Note By Note: The Making of the Steinway L1037

[8 November 2009]

By J.M. Suarez

“I’ve been doing piano for 42 years and I talk about pianos, I live pianos.  Piano is my whole life.” – Wally Boot (Final Tone Inspector)

Ben Niles’ documentary on the making of the Steinway L1037, a nine foot concert grand piano, offers an unprecedented glimpse into a disappearing art form. A piano of the caliber of the L1037 takes up to a year to build. In that time, the piano goes through innumerable steps in order to reach the final approval of the company. The process, virtually unchanged from 100 years ago, is a staggering series of steps brought together by the skills of long-time craftsmen.

There is a focus on the real sense of ownership from those involved in the long and involved process of making a piano. The fact that most other piano companies have mechanized much of what Steinway still does by hand makes a case for the very specific skill sets held by those working for the company. While Steinway produces about 2,000 pianos a year, a “small number” of which are concert grands, other piano companies put out as many as 100 a day. The attention to detail and sheer amount of time devoted to building a piano is extraordinary, and Niles makes a compelling case for Steinway’s approach.

Equally surprising and impressive is that Steinway also employs the use of aural tuning throughout its many steps of the tuning process. At other piano companies, tuning by ear has largely been replaced by computerized tone and pitch programs that do not take into account the specifics of each piano. One of the tuners likens the outcome to the sound of keyboard versus that of a piano – a striking difference, indeed.

The work that goes into creating a piano such as the Steinway L1037 is emphasized time and again throughout the documentary. Niles’ interviews with those involved includes job titles as specific and varied as tone inspector to grand finisher to wood technologist. The precise knowledge needed for each of these steps is at the core of Note By Note. Warren Albrecht, wood technologist, is shown in an Alaskan timber mill hand selecting pieces of wood to be used for the pianos; Ante Glavan, bellyman, works on the belly of the piano with an array of tools, one of which he brought with him when he emigrated from Croatia; Dennis Schweit, tone regulator, speaks of growing up, getting married, and starting his own family all within a few block radius of Steinway’s Queens factory. Their connection to the process is clear and a real portrait of these craftsmen begins to emerge.

While Niles’ focus is clearly on the Steinway factory and those working in it, he also devotes some time to musicians and their perspectives on choosing a piano for themselves. Lang Lang, Harry Connick, Jr., Marcus Roberts, Helene Grimaud, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, among others, all offer opinions on the reasoning behind their choices. There are some nice scenes of Aimard trying out different pianos at the Steinway offices for an upcoming concert. The specifics he requires are all based around the piece he will be performing, and the glimpse into his method is fascinating.

Steinway’s annual factory sale offers a portrait of the amateur pianist. Here children and their families find a piano for the beginner while amateur adults pick an instrument for themselves. Niles gives us a picture into a family’s purchase of a piano for their son, Raphael. His talent for the piano has been attributed to his grandfather, whose emotional connection to the instrument was passed along.  Raphael’s ability as a young pianist is obvious. The moment when the family gathers around their newly delivered piano for an impromptu concert by Raphael is one of the more touching moments in the documentary, and lends a more relatable feeling to what could have been a documentary strictly focused on the mechanics of building a piano.

Niles makes use of space and ambient noise to allow the viewer the time to really see and understand the level of work that goes into building a piano. One early scene has a group of seven or eight men wrapping the body of piano around the wood and the sheer strength required to do so is impressive. The use of classical compositions throughout many of the factory scenes also lends the work a performance-like quality and in turn, tends to elevate it, as well. 

The extras include deleted portraits, performances, and scenes. The performances in particular, are worth checking out, and the additional deleted clips give a fuller picture of Niles’ focus.

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