Rhapsody in Greene
By ANDREW MCGINN
The first time Tom Hinote, the piano tuner with the best-ever name, walked into the music department at Jefferson-Scranton High School, he was dismayed to discover a “great big Fila tennis shoe print” on the lid of the grand piano.
To someone like Hinote who knows their pianos, it was a bit like finding out that kids were taking turns climbing on the hood of a Rolls-Royce.
For 45 years, whether they’ve known it or not, high school music students in Jefferson have had at their fingers an instrument of exquisite caliber: a seven-foot Steinway Model B grand piano.
“Having a masterpiece like that with high school kids,” Hinote said, “is probably not the best place for it.”
For more than a decade, Hinote tuned and repaired pianos to supplement his ministry. He’s now senior pastor at the Sanctuary on East Lincoln Way.
A lot of schools, he said, have grand pianos.
“This is the only one that had something like a Steinway,” he said, speaking from personal experience.
If purchased new today, the school’s Steinway B would cost, get ready for it, more than $101,000.
“It’s just an amazing instrument that produces a tone and a resonance you just won’t find anywhere,” Hinote said.
That alone makes it worth resuscitating.
The piano has, for the better part of a decade, been in a sort of coma in a corner of the music department, its ivories no longer ticklish.
It’s now so out of tune that to play it is to risk angering the spirit of Rachmaninoff himself.
A $20,000 grant awarded March 25 by the Greene County Community Foundation will enable the Greene County High School music department to restore the 1974 Steinway B back to showroom brilliance in time for the 2020 opening of a new high school — one of the crown jewels of which will be a 700-seat, $2.85 million performing arts center.
The 760-pound grand piano soon will be moved to Crowson Piano Service in Ankeny, where it will undergo a $28,015 rebuild and refinish, including a fresh satin ebony makeover.
On a recent visit to the music department, vocal music director David Heupel had to clear away the books that had accumulated on the closed, covered lid.
The piano is now the area’s classiest and most expensive shelf.
“It’s like putting a cover on a Rolls-Royce and then keeping all your laundry on it,” Heupel said.
Heupel is in his 20th year as choral director in Jefferson, and the Steinway has been unplayable for about half that time.
“It’s a little twangy,” he said, pressing down on a few of the keys.
It got to the point, Heupel explained, where Hinote would come and tune it, only for it to be out of tune again the next day.
“He said there was no point in tuning it,” Heupel said.
The primary problem was that the wood block holding the tuning pins was deteriorating, recalled Hinote, who got out of the piano tuning and restoration business about five years ago.
That part of the high school, built in the 1960s, isn’t climate-controlled.
Also — and primarily because a public high school ain’t Juilliard — the accumulated wear and tear was finally taking a toll.
“It had just suffered all manner of abuse,” Hinote said.
The new high school, to be located on the north edge of Jefferson along U.S. Highway 30, will be climate-controlled throughout.
As an added measure, Crowson Piano Service will be installing a humidity control system in the piano as part of its work.
The new performing arts center will also have a designated parking spot in the wings for the grand piano, Heupel said, reducing the need to wheel it around.
“I’m thrilled they’re going to have it restored,” Hinote said.
For 166 years, a grand piano crafted by Steinway & Sons in either New York or Hamburg, Germany, has been the gold standard of concert pianos.
Virtuoso Franz Liszt, who was the closest thing to a rock star in the 1800s, favored Steinway pianos.
Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose third piano concerto even after 110 years still presents the ultimate challenge to concert soloists, once called Steinway pianos “perfect in every way.”
They’d probably be aghast to learn that deep within Greene County High School’s Steinway, one of the hammers — the one for high C — broke at some point and was replaced with a plastic drinking straw. So, yes, pressing the highest key in turn activates a straw with a felt head attached to it, a fix that was as ingenious as it was thrifty.
Opening the lid is almost like opening a time capsule.
“There’s a ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ ticket in there,” Heupel pointed out. “We did that in 2002.
“It’s amazing what collects.”
The restoration of the school’s Steinway has been a long time coming, according to Heupel.
For several years, a silent auction at the music department’s Dessert Concert has generated money for the project, but it may have taken 20 years or more to amass the amount given by the Community Foundation.
“That was a shot in the arm,” Heupel said.
The project received the largest shot of funding at this year’s Community Foundation awards night, and may very well be one of the more unique projects ever funded by the foundation.
“It’s nice to know there’s a lot of excitement for it,” Heupel said. “You say Steinway, you know exactly what you’re talking about.”
How the high school came to even own a Steinway is somewhat unclear.
It initially was thought to have been donated to the school by Doris and Bill McGregor, of Jefferson.
But newspaper reports in 1974 show that it was purchased at a cost of more than $6,000 — by 1975, a new Steinway B cost $8,900, according to the company — through the generosity of individual residents and community groups, including Rotary Club, Jaycees and the Greene County Arts Council.
That price sounds like a steal, but consider the average household income in 1974 was just $11,100.
The largest benefactor, the Jefferson All-School Homecoming Reunion Committee, contributed $3,000, viewing the Steinway as a lasting benefit not only to the school, but to the community, according to one report.
What the reports fail to mention is who the school district actually bought the Steinway from — was it from a showroom or from the McGregors? A later blurb in the paper suggests that the McGregors still had a Steinway in their home as of 1977.
What we do know for certain is that the school’s new grand piano was given a proper unveiling in February 1975 as part of the Greene County Arts Council’s 1975 season. Sedmara Zakarian Rutstein, a Soviet concert pianist who immigrated to the U.S. in 1974 and was serving as artist-in-residence at Grinnell College, officially put the Steinway through its paces in the high school auditorium.
If the school’s Steinway had any faults even then, it’s that it was produced during the company’s controversial “Teflon era.”
Between 1962 and 1982, Steinway used some plastic parts because they’re not as affected by humidity. But over time Teflon bushings reportedly became the source of clacking noises.
As part of the piano’s upcoming rebuild, Crowson Piano Service will be replacing all Teflon parts with quiet cloth/felt versions.
On one hand, a Steinway may seem unnecessarily showy for a small high school in farm country — but in 1974, Jefferson’s high school music program was arguably second to none.
The program was a Steinway in a world of Yamahas.
With Jack Oatts still leading the instrumental program, and Bob Becker directing the choirs, Jefferson was known for music throughout the state.
Restoring the piano is as much about honoring that history as anything, according to Heupel.
“Whether it was donated or purchased, what a great thing to have,” he said.
Heupel has made his own contributions to the department’s storied history, repeatedly leading the school’s vocal jazz ensemble, the Greene County Jazzatonics, to the Iowa Vocal Jazz Championships, including again this spring.
Heupel already is at work planning the first concert for once the new high school opens and the Steinway returns to Jefferson.
He has commissioned Iowa composer Elaine Hagenberg to compose a new piece for choir and piano.
“She’s a pianist as well,” Heupel noted, “so maybe she’d like to play a little.”
On this day, with the junk cleared off the top and the grand’s lid propped open, Heupel couldn’t help but be impressed by the sight.
“I’m going to leave it like that for a while,” he proclaimed. “It looks so much more important that way.”