Ron Losby - The Steinway & Sons CEO on the Art of Piano Building in 2017

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It was August of 1988. I had just left for my first year of music school, and my favorite magazine Keyboard was not only devoting an entire issue to my instrument of choice - the piano, but they were also offering readers the chance to win a Steinway & Sons Model B grand piano for free. "What a month," I thought to myself, as I optimistically sent my entry form in, awaiting the all-but-assured delivery of my shining new instrument. And while I ultimately didn't win that piano (I'm sad to report), reading that issue was a "win" regardless. There was even an interview with then Steinway President Bruce Stevens about his take on the current piano climate of the time. 

Fast forward to 29 years later, where now as the Editor of my still favorite magazine, I spoke to Steinway & Sons CEO Ron Losby about his take on all things piano, and how after nearly two centuries in business, his company is still trying to improve their instruments.

Let’s talk about Steinway’s new Spirio, which many people will see as an update of the player piano.

It’s more than just a player piano. I call it a re-performance instrument, and the reason that I do is because it actually does capture everything that a performer does. It is you playing the piano when it’s played back to you. It’s the first “player piano” that our

Steinway Artists, and we have 1,800 great ones, are actually clamoring to record on. After recording on it and hearing himself played back, [Famed Chinese pianist] Lang Lang was astonished and said, “This is the first time in my life that I’ve ever actually heard myself on a real piano.” When you think about that, you can ask yourself, “How can I use this to increase the enjoyment of music for people that never played the piano. The Spirio makes the Steinway piano relevant to everybody.

Before the Spirio came out in 2016, you were still selling pianos with player systems in them. What’s different about Spirio?

The problem with many of those systems that were retrofit kits is that they didn’t really re-create real musical art. They were only a facsimile of it. Also, they were way too loud in someone’s home, and when you turned them down to an acceptable volume level, the notes would drop out. So you didn’t get the entire performance, and that turned a lot of novice listeners off to music. They thought, “This sounded great in the showroom and sounded like something I needed,” but our research indicates that most people weren’t using those systems anymore in their homes.

So because the Spirio system is built-into a Steinway from “ground-up,” do you feel that it doesn’t affect the structural integrity of the piano?

I defy any pianist to go out in our showroom and play on a Model B Spirio and a standard Model B, and tell the difference. It has no impact upon the playability of the piano. The reason for that is that the technology is quite different, and because the advancement of what makes the keys move up and down - the solenoids, is extraordinary. These are the smallest solenoids that are available, so therefore there is really no interference with the action.

How has the reaction been sales-wise?

We’re sold-out. If we had more Spirios in our launch year, we probably would have sold twice as many of them. It far exceeded our expectation, not only in the U.S., but in Europe, China and Asia Pacific. What Spirio is doing is finally making the piano relevant to a group of people that it wasn’t relevant to before. You can put an iPad in someone’s hand and ask them, “What’s your favorite music?” Suddenly, it starts, and they get the world’s finest pianists performing on their piano. Plus, we’re constantly updating our library and adding performances by the legendary artists we call “The Steinway Immortals,” like Arthur Rubinstein, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and others. Once a month we also come-out with a video that also plays the piano from a live performance that was videotaped. This is content only available to Spirio owners.

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In August of 1988, Keyboard interviewed then Steinway & Sons President Bruce Stevens for a special issue entitled “The State of the 88 in ’88.” In that interview from nearly 30 years ago, Stevens said, “Within the piano industry, the real competition is in Asia, between Japan and Korea, each of whom have very sophisticated systems based on robotic mass production.” How has the piano landscape changed in the last three decades?

Since that article was written, a lot of things have changed. Piano production has shifted primarily to China. Japanese production has retreated and has migrated by Yamaha and Kawai into China, which is now the world’s largest piano market. In 1988, it wasn’t at all.

Is Steinway focusing a good portion of its efforts toward this new market in China?

Most definitely. If you think about this for a moment, there are 30-40 million children taking piano lessons in China. Think about that number, and what it means for the piano industry in China and around the world. It will, in my view, become Steinway’s largest market in due course. The other aspect that makes this so exciting is their reverence for music education. It is not an option there. They take reading, writing, arithmetic and music. It’s part of their educational process, and that is what’s going to build an entire generation of great music aficionados and some great pianists as well.

The talk amongst performers who know the Steinway piano inside and out is that there have been some subtle but important changes to the instrument in recent years. Is that the case?

Most definitely. We had two factories that produced similar pianos for many years, but those factories didn’t collaborate to the level that I would have liked them to. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Steinway operates factories in both Long Island City, New York and Hamburg, Germany.] We did some things great in each factory, but sometimes they weren’t the same things. So, by combining the talents and having a lot more interaction, it improved certainly the U.S. piano, but it also improved the German piano, because the transfer of knowledge went both ways. There’s no doubt that the Germans are known for, in all industries, for their attention to detail. And that is something that they brought to the American factory, which even for small things, elevate the playability and serviceability of the piano dramatically. But we’re always trying to improve the piano. You can’t just sit there and rest on your legacy – there are always things you can do to improve the instrument.

What kinds of things have been done to improve the Steinway piano of late?

Certainly, the piano’s action, on both sides of the pond, if you will. When an artist like you plays the piano, you want an almost unlimited dynamic and tone color range. By working with the hammer, in particular, you can develop a method of increasing both the dynamic and tone color range available to the performer. On many mass-produced pianos, the tone palette is almost black and white. They don’t really have this wonderful bouquet of colors that you can extract when you’re playing it. A Steinway piano has a great color palette that has now been enlarged. And I think it can be enlarged even further.

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Can you point to things that Steinway’s American factory learned from its German counterpart, and vice versa?

Attention to detail. There are certain ways that they regulate and voice their instruments over there, that we’ve applied over here to a certain degree. But really, it’s their work ethic. Not that Americans are not attentive to their jobs, but now that’s been enhanced. And I think the German factory now understands that there are ways to experiment with pianos that can make them better. Once the German factory has something done, they think they’re done with it. That’s a good quality, but you need to be able to experiment and try to improve the instrument always. In America, we’re always trying new things.

Steinways look different these days, too. It used to be that you could tell the U.S. and Hamburg instruments apart by their finishes, but that’s changed as well, has it not?

Yes. We’re doing the high-gloss, polyester finish in New York, which has been available in Germany for the last 50 years. But we’re still doing the classic lacquer finish, in fact, we’re the only piano company in the world, to my knowledge, that does both lacquer and polyester finishes in the same factory. Because there’s demand for both. Again, going back to the discussion about our expanding market in China, many of those individuals have emigrated over here and they actually prefer the high-gloss finish. Whereas, traditional, long-term American consumers probably prefer the satin finish. So we have both.

Steinway also builds two other less-expensive piano lines – the Boston produced in conjunction with Kawai, and the Essex produced in partnership with Pearl River. Has that endeavor been successful, and is it something you want to continue?

Absolutely. It’s been very successful, particularly in a market like China where we sell thousands of Essex pianos on an annual basis. We have such a great history and knowledge of piano scale design that when we put them into a mass-production environment yet still finish them by hand, we end up with a product that we believe is far better than anything comparably priced out there. If it’s not a Steinway, the next best thing is a piano designed by Steinway. And we’re continually improving them too. We just came-out with a new line of Boston pianos called the “Performance Edition II.” We’ve made small, incremental changes, but it’s all about always improving the playability, consistency and serviceability of our instruments.

Can you see Steinway making any forays into the portable digital instrument market? For instance, making a digital piano with Steinway’s name on it with a great set of samples for the professional touring artist?

We have considered it many times over the 30 years I’ve been with the company. The problem with it is that it’s a product line and a skill set that is so different than what we do, in that almost before it’s even introduced, it’s out of date. To scale up for that kind of opportunity, we’d probably have to purchase a company with that kind of expertise. I don’t know if I’d ever put the Steinway name on it, because I consider that to be somewhat sacred, like how our Boston and Essex lines say “Designed by Steinway” on them.

In the fast-paced, digital world we live, fads come and go, but Steinway still remains relevant. How do you maintain a legacy like that for 164 years?

It’s not easy, I have to say. The only way you remain in the position we’re in right now is by constantly understanding that you have to work to stay there. That comes from a culture inside the company where the people understand that what they do matters. The Steinway piano matters to the world because it touches people’s souls. We’re trying to make certain that everyone in the company knows what an extraordinary place this piano is in around the world. And the way that we do that is we have a program called “Live from the Factory Floor,” where we’ll bring in great artists to do 20-30 minute programs, letting our staff take that time off from work. And you can see the pride and genuine admiration for the art that’s coming out the piano. You’ll hear people say, “I’m the guy that strung that piano,” or “I’m the one who put the hammers on it.” They all had a piece in this. We want them to see their work come to life in the hands of a great artist, and to realize that they’re not just assembling a piano – they’re creating a beautiful artistic instrument that touches the souls of individuals.

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Ron Losby, CEO of Steinway Musical Instruments, and Editor Jon Regen at Steinway Hall in New York City. Photo by Betsy Hirsch