When Danny Saliba left Astoria, New York, and his job at Steinway & Sons in the early 1990s to open a store in Dallas, he visited the Cliburn Competition.
“There were 35 different types of pianos used by competitors,” he said. “It must have been a nightmare to keep all the different brands of pianos tuned and in shape. They are all different. I can not imagine.
Since 2001, the competition has exclusively used Steinway pianos.
“Those kinds of things happened gradually, but it made sense because Van Cliburn and Steinway have a long history,” Saliba said.
In 1958, it was Steinway executives who helped Cliburn secure a $1,000 scholarship and encouraged the Texan pianist to travel to Moscow for his historic win.
Saliba had worked at Steinway Pianos in New York for 12 years when he came to Texas to open the Steinway showrooms. He first opened a high profile location in Dallas along the Central Expressway.
Van Cliburn came on the opener, Saliba said.
“Van came over and played the big opener for me,” he said. “We had a private party with thousands of our closest friends and the performer on stage who was world class.”
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A few years later, he opened a store in Fort Worth. Now he and his son, Casey, who joined the company in 2005 as vice president of sales and marketing, have additional locations in Plano and Houston.
“We did very well,” Saliba said. “That first year we did a million and a half in business and I thought that was great. Last year we did about $18 million.
Saliba credits her son Casey for the increase in sales.
“I thought I was a really good marketer, but Casey, wow, he blows my mind,” he said.
In 2019, the Fort Worth site also became highly visible, moving into a 3,000 square foot space at 510 Commerce St. at Sundance Square, just west of Bass Performance Hall.
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“It’s a great place for people to see us and that was all Casey. He made that happen when that location became available,” Saliba said.
In addition to the competition using Steinways, TCU, where much of the competition will take place in the school’s new Van Cliburn Concert Hall, is an all-Steinway school.
The process of supplying pianos to the contest and to the homes where the contestants are staying is not an easy task.
In the 90s, when Saliba supplied pianos to foster homes, he used three or four pianos per competition.
As the competition has grown and is now the exclusive piano for the event, Saliba said Steinway provided 30 pianos to households for the last competition.
“We then spend a good eight weeks getting them all ready and then we deliver them as close as possible,” he said. “And then the tuners hit them. It’s a lot of work, but that’s the name of this track.
Steinway provides technical services and has technicians who tune and prepare pianos regularly and work with competitors daily to ensure pianos are in good working order, Saliba said.
“We want to see that every competitor can do their job with the right equipment,” he said.
Saliba says Steinway is providing about $2.5 million worth of pianos to the competition in kind.
The Van Cliburn-Steinway connection helps the competition ensure that each contestant has a concert-prepared instrument to play, said Jacques Marquis, the competition’s president and CEO.
“It’s very important and it’s a lot of work to maintain the instruments and I can’t tell you how much we appreciate their work,” he said.
Occasionally, the receiving house will purchase the piano that has been delivered. This usually means the house doesn’t need a piano next time. Usually, says Saliba.
“And lo and behold, four years later, she can host another contestant and she asks when will she have a piano,” he said. “I said, ‘You don’t have one?’ And she said, ‘But it’s my piano. Let it beat your piano. People are very attached to their pianos.
Selling pianos with prices starting around $70,000 is not an easy proposition, Saliba said.
“We have people who set aside time after hours for the customer to come in and try out the pianos we have in stock,” he said. “Everyone is different and they will spend two, three hours in the store alone playing the piano. They may do this two or three times before deciding and even then a decision may take some time.
But sometimes one of the company’s Art Case or design pianos finds a customer who walks in and buys on the spot.
“You never know,” Siliba said. “These pianos are simply beautiful to look at and they can create an impulse buy.”
While pianos are still made the old-fashioned way at Steinway, new technologies have been added that have increased their appeal.
In 2015, Steinway introduced Spirio, a sophisticated automatic grand piano that uses a mobile app and an iPad that creates a high-resolution piano performance on a customer’s piano.
“You can have an artist playing in New York and connect with the Spirio and the client’s piano will play that performance at the same time,” Saliba said. “I never thought I would see something like this. It’s scary.”
Technology has been a game-changer for the piano business, said Casey Saliba.
Spirio can be a great educational tool and many customers also use the technology to write music.
“We have a piano teacher in Lubbock who uses technology to teach students 300 miles away and the student can see her playing the piano on her piano,” he said. “He’s a game changer.”
Danny Saliba has been involved in the business for over 40 years and is looking forward to this edition of the Cliburn Competition.
“This year I hear the Cliburn competitors are better than ever,” he said. ” I can not wait to see it. It’s always exciting to see great artists at work.
Bob Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at [email protected] At Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Learn more about our editorial independence policy here.
This article was originally published by Fort Worth Report.