Keys to perfection

The halls are alive with the sound of Steinways

Light was pouring into an empty classroom in the new Perry and Marty Granoff Music Center as a smiling Edith Auner sized up the space for its new occupant: a Steinway baby grand piano. It was an easy decision. The piano would go on the near side of the room, away from the large window with its panoramic view so the instrument would not be affected by heat and light. Meanwhile, two floors up, John McDonald had settled into his new office, leaving a large empty space in one corner, perfect for a new piano. He grinned as he showed a visitor where the piano would go.

John McDonald, associate professor of music, likes what he hears at Steinway factory in Queens, N.Y. © MELODY KO

On an unseasonably warm January day, McDonald, associate professor of music; Auner, the music department’s director of outreach and coordinator of chamber music; her husband, Joseph Auner, chair of the music department; and Janet Schmalfeldt, associate professor, were anticipating the arrival of 12 brand new Steinway pianos from Boston.

The 11 baby grand pianos and one concert grand were about to be delivered to the new Granoff Music Center at Tufts that will be dedicated the weekend of February 8-11. No one minded that the truck was going to arrive later than planned, and no one could stop smiling.

“I’ve never seen a group of people more excited on moving day,” said Marjorie Cooperman, director of institutional sales for M. Steinert & Sons Co. Inc., who arranged the sale.

The trip for the moving vans was not long, but the journey transcended the miles. After years of playing on pianos whose quality was questionable, the music department is now not only ensconced in an inviting, light-filled building, but its faculty and students are practicing and performing on instruments whose excellence matches the new facility.

When making the decision to buy new pianos, there was no question the instruments would be Steinways, considered among the best pianos in the world. The question was which ones? For those who have never bought a piano, it would seem a simple affair: Choose a model and then order as many of those as you need. If you buy a Toyota Corolla, and none is a lemon, won’t they all run the same?

Provost Jamshed Bharucha, who is a musician, tests a keyboard at the Steinway factory. © MELODY KO

The answer is a definite “no.” Steinway grand pianos, Cooperman explained, are handcrafted and use natural materials, making each one unique. “Each rim [the part of the piano that curves] will dry in a slightly unique shape because of the wood,” she said. “So everything that goes into and under the rim has to be fit specifically to that rim.”

With some 12,000 pieces that go into the making of a piano, she said, even the slightest of differences add up. “You are dealing with wood, string, felt and buckskin, and each piece has its own qualities. Add in all those variables, and there are distinctions and shadings.”

Because of those distinctions, Joseph Auner, McDonald, Schmalfeldt and Provost Jamshed Bharucha earlier this winter traveled to the Steinway factory in Queens, N.Y., to choose the concert grand, the nine-foot piano that graces the stage of the music center’s Distler Performance Hall. The group chose from among five pianos, playing a variety of works on each to assess the feel and tone of each instrument.

Said McDonald, “You listen to tone quality and pay attention to the way it feels. If the keyboard feels stiff, you can’t make it sound the way you want to.” Schmalfeldt finished his thought: “Or if it’s too light, and there’s no resistance, you don’t feel in control. You want a certain depth to the keys.”

McDonald, who teaches composition, wrote a new piece for the piano tryout called “Katauta for Trying Out Unfamiliar Pianos,” which explores different dynamics and range. A Katauta is a Japanese love poem.

The Steinways arrive at the Granoff Music Center. © ALONSO NICHOLS

Schmalfeldt chose to play Bach, Schubert, Mozart and Chopin. “You want to have the most beautiful piano sound with notes that are clear and beautiful, not muffled,” she said. “When you play, you can feel the most control. All were beautiful, but this [concert grand] was particularly good. The people at Steinway said this was the best piano in New England.”

In addition to the concert grand, the group also chose pianos at Steinway’s Boston showroom, selecting the eight they wanted in a room of a dozen. The Granoff Music Center also houses eight new Yamaha uprights.

“I’m thrilled,” said McDonald. “I couldn’t be happier.”

Marjorie Howard is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at