Integral to Over a Century of Piano Culture, Steinway & Sons Looks to the Future
As the curtain went up at Hollywood’s Dolby Theater during the 91st Annual Academy Awards, and the now-familiar opening notes of the A Star is Born hit “Shallow” began to trickle out, a Steinway & Sons piano was rolled centerstage. Shining under the soft lights, it sat for a moment waiting for Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper to perform what would later take home the Oscar for Best Original Song. Viewed by 29.6 million people, those few seconds became one of the night's most viral moments, and illustrate how the 166-year-old legacy brand is evolving to meet the needs of piano players and consumers in the digital era.
“It was tremendous,” says Anthony Gilroy, Steinway’s senior director of marketing, at the company’s 11-acre North American headquarters in Astoria, Queens, which has been around since New York City was mostly farmland. He adds that the company doesn’t typically know very far in advance when it will be called upon for those moments in the spotlight. “Usually it’s a fire drill, but we tend to make it happen.”
Established in 1853 out of a loft on Manhattan's Varick Street, Steinway & Sons has had an impact on piano music that's hard to overstate. A seemingly endless list of iconic recordings and legendary performances have been made possible thanks to the instrument’s masterful craftsmanship, widely viewed as the gold standard for generations of pianists including George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Duke Ellington. More recently, the Piano Man himself, Billy Joel, has been utilizing one for his monthly residency at Madison Square Garden (and admits his first splurge was a Steinway). In 2009, Hamilton music director Alex Lacimore accompanied Lin-Manuel Miranda performing the Broadway sensation's opening song on the White House Steinway, a 1938 gift to Teddy Roosevelt, for an audience including then-President Barack Obama.
Today's most popular classical artists also prefer Steinways. Lang Lang, the acclaimed Chinese concert pianist who recorded his aptly titled latest album Piano Book on one, says, “There is no piano like a Steinway piano. I feel completely at home with their pianos, and I’ve been playing them for the majority of my career."
Steinways are held in such high regard because they are handcrafted with obsessive meticulousness. “With 250 employees here, we finish about five pianos a day,” says Gilroy. Each instrument takes approximately 11 months to evolve from wooden shell to finished product, an process that begins with Sitka spruce grown on islands off the coast of Alaska. (Trees on the shadier side of the mountains are preferred because the slower a tree grows, the more growth rings it has per inch, and the better the sound quality because sound waves travel along the grain of wood.) This inherent customization and attention to detail is the reason for its famously high price point: Some models cost upwards of $200,000. “The price comes from the cost of the materials and the time spent on it,” says Gilroy.
Painstakingly building high-end instruments from scratch isn't exactly a process (or business model) that's conducive to increasingly digital-native consumers, so Steinway & Sons has been forced to innovate. Spirio and Spirio | r are five-year-old projects that bring the company into the present -- and future. Developed by the company’s in-house engineers, they're high-tech pianos: The former plays itself to the tune of live recordings by piano luminaries and the latter is capable of recording user performances for editing and playback. “We have a small lab and took all of this knowledge of player pianos and innovated it with our team,” says Robert Polan, director of product management Steinway & Sons. “We’ve also worked with the best pianists in the world. They challenge us to reach the highest performance and quality they achieve and to reproduce that. It’s been a constant evolution.”
Released in 2015, the original Spirio was the company’s first high-resolution player piano. Since then, Steinway has been constantly updating its catalog of historic and new live recordings, which users can cue up via an app and hear played with all the heart and nuance as if the artist was right there in the room. Polan is a fan of the legendary Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who passed away in 1982. “I never had a chance to hear him live, but with this technology it feels like he’s right there, playing in front of you live,” he tells Billboard. “The first time I heard it, it brought me to tears. It gives you goosebumps.”
The Spirio | r, which debuted last month on Steinway’s 166th birthday, allows users of the piano brand to record themselves tinkling the keys, and then adjust the recording themselves via the Spirio app. “We have an editor built into the app, so anything you can record, you have access to for editing,” says Polan. “You can tweak everything from pedal data to pitch and duration and more. It’s like Guitar Hero on another level.”
The advances present myriad opportunities for private owners, companies, and institutions alike. “With the ability to stream high resolution player data over the internet, it makes everything from distance learning to remote auditions and master classes possible,” Polan adds. “For example, in the future Steinway will offer a live streaming service, so we can have Lang Lang sit at Steinway Hall in New York, and perform a master class on a Spirio piano that can be transmitted to another Spirio piano on the other side of the world, which receives it without any loss of quality.”
That's why Jon Batiste is getting a Spirio | r installed over at his perch as the bandleader for The Late Show and Gaga called for one for her Vegas residency. “They had a very specific need for an acoustic piano, but also needed to do mixing of the piano in the PA system,” says Gilroy. “This piano is capable of doing live acoustic performances and having a digital output. It solved a need for them to have a piano that does both.”
It’s this technology, based on over a century of innovations, that will hopefully carry the company into the next century. “With a Steinway, you can hear the difference in tone and the way a note carries,” says Lang Lang. “These are beautiful instruments.”
This article has been updated.