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In recent weeks I have seen two music-related documentaries whose subjects - the octogenarian rock singers of "Young@Heart" and the teen rock-wannabes of "Girls Rock!" - were deserving of better treatment than the filmmakers gave them.

Too bad they didn't have filmmaker Ben Niles in their corner. Niles brings considerable affection and an eye for gorgeous detail to "Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037," so much that you wonder what he could do with a subject who can talk.

This documentary takes us into the Queens, N.Y., factory of Steinway & Sons and follows the manufacturing process of a 9-foot grand piano. This may sound like a topic for a school film strip, not the raw material for a great movie. But that's because you don't know how a Steinway is made - mostly by hand, by men and women who learned their craft from their predecessors and will pass them down (I hope) to those who follow.

It takes a year to make one of these 9-foot grands, and the first step in itself is amazing to watch: the rim of the piano case, made from wood strips laminated into one long piece and bent into shape by a dozen burly guys with clamps and other tools.

Niles talks to the workers who build the Steinway - a miniature United Nations, representing a couple dozen nationalities - and finds a group of people dedicated to their work and their final product. He also talks to pianists, from classical performers Hélène Grimaud and Lang Lang to jazzmen Hank Jones and Harry Connick Jr., who speak glowingly about finding the right piano. (Some of the movie's funniest moments come when Niles watches French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, seeking the perfect instrument for a Carnegie Hall recital, walking through Steinway's Manhattan showroom and proverbially kicking the tires.)

With its precise editing and thoughtful storytelling, "Note by Note" is a celebration of craftsmanship - of a piano and of film.


* SEAN P. MEANS can be reached at or 801-257-8602. Send comments about this review to

Meet the star of the show

The "star" of the documentary "Note by Note," Steinway piano model L1037, will be on display for a week in the lobby of the Broadway Centre Cinemas, 111 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City. Jason Hardink, Utah Symphony principal keyboardist, will perform on the Steinway before the 7 p.m. screenings of the movie today and Saturday. Tickets are $10 for those screenings. Light refreshments will be served.

Note by Note

The Making of Steinway L1037

* WHERE: Broadway Centre Cinemas.

* WHEN: Opens today.

* RATING: Not rated, but probably G.

* RUNNING TIME: 81 minutes.

* BOTTOM LINE: A well-constructed documentary about the craftspeople behind a precision musical instrument.