Where There’s a Will, There’s a Steinway

April 1, 2020

Erich Burnett

piano student practicing in Asia House lounge.
Senior pianist Jianyi Gu of China is one of three dozen Oberlin piano students who were unable to return home when campus closed in March. They remain close to their music even as they are distant from others, thanks to the delivery of 14 pianos to the residence halls they call home.
Photo credit: courtesy Jianyi Gu

For conservatory students still living at Oberlin, a week without a piano was a week too long.

For Jiaqing Luo, an interminable week had passed since seemingly everybody else had left town. An eerie calm had settled over Oberlin’s typically lively campus, and an unshakable restlessness had settled over Luo.

“I’ve stayed in my dorm almost all the time,” says the third-year student from China’s Hunan Province. “Every time I see other students, we all wear masks for safety.”

piano student practicing in South Hall
Jiaqing Luo endured a quiet week in South Hall before the delivery of three pianos helped break the silence. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Jiaqing Luo)

Luo is one of nearly three dozen Oberlin piano students who hail from international destinations that have become unreachable in recent weeks, as fears surrounding spread of the novel coronavirus led to tightened restrictions on global travel. For almost all of these remaining students, sparsely populated residence halls continue to be home—perhaps until May, perhaps for longer.

As Oberlin officials took up the task of ensuring that each student was safe and well cared-for, one glaring deficiency emerged: The piano students had no access to their artistic and creative lifeline. With college and conservatory buildings marked off-limits to ensure that safe social distancing could be maintained, a campus that boasts an incredible 240-plus high-quality Steinway pianos suddenly had none for its students to use.

“Each of our piano faculty has been in touch with our students on an almost daily basis,” says Professor Alvin Chow. “Many were in a fragile state, and of course their first question was usually When and where will we be able to practice?

The situation took on added complexities on Sunday, March 22, when Ohio enacted a statewide shelter-in-place order that would take effect in less than two days, perhaps further complicating access to instruments for students of the first All-Steinway School in America.

“It’s certainly possible that the week these students had already spent without playing could have been the longest they’ve ever gone in their lives,” says Michael Straus, the conservatory’s associate dean for operations. "It was important for us to do whatever we could to safely reunite them with their instruments."

At the direction of Dean of the Conservatory William Quillen, Straus coordinated an effort to deliver 14 Steinway grand pianos—each weighing more than 600 pounds—to campus residence halls and other locations accessible to piano students who were permitted to remain on campus.

“For the health and safety of all those students, we wanted to keep them in the places they are living so that they would not have to move around campus more than necessary,” Straus says.

Over the next two days, staff members from Student Life, Campus Safety, the Conservatory Deans Office, Concert Production, Keyboard Studies, and Piano Technology, as well as moving teams from campus and nearby Cleveland joined forces to uproot and relocate the pianos. Every instrument was delivered, set up, tuned—and equipped with disinfecting wipes—mere hours before the state-imposed deadline.

On the first day the pianos were available to students, 25 reservations were made through Concert Production; in the two days that followed, another 75 requests poured in, accompanied by cheerful notes of thanks from grateful students.

Jiaqing Luo, for one, took a seat at the keyboard mere moments after movers dropped the first of three Steinways in South Hall, where six other pianists also had been silenced in recent days. In the week since the pianos arrived, Luo has practiced for four hours each day, a regimen typical of his pre-pandemic routine.

Each student follows provided instructions for safely cleaning pianos and practice areas before every session, and each is encouraged to maintain safe social distancing at all times.

“I'm very happy in Oberlin!” Luo says. “I can live safely and do everything that I want to do. For now I can't go out, so I have more time to study alone and practice.”

In Oberlin’s Asia House, three pianists now have their choice of three pianos.

pianist practicing in Asia House
Shangru Du is one of three pianists living in Asia House, where there are now three available pianos. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Shangru Du)

“It’s really comfortable for me, especially to be able to practice here in the dorm,” says senior Shangru Du of northern China, a resident of Asia House. “I appreciate the effort made by the conservatory. I know it’s not an easy task, but I’m very grateful for it.”

Another resident of Asia House, Jianyi Gu of southern China, had been marking the days to her senior recital, which was scheduled for May 2 in stately Warner Concert Hall.

The coronavirus forced the cancellation of more than 150 junior and senior recitals that had been on the books for this spring; instead, students will submit recordings to their teachers to satisfy their recital requirements.

“I don’t think it can substitute for the real recital in Warner,” Gu says, “But we have no choice.”

There may be a choice after all: Over spring break, Oberlin’s piano faculty agreed to allow students to create a recital experience if they so desire—one that adheres to accepted guidelines for appropriate social distancing, of course.

“They can choose to present it as they wish: privately recorded, or even as a live virtual performance within their own dorms, with friends watching online,” says Professor Chow. “That part is up to each student. I guess we'll see how creative they can get!”


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