Music in Astoria

By Lauren Panariello

Out in Astoria, New York, where Manhattan cannot reach and the R train ends, Steinway and Sons celebrates over 150 years of great pianos and the people who make them sing.

Among those people is Sami Shaker, an Egyptian guitar player, who has been an engineer with Steinway for over 13 years.

“When you work here, you feel that you are a part of over 150 years of history,” said Shaker. “Our philosophy is that we are a family.”

This family resides in a tall factory building, each floor smelling of maple wood, thick liquors, and music. Every day Sami walks past a showroom, where ten pianos sit like orphans waiting to be adopted. “This is where an artist comes to select a piano.”

The room, with a grand plaque of Steinway’s founder and the faint noise of a tuner banging notes in the background, smells slightly less like concert-bound sawdust than the rimming room. The frame of a piano is made from 18 sheets of thin maple strips, each 22 feet long, hand lathered with glue and then stacked. Four “family members” wrap the wood into place with massive clamps around a piano-shaped vice. After three months of conditioning, the wood is settled, and the backbone of a Steinway is complete.

A few floors up, soundboards are carved by hand, a vibrating, Steinway-stenciled wooden sheet. And a swirling bridge, where piano strings pass, is embedded by a craftsman who has studied where to mark the notches of a bridge for years.

Once a piano meets four legs and a cast iron plate, a man in a white ribbed tank top hovers over the empty bridge with goggles and metal pliers. String by string he loops, tightens, and twists each future note into place.

After the finish is sprayed and the keys are in place, a Steinway meets Wally Boot. For 48 years Wally has been able to “practice all day and get paid for it!”

If Steinway is a family, Wally is its knowing oldest brother. His office consists of little more than a protruding room in the Steinway factory that can comfortably fit a piano and the tuner himself. His walls are papered with fringed American-flag embossed biker vests, and pictures of his life with music. Somehow, among the arrangements of Beethoven and his contemporaries, Wally’s ears single out the one or two disagreeable notes on the unfinished keyboard.

“Hear that?” he asked as he hit a high octave F that must have been flat, or sharp, or something. A question to which even a piano player of decent years would answer: no.

A Steinway’s veneer, like its assembling team, is all cut from the same tree. By the look of a Steinway, this ensures that the finish will be uniform, symmetrical, and beautiful. But by the sound of a Steinway, it just means that the legendary instrument has passed through the hands of a family that makes maple sing.

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