“William Steinway (son of Heinrich) had great foresight at a time when America was ‘cowboys and Indians’ and things of that nature. We weren’t quite as sophisticated over here as they were in Europe. Culture was a very different thing particularly outside the big cities of the East Coast and the further West that you went,” explained Ron Losby fervently when we finally got comfortable in the Rachmaninoff room at the Steinway Hall NYC.
Steinway and Sons’ president had just graciously given me a ride from Queens into Manhattan Island in his shiny black car, navigating through what seemed like typical New York traffic. We arrive at the front of the Steinway Hall on 57th St after a brisk walk from where Ron drops his car off at a nearby parking garage. Leaving the street noise behind us as the glass doors pull back into their magnificent frames, we talk in hushed tones to show our respect for the pianists of the glorious past, their portraits hanging on the walls throughout the building. Ron gestures at the dome of the rotunda that immediately greets us upon entering the building; situated left of a portrait of Jan Paderewski, before inviting me upstairs for our chit chat. The dome coincidentally has been likened to the frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
We walk down the corridor of the second floor before entering the (Sergei) Rachmaninoff room, resplendent in its decor of casual chic. After I sit the video recorder on a music stand, we nestle into the armchairs positioned within the frame of the camera. Ron (who signs off with his first name in his correspondence) is polite about having to introduce himself to the camera.
I am an avid history buff and it came as no surprise that Ron was too. We have much to learn from the stories of this veteran of life.
About a month ago I happened to be sitting across the table from my young friend Jonah, his father Jonathan, and John (my Xenovibes partner) when, for 11-year-old Jonah’s sake, we began to discuss American history.
Amidst all the chatter John quipped, “did you know about the Hamilton-Burr fiasco?” As he gave us the lowdown on what could almost have been a ‘cowboy and Indian’ movie, I realised we were talking about the real McCoy; very local and very relevant to Ron’s point.
It was the early 1800s when Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr dueled to the death; 1804 to be exact. Former aide-de-camp to General George Washington and then Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton and sitting vice-president Burr had the kind of bitter sweet relationship that eventually turned into political and personal rivalry.
July 11th 1804 was the day they decided to go for the ‘10 paces and shoot’ method of resolution over what Burr claimed as defamation of character over a journalistic article Hamilton wrote about his candidacy. Furthermore, this happened at a time when dueling was being outlawed in the Northern United States.
It was in this climate that Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg (Henry Steinway), a cabinet maker from Seesen Germany, made his way to America with his sons. Already in his late 50s, Henry went to work with other piano makers to learn the craft, his cabinet making skills boding well for him. His skill-set appropriated, Heinrich opened Steinway and Sons in 1853 with the mantra ‘to build the best piano possible’.
Within 10 years, they out-ran their European competitors to become one of the biggest and most sought after piano makers in America, and, the world.
When it was William’s turn to exercise his business acumen, he turned to celebrity endorsement as a tool to introduce consumers to the Steinway piano. He went to Arthur Rubinstein; the superstar pianist of the day, and brought him to USA with the offer of a concert tour that would go from coast to coast, if he played the Steinway. The utilisation of the power of the artist endorsement as a marketing strategy became one of the most important facets of Steinway’s success and longevity.
If only Hamilton and Burr had looked to the Steinways for advice, a minor catastrophe could have been averted. Too little too late. Heinrich and William truly understood the power of persuasion.
In the heyday of piano making, 171 manufacturers of the fine instrument were housed on Piano Row (in and around NY city’s 57th and 6th). Of these 171, only Steinway remains there today and proud to be one of only 5 American makers still operating, the other 4 being Astin-Weight, Baldwin, Charles Walter and Mason & Hamlin. The strategy worked and is still working today as the Steinway name is synonymous with unsurpassed craftsmanship, prestige and a distinctive sound that is sonorous, luxurious and unmistakably proud.
There is much about the Steinway pride online and in print. The videos accompanying this article will also give you, the reader, a good feel for the people who front this stately enterprise.
It is an opinion of many, including mine, that it is the people that maketh a company and not the building. Most businesses do not realise the error of their ways until the last penny is spent on finishing that gilded conference room.
So, I am most delighted to know that Ron was in a similar open-mindedness about the most unlikely talents that abound in people when we peer a little closer. I soon observe efficacy and skill to be the common thread amongst the multi-talented staff employed by Steinway.
Ron and I swap personal experiences :
Prior to being appointed as President of Steinway and Sons Americas in 2008, Ron served as managing director of Steinway UK from 1998 to 2007, and concurrently as its director of European retail operations from 2005 to 2007. Like the Steinweg patriarch, he worked for another piano company to learn the ropes of the retail trade before embarking on a career with Steinway. Why was I not surprised to discover that, like me, he was a recipient of a Bachelor of Music in piano performance? Ron received his from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Mine was bestowed upon me by the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide, Australia.
Back in the Rachmaninoff room, Ron shifts his weight in his chair and gets comfortable in a posture where the body is angled slightly forward, indicating a willingness to bare his soul to make a point. I am beginning to like this man. He relates an interview by a business reporter in which his ability to run a company was questioned, simply because he lacked a certain paper qualification. I empathise and uncross my feet at the ankles, ready to pounce in earnest fellowship with my new-found friend. This reporter’s tone implied that ‘music’ could not be taken as seriously as ‘business’ or ‘engineering’. I was ready to come to Ron’s defense!
You see, a few years ago, I had arrived in Singapore from Australia armed only with qualifications related to music and multimedia. Within a year or so of working I was heading up the marketing and special projects departments concurrently. When I left to start my own company, I had my skill-set fine tuned to a business concert ‘A’.
Ron did not need any help in delivering the wining statement. “When you study music like a Beethoven Sonata, you learn about form and structure, and what is a company but structure. If you have ever studied a Bach Fugue, you know what multi-tasking is. I think music and the pursuit of playing the piano and understanding great musical works of art, has prepared everyone to run virtually any company. (Furthermore) they have this one ability that many people lack today, which is to bring something from the beginning, stick with it until the end.”
Music cannot exist outside a timeframe. A live performance setting is susceptible to change without warning. There is no turning back when a performance begins. It takes disciplined practice to stay in ‘shape’. The ability to think outside the box and adapt to change trains one to deal with the ever-shifting and volatile climate of what we call ‘business’. I could go on and on about the many virtues of music education (when delivered according to a broad and well defined curriculum.)
Ron had sat in front of the piano to play with great gusto when we first entered the Rachmaninoff room. All this piano-talk had rekindled the memory of my love affair with my grand piano of many years ago. It is now tucked away in a corner of my mother’s living room in Singapore, exposed to the salty air of her sea-side apartment. My piano was an even tempered kind of a guy. The years we spent together had given him an even and rich tone throughout his range. He understood me so well and never disappointed me when I reached out.
I return to the present tense when I notice from the corner of my eye, the Steinway in the room stare longingly at me. I tell Ron that the word on the street is that there really is no discernible difference in sound quality past the 7-foot grand, to which he replies with a cheeky grin, “in this case, bigger is better!” The longer string and larger soundboard accords the room a clearer, more resonant production.
It was seven score and ten years ago that Henry and his family decided to bring music appreciation in the form of the Steinweg way, to America. Ron and I agree that music is undoubtedly the great peace maker. This universal language can break down barriers no other calculated methods can, and in an enriching way. And, can you really pick another instrument that one could play duets on? One capable of teaching harmony and melody, all manner of notation, clefs and the such?
It was seven score and ten years ago that Henry brought us the Steinway mantra and way of thinking. May I be so forthright in suggesting that we learn from the mistakes of our forefathers lest we are faced with a situation like that of Hamilton and Burr. Let us be gracious hosts and partake of the enjoyment of the instrument of universal peace, known simply, and humbly as piano-forte!
1. How to own a Steinway on a budget?
Cut from the same cloth, the Boston and Essex pianos bare the Steinway design expertise and, where it matters, such as the sonic qualities and action of the musical instrument, the best wood is used.
You get the price break because the “budget line” has a shorter production time and is less labour intensive, passing on the savings to you the buyer.
To top this, Steinway and its dealers issue the “Steinway Promise” of full value in a trade up to a Steinway within 10 years of the purchase of a Boston or Essex. I call that sound investment!
2. For the family needing the option of having control over the volume of the instrument, a Steinway piano can be retro-fitted with headphone capabilities without altering its value or use.
3.For the studio producer running digital work stations that want the Steinway sound, try the Garritan sound samples of the model D (9’ concert grand) and the model B (6’10” semi concert grand.)
4. For specifications and detailed technical information about the Steinway piano.
5. An article about its use of solar power.
6. For interesting reading, the book Grand Obsession : A Piano Odyssey by Perri Knize
Video Clip Part un: Steinway factory tour with Kent Webb (Manager Technical Services)
Video Clip Part deux: Steinway Hall NYC tour with Ron Losby (President, Steinway & Sons-America)
Video Clip Part trois: Up close and personal with Ron Losby (President, Steinway & Sons-America) Pt 1
Video Clip Part quatre: Up close and personal with Ron Losby (President, Steinway & Sons-America) Pt 2
Photos & videos (c) 2009 Shueh-li Ong (unless specified, all articles written by Shueh-li Ong bear the photography, videography and digital work of its author.)