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Arts & Culture

Through Steinway, Buffalo SEM invests in music education

Buffalo SEM

Buffalo Seminary has become an officially committed Steinway Select School. What does that mean? As WBFO’s Nick Lippa reports, the partnership will allow SEM to offer new student scholarships for incoming freshmen and will help replace SEM’s old pianos with new Steinways.

Steinway is world renowned for quality pianos and when it comes to education, having it available for performances, let alone rehearsals, can be a big boost not only for learning, but the image of a music department.

How did the designation come together for Buffalo Seminary? Erin Kelly, SEM's Director of Communication, explained.

“I read somewhere that someone was having a Steinway concert in Buffalo as part of their education initiative and I thought, ‘What is that? I work in this building with ten pianos. Maybe we could be part of whatever that is.’ So I jumped up from my computer where I was reading online and I ran all over the building counting pianos and taking pictures of the insides of them and divined at that moment that we had four Steinways in this building. I emailed Steinway right away and said, ‘I teach at this girls school in Buffalo, New York. We have pianos of varying ages and sizes and shapes and four of them are Steinways.’ And they wrote back to me in two seconds and put me in touch with their education man,” Kelly said.

Buffalo Seminary Director of Music Roland Martin said that education man came and looked at their pianos around the school. Most were showing their age.

“We thought, well the one in the chapel is pretty good. He said, ‘Hmmm take a look at it. Peer at the soundboard. You can see the floor through the cracks in the soundboard.' And he said, ‘You know? The soundboard is the soul of the piano, and yours are cracked,’” Martin laughed.

Martin said he feels it will be a great recruitment tool and show off the school's support for the arts.

“There are so many girls who grow up studying piano. And many of them stop, but when they see a beautiful piano sitting there, they are tempted. They are encouraged to play. Right at the beginning of the school year, our first day here, I made an announcement,” he said. “That one is here for you to play. Play it.”

One of those girls is Katie Bergstrom, who has played piano for the past eight years. Her first piano experiences were on a keyboard at her grandmother’s house. That’s what started her emotional connection to the instrument.

Now she is working on music by Claude Debussy, which she began playing earlier this year.

Katie playing some Debussy

“It’s almost a different experience. It’s hard to explain,” Bergstrom said. “It’s an out of body experience almost. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s really cool to just be there and be like with the sound.”

Bergstrom said the Steinway feels more professional.

“I’m really playing rather than just practicing or messing around,” she said.

There are less than 20 Steinway Select Schools in the United States. When you become a Steinway school, you slowly transition to having only Steinway pianos, with a few exceptions. Buffalo Seminary has a few of their pianos grandfathered in to their school but when it comes for the need to upgrade their aging instruments, this is a big help.

“Many of them are not worth having around,” Martin said. “Certainly not worth the space they take up.”

Martin added it’s also a great way to attract international students. Twenty percent of their student body is residential. That’s about 40 girls now. That includes Lucy, who is a current sophomore from China. She said having a Steinway helps develop her musicianship. 

Lucy playing the piano

“Of course this piano is good,” Lucy said. “If you just play on the keyboard, it’s more like electronic music.”

The school's goal is to have three or four Steinways by the end of the process and will provide their first music scholarship as a school in 168 years.

The unofficial school anthem is Jerusalem, which is the William Blake poem... There's a whole moment where everyone sings it at the reunion dinners. It's the great unifying force, the music of SEM.

“Thirty-four scholarships. This is the first one that specifically for music. The SEM Steinway scholarship. Students will be submitting an audition tape and Mr. Martin is going to have to judge it,” Kelly said.

So far, Kelly said kids have been intimidated at first by the new Steinway.

“I’ve heard everything from Debussy to 'Bohemian Rhapsody.' They are all approaching it and sort of tinkling on it. I’ve heard a lot of 'Heart and Soul.' Because they are waiting and really careful. The pianos up here in the music room,” Kelly points to an older piano, “they bang on them and they have a lot of fun with them. But they are really showing some very careful respect in their approach to the brand new Steinway.”

And for Buffalo Seminary, Kelly believes having quality pianos contributes significantly to the daily life of the schools.

“This is a place of music and it always has been. I spent a lot of time in the old yearbooks because I’m a communications person. I’m always finding old pictures. SEM has been a place that has valued music since it was founded in 1851," Kelly said. "We start every day with music. We all meet in the chapel. The entire school faculty and students. We meet at 7:50 in the morning. Mr. Martin plays. There are about five songs of repertoire. A repertoire of five songs that everyone learns and everyone knows. The unofficial school anthem is Jerusalem, which is the William Blake poem. And every alum comes back and signs it in June. There’s a whole moment where everyone sings it at the reunion dinners. It’s the great unifying force, the music of SEM.”

Buffalo Seminary’s entrance and scholarship exam is Dec. 14 and girls wanting to apply for the SEM-Steinway scholarship will have to have taken the exam to be considered. This applies for the class of 2024.

Scholarships to the first round of applicants will be given. Applications are due before Christmas.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.