Wednesday, November 19, 2008

All-Steinway = High Achievement?

Opera Chic and the Times's Dan Wakin have both reported on the purchase of 165 Steinway pianos by the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music. Read the press release here. I'm especially struck by this:
According to Steinway, fully 98% of all pianists performing with orchestras last year chose their pianos exclusively. With the “All Steinway School” designation, CCM students and faculty will have the opportunity to perform and practice on the instruments they will encounter most frequently on the concert stage.

''We are extraordinarily excited to become an All Steinway School,” says Douglas Knehans, dean of CCM. “This is both a mark of distinction, a high achievement and a profound signal of CCM’s commitment to quality, its students, faculty and community. With this purchase, CCM’s world class facilities will now be matched with the world’s finest pianos throughout its performance, teaching and study spaces.''
First, let's take that business about the opportunity to perform and practice on the instruments they will encounter most frequently on the concert stage. What percentage of faculty and students from CCM are or will become concert pianists? I understand that either the US or the entire world awards about eight thousand (8,000) piano degrees annually. The chances are vanishingly small that any particular pianist will make it on the concert stage. I don't mean "Become Lang Lang" or "Become Roger Vignoles." I mean, have a career playing the piano in public.

As for "high achievement," c'mon. How much achievement is involved with buying pianos? I assume Steinway was happy to sell, given that the CCM is a music conservatory and given that the instruments are obviously not going to be dropped out of windows to test their ability to fly.

Does this really add to the CCM's prestige in the music world? What if the $4.1`million going into this purchase had gone to endowing a couple of chairs that could be filled with important teachers? (Search for the piano faculty from this page.) Or to an ongoing series of master classes? Or to expanding the class offerings on "how to run your musical career so you can eat and pay rent"?

I'm afraid that this reminds me just a bit of the much larger amount of money the New Jersey Symphony scandalously spent a few years back buying an overvalued string instrument collection to add prestige. Again, what if they'd spent that money raising musicians' salaries? Or on guest conductors? Or...?

To make one thing clear, I'm not opposed to music schools owning the best instruments they can afford to purchase. Most piano students can't afford their own Steinways, and if they have a good piano back home, they're not likely to pack it up and bring it to school with them. What I'm opposed to is piffle about being taken more seriously. I'm sure Juilliard has great pianos, and I'm equally sure that students go there for the teachers and to be in NYC. Oh, and the prestige - but the reputation is made by the teachers and history, not by the pianos in the practice rooms.


Daniel Wolf said...

I have no objection to a music school purchasing a lot of good pianos — there are still plenty of schools with decrepid instruments housed in dungeon-like practice rooms — but a bit of diversity ought to be in order instead of a monoculture. A Steinway may well be widely preferred for Concerto work, but there are other styles of piano manufacture as well as innovative designs and historically-informed reconstructions that are very much appropriate to other repertoire. Why shouldn't students have experience with a Beckstein, Bösendorfer or Blüthner for accompanying Lieder and playing Viennese chamber music? How about investigating the innovation of the Australian Stuart & Sons?

Lisa Hirsch said...

Great point; wish I had made it!

Paul H. Muller said...

Press Releases need to be taken with a grain of salt.

But don't underestimate the necessity all schools have these days for marketing themselves. Students are recruited now, not simply accepted. (Ever wonder why every campus now has a Starbucks, a bowling alley and a big concert venue?) Can't you just hear the admissions person taking a potential music student on the campus tour: "Naturally we are an all-Steinway school... the same pianos are used on most every concert stage..."

Kimberly said...

I have to agree with Paul H Muller, about the marketing aspect. This gives the school a lot of prestige which will draw in students... its more than a little sad the the school has ulterior motives such as this that cloud over its better judgment to do the right thing by the students.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Marketing potential, yes, but why prestige? You look at Juilliard's piano faculty page and the first name is Emmanuel Ax. You look at the CCM's piano faculty page and...I didn't recognize anyone there. Should they buy pianos or hire famous teachers?

Anonymous said...

Here's a thought...Do you compare every “All Steinway School” with the 6 or 7 "Conservatories" that truly have ALL STEINWAYS, like Julliard?
UC bought more Boston pianos then Steinways. This is marketing at its best! I totally agree with Daniel. The world is not ALL Steinway, why would any student want to be pigeon holed into only experiencing one or two brands of anything!!

Kimberly said...

Steinways is marketed as the best so a school with "the best" equipment will gain prestige for having it. Its like milk being marketed as the best source for calcium where in reality it isn't at all...

Lisa Hirsch said...

Haha, excellent analogy. Dottoressa Strega was a nutritionist before she was a Dr. P.H. and she would agree.