Just finished watching a documentary called Note by Note, which chronicles the manufacture of a Steinway piano from lumber yard in Sitka, Alaska to concert hall at Carnegie Hall. As you might well guess “how it’s made” dramas normally aren’t my cup of tea, but I found this one to be interesting for a couple of reasons.
The sociology was fascinating. The caviar of pianos is completely handmade in Astoria, Queens, by burly immigrants whose necks are thicker than my waist and locals who grew up in the shadow of the factory. I’d figured they were made by machines and tuned by small men wearing monocles and bow-ties. Each phase of the building process – the body, the sounding board, the hammers and keys, the strings, the three stages of tuning – requires a small army of meticulous, dedicated workers, each of whom thinks his area is the most crucial. (“If my section is even a millimeter off, the whole thing will be rejected.”) How refreshing to watch people take pride in their work*, as if they are breathing life into their art. And they do consider it a piece of art as much as any Monet hanging just across the river at the Met. A worker from Africa says, “I went to Carnegie Hall, and I saw my piano.” For each of the workers it is his piano.
As someone who doesn’t play the piano or have $25,000 lying around to buy the one shown in the film, I also found interesting the idea that each piano sounds completely different to a trained ear. The filmmaker asked a variety of musicians the qualities they look for when choosing a piano. They used abstract words like airy and toothy. One went from piano to piano in the showroom searching for the perfect sound – a sort of musical speed dating. To me the tune sounded exactly the same, but this guy spent hours searching for the elusive perfection.
Then one of the musicians said something that resonated. “The technique is just a way to get to the human part of the music.” Isn’t that true of all of the arts? All of the years spent studying and honing one’s craft, whether it be figure skating or writing fiction, or whether you are Michelangelo or Yo-Yo Ma, the ultimate goal is to make a connection, to get someone to feel something?**
So check out the documentary if you want to be reminded of excellence and pride and the humanness that comes as a result.