Wednesday, more carefully than he had before. First, with the action in the piano, he punched each key with his middle finger and marked with chalk those that sounded strong enough to him--by now, only six or seven of the eighty-eight. These he avoided as he applied the juice. On the treble hammers he squeezed the juice right on top of the thin felt coverings, but in the middle and bass sections he juiced only the sides. The felt that actually strikes the string, he explained, should remain soft and springy; the hardening should take place below the surface. "When you play soft, you only hear the top of the hammer. If the top is metallic, that's what you hear. When you play hard, you hear the bottom of the hammer. If the bottom is solid, you got a solid sound. If a boxer, even if he is a heavyweight, is playing soft, the punch don't go no more than one inch deep, which is all padding in his glove. When he plays solid, it's like it makes no difference whether he's got a glove or not, because you feel the fist through. You understand? Excuse me, if I was speaking to you in Spanish I wouldn't have to use this simple example."
After quitting time on Wednesday, before juicing the hammers for the night, Parada slid the action into the case and punched the keys to check the piano's progress. Its sound was noticeably brighter. "It came up, huh? Wow, listen to that, that's really got a lot of power. Yeah, I think at this point I can tell you it's gonna be a good piano." On Thursday he applied more juice to about twenty-five of the hammers, then pushed the piano out his door to be tuned. When it came back, about ten o'clock on Friday morning, he announced that the moment of truth had arrived. He was going to the bathroom.
"Maybe it's a routine, but every time I'm gonna make the tone, I do the same thing. I go to the bathroom, I refresh myself. I stick my head in the air, clean my glasses--in other words, kind of mentally get into it. Maybe it doesn't do a thing, but I feel it helps me to hear better. I don't come at it just like that, I kinda prepare myself."
When he returned, he seated himself at the piano and explained that in juicing the hammers gradually over the past few days, he had brought the felt about as far as it would go--not far enough, for his taste, but he didn't feel it could take much more juice without slipping past the point of diminishing tone. Now he would try to make the tone consistent throughout the scale, so that equal pressure on different keys would produce equal volume. He would harden a few hammers only minutely, adding just a few drops of juice, and would soften others, picking their felt with a hand tool that held three sewing needles.
With the action in the piano, he played his monotonous melodies with his middle finger, covering four, five, and six notes at a time, playing most notes twice in succession, moving up and down the scale, sneaking up from both sides on troublesome notes that sounded more brilliant or mellow than their neighbors--4, 5, 5, 6, 6, 7, 6, 5, 6, 7, 7, 8, 9, 10, 9. Pulling the action halfway out of the piano and resting it on his lap, he attacked the overhardened hammers with a surprising amount of force, wielding his pick not from the wrist but from the elbow: ten strokes on this hammer, none on the next, three on the next. Then he slid the action back in: 9, 9, 10, 10, 11, 11, 12, 12, 11, 10, 9, 9, 10, 11, 12, 12. Most of the tonal discrepancies that seemed to concern him were inaudible to me; I did notice, however, that some of the notes still had an annoying buzz. Parada explained that in these notes, the unison strings were vibrating slightly out of phase, because the hammer was not striking them at precisely the same time. "That's what we're gonna fix now." One by one, on each of the two- and three-string notes, he lifted the hammer to its striking point and held it against the strings. He plucked the unison strings successively with his fingernail; if one string sounded cleanly while the others were muffled by the felt, he knew the hammer was striking the muffled strings before the others. Perhaps the hammer was erratically shaped, or perhaps the strings were not perfectly level. In either case, he remedied the situation by filing an infinitesimal amount of felt from the part of the hammer that struck the muffled string or strings. The buzzes disappeared.
35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 39, 38, 37, 38, 39, 40. In and out the action went for hours. Parada marked keys with chalk, juiced or picked or filed them, erased the marks, played some more, made more marks. He juiced a group of eight hammers, filed one. Filed one, picked another. Juiced seven, picked one. 83, 83, 84, 84, 85, 85, 86, 87, 88. He went over the action regulation for the third time. He lightly sanded the hammers to clean them, buffed the action screws to shine them. He liberally juiced the three highest notes. Just before three o’clock, about five hours after he'd begun, he said, "Now; my friend, the action is done, and so, as far as I am concerned, is the tone."
"So," I asked--as I'd been asking all along--"how do you like it? Is it any good?" Parada didn't seem to know what to say. "I think it's good," he said. "It could be maybe a little fraction more, I would like it to have a little bit more. And that would not be normal either, because thatwould be--Maybe the next piano would not be--Put it this Way: The average piano sounds this way more or less. Some may be better, some worse. Better, yes. Worse, no. Because this is good. This is no lemon, understand? It's just a matter of opinion. My opinion of today, maybe tomorrow I change it. I will say, 'Gee, this piano is much better than I thought.’ But I think this is natural. You know, for you, and knowing that guy might play it, I would like to have the most perfect piano in the world. Why don't you now hear the opinion of the other people?"
The other people were Parada's foreman, Richie Sera, who pronounced K 2571 "another winner," and Mike Nuccio, the quality- control supervisor, who called it "a beautiful piano, beautiful instrument." He said, "Raymond, you're the only guy in here who makes it so you can't hear the difference when you go from double to single strings. At every break [every point where the scale is interrupted by the plate's metal bars], you can't hear the difference. That's the whole thing."
"Thank you," Parada said.
Late that afternoon, a stringer came to the tone-regulating department to replace K 2571's first three bass strings, which Richie Sera had marked as "dead" earlier in the week. Raymond Parada came back to the piano to hear the last three treble strings, which he feared would never have enough power, and expressed satisfaction that his final application of lacquer had done the trick. "They came up good," he said. Monday, the stringer came back and replaced one of the replacement strings. A man from the damper department also worked on the piano for a while, and replaced a broken wooden lever in the pedal mechanism that Parada had found a few days before. The final quality-control inspection--a rather cursory affair, since each worker in the line had depended and checked on the worker before him--took place on December 1. Two hundred and ninety-eight days after its maple had been bent in the rim department, K 2571 was finished.
Except that a piano is never truly finished. As it is played, its hammer felt is compacted and occasionally requires reshaping or softening; its action parts require continual adjustment and readjustment. Joe Bisceglie, the senior technician at the Steinway factory, likes to compare a concert piano to a finely tuned racing engine. There's a point, he said, at which it's ready to run flat out, and only the constant attention of a mechanic can keep it there. Bisceglie and his assistant, Ed Court, fine-tune the pianos that go into the "selection room," where customers come to choose their purchases; they are usually the last Steinway employees to work on large grand pianos, but only the first in a long line of tuners and technicians who will refine, restore, and sometimes undo the months of labor that have gone into them.
K 2571 went to the selection room after quality control. In the matter of Andre-Michel Schub's pre-Christmas musicale, it had been decided that he would choose one of three new pianos to play, and that K 2571 would be among them. Bisceglie went over the action and the voicing, "just cleaning it up.", he said, "evening it out." On December 14, the day before the recital, he characterized it as a nine, or maybe a nine and a half, out of ten. In his thirty-five years at Steinway, he said, he had seen three tens, and he remembered them well. Ed Court tuned K 2571, and rated it on his personal scale as a "concerto" instrument, not quite as powerful as an "orchestra" instrument, but more so than a "chamber" or "solo" instrument. Court emphasized that this was not faint praise; what seemed to impress him most was that the piano's tone remained clear no matter how loudly he tried to play it. "It kept coming back to me," he said. "I couldn't go through it, couldn't break it up." According to Court, Raymond Parada had come to agree with the general high opinion of K 2571. Court said, "Mr. Parada has put the word out that this is a beauty."
Schub, who would be the first artist to lay hands on K 2571, was scheduled to come to the factory late that afternoon to make his choice. The piano was sitting, in all its stately glory, in the selection room with two other model Ds. Just before the factory whistle blew to beckon the workers back from lunch, Parada stole quietly into the room to check on his baby. Wearing his winter coat and a hat with earflaps, and holding a thermos bottle in his left hand, he played his one-finger glissando with his right. He shook his head. "I knew my piano was gonna be in here today," he said. "But it's not my piano anymore. These guys been working on it. Upstairs everybody said this was a beautiful piano. Now it's not one half of what I made." He walked out disgusted. Ed Court, who was bent over another piano with his tuning wrench, said, "I'm a tone regulator myself, so I can say this: tone regulators are crazy"
THE MAN IN THE MIDDLE
As Steinway & sons changes from a family operation to a corporate one, as men like Henry and John Steinway and John Bogyos yield gradually to the executives at CBS headquarters, Joe Pramberger spans the two sides--and is, in a manner of speaking, caught between them. When he sits at his desk on the second floor of the Astoria office building--something he never does for very long at a stretch-- he can gaze to his left at a small plaque that proclaims him a graduate of the CBS School of Management. To his right, behind him in a bookcase, is an old Steinway personnel book, written in a florid fountain-pen script, and inside are cards recording the employment history of some of his distant ancestors: Stephen Pramberger, hired in 1912; Ignaz Pramberger, 1916; Joseph, who started in 1913 ("fair worker, mean & grouchy at times").
Anton Pramberger, Joe's father, brought his wife and ten-year-old son to the U.S. from Yugoslavia in 1950, having arranged for a job at Steinway through a distant cousin. Young Joe joined the firm in the early 1960s; because he was studying engineering at New York University, he went to work as an assistant to John Bogyos in the engineering department. Now a slim and very young-looking forty- three, he is a constantly harried executive, the sort of person who complains a lot about the contradictions and responsibilities of his job in a way that indicates he enjoys them immensely.
By virtue of his position, Pramberger is charged by a giant corporation with the duty of looking toward the future of piano making--a future that, following the success of Japanese firms in the industry, seems bound to be influenced heavily by research and technology. I spoke with him about how he manages this in a company that tends so often to look toward the past, to tradition and handcraftmanship. It was a question he had thought about before. In 1966, he told me, when he received his degree, he realized that Steinway’s tradition of "engineering" did not jibe very well with what he had learned in school, and he thought about leaving the company.
"I was getting a little antsy looking around," he said. "I was trained as an engineer, and to think like an engineer, and the challenges here are enormous for an engineering person--but it's also very lonely You don't have much company as far as people who have the same technical background; in a sense you're out there by yourself. This certainly isn't a very engineering-oriented company like, let's say the space industry where they're really up to snuff on the latest technological developments. Here we're light-years behind the times on using any scientific or engineering approach to problem solving. So in a sense I was learning the piano business, but I was also unlearning a lot of engineering work, because I simply wasn't practicing it. But at that point I said, well, I'll give it a try. Mainly because I was making some progress from a financial point of view, and also getting some additional responsibility."
Shortly before CBS bought Steinway & Sons, in 1972, Pramberger was made head of engineering--boss to both his father and his mentor, John Bogyos. Seven years later, he was named director of manufacturing. I asked him if the CBS takeover had caused anxiety at the factory and if perhaps he had greeted the prospect of big corporate management a little more enthusiastically than some of his colleagues had.
"That's an interesting question," he said, "and you hit the nail right on the head. I think all of us were a little shook up, because of the uncertainty. Not that the prospect of CBS per se was frightening, but simply the change to anybody--the transition from family ownership to ownership other than family. Some people were preaching doomsday. But interestingly, other people looked at it from the point of view that things might turn for the better." Pramberger the engineer, of course, was among the latter group, and he does not seem to have been disappointed. Now that Steinway is part of the CBS family, he has access to the CBS Technology Center, where he can have theoretical research done to supplement the empirical methods--try it out and see how it sounds--that have always been used at Steinway. Steinway's budget for capital improvements, reported to be around $100,000 annually in the early 1970s, has grown eight to ten times under CBS, Pramberger said. Once I saw him walking around the factory planning to spend some of that money, acting a little like a child in a toy store. Nodding toward a worker who was performing some laborious woodworking task, he said, in a conspiratorial tone of voice, "See that job over there? I think I've got a way to do it faster, cheaper, and more accurately."
Of course, "faster" and "cheaper" are not always the point at Steinway & Sons; in some cases, even the value of "more accurately" might be called into question. Though Steinway sells less than 2 percent of all the pianos sold in the United States, it sells more than 20 percent of all grand pianos, and more than 35 percent of all grands longer than six feet, one inch. Among the companies that sell significant numbers of pianos here (excluding, for example, the very expensive Bosendorfer, of Vienna), Steinway’s prices are by far the highest, exceeding those of Baldwin, the next most expensive competitor, by 30 to nearly 40 percent on roughly comparable models. Naturally, the company seeks constantly to increase its share of the market--which, in its case, is nearly synonymous with increasing production (last year, as the number of grand pianos sold in the U.S. declined by about 10 percent, the number sold by Steinway increased by almost 5 percent). At the same time, however, CBS and Steinway executives stress that the future of the company, like its past, rides on serious musicians and big spenders; the quality of the instrument, they claim, is their primary concern. Joe Pramberger, then, is the man on the spot. More than any other person in the company, he is responsible for drawing the line between progress and prostitution. I asked him to draw one such line for me, to give an example of how this dilemma translates to the floor of the factory.
"Soundboard fitting," he said, "is one potential area of improvement. Why have somebody whittle away at the soundboard with a hand plane, when we could custom fit that board into that case by some tooling or equipment? There's a variety of possibilities for that particular job. You can do a pantograph system [a sort of mechanical tracer], or you could use possibly numerical-control units, where you would trace the inside of the rim, load this information onto a tape, and then have a tape-controlled router that would accurately mill that soundboard to the shape of that rim to the nearest thousandth of an inch--a machine that would basically duplicate what that worker is doing. But the basic method of doing the job is still the same. The soundboard has to be fitted to the case, and the plate has to be custom fitted to the soundboard and to the case. We would never change that--say, produce soundboards and cases and consider the parts interchangeable, like they do at a lot of other companies. The custom fitting would still be there. The sequence of operations, and the reasons for doing those operations as we do them now, those things are sacred. Those things I don't touch."
Pramberger was not directly involved with the most notorious of all Steinway design changes, but it is not likely that he will ever forget it, because it represents what for him must be one of the most frustrating aspects of his dilemma: the irrational, anti-technology bias that is the flip side of the cachet on which Steinway likes to capitalize, the cachet of tradition and handcraftmanship. In 1962, Steinway engineers made a change in their grand-piano action centers, the tiny hinges around which the action parts move. Traditionally, the metal pins that constituted these hinges were lined with bushings of cloth, to eliminate friction and other troubles that would be caused by the direct contact of metal and wood. One problem with this arrangement--a problem that piano makers had lived with for decades-- was that the cloth tended to absorb moisture readily and thus to expand in conditions of high humidity, causing the action to seize up and become stiff or jerky. Steinway's solution was the Teflon bushing, a small cylinder of hard white plastic that was virtually impermeable to moisture--too impermeable, as it turned out, for when extreme humidity changed the dimensions of the wooden parts, elongating the holes into which the bushings were set, the Teflon, unlike cloth, did not expand to fill the holes. The result, in some cases, was a gentle clicking sound that was heard round the piano world.
About two years ago, Steinway engineers began phasing out the Teflon bushing, replacing it with a new type of cloth that, they claim, combines the advantages of Teflon with those of the traditional cloth. In new Steinway grands, three of seven action centers are now made with this cloth, and by the end of this year the changeover should be complete. When the change was introduced, spokesmen insisted that the company was not returning to the technology it had abandoned in 1962; the Teflon, they said, had been an improvement over the old cloth, and the new cloth was an improvement over the Teflon. Their public pronouncements on the matter were--and remain--carefully worded to avoid giving the impression that they had finally judged the Teflon bushing a failure. One of the reasons they wish to avoid giving this impression is that when the Teflon was introduced, some critics thought that failure was precisely the word for it.
The outcry against Teflon bushings seems to have had at least three causes. First, the company failed to account for the possibility that the Teflon bushings, like the cloth they replaced, would behave oddly in conditions of extreme humidity. Though it seems generally agreed that the Teflon performed well in a wider range of circumstances than the cloth had (Steinway stuck with the Teflon for a full eighteen years, and musicians, for the most part, stuck with Steinway), in some cases the Teflon replaced one problem, an inaudible one at that, with another. Second, Steinway executives admit, in retrospect, that they did a poor job of educating piano technicians in the proper way to service pianos with Teflon bushings. The opinions of tuners and technicians--a peripatetic, largely free- lance, and variously trained lot--can be influential, and a technician who hasn't been given the resources to deal with a new development is not very likely to have a sanguine opinion of it. Third--and here's the one that must irk Pramberger the engineer the most--it seems that some piano players reacted emotionally to the whole idea: Steinway was replacing a soft, traditional material, the cheery red cloth used by piano makers since Grandma's day, with plastic!
Joe Pramberger and I talked about the bushing issue, and about the public's attitude toward change and technology, one day over lunch in a restaurant near the factory "I wonder," Pramberger said, poising a spoon over a bowl of minestrone: "What would have happened if we'd painted those things red?"
Andre-Michel Schub did not select K 2571 for his pre-Christmas presentation. He might have, he told me, had he been choosing for a large space like Carnegie Hall, but this recital took place in the factory selection room--in four different shifts, to accommodate the more than 400 workers--and he didn't feel he needed K 2571's big, brilliant sound in such close quarters. He chose a piano with a rounder, mellower tone instead.
Franz Mohr, however, did choose it. He is the chief technician at Steinway Hall in Manhattan, and on a visit to the factory in December he took the piano off the selling block and appropriated it for use in the concert-and-artists department's New York bank of loaner pianos. On the first working day after Christmas, the piano was given a new name--CD 129--and shipped to the labyrinthine space beneath Steinway Hall known as "the basement." There it joined such instruments as Vladimir Horowitz's current favorite (CD 75) and Rudolf Serkin's (CD 214). The Steinway & Sons logo above the keyboard, which included the company's lyre symbol, was replaced by larger letters that said only "Steinway," the better to be seen and photographed from a distance.
In the basement, one of Mohr's assistants went over the piano's action again, and Mohr himself tried to coax a little more volume from the hammers in the bass and mid-treble sections; the latter, he said, had "no carry," especially when the soft pedal was depressed. He filed a few hammers to get down to a harder layer of felt, and added small amounts of juice where the filing did not give him the brilliance he wanted. He found it a "good piano," but did not think it likely that any artist would use it for perhaps a couple of months. He said that artists can generally identify new pianos by the way they sound and feel, and often are wary of them. Most new instruments sit around the basement until visiting pianists have noodled on them sufficiently to break in their actions and hammers.
CD 129, however, did not sit around for long. In the first week of January, the pianist Thomas Schuback chose it for an RCA recording date at which he accompanied the baritone singer Hakan Hagegard. The sessions went well, the recording engineers were pleased with the piano, and Schuback scheduled it for another date in June. At the end of January Charles Wadsworth, head of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, chose it for a February 13 concert at the Paula Cooper Gallery. Four days after that concert, Richard Goode, winner of the 1980 Avery Fisher Prize, played it at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall.
The piano's public debut, also at Alice Tully Hall, was a January 31 concert by Rebecca Penneys, a thirty-four-year-old professor of piano at the Eastman School of Music. Penneys rehearsed on the piano the day before the concert, and afterward she told me it had taken her only twenty minutes to select it from about a dozen pianos offered her in the basement. She was surprised when I told her how new it was. "What impressed me about it," she said, "was its versatility. I like a piano that has a big dynamic range, so you can do all sorts of things on it. This one really has a wonderful projection, and at the same time you can play very intimate things on it." Penneys said that word of good pianos usually gets around on the musicians’ grapevine, and she predicted that CD 129 would be very popular. She also said that while she was rehearsing, one of the hinge pins joining the top to the case had fallen out, and that upon investigating she had found the other one loose. A stagehand secured them with gaffer's tape for the concert.
At my invitation, Raymond Parada and his wife, Eugenia, attended Penneys's concert the next night. From our seats high up in the hall, the piano looked frail and puny on the large, barren stage. Parada thought that it should have been polished a little more thoroughly before being sent out there. "But what I am really concerned about," he said, "is the voice. I'm nervous. Whenever I hear a concert, if I like the piano, I think maybe it's mine, but this is the first time I know it's mine.
Penneys began with Beethoven's Sonata No. 32 in C minor, after which Parada said he liked the sound of the piano "very much." Next she played Zoltan Kodaly's Dances of Marosszek, and Parada advised me, "The weigh-off on this piano is very good. See, like I told you, she is able to express all her feelings, all her emotions, in beautiful music." Through a set of Chopin pieces, climaxing in a polonaise whose final chord seemed to ring through the hall for fifteen seconds, the sparse rainy-night crowd warmed to Penneys, and Parada grew increasingly proud of his baby. "I feel like it's a member of my family. My wife just asked me if I was listening to the music or the piano. I think it's more the piano." After a final Rachmaninoff sonata and a brief encore, Peter Goodrich, of Steinway's concert-and-artists department, took us backstage to meet the artist, and for Parada's benefit Penneys reiterated her prediction that CD 129 was going to be a popular piano. He turned to me proudly, reached into my shirt pocket, snatched my pencil, and handed it to Penneys so she could sign his program. "See, I told you my piano was no lemon."
If CD 129 turns out to be typical of Steinway's concert-bank pianos, it will remain in the service of professional artists for about five years, after which it will be cleaned, repaired if necessary, and sold to a university music department, a municipal orchestra or concert hall, or perhaps, as sometimes happens, to an individual who can't really afford it, and doesn't have enough room for it, but has to own it anyway. Even after several years of use, it may look to its proud new owner much as the first model D I saw looked to me--like a thing sprung whole from the imagination of some kind of artist--but if the owner is curious enough, and sufficiently mechanically inclined, to look into its innards, he or she will find behind its facade a dozen tiny testimonials to the labor of a great many people. On the black wooden block that sits at the far-bass side of the keyboard, behind the small metal plate embedded in the block's inside face, is a thin slice of wood, no bigger than a toothpick; it was glued there by Tony Fernandez on October 16, 1981, after Paul Juganaru discovered that the bass keys did not align properly with the front of the piano. On the inner-treble side of the case, just above the simple metal spring that pushes the action bassward when the soft pedal is not depressed, there's a pencil mark made by George Zikoyannis of the grand-finishing department. Damper number seventy-one, the last one on the treble end, is only partially finished with black lacquer: the dull black ink on the side nearest the plate bar, which came from an el Marko felt-tipped pen, was put there by Earl Baldwin, who had to chisel off part of the damper so that it would clear an irregularity in the plate.
Also in there somewhere--I promised not to reveal the exact location--is a signature written in neat script with a blue Bic ball- point pen: "Raymond Parada, Tone Regulating Dept., 11/18/81."
"I don't know if I should do this in front of you," Parada told me as he did the deed. "If you disclose it, I will change the place. Every piano that I make has my name hidden in it. Not only my name, but if some big event happened on that day, it has the event too. Like one piano has the date and the hour that President Kennedy was killed. I wrote that down where nobody could see it. So years from now, when the piano goes to be repaired, they will know that. The day they tried to assassinate President Reagan, I put that in there too. All the big events--not like the Yankee game and things like that, no. I mean things that are historical events. But my name, I put in every piano.
"You know why I do it? In here there used to be an old man, and one day he was working on an old piano, doing a repair job, and I went past his place and saw that he was weeping. And he told me it was because in that old piano that he was repairing, he finds his father's name, from sixty years before. His father was thirty, forty years dead already, and the piano went to who knows where, and many, many years later came to be repaired, and the son repaired that piano. And there was testimony that the father did the piano--he wrote his own name in that piano. And that felt very. . . emotional, you know? And I felt since that day that I should do the same thing-- even though I don't expect my sons to see this. I want my sons to go to college. I don't want them to be like me, a piano technician, if I can help it."
In 1985 CBS sold Steinway & Sons to Boston investors John and Robert Birmingham, brothers, who ran the company for ten years before selling it to Selmer, the U.S. manufacturer of band and orchestral instruments. Steinway and Selmer merged in 1995 under the name Steinway Musical Instruments, Inc., which now claims to be the largest instrument maker in the country. The piano division continues to operate independently, with its factories in Long Island City and Hamburg making about 2,500 and 2,000 pianos a year respectively. In 1982 the list price of a model D concert grand was $28,000; as of February 1997 it was $74,200.
According to Michael Mohr (son of Franz), who worked in the belly department in 1982 and is now Steinway's technical and customer service director, the Birmingham brothers invested substantially in manufacturing operations, particularly in the action-making department, where new machinery now produces many of the piano's small wooden action parts with more accuracy and consistency than was possible before. Several woodworking tasks have also been modernized. But the crucial custom-fitting procedures described in this article are still done essentially the way they were in 1982. Today the soundboard is shaped to fit the case by a machine that "feels" its way around the rim and simultaneously cuts the soundboard to match; the bellyman only rarely has to trim the board or add shims to finish the fit. But he still planes the bridge by hand after "taking the bearing" with strings and metal chips to determine its proper height.
John Steinway died of throat cancer in 1989. His older brother Henry, now 81, still works five days a week in his office at Steinway Hall. No other family members are involved with the company.
John Bogyos retired in 1985 and died about ten years later.
Valentine Toussaint still works at Steinway, now in the restoration department.
The "Atlantic Monthly piano" remained in Steinway's concert department for seven years. It was Rudolf Serkin's favorite and traveled with him on his last concert tour. In 1989 it was sold through a Boston dealer to a Japanese medical student, Dr. Misa Kim, who after graduating brought it with her to Kyoto.
Raymond Parada retired in August of 1992 and died of cancer before the end of the year. He lived to see all three of his sons graduate from college. --ML, March 1997
© 2003 by Michael Lenehan, all rights reserved.