88 Keys, Many Languages, One Proud Name

© New York Times

Published: October 6, 2003

y mid-June, the timetable for Steinway concert grand No. K0862 was clear. In the fall it would become a musical instrument. But first it would become a piece of furniture.

Before installing the 12,000 parts that would make No. K0862 a piano — strings, hammers, keys and the like — Steinway workers would have to turn the laminated rim they had bent in March into a case. They would install wooden braces trimmed according to trellislike patterns kept on a nail on a wall of the Steinway & Sons factory in Queens. They would drill holes in places a pianist would never see.

Then, on a rainy Wednesday in July, No. K0862 would lose its unfinished, wood-shop look. In less than 20 minutes it would be sprayed with shiny black lacquer by a man whose previous job was to paint cars in an auto body shop. ("This," the lacquerer, Joseph Klimas, said, "has better benefits.")

His are among the 900 hands at the factory — hands that are working on No. K0862, shaping its character, its personality. For Steinways are still largely handmade in a factory of men (and the company's work force is overwhelmingly male) who carry on traditions that go back more than 100 years.

Steinway wraps itself in its history: its high-ceilinged showroom in Manhattan has outsized paintings of the 19th-century matinee-idol pianist Ignace Paderewski, whose coast-to-coast concert tour helped make Steinway a household name, and busts of Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

At the factory, though, the workers seem refreshingly unburdened by the weight of Steinway's past. They are focused on the piece of wood in front of them at any given moment and are not especially talkative — "It's a job," more than one replied when asked whether he liked working there.

That may be what they say inside the factory between 7:30 and 4. "The payback is not in here," said Gino Romano, who was hired in 1964 and now, at 64, is Steinway's most senior supervisor. "The payback is outside, when you get the celebrity treatment for building a Steinway, when you meet somebody for the first time and they ooh and ahh: `You build Steinways? Wow.' You're automatically put on a higher level, and you go, `I didn't realize I was that notable.' "

Inside the factory, they do their jobs the way Steinway workers always have. The factory has been modernized in recent years, but No. K0862 is being built according to designs Steinway patented decades ago. "That's our foundation," Mr. Romano said.

One of Steinway's many traditions is an oral one: instructions are handed down in a variety of languages, with English often second to German, Italian, Spanish or, lately, Serbian. That is because Steinway's work force has changed along with New York.

For generations after its founding in 1853, Steinway hired German, Austrian, Irish and Italian immigrants. By the 1980's, job applications reflected the influx of immigrants from Haiti and the Dominican Republican. Haitians now account for the largest single group of immigrants at the factory, 17 percent of the work force. Dominicans make up 4 percent.

The city's immigration patterns changed again in the 1990's, and so did Steinway's. The company hired refugees from the war in Yugoslavia — Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian immigrants — who now make up about 7 percent of the work force.

"We had Serbs in some parts of the factory and Croats in others," said Michael A. Anesta, the personnel director. "At the height of the conflict, we had fund-raising going on on one floor and clothing and food collections going on on another floor for the opposite sides, and still made pianos every day." (There were some arguments at lunchtime, he said, but no blows.)

The quality control inspector who will check No. K0862 after it is finished grew up in Belarus. There is talk around the factory that he once worked with Lee Harvey Oswald. Not so, said the inspector, Sam Sheykman, 65 — he and Oswald did have jobs at the same factory in Minsk, making cabinets for radios and televisions, but at different times.

The Rest of the Story

- Frank B.
Founder / Owner / Host
Maple Street Music Shop
Find Us On:
Skype: PianoWorldDotCom
My Keyboards:
Estonia L-190, Yamaha P-80, Hammond D (think B3 in a cabinet) & Leslie, Harpsichord (kit), Bilhorn Telescope Organ c 1880, 2 - Antique Pump Organs & others
It's Fun To Play the Piano ... PLEASE Pass It On!
Please invite every piano enthusiast you know to join our piano forums!