Going in search of a Steinway
Like most folk musicians, my working life consists of various strands of teaching, playing, recording and composing, but recently I had a new kind of challenge – finding a piano.
A family for whom I do private gigs asked me to help locate a Steinway piano for their home, but, as I soon found out, finding a Steinway in Scotland is not straightforward.
Steinway & Sons is of course the legendary piano company, founded in 1853 and manufacturing top-class instruments used in theatres and concert halls all over the world.
Handcrafted in Hamburg and New York, they’ve been favoured by many of the greatest classical pianists throughout history for their bell-like purity and clarity of sound, as well as volume in a concert hall, and the price tag reflects all of this.
Hours of Googling and telephone conversations later, the owner of Gordon Bell Pianos in Aberdeen told me he reckoned he had identified a potentially suitable instrument at the Leeds showroom of a dealer he trades with.
Back and forth regarding the details and specifications, and seeing a video of it being played, I felt it might be one to pursue. It looked immaculate and sounded wonderful.
Gordon told me he’d originally trained as a piano tuner with Bruce Millers, the well-known music shop in Aberdeen, a happy coincidence as my earliest memory of the feeling of being in an Aladdin’s cave of musical instruments was as a child in the Inverness branch of Bruce Millers, then in the Victorian Market.
Sadly, like many long-established family shops, the firm closed down but Gordon is keeping the tradition of piano sales, tuning and hire going strong in the Granite City.
He duly went down to Leeds and brought the Steinway grand back for our viewing, playing and approval, and as it was removed from the van and reassembled, I was bowled over by the skill with which Gordon and his colleague carefully pieced it together, worked on the fine details and tuned it ready to play.
Although not new, it was in excellent condition, the casing immaculate, interior gold metalwork resprayed to perfection, and, being completely re-strung, the sound was exquisite. It was beautiful – thumbs up from me!
During the whole procedure, however, it occurred to me how little I was taught about the workings and mechanics of the instrument I spent 13 years training on. Our family piano was an ancient upright bought from the old Fraser’s Saleroom on Church Street and the one on which I received my piano lessons in a back room of St Stephen’s Church, Inverness, was likewise a plain old upright, but I don’t recall my piano teacher ever mentioning the innards or what good maintenance should entail.
It would have been useful to have learned a little about what was ‘under the bonnet’, so to speak, in order to have a better grasp of how the mechanics affect the sound and tone, perhaps how to do small repairs and what to look for in a piano.
The only time I saw inside our piano at home was when my pianist grandfather occasionally tuned it or when we had to remove panels to find our wayward hamster, who had a habit of escaping his cage and making a warm, woody new home for himself inside.
It must be a good thing to encourage students to get to know their instrument in more detail and nowadays, when teaching, I try to do this whenever possible. In an age of speedy everything and instant results, it’s satisfying to slow down and really take a good look to understand how things work.
I laughed when Gordon told me that the most common question he’s asked by customers enquiring about electric pianos is ‘Does it have Bluetooth and an app?’. Call me old-fashioned but, sorry, this is lost on me!
Give me real pianos any day, with the craftmanship, artistry and skill needed to build them, and the years of focus and practice required to play them.
Pianos are things of beauty, so getting the opportunity to sit down to a Steinway and play for an evening is nothing short of a treat.