The Steinway Bubinga at St. Luke Parish in Shoreline, WA

Ask the right question, get the right answer.

Having been involved in the music department of several Catholic parishes over the last 39 years brings about a realization that, too many times, we become accustomed to determining value based on cost and not investment.

Read that last sentence again. We’ll come back to that point.

In 2012, along with the music director and the pianist, I was tasked with finding a new piano for St. Luke Catholic Church in Shoreline, Washington. We were using a 1964 Yamaha 6 ft. grand piano. It was very tired and the cost of rebuilding that instrument far outweighed its value. Initially, due to “budget” concerns, we had a dollar figure in mind to replace the old piano with a newer model of the same brand.

That’s pretty standard thinking in most churches.

I felt the paradigm had to be changed, so I posed a question to our parish pianist: If cost were no concern what piano would you like to play in this sanctuary?

She smiled. Then smiled again at my comment when I mentioned that a Steinway B would sound great in this church!

About five minutes into the conversation, Monica, our parish pianist, realized I was NOT kidding. She noted the cost of a Steinway and thought it to be way outside of our budget for a new instrument. I relayed to her that, in my opinion, investment outweighs cost in every environment and that we must “speak the Steinway into existence” at St. Luke!

“Never bring up cost until the mission and vision of the parish are outlined,” was my next comment.

This was our true starting point, we needed to define the sound we wanted in the sanctuary, characterize the potential growth that “sound” would elicit in the parish, and determine the investment over time to keep the piano in prime condition. Finally we were in business!

The three of us set out to audition instruments with the end results in mind from the mission and vision issues above – (notice we did not even consider a price point, this is important), that was not a concern in the equation in the first phase of our task. This turned out to be quite a process, we tried pianos in the greater Seattle area, every brand was in the running, new and used. We spent months playing and evaluating instruments. I put feelers out to the parish council that we might have to send Monica back to New York to try some pianos of interest!

It was quite easy in the early stages of this process to have a tendency to choose an instrument too quickly, which we nearly did. After all, these were great pianos (and we were used to a 48 year old Yamaha as a benchmark). We always defaulted to our goals if questions came up. Of the three of us I tended to be the most demanding of the instrument – I just wasn’t hearing that “sound” yet… and I’m the guitarist, not the pianist! I knew, however, what I was looking for in a grand piano. It had to have the lower end “grunt” to play the room even with a full choir, it had to have the delicacy in the upper registers that creates a “bell-like” characteristic, and it must have a certain “energy” off the keys that presents itself as unique. If you love musical instruments then you know what I mean. It had to portray itself as though it “wanted” to play – almost as though it had a life of its own and a story to tell.

We had to be patient.

Three pianos made their way to prominence as the first phase was concluding. Monica and I would drive to Classic Pianos in Bellevue, Washington at regular intervals just to hear the instruments one more time. Monica was looking for a very specific touch on the keyboard and she was beginning to define her choice in the process. This instrument would be hers to play for a long time, so she demanded a lot from the pianos in the running. We were taking ownership in the process, we knew we had a major role to play in the life of our parish and a good choice was our ONLY choice!

Three instruments were in the running.

A new 7’4” Bozendorfer, a new 7’6” Shimmel, and a barely used 2001 Steinway B Bubinga.

Next, we had to know the retail prices of the three instruments in question since one of these pianos would be ours. The Bozendorfer was $154,000, the Shimmel was right at $50,000 (a unique price from Shimmel to break into the Seattle market), and the Steinway was at $79,000 (used). As a reference, the retail price of a new Steinway B Bubinga was approximately $112,000 in 2012.

To cut to the chase, the owner of the retail store called Bozendorfer and we were notified that because the purchase was being made for a church (and because of the advertising potential), Bozendorfer would sell the 7’4” at $77,000 new. Now at that point things became very interesting, so we had to really listen to, and play each piano with care!

Monica played all three pianos as I listened. The Bozendorfer was superb, as was the Shimmel… however, the Steinway B Bubinga had something special and it had the attributes I was demanding. I didn’t say anything to Monica for a while as she played.

At a point when she took a break I walked back up to her and simply asked how she felt about each piano. She noted that all three were great, but the Bozendorfer and Steinway were her two favorites. I agreed, and she started to play the two favored instruments once again.

As the process continued I approached her, she was playing the Steinway B at the moment and I started to say that there was… when she finished my line – “there’s just something special about this Steinway!”

We had found our instrument!

The beauty of the Steinway at St. Luke Parish in Shoreline, WA
This choice was months in the making and now we could finally work out the numbers. It’s important that those who read this understand just how critical the sequence is in this process. We had THE instrument that would allow us to reach our stated goals, the price point would work out if the three of us did our jobs correctly!

The owner of Classic Pianos was very accommodating and asked us if we’d like to hear the instrument in the sanctuary. We took him up on the offer and the Steinway was at the next weekend’s Saturday and Sunday masses. It sounded absolutely fantastic, there were so many positive comments it shocked me, even by people with no musical experience!

So, I’m betting you’d like to know the final price?

Well, as it turned out the lady who owned the Steinway B loved the fact that it was going to a church. We bought the piano for $43,000 plus tax, dolly, and set up. Can you believe that? It started at $79,000! There’s a serendipity of life right there – we picked the instrument we liked best, the previous owner agreed to an extremely low selling point because we were a religious organization and the owner of Classic Pianos was happy to make the sale at that point! All because we set things in motion with the right question first!

So, the issue of cost versus investment comes into play.

Monica and I wanted to design a method of getting the most out of this piano and be able to make it a legacy instrument. With Steinway’s help we calculated the cost of rebuilding this piano at the 50 year mark (2051) so the instrument would last 100 years (2101). With our priest’s assistance we set the funds aside between the retail cost ($79,000) and the purchase cost ($47,000 with tax, dolly, and set up) = $32,000 toward rebuilding the piano in 2051. The monies generated with interest will be adequate to do this job when that day arrives.

For the record, a new Yamaha Grand was pocket change away from the price point of our “used” Steinway. However, with our action plan in place we will have the funds available for rebuilding this instrument in 2051, which was not even considered in a purchase of a lower quality piano.

As I shared the “Steinway” story to our parish council, I attempted to show them the actual cost of this piano over 100 years of service. Using the actual cost of the purchase price (plus tax, dolly, and set up) and the savings account for the rebuilding process in 2051, I came up with a figure of $91,250 dollars over 100 years ($47,000 for the piano purchase and $44,250 {with interest added} in the account for the rebuild in 2051). Our sanctuary has devotional candles in multiple locations, their cost ranges by size so I used the $2.50 candle as an example (please note, we did not use the money in this manner, but for the sake of demonstration I used this as an analogy). If, over the next 100 years, we see one $2.50 candle lit per day in the sanctuary, the Steinway is completely paid for AND its rebuild in 2051!

If I had told you in the first paragraph that a Steinway B would cost $2.50 per day you would not have believed me… but I’m here to let you know, if you ask the right question at the right time, and match that question to a solid mission and vision, anything is possible!

Finally, some will ask, did anyone complain about the money spent?

A few did, complaining the money should have been used for the poor. But our pastor responded wonderfully. He simply noted that it was only fair that rich and poor alike should be able to hear such a wonderful instrument for the next 100 years.

Should anyone be in the neighborhood of St. Luke Parish in Shoreline, Washington come by and take a look and listen to this wonderful instrument. I’m sure Monica would enjoy telling the story again!