You Can Play the Pianos of the Stars

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CORALVILLE — Harry Connick Jr., tickled the ivories of the shiny Steinway & Sons Model D, a 9-foot concert grand.

Lang Lang, a 30-year-old New York-based Chinese concert pianist, played that keyboard, too, as well as a similar grand with a subdued satin finish next to it.

And, behind them, on a brighter sounding 7-foot grand, the "Piano Man" himself, Billy Joel, played and sang, "Son, can you play me a memory. I’m not really sure ..."

These are three pianos that reflect the past that you can play as "The Steinway & Sons Living Legends Piano Tour" takes its turn at West Music in Coralville through Saturday. (Call West Music at (319) 351-2000 to set up a half-hour appointment or just drop by during regular business hours.) After that, the pianos played by the stars go to West Music’s stores in Moline, Ill., and then Urbandale.

"There are 27 companies that make 9-foot grand pianos," says Kirk Davis, piano division director at West Music. "Ninety-eight percent of performance artists choose Steinway."

It’s that reputation for greatness, begun 160 years ago, that prompted Steinway & Sons to put these pianos on tour and that convinced West Music to begin selling Steinways in 1997.

Walk around the piano showroom floor and you’ll find pianos for $10,000 and $20,000. Then you come to the Steinway grands — $55,000, $60,000, $70,000. Why, not far from the touring pianos sits a new Model D, the 9-foot concert grand model that’s been made and sold since the late 1800s, with a "sold" sign on it. The University of Dubuque just bought this $142,000 piano for its performance center.

Yes, you could buy a small house for the price of this big piano or an ultra-fancy car for the $90,000 price tag of a Model B piano like Billy Joel’s. But a Steinway is a Steinway, a piano that takes about a year to build by hand, a piano that roughly doubles in value every ten years, a piano that teachers see as a huge benefit.

"They realize how great the investment is to the education of their students," Kirk says. "Everybody wants to play a Steinway."

Several times Kirk has visited the flagship store on West 57th Street in Midtown Manhattan, not far from Carnegie Hall, that displays 150 pianos. But it’s the basement’s 30 concert grands that draw the stars to pick out their performance pianos.

That basement, which some have called "the center of the piano universe," has attracted the likes of Grammy-winner Emanuel Ax, pop artist Bruce Hornsby, jazz musician Ramsey Lewis and yes, the only non-classical pianist honored in Steinway’s hall of fame, Billy Joel.

"I met him once," Kirk laughs, "for about 10 seconds coming out of Steinway Hall. All I did was say ‘hi.’"

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