Robert Estrin - piano expert

Man of 1,000 Steinways: The Steinway Hunter!

Interview with Bob Friedman

In this video, Robert interviews Bob Friedman, a piano technician and "Steinway hunter." Watch to find out what this means!

Released on July 14, 2021

Share this page!
Post a Comment   |   Video problems? Contact Us!
DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Robert Estrin:
Welcome to livingpianos.com. I'm Robert Estrin. Today we have the man of a thousand Steinways, "The Steinway Hunter," Bob Friedman, and Bob Friedman goes way back and has probably found more Steinways than anybody I know. And there's a lot of parallels in our lives. Bob is a piano technician, of course, I'm a concert pianist, but we both got into pianos because of various reasons and have been involved with them our whole lives. And we're going to have a nice, lively discussion here. So I want to welcome Bob. This is Bob Friedman, everybody.

Bob Friedman:
Hi, Robert, thank you so much for interviewing me. I appreciate it very much.

Robert Estrin:
It's a real pleasure, and we've gotten to deal with each other over the years and just a little bit for people who are not familiar with you, because you're kind of invisible to the public, but he's the man who locates and provides Steinways to countless stores all around the country and perhaps around the world. And he's been doing it a heck of a long time. And the parallels in our lives are so interesting because I got into pianos because of my teaching and my performing. And tell us a little bit about how you got into it as a piano technician, I believe, is that right, Bob?

Bob Friedman:
Yeah, actually, this is the, I realized I was speaking with my wife today and this is my golden anniversary, 50 years that I put my hands on a piano that needed a little bit of work. And interestingly enough, my father was also a concert pianist, but he never toured. He trained very early in life. And at a certain point in his teens, he put it down for a reason that, well, you know as a concert pianist, you're supposed to take the music out in front of you and you're supposed to memorize. He refused to do that, so his agent let him walk. He put the piano down shortly after that. He never picked one up again until 1971.

Bob Friedman:
Actually '71, I was 17 years old and there was a gentleman who passed away that lived across the street from us, and there was a beautiful old Sohmer upright in there. And I went into the house, I saw it, the girl said it was for sale. I dragged my father in there because I had seen him play at family parties, but I really had no idea how accomplished he was and my mother and I begged him to buy the piano. He didn't want to do it, but we still begged him to do it, and he did it. He brought it home and he wailed on the piano. He played Rachmaninoff like the day he put the piano down when he was a kid, he'd never forgotten how to play. And he had gone to work one day and I was taking mechanical drafting, architectural blueprint design in high school.

Bob Friedman:
So I had some really good teachers show me mechanical know-how and the piano had one note that was always not working up in the upper register, he'd play it and go and he'd hit it, and then he'd come back, he never called anybody in. So one day when he was at work, I took the action out of the piano. My mother walked through and she goes, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm going to figure out what's wrong with this piano." And I noticed that one of the springs were out in the jack that of course pushes the hammer up and I fixed it. So I put it back in the piano. She said, "You better get that back in the piano before your father gets home," and he was kind anyway, he wouldn't have... And later that night, he came home from work and I watched, I never told him I did it. And he went and played and that note worked and he did a double-take. I watched him and he must've figured it fixed itself. That's where it started for me. And that was probably 4,000 Steinways ago.

Robert Estrin:
Yeah, 4,000 Steinways, woo, yeah.

Bob Friedman:
Well I lived in a truck for almost 30 years traveling the country and buying and selling and meeting everybody I did business with, and going in everybody's homes and having coffee with more people than Starbucks probably serves.

Robert Estrin:
Well, I just read your book and I absolutely was drawn page to page. It really is compelling. It's such a pleasurable read, The Steinway Hunter, I recommend it to people and it brought back so many memories of my life going back to after I graduated from music conservatory, I was teaching piano, and the first question I would always ask people is, "Do you have a piano?" And it was surprising how many people wanted lessons who didn't have pianos. And I knew that, that couldn't work. So that's how I kind of got into finding pianos. And we could swap stories about some of the crazy ways we found pianos.

Bob Friedman:
I'll be honest with you, I probably have 300 stories, but it got to the point where after three years of editing and 20 years of writing just 25 stories, because I'm not a writer, but with the help of my dear wife and some very, very highly skilled editors who also had pianos in their lives and they're famous editors, book editors, and all of us had something in common, is that they love the piano and therefore they helped me with it. And to finish another set, 30, 40, 50, I mean, we have so many stories, we could probably sit here until all our hair falls out, just telling stories.

Robert Estrin:
Well, I believe you, as I experienced one of the things about pianos is that you've got to move them. And I moved, I don't know how many hundreds, maybe more than hundreds of pianos. And that was back in the day that it was mostly uprights and mostly those big, heavy, those monstrosities. I don't know how the heck, I'm not a big man, but I never... My back to this day, knock on wood, is strong, because I always lifted correctly.

Bob Friedman:
I've had nine rescinded discs in my back over the years, but I've always strengthened myself and I've come back. And the one thing that was, and I'll show this on the camera because I carry it with me, because it reminds me of a very good friend who is in the dedications in the book, his name was Henry Karen. And he's the one who, it's the story, The Dawn of the Steinway Hunter. And this blue dolly is actually a picture of Henry's dolly, when we both had a blue dolly and he's passed on now, he looked just like Jimmy Cagney.

Bob Friedman:
It was interesting too, but he pointed me in a direction when I was very young, he said, and he saw that I had a lot of children, I have five children actually, and he said to me, he says, "He saw me driving up in an old beat up Matador wagon with a U hole on the back, and I used to deliver basically no name pianos to him. And then he had one Steinway. He says, "He looked at me and he goes, 'You're never going to be able to support them with that.'" He says, "That's the piano you want to go for." He says, "Go for that, and you'll do okay." And that's where it started. And he gave me the tip. He said, "Stay with Steinway."

Robert Estrin:
Well in the used market, there's nothing like Steinway. Everybody knows the name and the power of that company. And it's the piano that everybody looks to restore, because the fact of the matter is in the used market, the Steinway holds its value better than other pianos. So if somebody's going to restore a piano, to put the thousands of dollars in one piano, they might as well put it into a piano that's going to sell for more, and that's the conventional wisdom. Now, here at Living Pianos, we actually celebrate all the great American and European pianos, which can represent phenomenal value. And plus, as you well know, each piano is unique and there are some great pianos from a variety of manufacturers, but a great Steinway is still a great piano, and there's always people looking for them.

Bob Friedman:
They call it the standard piano of the industry. What's interesting and you, I'm sure you know this as a technician yourself, somebody who works on with the pianos as they get to the point where you get them ready for people, is that 1878 was the design of the tubular action frame and the duplex scale. It hasn't changed much since then.

Robert Estrin:
Yes. It's kind of amazing that pianos from the 1880s, they had some of the same scale designs they're still making today. And there was a documentary about Steinway a number of years ago. And they said that if you took somebody from back then from the 19th century and transplanted them into the New York factory today, there'd be a couple of new rigs, but they'd be pretty much right at home because fundamentally the building of the piano's the same way they did over a hundred years ago, which is pretty remarkable.

Bob Friedman:
Absolute geniuses, they were, and they didn't have long lives because every time they got a little bit of a disease, it took them over because they were actually, they almost died from exhaustion because they worked so hard, they were perfecting everything that they did.

Robert Estrin:
So I remember back in the day before the internet was a thing and what I would do, and I don't know if you can relate to this, my wife and I would hang out downtown, we were living in Bloomington, Indiana. I had graduated from school there in piano performance. I kind of fell in love with the small town and we'd hang out at the bookstand waiting for the recycler to come out. The classified newspaper, because as soon as it'd come out, we make a beeline for it to see if there are any good pianos in there. And then have loaded quarters in our pockets and go to the nearest payphone before cell phones. And then if there are any deals, try to get there and talk about the hunt, right? [crosstalk 00:10:32].

Bob Friedman:
You're right. You're absolutely right. Wow. That's very cool.

Robert Estrin:
Now over the years, it's kind of interesting because I always felt that that was the ultimate way to get pianos is to be there first, get there and find the deals of the ones that really need restoration, that somebody else wouldn't even know what to do with, it's a diamond in the rough. But then later on, I met some people who did things a little differently, more like a patient fishermen casting the net and just waiting, which is another approach instead of the hunter. But since you wrote the book, The Steinway Hunter, obviously you've been aggressive in finding these instruments in all sorts of ways, and I'm wondering how technology has changed your whole way of working.

Bob Friedman:
When there was limited technology, in the story, The Dawn of the Steinway Hunter, actually, my mother was a very helpful tool and a catalyst to advertising for me because when I finally decided that that was the way to earn enough money, to keep food in the house, because, a little bit a Wurlitzer, a little bit of Krenek and Bach, you couldn't raise the bar that way financially. So when I finally decided to go with Steinway and stay with Steinway, my mother worked in USA Today classifieds and this is in one of the stories, herself and two other women actually designed the USA Today Classified Network in a Ganette newspaper. They picked three people that they thought could put this format together.

Bob Friedman:
And then she explained to me that if I knew of newspaper networks and there were many newspaper networks in this country, she said, "Go to the library and go in the Gale Book of Publications, and you'll find every printed newspaper in the country. And what you can do is you can either call them up on the phone or go through a tele network and just give them your ad, which was Steinway grand piano wanted any age, any condition, will take cash and pickup," which means I had to live in a truck for three decades. And so I'd push 10 different buttons that were in this book, well there was no pushing buttons, it wasn't a computer. You have to get on the phone. You have to call somebody in the department, whether it was Night Ritter or Gannett or whatever, there was a hundred networks out there, but they covered each state or would go state to state.

Bob Friedman:
And there was about 25 networks out there. And I had to call them on the phone and ask them to run the ad. And they wouldn't take credit cards, in those days. You had to send them a check. So once your check got there, they printed it, everything was done by hand. And then all of a sudden, your ads started running in 15 states at the same time, when the calls started coming in, then you had to get in the truck and you'd ask them what they had, they would tell you, there was no photographs. You couldn't do what we do today by seeing on the internet, what you're buying. And you literally had to live in a truck and you had to live at truck stops because there was no cell phones and there was no GPS, so the roadmaps were it for me.

Bob Friedman:
I had piles of maps and then you went into people's houses and you became friendly and they'd let you in the house at that time, and you made the deal and you carried the piano out. And if you weren't traveling with a shotgun person or somebody, you'd have to go to the local gin mill, hire some people to help you move the piano, put it in the truck, and by the time you were done, whatever part of the country you were, your trunk was filled, and you came back to New York City, which is where I saw most of them in those days. And everybody crowded around and they did their picks.

Robert Estrin:
Now, of course, I'm sure there's a lot of people out there who are watching this wondering, "How can they find a Steinway?" And here's a question I have for you, of all the Steinways, you said, "4,000 Steinways." How many out of 100, are actually fairly good to go without doing substantial work?

Bob Friedman:
Very few, very few. You can have a piano that's 10 years old, that a cat lived in. You can have a piano that's five years old, that the dog got jealous of the person playing it and chewed the legs. And a story, actually, I was telling somebody the other day, which was interesting is in the dead of heat in the summertime, when I would go maybe as far as Chicago or Indiana or down to Texas, and then come back to New York, you're loading the pianos, side-by-side in the truck and you have a 24 foot truck and you'd probably get, I think, 12 to 16 pianos in there. And when you would get back, there was something very interesting that happened.

Bob Friedman:
When you were in the house, everybody's house has a certain scent in there, whether it's what they've cooked their whole lives or what the animal smells like, whatever it is, everything that your house collects, your piano collects because of the felt in the piano, it picks up the smell, fish, you name it, it picks up. So you have to deodorize the piano when you get it back. And when it gets in the felt, and it's 80 or 100 year old piano, you're not getting it out. So therefore the piano, needs upgrading, restoration, new hammers, new felt everywhere. So when I got back to New York City one day and I opened the back of the truck, the smell from all these pianos being in people's houses for a hundred years, nearly knocked me off the bed. I opened it, and because it was hot in there and it was poof, and the smell came out, almost knocked me over, it was so disgusting. But what it was, it was the smell of every piano that was in everybody's house for 80, 100 years. And I equated that smell, the smell of success.

Robert Estrin:
Yeah, that's right. If you're willing to put that work into them. And the funny thing is we get web forms, literally every day of people have pianos for sale and everybody, almost everybody says, "Oh, the piano's perfect. It's great." And people don't know how much maintenance a piano needs in order to be good. To give you one extreme example, that is really a funny story, there was a piano, this is back in Indiana years ago. And somebody said, "Oh yeah, I've got this great piano." So, we go out and it's way out in the country.

Robert Estrin:
And we get there, we're walking through a field. We get to believe it or not a greenhouse, a greenhouse, and in the back of the greenhouse. And by the way, it's just a dirt floor. And we get to the end of it and sunk maybe a foot into the mud is this big old, upright. And you could see that the wood was destroyed. This is a greenhouse, it's humid, of course. And I said, apologetically, "Well, I'm really sorry, but I'm not going to be able to do anything." And he goes, "Why not?" I said, "Well, there's obviously some water damage." He goes, "Water damage? That was from the fire."

Robert Estrin:
It's like, "No, no, that's a fire, oh my gosh," as if there was something you could do with this old, upright, sinking in the mud, been in a fire and got wet, oh my gosh. So, that's an extreme example. But even a piano, somebody buys a piano with the best intentions and then they never tune it. They don't understand that that piano degrades just from not playing it and not servicing it, the piano is going to take a tremendous amount to get back on any kind of performance level. It takes a ton of work for a neglected piano.

Bob Friedman:
One of the reasons I actually got into wholesale supply, you would say, not supplying the public, but supplying dealers, first of all, there's only so many people in your public area, unless you're in a very, very busy area. I didn't live in a very busy area, but there's thousands of dealers and hundreds of rebuilders, So everybody always needs stock all the time, so it keeps moving. But the reason that I got into it was because I would find myself reconditioning, not rebuilding, even though I did a lot of rebuilding reconditioning and some rebuilding, a lot of pianos. And in the end, I really couldn't get the retail money out of it that I wanted because there weren't enough people in my area to buy. So I would wholesale it to a dealer somewhere, which means I kind of was wasting my, even though, because you know how much work it takes to put a piano back in shape when nobody's taking care of it, and I was giving my work away. And I was saying to myself, "If I'm going to continue to give my work away, I'm not going to earn any money."

Robert Estrin:
So you found a niche for yourself. You're one of the only people who really specializes in this. It's really a niche that you've carved out. And what's cool is that you've managed to transcend into modern technology and the internet, and I'm sure that helps you tremendously, hopefully you're not still moving them yourself.

Bob Friedman:
The heaviest thing I probably pick up is either a drumstick or a paintbrush or maybe a tennis racket every now and then when my knees will allow me. No, and I'm still finding and buying more than 200 pieces a year.

Robert Estrin:
Wow, that's impressive. Well, of course what we do kind of obfuscates the whole problem of market area, because we started Living Pianos, online piano store, back in 2006, kind of before everybody else thought of it. And now of course, it's the way everybody is buying everything. And because of media and the quality of the internet, if you've got decent speakers hooked up, you can actually get a really good preview of a piano. Of course, some players would have to play the piano. And of course we welcome them to fly in which some people do, but many people don't know enough about pianos anyway. And we'll...

Bob Friedman:
You play so well, and your recordings are so good, that they're getting almost exactly what it would sound like in their house. I've listened to your recordings. And I mean, they don't, how can I say? They don't sway. The volume is right. The instruments are done right.

Robert Estrin:
I was very lucky to not only grow up in a musical household. My father, Martin Estrin was a concert pianist, but he also had professional recording equipment in his studio in our home. And I always got his hand-me-down tape recorders. And I also attended his recording sessions. So I've always had a passion for music technology. So it kind of goes hand in hand and I also love photography. So it kind of takes all my skillsets and kind of wraps them all up. And it's a blast and I get to meet other people who love the piano. And now I'm doing a bunch of teaching. As a matter of fact, I've got students in Australia and Pakistan, Scotland, Alaska, all over the world and the power of the internet is just so incredible, that I connect with these people. So anyway, I want to tell everybody that if you are into piano and want some great story, because you're a heck of a storyteller, Bob, the Steinway Hunter-

Bob Friedman:
Well, the odds were with me if I was on the road and I packed a couple 1000 pianos, I'd probably have a couple 100 good stories. But, it seems like a lot of this stuff that happened in the eighties, I started collecting funny circumstances and I was thinking to myself, if I continue to do this, I might get enough stories to put a book together.

Robert Estrin:
And somehow you did. I mean, and it's a great read. And the Steinway Hunter, I think, is available at Amazon. And also, can you get it at bookstores as well?

Bob Friedman:
You can get it at Barnes and Noble. You can get it at Walmart. But Amazon is the quick one, Amazon's the quick one.

Robert Estrin:
Yeah, yeah. Well, I'll put some links below so that people can check it out. I mean, if you love the piano, you're going to love this book. I can tell everybody out there. So I want to thank you for the service you do for the whole industry, as well as a secondary way to the consumers, because who knows how many of these pianos would end up in the landfill, if you didn't rescue them and find people to restore them.

Bob Friedman:
That was one of the things, you just gave me chills, because that's one of the things that actually got me right in the truck also, because when the phone calls started coming in, when I was running nationwide advertising, I would say, "Well, you sure you don't want to keep it in the family?" They'd say "No, we're downsizing. And if we don't donate it, we'll just going to have somebody come and take it to landfill." I'd say, "Don't do that." So you really feel like you're not just bringing music to people, but you're keeping, especially Steinways, that are really made to last, I don't joke around, I say, it's a 300 year piano. And I mean, stuff that came out of the 1870s, people are restoring it now, 1870s, 1880s. So if it lasted that long, that means the next restoration will last that long, we won't be here, and then somebody will want it again.

Robert Estrin:
But they'll still be around. So it's a little bit of living history. And I think about the thousands of pianos that Living Pianos has restored and brought back to life and people will pass those down to future generations because they, for the most part with a few exceptions, 99% of pianos, aren't made that way anymore. It's a lost art, that hand work, and the quality of the woods and all that. Before we go, I think you had a couple of artifacts you wanted to share, is that right?

Bob Friedman:
I actually do. There's a couple stories in the book, actually, there's a story in the book, it's called, 62554, and this is the piano right here. And it was in my home for a short time and I ended up selling it and it's actually, the numbers are my birthdate backwards. And what was interesting, but sad, was that my mother had just passed away and I'd had a trip planned. So I waited a week, not quite a week, and then of course, all these appointments were set up across the country. So I had to get on with it, and it was almost three o'clock in the morning when I finally got to a gentleman's house in Cleveland, and I opened the piano and I looked and I saw the numbers backwards and I looked at him and I go, "I know those numbers," and I realized that it was my birthday backwards, almost like maybe from the piano inside looking out at me, and it was just after my mother had passed away.

Bob Friedman:
So some people think it's creepy, I don't, because I brought it home and I've actually sold it to a couple, a lawyer and accountant, male, female, a man and woman, who had a big church that they had just rebuilt. Again, I'll show you, and it looks like this, and the filagree work in the front, when I described it to them, when I advertised it, they said, "That's exactly what we're looking for because everything in the church has this design in it." So they came and they purchased it. It's a 1870s Steinway upright that was completely restored before I purchased the piano.

Bob Friedman:
Everything inside, new board block strings action, a young gentleman's father had restored the piano, his father had passed away and he sold it to me. And when I sold this piano, they wanted it bad enough to where the number that they gave me helped me with a deposit on a house that I bought, that I raised my children in. So it actually almost felt like my mother was helping me.

Robert Estrin:
How do you like that?

Bob Friedman:
If you buy the book or somebody gets their hands on the book and they read 62554, they'll understand that one.

Robert Estrin:
I'll leave you with a one interesting coincidence that we once faced. About 10 years ago, we got from completely different sources, two Steinway Model M, five foot seven grand pianos, both in mahogany. And they ended up, we were living in a live work loft in the San Diego arts district in Orange County, California at the time. And they were right next to each other. And we were shocked to discover that they were one serial number apart. They must've been next to each other in the factory floor, it was the last digit that was one off-

Bob Friedman:
And they stayed together?

Robert Estrin:
Yeah. But they weren't. They just were reunited. We just happened to get this from two different sources and there they were reunited after... So from the 1930s. Can you believe? What are the chances of that?

Bob Friedman:
That was meant for you to be there. And we've had many things that were meant for us to be there in this industry.

Robert Estrin:
Absolutely. And I hope that all the people who have pianos from you and pianos from us are still playing them and enjoying them and that future generations get to enjoy those pianos. And I want to thank you so much, Bob, for coming and joining us here-

Bob Friedman:
Thank you Robert.

Robert Estrin:
... and sharing your stories and your wonderful book, which I encourage everybody to get, The Steinway Hunter, and listen, you have a great day and we'll be in touch soon, all right? You take care.

Bob Friedman:
I look forward to it. Thanks Robert. Take care.

Robert Estrin:
All right, bye-bye.

Bob Friedman:
Bye-bye.
Find the original source of this video at this link: https://livingpianos.com/man-of-1000-steinways-the-steinway-hunter/
Post a comment, question or special request:
You may: Login as a Member  or  
Otherwise, fill the form below to post your comment:
Add your name below:


Add your email below: (to receive replies, will not be displayed or shared)


For verification purposes, please enter the word MUSIC in the field below





Comments, Questions, Requests:

sheila * VSM MEMBER * on July 14, 2021 @5:53 am PST
Loved the interview. Will definitely get the book. I have a Steinway upright 1956 which I fell in love with as soon as I touched the keys, in spite of it being very out of tune and needing work done on it. I also gazumped a buyer by offering cash for an old Gaveau, a famous French make. Loved the touch and sound. I later found out that it belonged to one of Maurice Ravel’s teachers.
reply
Robert - host, on July 14, 2021 @6:34 am PST
That's quite a lineage on the Gaveau you found!
Questions? Problems? Contact Us.
Norton Shopping Guarantee Seal