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Book Reviews

88 Keys: The Making of a Steinway Piano

By Published: June 18, 2006
88 Keys: The Making of a Steinway Piano
Miles Chapin
Hardcover & Paperback; 144 pages
ISBN: 1574671529
Random House

Here's an intriguing trivia question: what's the most complex piece of handmade machinery in the world? Answer: a Steinway grand piano. This is the core premise of 88 Keys: The Making of a Steinway Piano, written by Miles Chapin and illustrated by Rodica Prato. It is the first item in a plethora of information readers will learn about a Steinway, comprised of 12,000 individual parts and requiring several years and more than 500 skilled craftspeople and artisans to produce. The process, Chapin tells us, involves mechanical engineering, design, wood technology, carpentry, cabinetmaking, wood finishing, and metallurgy. His book leaves one with a heightened appreciation of how all these disciplines converge in that marvelous invention we call a piano.

One doesn't have to be a pianist to appreciate this book (to paraphrase the old joke) but it sure helps. This observation points to one of many contradictions about the book that both enhance it and detract from it. The first of these double-edged swords is the author himself. Chapin is the great-great grandson of Henry Englehard Steinway, a German immigrant who founded the firm of Steinway & Sons in 1853.

It is somewhat surprising to learn that Chapin himself does not play the piano. Now, there is no reason someone not a professional musician is precluded from writing a good book about piano-making. However, Chapin, an accomplished actor, is not really a professional writer, either (although he does dabble as an arts journalist) and this is a more critical drawback. Pointing to Chapin's "rather pedantic prose," a critic writing for Kirkus Reviews complains that he does too much "puffing" for the Steinway Company, dismissing the book as "an oversize advertising pamphlet."

Other critics have also decried a perceived lack of substance, no doubt due in part to the book's style. At first glance, 88 Keys looks like a cross between a coffee table volume and a children's book. A slim edition with wide margins, the text is double-spaced and typeset in a somewhat frilly font style. Further detracting from any sense of gravitas is the total absence of any photographs. Instead, the charmingly elegant illustrations of Rodica Prato are featured throughout. This, too, has drawn the ire of the technical-minded who prefer the unadorned precision of camera and blueprint to the stylized artistry of pen and ink. (It probably doesn't help things, in this regard, that Prato is best known for her illustrations of two Martha Stewart books)

Jazz fans may be struck by the way in which this bookish debate parallels a musical argument between purists and popularizers. Like the 1970s "jazz/fusion" of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, this book is designed, first and foremost, to be accessible to a general audience. This will leave mechanical engineers and master cabinetmakers hoping for a technical manual on piano construction somewhat disgruntled. But 88 Keys is written for music lovers and amateur enthusiasts, points out another reader with a bit more generosity of spirit, comparing it to a college course on the history of science for liberal arts majors who are not interested in becoming scientists.

It also seems a bit unfair to accuse Chapin of being a flack for Steinway. It's one thing for an advertising copywriter or PR agent to shill for whatever company will pay his/her fee. But Chapin, after all, is a scion of a world-renowned line, and although the Steinway family sold its interest in the company in 1972, Chapin can be forgiven for an understandable family pride.

Moreover, it is disingenuous, or at very least nave, to carp about the book's dearth of technical information. Obviously, like Coca-Cola or Heinz 57 or any other company with a coveted family recipe, Steinway & Sons is not about to give away its formula. One can hardly blame the company for guarding its trade secrets and preferring not to show others how to do-it-yourself.

This point sheds further light on another one of the several countervailing pluses and minuses inherent in this book. While Chapin can scarcely be termed objective in his writing, it is highly unlikely that someone without his personal connection and obvious loyalty would have been granted full access to the Steinway factory. Evidently, Steinway & Sons felt they could trust Chapin not to divulge privileged information, either in his book or on the sly to the competition, a trust that might not have been extended to just any writer, no matter how "professional" he or she may be.

This may account for the decision to use illustrations instead of photographs, as well. While it's difficult to crop, airbrush and blur industrial photography to reveal some things and conceal others without being obvious about it, a pen-and-ink drawing can be prettily staged to illustrate just so much, and no more. Aesthetically, this may have appealed to the thespian in Chapin; on the business and legal levels, it almost certainly appealed to the company.

The book opens with a brief history of the modern piano, which is generally traced to seventeenth-century Italy and the "arpicembalo che fa il piano e il forte" (trans: harpsichord that can play quietly and loudly), credited to Bartolomo Cristofori, a Paduan harpsichord maker employed in the Florentine court of a Medici prince. Before this, the only keyboard instrument that produced sound by striking strings was the clavichord. However, asserts Chapin, the story of the piano really begins with the hammer dulcimer, the physics of which Cristofori adapted to a keyboard instrument.

Incidentally, Chapin recounts this instrument (along with a brief mention of the zither) notwithstanding the dismissive remarks of Jeff Fitzgerald, AAJ's Resident Genius and the Dean of American Jazz Humorists, who is on record as saying that since these two instruments "have made no significant contribution to jazz, to hell with 'em." [ Ed. Note: see "Ebony and Ivory and Ted and Alice" ]

And with all due respect to the estimable Mr. Fitzgerald (not to mention Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney), it's not about ebony and ivory anymore. Beyond color description, these are now only figurative terms. Although Chapin repeatedly stresses how little has changed with regard to the manufacturing process and materials used in a Steinway, the one notable exception, we learn, involves the keys themselves. In 1975, an international treaty outlawing the use of animal products derived from endangered species prohibited the use of elephant ivory for commercial purposes. It reflects well upon Steinway & Sons that while this change was mandated for all piano makers, the company instituted it on its own volition in the 1950s, a decision that drew much criticism when eco-politics was not nearly so powerful—or fashionable.

The decision was not driven purely by environmentalism; pragmatism entered into it as well. Another plus-minus involves ivory and the running love/hate relationship piano makers like Steinway have had with it. Like human teeth, elephant tusks swell and contract with the vagaries of weather, accounting for a great deal of the surface delamination one frequently encounters on older pianos. Also like human teeth, ivory is quite brittle, which is why it is rare to see an older piano without at least some of the leading edges of its keys chipped off. On the other hand, ivory absorbs sweat well, resulting in a better grip for the fingers.

The issue is now moot; it is illegal to even import a piano with ivory keys into the United States unless one can prove that the ivory is at least 100 years old. Chapin quietly remarks that certain Siberian entrepreneurs recently offered Steinway an "unlimited" amount of fossilized mastodon tusks, an offer it politely declined. One can only hope that its competitors are practicing the same sort of ethical responsibility. Steinway uses a synthetic substitute it has developed called Ivorene, and the black keys are plastic, as well.

However, that's as far as it goes. Chapin, like many, has always been fascinated by the "tiny levers, springs, pins, screws, knobs, plates, bushings, bearings, hinges, and flanges" that go into the workings of a piano's action. In fact, he tells us, as a boy he threw pencils into the family piano just so he could watch his uncle dismantle it. But despite the evolution of its increasingly sophisticated engineering over many years of experimentation, many recent innovations have "flopped," Chapin writes. "Modern materials," he says, "especially plastics, have not yet found a permanent place in a Steinway's action."

Both musicians and the listening public have shown signs of a growing weariness with the plastics and circuit boards of modern instruments. Nostalgia for the craftsmanship of an earlier era has engendered a renewed interest in handmade instrument and natural materials. Anyone with an appreciation of woodworking and carpentry, regardless of musicality, will be fascinated by the discussion of the various woods used in a piano and the reason each is chosen. Yellow birch, sugar maple, sugar pine, yellow poplar, and Sitka spruce are the raw material for mechanical components and structural pieces. A wide variety of exotic hardwoods, including bubinga, cherry, ebony, bird's-eye maple, mahogany, rosewood, sapele, teak and walnut are used for sheathing veneer.

In fact, the first thing visitors to the Steinway factory in Long Island City, NY notice is its huge lumberyard with neatly piled stacks of lumber, representing as much as $2 million of inventory. In one of several digs at the expediencies and bean-counting corner-cutting of modern business practice, Chapin remarks that while "some people (bookkeepers especially) think it a waste to keep that much 'inventory' lying around outside," it is actually crucial, both to maintain full factory efficiency and ensure the longevity of the final product. Three months worth must be kept on hand at all times, and the wood requires up to a year of natural outdoor aging to remove moisture. Strict quality control is effect, and Chapin notes that Steinway rejects about half the lumber it receives from its suppliers.

Unlike the vast majority of modern corporations, Steinway does not brag about its use of high technology, which "is used only for the simplest jobs," according to Chapin. "Even the fanciest, well-programmed, computerized, laser-guided, diamond-tipped cutting machine," he points out, "would have to be instructed by a human as to just how much wood to remove to make a perfect fit between two pieces with as many curvilinear surfaces as a soundboard and a piano rim." What Steinway (and Chapin) brag about, rather, is his assertion that Steinway pianos "are built to a standard, not a price. High technology is used to complement the craftsman, not the other way around."

This distinguishes Steinway's factory from an automotive plant, where computerized machinery performs an increasing number of tasks, such as welding and painting. However, one machine used by Steinway invites comparison. As car doors, trunks and hoods are tested by robotic machines that open and close them thousands of time to test their durability, a similar contraption (known variously as a sounder, banger or pounder) is used to accelerate the "breaking-in" process of new pianos. During the painstaking process known as "voicing" and prior to final inspection, this machine pounds every key of every keyboard about 8,000 times in the space of forty-five minutes. Naturally, Chapin dryly remarks, these cacophonous devices "are isolated in a relatively untraveled part of the factory in somewhat soundproofed rooms."

It is a generally accepted truism that any musician, amateur or professional, benefits from acquiring at least a rudimentary knowledge of the piano, especially with regard to harmonic theory. That's why piano lessons are a required part of the curriculum for any collegiate music student. There are other things one can learn from studying the piano, too, including acoustical physics. Guitarists are familiar with overtones, or "upper partials," and they know that where one plucks or taps a string makes a great deal of difference. However, others—musician and non-musician alike—will profit from Chapin's concise explanation of why piano hammers strike the strings somewhere between one-seventh and one-ninth of the distance along their "speaking length."

The Steinway factory does conduct tours for visitors, and the process of bending the "rim" of a grand piano is easily the most memorable. It comes as a surprise to most that the rim is not one piece of wood, but a glued wafer of laminations like plywood: the inner and outer rims of a concert grand consist of nine layers each. Six very practiced and efficient workers do nothing but bend rims all day long. After they have glued and clamped these eighteen layers together into a "book" and hoisted them into an elaborate molding device, they have twenty minutes to shape 400 pounds of rock maple into a highly unnatural configuration with levers and clamps before the glue sets. No power tools help persuade the recalcitrant wood into shape, Chapin tells us, "just leverage and brute force."

An interesting sidebar is the electrolytic curing of the glue, a process Steinway developed during World War II when the company was making wooden gliders along with some 3,000 small "Victory" pianos for use by the armed forces. Of course, the Pentagon, in classic military fashion, gave them a more ponderous designation: the "Olive Drab Government issue (ODGI) field piano," equipped with traveling case, tuning tools, spare parts, a manual and some sheet music.

While Henry was the grand patriarch and founder of the dynasty, it was the next generation of Steinways, particularly his son William, who had the business acumen that secured the company's success and solidified its enviable reputation. He understood the value of celebrity endorsements, and through his marketing genius the company associated itself with pianistic legends of the time, including Anton Rubinstein, Ignace Paderewski, Josef Hofman and Sergei Rachmaninoff, who would play no other instrument in concert. It was as much through a well-devised combination of promotional tours and advertising as its inherent quality that the Steinway piano came to be known as the "Instrument of the Immortals." A full page illustration captioned "An Unsolicited Testimonial' shows a facsimile of a short letter from Thomas Edison to Steinway & Sons, dated June 2, 1890. It reads: "Gents, I have decided to keep your grand piano. For some reason unknown to me it gives better results than any so far tried. Please send bill with lowest price."

Although fifty grams of pressure is the standard amount configured for the depression of a piano key, Chapin also drops other big names to show that Steinways can be crafted for individuals. Vladimir Horowitz, we learn, liked a light, responsive touch, while Arthur Rubenstein wanted a more resistant touch and a darker overall sound. Glenn Gould wanted altogether different feels for different music—a harder touch for his Bach interpretations versus what he called a "shallow" touch for other composers like Richard Strauss.

Another contradiction: while a mere two ounces of pressure on a key will sound an ultra-quiet note, the strings and their supporting structure must be able withstand 70,000 pounds of tension. The quantum leap that made this possible was the replacement of the wooden box frame with a cast-iron "harp." Although Steinway at one time forged its own harps, this process is now outsourced (although the master casting mold patterns are the company's exclusive property); keys, strings and felt are the other finished components for which it relies on outside suppliers.

Chapin sprinkles in other historical factoids that will probably be a revelation even to many knowledgeable pianists. The piano did not always have eighty-eight keys spanning seven and one-quarter octaves. Its "compass" has ranged from as few as four and one-third octaves in Cristofori's day to as many as ninety-seven keys. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, "quarter tone" music was all the rage, resulting in keyboards with more than the standard twelve semitones per octave; the extra keys were usually red and brown. Another now-extinct color variation popular during the 1700s was the "skunk's tail" keyboard featuring black keys with a white stripe down the middle. A Hungarian piano maker, Paul von Janko, hoping to make playing the instrument easier for small-handed individuals, devised a piano with six ranks of knobs instead of keys. A number of them were built, but they never caught on with the public.

Chapin's closing chapter gives tips on buying, maintaining and restoring pianos, followed by a useful glossary that provides key definitions for technical terms.

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