- Associated Press - Monday, May 22, 2017

NEW LONDON, Conn. (AP) - Big alumni gifts to colleges or universities are often associated with sports programs: a state-of-the-art weight room; Michelin-level chefs in the athletic dining hall; new luxury suites rimming the mezzanine level at the football stadium. But many financial contributions also come in the form of cross-the-board scholarships or are earmarked to help build libraries or new academic facilities.

It’s refreshingly different, then - not to mention melodic - that on April 6, thanks to a gift from alumna Nancy Marshall Athey and her husband Preston Athey, Connecticut College in New London was officially pronounced an “All-Steinway School.” The designation not only means that at least 90 percent of the pianos on campus are Steinway & Sons - a company widely considered to make the finest pianos in the world - but they’re also in excellent condition and exquisitely maintained. With about 40 Steinways spread across campus, including 33 within the music, dance and theater departments, Conn joins a group of about 170 colleges, music schools and organizations that meet the piano maker’s rigid “All-Steinway” requirements.

The distinction was the culmination of a plan that started in 2012 when the Atheys gave $855,000 to Conn, a gift that afforded the purchase of 16 pianos as well as renovations and, in some cases, total rebuilding of existing Steinways on campus. The breakdown of new instruments includes two concert grands (in Evans Hall and Palmer Auditorium) and 10 grand pianos and three upright pianos designated for Harkness Chapel, Fortune Hall and practice and teaching spaces in Cummings Arts Center.

“We don’t have a football team, so this is a pretty unique gift,” laughs John Anthony, co-chair of the Conn College music department. “This is something that not every donor would be interested in and, frankly, it came at a perfect time. It’s like the stars aligned.”

As it happened, even before the Atheys made the donation, Anthony and Margaret Thomas, an associate professor of music and the college organist - who became the project director for the Steinway initiative - had done an evaluation of the school’s pianos.

“We had a lot of pianos and a lot of Steinways,” Thomas says, “but we also realized a lot of them weren’t in good shape - to the point where we thought, in terms of our music program, they were holding us back.”

Soon after, Thomas and Anthony had a regularly scheduled meeting with the Office of College Advancement, the folks responsible for raising funds, and senior major gift officer Alison Darrell asked if the music department had any big goals. Anthony says, “John and I both said at the same time, ‘We have a piano crisis.’ And within a month, Alison said, ‘I found someone!’”

The Atheys are both musical; Nancy (class of ‘72) was involved in campus vocal groups, and Preston, who went to Yale, was a member of that school’s elite Whiffenpoofs a cappella ensemble and is a jazz pianist, Anthony says.

“They’re lovely people,” Thomas says. “This gift was a way to bring Conn College arts to the forefront again, and I think it was a way for the Atheys to become part of our music department. It’s an incredible and much appreciated thing they’ve done. Not only do these instruments benefit all of Conn, but also the broader community through the Thames Valley Music School that we host. It has a very broad impact.”

The Atheys declined to comment for this story.

Once the gift had been bequeathed, it was a five-year process to qualify for “All-Steinway” status. In addition to performing maintenance on existing instruments, several trips were made to the Steinway & Sons factory in Long Island City, Queens, New York, to decide on which new pianos to purchase.

“There’s certainly a real difference to a Steinway instrument,” Thomas says. “They’re handmade by artisans - and what’s interesting is that the pianos built by these crafts persons have distinct personalities. Each Steinway is obviously excellent, but each is slightly different, and you can tell when you play them. They have magical qualities to them, and it’s magical to explore that.”

Over time, as many as five different piano teachers from the Conn music faculty toured the Steinway facility and tried out the instruments - which are set up side by side in an acoustically designed room.

“It’s a fascinating process, and there’s a lot of subjectivity to it,” Anthony says. “At the same time, you’re always aware that you’re playing a Steinway. They’re that good.”

As for what goes into being an “All-Steinway” designate, Karen Beluso, institutional sales manager for Steinway & Sons, says the company has developed customized resources to help colleges and conservatories become “All-Steinway” institutions, and it starts with an inventory analysis to determine whether an institution can even begin a campaign to earn the distinction.

“Inventory evaluations vary in length depending on the number of pianos to be evaluated,” Beluso says. “It usually takes a full work day to evaluate an inventory of 20 instruments.” Not surprisingly, the rigorous examination ranges from the obvious to aspects that even musicians might not think of.

“One of the most important things we look for is the lid hinge pins,” Beluso says. “I know it sounds silly, but if one doesn’t double check to make sure the lid is secured by the hinge pins before you raise it, you can literally be left holding the lid.”

Once the inventory is evaluated and confirmed, Steinway has a list of a dozen ongoing requirements that includes: 90 percent of the institution’s acoustic piano inventory be Steinway & Sons (or their associate Essex or Boston pianos); inventory analysis; an approved maintenance program; the institution cannot participate in loaner programs with another manufacturer; and so on.

Now that Conn College has been designated an “All-Steinway” campus, Thomas and Anthony say the effect can be felt not just in the dance, performance and music programs but all the way across campus.

“You don’t have to be a conservatory-trained musician to appreciate a Steinway,” Thomas says. “Even the more beginning students can tell. We’ve had first year or sophomore students with basic keyboard skills sit down and play a Steinway, and they’ll say, ‘Wow, this is a lovely instrument.’ It’s the sort of experience that’s instinctively appreciated.”

On a cool weekday afternoon in late April, inside an otherwise-empty Palmer Auditorium, Peter Jarvis, adjunct associate professor of music at Conn, is standing onstage next to one of the new Steinway concert grand pianos. Thomas, senior Ellen Heuer and sophomore Lanie Plueddemann are all seated on the piano bench to rehearse a six-hand piece Jarvis wrote in honor of the 150th birthday of composer Scott Joplin.

Jarvis, noting that, while four-hand pieces aren’t that uncommon in piano music, a six-hand work is pretty rare. Among other things, he says, the exercise provides a fine opportunity to judge the quality of the Steinway.

“And, yes, the kids get it that they’re playing a Steinway,” Jarvis says. “There might be some subtleties beyond their skill level, but they can appreciate the quality of the instrument and they certainly know the name.

“It’s also important for the music students because, if there’s a drive to play music, you’ll find a way to get it done. They’re going to show up and play no matter what. But if they get to do it on a Steinway, it’s a great opportunity and inspiration.”

Heuer, a music major who started playing at the age of 8, says she plays a lot of piano at school, not just for assignments but as a therapeutic exercise.

“I can definitely tell if I’m playing a Steinway,” she says. “Every piano’s different, and I have my favorite Steinway on campus.” She smiles. “I don’t always play that one, though. If I’m practicing or doing transcriptions, I might go to the worst piano I can find. If it’s too good, I’ll blow off my homework and just start playing for the love of it.”

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For more information: The (New London) Day, www.theday.com

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