Frank Benner
piano technician

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May I have an autograph?

On a visit to the Steinway showroom in New York, I saw Henry Steinway, the last member of the family to be connected with the company, take out a felt-tip pen and sign the painted metal frame of a piano for an enthusiastic customer.
It was like watching a baseball player sign a ball, or an author his book, and seemed in keeping with our age of celebrity.

When I then visited the Steinway factory in New York, I asked if employees sometimes signed the new pianos in unseen places.
‘Of course, we have no way of being certain’, the factory guide told me, ‘and officially it's not encouraged. But there is a long and informal tradition that seems to be current once again to make a mark in a place that the customer will never see’.
My host seemed to hesitate between official censure at the thought of unauthorized initiatives and respect for a practice that was part of the highly personal world of the master craftsman.

He then told me a story that tipped the scale in favor of the latter:

"A voicing apprentice came to work at the Steinway factory one day to find his master, a man of great reserve, in tears.
The master was standing before the disassembled action assembly of an old Steinway grand that had been sent back to the factory to be reconditioned.

'What's wrong?' asked the apprentice.
'How can I help?'
The master then explained that when he had removed the action assembly from the piano, he had found the name of another Steinway technician hidden on the inside, the signature of his late father."

Now, the factory guide told me, master craftsmen were allowed to apply an ink stamp with their initials in a hidden part of the piano.
He showed me one. It was rather like the calligraphy stamp that one finds in the corner of Japanese prints: square, graphically stylized, and understated.
I preferred the idea of taking out a pen and signing the wood itself, an extravagant practice to be sure for those of us accustomed only to paper.
But then how many of us are competent to shape and tune and voice metal and wood into the intricate miracle that we call the piano?

For noble work, a noble gesture. What a precious discovery, like finding a pearl in an oyster, to read the hand of someone who cared for and repaired the instrument that he then sent back into the world, a messenger with no certain destination and hearing only one meaning of which we can be sure:
'I was.'

from: The Pianoshop on the Left Bank, by T.E.Carhart, Vintage 2001

The Left-sided Piano