I had the opportunity to visit the Steinway & Sons factory in Hamburg yesterday while I was on tour with Curtis Stigers. A friend put me in touch with the artist relations director there and it was a short taxi ride from the hotel to the factory. I was welcomed warmly by everyone I met there.
What an amazing process to learn about! I got to see pianos in every stage of production – from the stacks of long thin strips of wood that are glued together and bent to create the frame, to the delicate work of regulating the action. I was so impressed by the coordination of all the pieces and the detail in the long process of building the piano. I guess it’s not really that different than other complicated manufacturing productions – automobiles, computers, potato chips – but since I’m so intimately connected to the final product my awareness is different. I think too the fact that it’s wood and metal working together to create something as intangible as music gives the process a different value.
I got to see the forms that bend the long layers of wood (over 20 feet long for concert grands) into the incredibly sturdy curved frame. I got to see the men carefully examining and selecting the strips of spruce for the sound board, arranging them so a slight and gradual 2mm change in grain density would enhance the resonance from the high to low strings. I got to see the harp being placed into the frame and the computerized precision drill that bored the hundreds of holes for the tuning pegs. I got to watch the worker (wearing ear plugs!) hammer the tuning pegs in one by one. I got to watch the dampers being installed and carefully adjusted. I got to see the action being regulated. And my personal favorite, I got to visit the soundproof room where a machine bangs the crap out of the keys hitting them each about 1000 times in the hour it spends in this room so any necessary adjustments to the action can be made.
It takes over a year to create a Steinway piano and more than 200 expert workers are involved in the process. In the beginning there is just a file with the serial number on it, and that file travels with the piano through the whole process. It contains a list of every single step that goes into building the piano and the name of every worker who completed and approved that step.
When I sat down at the piano for my concert at ELBJAZZ in Hamburg last night (it wasn’t a Steinway in this case, but still…) I felt a different appreciation for the beauty of this machine and I felt like somehow a team of workers wanted me to sound my best and now it was my turn in the long process to create music with this instrument.