Bill Youse is shouting.
“Hold on!” he says. He’s being drowned out by the sound of the factory whistle at Steinway & Sons’ headquarters in Queens, New York. He waits a moment, the whistle dies down, and he’s back to his natural friendly tone. “It’s the signal for break,” he explains, a little apologetically. And the mind wanders for a moment, thinking about how many times Youse has heard that haunting, historic whistle over the forty years he’s worked with the legendary piano manufacturer.
To say Steinway has been a part of the Youse family history is quite an understatement. No less than four generations of Youse men have made their living in the Astoria factory. Bill, now Director of Technical Services and Special Projects, is third in the line; his son Michael, a craftsman in the pattern shop and a ten-year Steinway veteran, is fourth.
But it’s Bill who can—so far—claim the longest tenure. As he celebrates his fourth decade with Steinway, the man once known around the factory as “The Kid” thinks about how sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
In 1947, George Youse, Bill’s grandfather, completed a training program at the Lighthouse to learn how to tune pianos. George was blind; he had recently lost his sight due to a degenerative retinal condition. He didn’t handle the vision loss well until he found his way to the Steinway factory and settled into a career as a piano tuner.
This was during a post-war boom in which sales at the factory were skyrocketing. Customers were waiting impatiently for their Steinway pianos, even the premier Model D grands, which in those days boasted a retail price of $6,900.
So there was plenty of work for George. The issue was transportation. The daily commute from George’s home in the Bronx to Astoria was becoming tedious for his son, Bill Youse Sr. (as he was later known once his own son Bill started at Steinway), who had taken on the task of driving his father to work, over the congested Triborough Bridge, before returning to his own job with Bronx-based Mapes Piano Strings and rushing back to fetch George in the evening. Four trips over the bridge each day was a problem, and after several years of this, Bill Sr. had had enough. The solution? Simple. He would join his father George at the Steinway factory and cut his transportation time in half.
Bill Sr. started at the factory in 1955 as a machine worker, operating equipment that produced part of the satin piano finishing for which Steinway is famous. He held the same position until he was eventually elected to run the factory workers’ union. He worked with Steinway through a number of historic moments in company history, including the switch away from ivory keys, the diversification of the workforce following the Civil Rights movement, and the legendary Van Cliburn Steinway performance at the Tchaikovsky piano competition that is credited with helping to thaw Cold War tensions.
“He never really left here,” Bill says today of his father. “He worked right up until about a year before his death. And because of his role with the union, his work was not confined to the factory walls. It came home with him, quite often—phone calls and meetings and the like. I always remember Steinway as a part of our lives. Always.”
In 1973, Bill himself (“The Kid,” or Bill Youse Jr., as he would soon be known) had just graduated an aircraft mechanic’s program. But this was during the infamous oil crisis, when gas lines wound around city blocks and careers in transportation were not looking good. Airlines were laying off mechanics, not hiring them. Meanwhile Steinway, having recently added two additional floors to the factory to increase manufacturing by 20%, was hiring.
Bill remembers the moment. “My father said to me, ‘You’re not going to wait around for aircraft jobs to open up. I’ve got something you can do.’ And I agreed—I needed work. But I didn’t plan to stay with pianos for long. I told my father I would do it for one year, and then return to aviation.” He laughs. “Yeah. That was forty years ago,” he says. “The Kid” has now worked nearly every job in the Steinway factory—starting with routine facilities maintenance and moving up through packing and driving before being recognized for his initiative and placed on “the bench,” learning the highly skilled piano craft work for which Steinway is known. He worked in the color matching department and the action department before being selected for an apprenticeship that taught him so much about every aspect of the piano construction process that he was highly suited for his next gig, as a restoration specialist. He now directs restoration services, where he has overseen rehabilitation of some of the most famous pianos in the company’s history, including the White House piano; a Smithsonian heirloom piano that spent much of its life in Congress; and a storied Motown piano that was originally built in the 1870s.
“The list, quite frankly, is long and impressive,” he says, when asked about notable pianos that have moved through his department. “If it came back here to be restored, I’ve had a hand in it.”
In addition to the famous pianos, artists, and craftsmen he has worked with, Bill has also worked with plenty of changes in the Steinway operation through the years. “When I started, the Steinway family still owned the business,” he remembers. “Then it went to CBS and through two other sales before it went public and then went through its most recent sale. I’ve been here through all those transitions.”
There have been other developments, too: new technologies, a more diverse workforce, sophisticated equipment additions. But one thing has remained the same, according to Bill. “The core of what a Steinway piano is comes from the people who build it. You can change management styles, you can change owners, you can bring in all kinds of machinery—but there is still a big, big, big portion of this piano that’s created by hand. And that part is driven by desire.”
“You can’t make someone want to do a good job,” he continues. “Maybe they’ll do a good job, but you can’t make them want to. I think the constant here is that we have been very fortunate in getting the kind of people who really want to do a good job. We work here because we want to be craftsmen. We want to turn out the best piano in the world. The craftsmen on the bench are the people who have made this what it is.”
“Look, this is a factory. It’s hard work,” Bill says. “You have to love it to stay for decades, like many people do. You have to love this or you wouldn’t stay for that kind of time.”
Like forty years? “Yes,” he replies. “Like forty years.” In fact, Bill is hoping to make it to fifty, for a few reasons. “Well, for one thing, retiring in New York is an expensive proposition,” he says, laughing. “But it’s not just that. I would love to be counted as one of the people who made fifty years with Steinway & Sons.” He pauses. “That would be nice,” he says quietly.
And if anything were to get in the way of that goal, Bill says, it won’t be the company. “I guess it will come down to physical ability, my own limitations. Steinway will be here for as long as I can do my job. It will be here and be strong for quite a few years going forward.”
Which is a good thing for Bill Youse. And for Michael Youse. And for all the Youses to come.