What’s So Special About the 1885 Steinway?

I remember the day I said to Sheldon Smith,  “I want an instrument that Arthur Rubinstein and Art Lande would be happy playing”. It took Sheldon a year to find and a year to rebuild the instrument that would eventually land at my home.  

Sheldon Smith was a master piano technician who specialized in Steinway piano restoration. It took him a year to find and a year to rebuild. He wouldn’t allow me into his shop until it was completed and I remember that day very well. 

Walking into his shop I was a little shocked at first. I had imagined the typical instrument with clean lines and shapes as you might see today. Instead, what I saw was an instrument with carefully cut circular patterns on its legs, a paisley-like wooden cutout music board, and matt black lacquer paint. I had never seen anything like it.  As I turned to sit at the piano I noticed it only had 85 keys.  My first thought was, “I waited 2 years and it’s only got 85 keys – OH NOOOOOOOOOO!”  

The instrument was built in 1885 and back then, pianos didn’t go to 88 keys. Sheldon said “The reason for the additional 3 keys was to keep the tension on the upper strings so that the instrument would stay in tune.  But this is a great instrument and doesn’t need the extra help. Besides, the only classical pieces you might not be able to play were a couple written after 1925 or so.”

When I sat and played it, the sound coming out was amazing. It became part of my body.  Still this was a big investment for a 20 something year old to make so I contacted my teachers – Art Lande (jazz) and Jeanne Stark (classical). With confidence they both said, “If it sounds good and feels good, then missing the 3 keys at the top won’t matter”.

The piano arrived shortly afterwards to what is now my studio. I have never regretted buying that piano even though I don’t play much myself anymore. Maybe it’s time to tinkle on the ivories again.


See an interview in Mix Magazine with Cookie about recording the piano.

Listen to the Relax With Solo Piano Playlist — featuring 40 tracks recorded on the 1885 Steinway!