While the high ceilings, acoustically-treated walls and performance stage in Denair High School’s music room already provide a perfect instrumental hall for students, the space recently received quite the upgrade thanks to a state-of-the-art instrument gifted by one generous donor.
Now, a 113-year-old Steinway Model 0 grand piano serves as music teacher Fred Steiner’s backdrop when he logs on to Zoom calls with his students — a donation from former Turlock resident Karen Lewis, who didn’t want to sell the prized possession upon moving to Pacific Grove.
When Lewis realized there wouldn’t be room for the Steinway in her new home, she decided to donate it to Denair Unified School District. Lewis and her husband, Jeffrey, had met DUSD Superintendent Terry Metzger numerous times through Jeffrey’s work as CEO for Legacy Health Endowment in Turlock, Lewis said, and knew students there could benefit from the piano.
“I did not want to sell this piano because its value to me is priceless and I really wanted her to go somewhere where she would be used,” Lewis said, and added that her Turlock home was located within DUSD. “It just made sense.”
According to Lewis, the piano was made in 1907 and her family acquired it in the 1960s. The Steinway and its matching bench seat are made from mahogany and are in nearly-perfect condition aside from a few minor scratches on the legs. Used, the piano is worth $20,000 or more. New Steinways can cost over $70,000.
Steiner, who came to Denair this year from Palos Verdes, referred to Steinway pianos as “the cream of the crop.” This wasn’t the first time he’s seen a piano donated over the course of his 26-year teaching career, he said, but it is the first time a program of his has received a Steinway. He added that both high school and middle school students will benefit from the donation.
“I’ve seen generosity over and over again and this is just another sterling example of that,” Steiner said. “This is such a tremendous situation for student musicians. No matter where they’re from and no matter what their background is, they deserve an opportunity to really enjoy something they can rely on. That’s the signature characteristic of Steinways — musicians who have had the opportunity to play on them know they can rely on them, and they have a reputation for being the best pianos on the planet.”
The Steinway was not just a piano for Lewis, but part of her family. It was often the piece visitors gravitated toward when they needed somewhere comfortable to sit, and Lewis could always tell her daughter’s mood from the song she was playing on the piano. The piano even provided music when Lewis and her husband were married in their home, but these days it hasn’t been played much.
“Someone asked me if (donating the piano) was bitter sweet, and it really wasn’t. It was all sweet...I don’t play piano anymore and my children don’t live with me. Now it can be used to its highest purpose,” Lewis said. “It was more than a possession. It was really, truly there for all of us. I don’t miss it because I can visualize where it is and how it’s going to be used. That gives me a lot of joy.”
The piano was moved from Turlock to Denair by Clyde Hendrickson of Hendrickson’s Turlock Music on Sept. 8. The 600-pound Steinway was also assessed by Jacob Erwin of Erwin’s Music in Modesto, who said the piano is in good condition given its age. When students return to the classroom and are able to play the Steinway, Steiner knows it will have a lasting impact.
“It’s a beautiful instrument but it's also a wonderful musical tool that will never be an obstacle for anybody who’s making music in the classroom,” he said. “As long as it’s loved and cared for and protected from damage, it’s going to outlive me and everybody else for at least a few generations to come.”