“There were 35 different kinds of pianos being used by the competitors,” he said. “It had to have been a nightmare to keep all the various brands of pianos tuned and in performance shape. They’re all different. I can’t imagine.”
Since 2001, the competition has been using exclusively Steinway pianos.
“That kind of happened gradually but it made sense as Van Cliburn and Steinway have a long history,” Saliba said.
In 1958, it was Steinway’s leaders who helped Cliburn obtain a $1,000 grant and encouraged the Texas pianist to go to Moscow for his history-making win.
Saliba had worked at Steinway Pianos in New York for 12 years when he came to Texas to open Steinway Showrooms. He first opened a high profile location in Dallas along Central Expressway.
Van Cliburn came to the opening, Saliba said.
“Van came over and played the grand opening for me,” he said. “We had private party with thousands of our closest friends and the artist on stage who was world-class.”
A couple of years later he opened a location in Fort Worth. Now, he and his son, Casey, who joined the company in 2005 as vice president of sales and marketing, have additional locations in Plano and Houston.
“We’ve done very well,” said Saliba. “That first year we did a million and a half in business and I thought that was great. Now last year, we did about $18 million.”
Saliba credits his son Casey for the increase in sales.
“I thought I was a pretty good marketer, but Casey, wow, he blows me away,” he said.
In 2019, the Fort Worth location became high profile as well, moving into 3,000 square feet of space at 510 Commerce St. in Sundance Square, just west of Bass Performance Hall.
“It’s a great location for people to see us and that was all Casey. He made it happen when that location became available,” said Saliba.
In addition to the competition using Steinways, TCU, where much of the competition will be held at the school’s new Van Cliburn Concert Hall, is an all-Steinway school.
The process for providing pianos to the competition and to the homes where the competitors stay is no easy task.
In the ’90s when Saliba was providing pianos to the host homes, he used three or four pianos per competition.
As the competition has grown and, now as the exclusive piano of the event, Saliba said Steinway provided 30 pianos to homes for the last competition.
“We then spend a good solid eight weeks getting them all ready, then we deliver them as close together as we can,” he said. “And then the tuners hit them. It’s a lot of work but that’s the name of that tune.”
Steinway provides technical services and has technicians on staff who are tuning and preparing the pianos regularly and working with the competitors on a daily basis to ensure that the pianos are in performance shape, Saliba said.
“We want to see that every competitor can do their job with the right equipment,” he said.
Saliba says that Steinway provides about $2.5 million worth of pianos to the competition on an in-kind basis.
The Van Cliburn-Steinway connection helps the competition ensure that each contestant has a concert-prepped instrument to play, said Jacques Marquis, president and CEO of the competition.
“It’s very important and a lot of work to maintain the instruments and I can’t tell you how much we appreciate their work,” he said.
Occasionally, the host home will purchase the piano that has been delivered. Usually that means the home doesn’t need a piano the next time. Usually, said Saliba.
“And so here it is, four years later, she can host another competitor and she asks when is she getting a piano,” he said. “I said, ‘Don’t you have one?’ And she said, ‘But that’s my piano. Let him beat up your piano.’ People get very attached to their pianos.”
Selling pianos that range in prices that start around $70,000 is not an easy proposition, Saliba said.
“We have people that actually reserve time after hours so the client comes in and tries the pianos we have in stock,” he said. “Each one is different and they’ll spend two, three hours in the store by themselves just playing the pianos. They may do that two or three times before they decide and even then a decision may take a while.”
But sometimes one of the company’s Art Case or designer pianos will find a customer walk in and purchase on the spot.
“You never know,” said Siliba. “Those pianos are just stunning to look at and they can create an impulse purchase.”
While the pianos are still made the old-fashioned way at Steinway, there has been new technology added that has increased their appeal.
In 2015, Steinway introduced Spirio, a sophisticated self-playing grand piano that uses a mobile app and an iPad that creates a high-resolution piano performance on a customer’s piano.
“You can have an artist playing in New York and connect with the Spirio and the customer’s piano will play that performance at the same time,” said Saliba. “I never thought I would see anything like that. It’s scary.”
The technology has changed the game for the piano company, Casey Saliba said.
Spirio can be a great teaching tool and many customers use the technology to write music as well.
“We have one piano teacher in Lubbock who uses the technology to teach students 300 miles away and the student can see her playing the piano on his piano,” he said. “It’s a game changer.”
Danny Saliba has been involved in the business for more than 40 years, he is looking forward to this edition of the Cliburn Competition.
“This year I hear the competitors at the Cliburn are better than ever,” he said. “I can’t wait to see it. It’s still exciting to see great artists at work.”
Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.