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Onsite: The Sound of Music

Malky Lowinger

At Steinway & Sons piano factory in Queens, the fresh sawdust on the floor belies the old-world tradition of the world’s finest instruments

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

 Mishpacha image

JUST THE RIGHT NOTE Owning a Steinway is a bit like having a Mercedes-Benz parked in the driveway. It speaks of quality, tradition, and expense

M ost of us are in awe of the talented musicians who skillfully bring their pianos to life in concert. Especially since many of us can only play “Chopsticks.”

But it’s not just the caliber of the musician that makes the difference between sublime and mediocre music. It’s also the quality of the instrument itself. Not all pianos are created equal.

Steinway & Sons is considered by many to be the world’s top manufacturer of pianos. Owning a Steinway is a bit like having a Mercedes Benz parked in the driveway. It speaks of quality, tradition, and expense.

Which makes it all the more surprising that the world’s finest pianos are manufactured in an out-of-the-way neighborhood on a nondescript street in Astoria, Queens. Yes, you read that right. These pianos, the choice of many of the world’s top concert halls, are crafted in an unremarkable red brick building in the middle of nowhere.

Though Steinway maintains an elegant showroom in midtown Manhattan, the factory feels a million miles away from the swanky shopping districts of New York. Here in Astoria, there are no polished marble floors or well-groomed salesmen trying to sell you an ebony masterpiece. There’s not even a coffee stand or a gift shop hawking plastic piano key chains. Instead, there’s a genuine 265,000-square-foot factory that smells like sawdust and can certainly use a paint job.

Elizabeth, the marketing manager at Steinway, greets us at the door and hands this reporter and our photographer Amir a pair of goggles before we begin the tour.

“Are you kidding?” Amir asks.

“It’s just a precaution,” she tells us. “We’re actually going to visit the factory during working hours.” So Amir juggles his camera equipment and I balance my notebooks as we both slip on our goggles. And we’re on our way.

 

Piano Perfection

The first piano was invented in 1700 by a fellow named Bartolomeo Cristofori in Florence. In fact, three of the original pianos that he built still survive in museums, one in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1820, Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg began building pianos in Germany. When he moved to America, he opened a workshop in Manhattan and founded Steinway & Sons in 1853.

The Steinweg family settled in Queens, where they purchased a parcel of land that would eventually become the Steinway factory. Apparently, they were true perfectionists. They built their pianos with painstaking precision, one by one, and handed down the tradition to future generations.

Today, Steinway & Sons’ factory produces 1,000 baby grand pianos and 250 uprights annually. The manufacturing process has been updated over the years, but much hasn’t changed. Nothing is mass produced here. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 666)

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