By Frank Loiacono

Stony Brook made headlines in 1993 when Billy Joel donated his nine-foot, custom-built Baldwin grand piano after a pipe underneath the Staller Center burst and caused more than $4 million in damages, including two concert grand pianos.

Stony Brook’s music department is looking to make headlines again when it announces its desire to become an All-Steinway School in the near future.  The All-Steinway School designation is directly given by Steinway & Sons to institutions that, among other criteria, have a Steinway-approved maintenance program in place, and 90 percent or more of that institution’s pianos must be Boston, Essex or Steinway.

On January 24, 2007 SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music purchased 141 new Steinway & Sons pianos, including three concert grand pianos, for $3.8 million.  Alan Solomon, dean of music at the Crane School of Music, said the purchase was funded by state funds.  This purchase remains the largest in Steinway’s 154-year history.

Many Stony Brook music professors and graduate students believe their music department is one of the best in the nation, and when Crane became an All-Steinway School, it got the attention of Stony Brook’s music faculty.  “How in the world did they do it?” music department chair Daniel Weymouth recalled saying when he found out, adding, “And how can we do it?”

Money, that’s how.  The music department has 113 pianos, of which 60 percent are more than 30 years old.  Steinway officials visited the campus and analyzed the piano inventory.  To meet the Steinway standards, Stony Brook will have to raise more than $3.1 million off the budget, according to the Recommended Replacement Program that Steinway prepared specifically for Stony Brook.

The music department plans to purchase 70 new Steinway pianos and discard many of its old pianos to reduce the average age of its inventory from 40 years old to 5 years old.  This will cost more than $2.6 million, according to the replacement program.  An endowment of at least $500,000 will also be required to provide $25,000 of interest per year for a technician supplement fund.

On Friday, May 2, piano technician Tom Malenich and University Advancement officials met with representatives from Steinway to learn about how other schools, such as Crane, raised money to become All-Steinway Schools.

“Fundraising is not magic,” Senior Associate Vice President of University Advancement Eric Doepel said.  University Advancement is looking at many sources of funding, including alumni, corporations and the local community.

University Advancement is trying to reach out to a large number of potential donors through newsletters, but at the same time, advancement staff members are seeking out individuals who may have a particular interest in supporting the music department.  “We are throwing a wide net out,” Doepel said, “But we are also using our fishing rod to target specific donors.”

President Kenny supports the music department’s goal of becoming an All-Steinway school because of the prestige it would bring, Doepel said.  While Stony Brook would join the Oberlin Conservatory, the Yale School of Music and the Juilliard School by becoming an All-Steinway School, the true reward of becoming an All-Steinway School is found in the classrooms.

Most of the pianos in the classrooms, where undergraduate students practice, are “crummy little uprights,” said composition and music theory professor Peter Winkler.  Winkler, who has a Steinway that’s more than 30 years old in his classroom, believes the music department becoming an All-Steinway School is a “sweetheart deal” not just because his students wouldn’t have to play on crummy instruments, but because it gives Steinway publicity as well.

The music department has only one piano technician, which makes it difficult to keep all the pianos in performance shape.  The pianos that receive the most attention are the concert hall pianos, named Shirley and Bob, after President Kenny and former Provost Robert L. McGrath.

 

“The piano is the workhorse instrument of the music department,” said Weymouth.

The current ratio of pianos rated fair or poor to pianos rated excellent or good is 88:25, according to Steinway’s inventory analysis.

“A piano is like a pair of tennis shoes,” said Dante DiIanni, a doctoral student in music.  “They’re stiff at first.  You’ve got to break them in.”

The majority of the music department’s pianos are broken in, but they are not being repaired because the budget pays for only one technician, Weymouth said.

While the decision to become an All-Steinway School has not been publicly announced, many students have heard the rumors.  “It never hurts to have the world’s best pianos,” DiIanni said.

Becoming an All-Steinway school would give Stony Brook’s music department national recognition as an elite program, and it could prove useful as a recruiting tool.  No matter how well the efforts of University Advancement go, Weymouth stressed that philanthropy depends on many intangibles, including the economy.

It will be an eventful day for Stony Brook when the Music Department becomes an All-Steinway school.  As to when that will happen, the campus will just have to stay tuned.