A musical playground
by Rosalie Burrell
The Factory Selection Room is situated at the winding end of a five-story workshop containing artisan woodworkers, engineers, builders, kilns and conditioning rooms. It is officially closed to the public, as its purpose is so highly specific. Reservations dot the calendar for symphony orchestras, performance venues, conservatories, universities, and some private individuals. They come to pick their Steinway.
The Selection Room experience, in truth, is the grand celebratory finale at the end of a long and thoughtful decision process. Everyone who visits has come a long way, and their activities are tailored to the specifics of the group and their particular milestone.
They start the day with a private tour of the grounds and manufacturing process. The morning is bright, as slips of wood bend and form the Steinway rim; hammers are cut and filed; and cast iron plates lower gracefully, if not unbelievably, to rest inside the belly of the instrument. It is a tour of pleated time — they walk a year-long process in the space of an hour.
The last door swings open to finished pianos in the cool hush of the Selection Room. Outside the window, rustling sycamores dapple the light, casting long shadows across the space. Five Steinway Model Ds stand at attention, strings taut, black lacquer glistening — possibility latent in the air.
“The longer you listen, the more you hear. Each piano is subtly different from one to the next.”
The Model Ds and Model Bs in the Selection Room are impeccably maintained, receiving hours and hours of fine tuning, regulation, and voicing work in their preparation. As they spend time settling into the room, their sound opens up. “The longer you listen, the more you hear. Each piano is subtly different from one to the next,” says Cameron Underhill, who manages the process in concert with the Selection Room’s primary technician, Erik Diehl.
Diehl describes each instrument as being full of potential. As they move off the factory floor and into his keep, he works with their natural characteristics. Some pianos come off the line enormous already, and he coaxes their power out further. Others are naturally intimate, and he refines them into elegance. He feels his work is never done, as they become acoustically more interesting with each pass he takes. He wants each instrument to find the right home, where they will continue to be cared for, and where they will develop and age beautifully in their environments. Leading up to a selection, the two of them gather as much information about the space and about the pianists as possible.
Let’s say a university is choosing a concert grand for their two-thousand-seat concert hall. Diehl will choose the five instruments from his fleet that will be best suited for a stage of that size and design. And within those five, he will look for variety. One Steinway might be bold, bright, powerful, forward. Another will be warm, rich, ringing. Still another will be sparkling and effervescent, or velvety and smooth. Each will be suited to the stage specifications, but between them, the technician leaves room for personal taste and imagination. A seven-hundred-seat recital hall, or a small recording studio will be an entirely different situation, and will call for a different assembly of pianos, chosen and prepared as specifically as possible for the room.
If you want to know how to choose a piano, Underhill offers only one piece of advice, and he offers it only when pressed: “Play a one-minute excerpt on each of the pianos.” Their differences, and the pianists’ preferences, will begin to present. Usually once pianists have a feel for each, it’s a matter of playing through the repertoire. They will try Bach, of course, and Mozart, too. They will often play through some of the big concertos as well, to get a feel for each piano in all its versatility. The selectors understand the space they are choosing for; they listen; and they let their ears be their guide. Typically, after welcoming a group, Diehl and Underhill make themselves relatively scarce. “This is their celebration,” says Diehl, “You want to give them space to develop an emotional connection with an instrument. You don’t want to interfere or get in the way of that, just by being in the room. They should be free to just enjoy themselves. To play.”
Unlike a concert selection — where pianists may choose an instrument to record on in three days’ time — pianists in this room want to know what the instrument will sound like five years from now. Underhill describes two approaches he’s seen over many selections: the macro and the micro. Some pianists listen broadly, focusing on how the instrument responds, on what they hear, on what it makes them feel. Others are very analytical. They may compare the sustain time across registers, and compare the overtones’ resonating length, piano to piano. They check for evenness, note by note. And then many vacillate between methodologies, because in the end, the process may be as unique as the player.
Some pianists listen broadly, focusing on how the instrument responds, on what they hear, on what it makes them feel. Others are very analytical.
Some of the most interesting selections can be for music schools or universities. The group may be large, and everyone is included in the process, though there is usually a principal selector or two. Students and faculty get the opportunity to compare and contrast, and especially for the students, narrow down what they really love in a particular instrument. It can be an incredibly enlightening experience, for pianists and non-pianists alike. Picking one Steinway can feel like a monumental decision. They’re bringing home their very own instrument, and depending on the school’s size, this one piano might serve the campus for many decades into the future. And so they select on behalf of their colleagues and future faculty, their students, future students, students who haven’t even been born yet. . . . This Steinway will see each graduating music student in its proudest, most inspiring moments, before they exit the school as young citizens. With proper care, this Steinway may even serve those future students’ future children. Eventually, selectors have to shut out the noise of endless possibility, and just listen to the music in front of them.
The Selection Room is at its core, a musical playground. It is a place where artists bridge generations and play to each other, jumping from concert grand to concert grand, whether in deepest concentration or in delight.
There is no stage, no time limit, no audience — only every piece of music currently in their hands. One of the most magnificent moments in recent Steinway history was the Curtis Institute of Music selection, with Steinway Artists Gary Graffman and Yuja Wang. Two indisputable masters of pianism and artistry, mentor and mentee, reunited at the keyboard in their exploration of the piano literature, sound, and musical lore. Many would have given a kidney to be a fly on the Selection Room wall that day.
For his part, Erik Diehl says he is always learning from the instruments, always humbled by them. He may spend days or weeks with a piano in preparation for a selection, hearing it constantly as it slowly evolves into itself. And then a master walks into the room to play, and he cannot believe it’s the same instrument making those sounds. He has done everything he can to bring them to their full potential — and in the hands of an artist, the pianos begin to sing.