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A Sound Investment In Musicianship

Music study often starts at the keyboard. For centuries, the majestic and versatile piano and its forebears have served as the basic teaching tool for any school of music–and, more broadly, as the foundation of a viable performing arts education. “Keyboard skills are considered basic musicianship,” says Robert Grijalva, director and assistant professor of piano technology. “Every music major at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance has a piano requirement.”

To ensure that all students and faculty have access to high-quality keyboard instruments when they are needed, SMTD currently maintains an inventory of approximately 240 pianos, the majority of which are housed in the practice rooms, classrooms, recital halls, and performance faculty studios of the Earl V. Moore Building. The remainder of the inventory is scattered campus-wide at performance venues and studios, including the Walgreen Drama Center, Hill Auditorium, Rackham Auditorium, Power Center for the Performing Arts, Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, Burton Memorial Tower, and the audio recording studio at the Duderstadt Center.

All instruments—a combination of approximately 120 Steinway grand pianos in all models and sizes and 120 upright pianos of various makes, including Steinway-designed Essex and Boston uprights—are owned by SMTD, including the flagship Model D Steinway grand piano that graces the stage of U-M’s illustrious Hill Auditorium. The oldest grand piano in the inventory, an 1880 Steinway New York Model C, resides in the home of U-M President Mary Sue Coleman on South University Avenue, a perfect complement to the home, also built in 1880. “We are a de facto Steinway piano school with many Steinway artists, past and present, who have served on the faculty,” said Grijalva. “Steinway has been the world’s leading piano maker almost since its founding in New York in 1853.”

While it’s true that pianos built to such a high standard of craftsmanship tend to have a long life, such high-end instruments, made up of more than 12,000 moving parts, nevertheless require a great deal of care and maintenance, even more than a typical piano found in a home. “The lifespan of a piano in an institutional setting is about 40 years,” said Grijalva. “That’s with regular maintenance ¾ from tuning to repair to restoration.”

To this end, Grijalva and his staff, master technicians Norman Vesprini and Scott Ness, regularly attend to the tuning of all 240 pianos. Their schedule is fluid, with pianos in Britton Recital Hall, McIntosh Theater, and Stamps Auditorium tuned daily. Pianos in the Power Center, Hill Auditorium, Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, and other venues are tuned on demand on performance day. Pianos in faculty studios and practice facilities are tuned every six to eight weeks. Classroom pianos are maintained on a monthly basis. It makes for a hectic schedule and requires that the technicians stay abreast of all the performances, lectures, recordings, and other rich offerings emanating from the School.

In addition to routine maintenance and tuning, the Piano Technology Department performs about six small-scale restorations and up to three comprehensive restorations each year. At SMTD, the Charles H. Gershenson Piano Fund, endowed in 1988 by the Gershenson Trust (Charles Gershenson, JD ’26), has provided excellent support for the ongoing maintenance and restoration of the School’s grand piano inventory, taking old pianos and making them “like new” again.

The shop in the Moore building is much too small for involved operations like replacing soundboards, pin blocks, and refinishing piano cases. So, these are jobs entrusted to PianoCrafters in Plymouth, Michigan, a shop with much the same Steinway-centric view. “We concentrate our efforts on being a custom keyboard and hammer action shop,” says senior tech Norman Vesprini. “We integrate the keyboard and action ‘machines’ into the instrument once it returns to us from PianoCrafters, with the intention of turning every piano we work on into a finely-balanced and unified instrument that’s inviting to perform on.”

Yet tuning and restoration are clearly not the solution to all of SMTD’s expanding inventory needs; pianos still need to be replaced at regular intervals, with costs ranging from $15,000 for a Steinway-designed Boston upright to $150,000 for a nine-foot Steinway Model D concert grand piano. “If we wanted to replenish our entire inventory, or turn it over during the course of 40 years, we would need to acquire six pianos per year, something we aren’t capable of doing right now,” said Grijalva. “That’ll take an additional endowment of about seven million dollars.”

Now, with the upcoming renovation and expansion of the Earl V. Moore Building slated to begin in early 2014, SMTD plans to acquire additional pianos to equip the new rehearsal and performance spaces. “Any time there is growth like this, there is a need to respond with an expansion of the piano inventory,” said Grijalva. “We’ve taken good care to ensure that our inventory profile fits the needs of our faculty and students, but the acquisition of new pianos remains a high priority for the School.”