The Business of Beautiful Sound

The Business of Beautiful Sound
Faust Harrison Pianos is one of the top Steinway restorers. (American Essence)
Catherine Yang

As a solo concert pianist, Sara Faust had as one of her first pianos a Steinway & Sons from the 1970s—a notoriously poor era for Steinway. “I just want a great, old piano, if I could find it,” she would say to her husband, Irving. She didn’t know what that meant at the time, just that she'd had teachers with Steinways that sounded worlds apart from hers.

“I started this business to search for the perfect piano for myself,” said Sara. She and her husband are co-founders of Faust Harrison Pianos, one of the nation’s largest carriers of quality pianos. Today the operation boasts a 12,000-square-foot piano rebuilding facility and five showrooms, in Manhattan; White Plains, New York; Melville, New York; Fairfield, Connecticut; and Paramus, New Jersey. The company carries everything from digital and starter uprights to high-end concert Bosendorfer and Fazioli grands, and, of course, the rebuilt heirloom Steinways that Faust Harrison Pianos have become well-known for. The family business—their daughter Jessica runs the internet sales department and their son Joshua is now the CEO—goes four decades back.

Sara Faust, founder of Faust Harrison Pianos. (American Essence)
Sara Faust, founder of Faust Harrison Pianos. (American Essence)

Chasing the ‘Golden Age’ Sound

“You have to find a piano that when you sit down and play it, it speaks to you. It moves something inside you, it becomes your friend, your mate, it helps you play, it draws you to it because you love the sound,” Sara said. “Fine pianos have souls. They have beauty, they have warmth, they’re expressive, and they should be an extension of someone’s hand.”

Between the 1890s and the 1940s, Steinway’s artisanship had culminated into what people would come to refer to as the builder’s “golden age.” The instruments were handcrafted, and the German-American company founded in Manhattan was in possession of its own foundry where it manufactured its own cast iron plates. These plates, or harps, are often called the “heart” of a piano, and the ones that weren’t up to scratch were sent back. Steinway eventually had to sell off the foundry, and the manufacturing of many piano parts became semiautomated, so the instruments in the decades following this golden age experienced a severe drop in sound and quality.

Sara Faust, founder of Faust Harrison Pianos. (American Essence)
Sara Faust, founder of Faust Harrison Pianos. (American Essence)

Sara and Irving hadn’t known this when they began, but they would soon learn. Their pre-internet business began in the early 1980s, “a real mom-and-pop shop,” Sara said. Sara asked Irving to find her a good, old Steinway, so they went to piano rebuilders, but she couldn’t find an instrument with the sound she was imagining. Eventually they found an old Steinway that hadn’t been rebuilt, but it became evident that it needed to be rebuilt, thus beginning their deep dive into understanding what makes for a great piano. Along the way, they learned who the good vendors and technicians were; and Sara, an artist, and Irving, a scientist with an academic career, learned how to build pianos and run a business.

The first piano they rebuilt was good but not great, Irving said, and they sold it not long after, while continuing the search for this elusive piano. Every Steinway can be different, and not all vintages are good. The studio of their apartment became dedicated to this project, and with each Steinway they rebuilt, they became more knowledgeable. Irving would comb through the classified ads to see what was for sale, as there was no go-to place to source old pianos back then (though Faust Harrison Pianos has become one such destination). Sara would sell the pianos as she sought out the next rebuilding project, and after a few pianos, the Fausts realized there was a decent profit. They opened a small showroom in Manhattan and started working with additional brands beyond Steinway, picking instruments with a sound that met Sara’s level of musical discernment.

“That’s how the business began. And each year we did something else, more pianos, more space,” Irving said. Quality has been central to the operation since the beginning, and integrity has naturally followed. The retailer aims to sell the best pianos in each category and price point, and if the pianos are used, they should be in a healthy condition so that the company won’t mind buying them back 10 years down the road. Today the business is internationally acknowledged as one of the top retailers, and as such, Faust Harrison Pianos has its pick of brands to work with.

(American Essence)
(American Essence)

A Sudden Career

Sara was one whom some might call a prodigy, taking to music at an early age as naturally as breathing. “I never didn’t know how to play the piano,” Sara said. Her uncle had a piano, and she would visit and play what he played; at age 5, she gave her first performance.

But she, like many children, didn’t like to practice. Sara played, but not seriously, even though she had a scholarship to Juilliard. “My teachers were always very frustrated,” she said. She ended up quitting completely and didn’t play through college. Then one day, after her third child was born, Sara woke up and decided she wanted to be a pianist.

She called up Eugene List, a pianist with a storied career who had been an old teacher of hers, and asked, “Eugene, do you think I could be a pianist? A real pianist?” He hadn’t taken her seriously because she never practiced. He said “Sure!” and Sara took it at face value. By then, she was in her mid-20s, but she didn’t realize that classical musicians didn’t start their careers so late.

“I figured, OK, he said sure, so I'll start practicing,” Sara said. She got a babysitter for her youngest, and every day between 9 a.m. and noon she started practicing seriously. She practiced hard and practiced efficiently, and the three-hour sessions would leave her exhausted mentally and physically. “I was very lucky that I had a natural facility,” Sara added, holding up her hands. Her hands were small, but they were strong, fast, controlled, and muscled, and afforded her the ability to do many things on the piano that someone else might not have been able to. Many at that age, with twice the number of hours of practice, would not be able to accomplish what she did.

“I started entering competitions, I started winning competitions, and Eugene List scratched his head. ‘Where did this come from? Where were you when you were studying?’” One of those competitions landed her management, and she was soon performing concerts all over the country. Sara did well, and she had fans (some who would propose after concerts), though all her old recordings have since deteriorated. She was known for her Chopin—“Chopin, as far as I’m concerned, wrote for me”—and she loved the Romantics.

“And then I quit,” Sara said. “Because I didn’t like to practice.” She had many other interests, and music, though it was special and part of her core makeup, was just one of them. Her sudden interest in a career in performance must have been triggered by her biological clock, she said, because she truly did wake up one day and seize the idea. And it was a wonderful part of her life.

“I had a very sheltered childhood,” Sara said. Her parents were incredibly protective of her, as they had both lost children with other partners. “My parents were Holocaust survivors, and their whole families were wiped out, so I don’t really have any relatives. They met in a displaced persons camp after the war, and they got married there, and that’s where I was born.” She came to the United States when she was 1 1/2 years old.

“That’s why I felt it was OK to have children,” she said with a smile. “I just made up some family members, and we wanted them. I was an only child and didn’t have relatives; I wanted kids.” Her parents had Sara later in life, but they lived long lives; her father passed away at 106 and her mother at 98. The family was close-knit, and that value has stuck with Sara. Holidays were always spent together, and her work ethic and entrepreneurship were instilled in her from her upbringing as well. “I didn’t talk about my background until a few years ago; I just would have never mentioned it. Then after my parents died, I started talking about it.”

When Sara says that her childhood was sheltered, she means she didn’t even learn how to ride a bike. Then she got married young, and she had children young. Her career was an exploration of her own interests and not something she wanted to spend a lifetime in. Among her many interests is sports, particularly fast-paced ones. “I love sports and all things sports,” she said. For one of her birthdays, her children brought her to a track where she could race Formula One cars. “I learned to ski, I learned to snowboard, I learned to kayak and paddleboard and skydive, and do all these things as an adult. Then I got into racquetball and competitions, and tennis and squash.” Most recently, she’s been sculling—where a rower perches on a long boat narrower than a surfboard and propels her way through the water with oars.

Sara hasn’t been a pianist for 35 years. Today when she plays, it’s just for her 7-month-old grandson.

The Family Business

When the pandemic hit and things closed down, it was a scary moment for most everyone, the Fausts included. The business had grown to have 40 employees, Irving said, and they kept paying the salaries on top of all their rent. “It’s a scary feeling, but we got through it pretty quickly,” he said. For the piano business, unlike a number of other industries, things went well during the pandemic.

After being cooped up at home for weeks, anyone with an inclination toward playing music started shopping for instruments. Digital pianos were bought online or by phone, and later on, the piano showrooms reopened by appointment only. Demand far outpaced supply, especially with shipping delays worldwide, and they still have pianos waiting in shipping containers, weeks delayed, Irving said. And as usual, the Fausts attributed their happy outcomes to fate and having done the right thing, rather than any specific clever strategy. “We were lucky; we were really lucky to be in a situation like that,” Irving said. “Business has been booming.”

The business is truly a family business, but it wasn’t planned that way. Joshua, the Fausts’ second son, was an athlete and studied entomology in school, and he moved to the other side of the country upon graduation. Like his siblings, he grew up in an apartment with pianos—ones being sold, ones being practiced on. He wanted to get away from the family business. “Then I had my first child,” he said. He started to think about raising a family, and realized that there was a lot he could do with the piano business his parents still worked on. It’s thanks to Joshua that the business has expanded in the way that it has, with his knack for hiring and structuring, and adding storefront locations. “Growth for growth’s sake isn’t interesting to me; efficiency is interesting to me,” he said. His sister Jessica, the youngest, runs the internet sales department and other operations in the company.

(American Essence)
(American Essence)

There are different perspectives and personalities to manage, but the different strengths and weaknesses can be a plus. While Sara never forgets a piano, Joshua doesn’t deal with the instruments at all. “If my son gave you a tour, you'd think it was a different company completely,” Sara said. Irving, on the other hand, enjoys the creativity needed in finding technical solutions, discussing the intricacies of creating a good sound board, why they only use hand-wound brass strings, and efficiencies technicians have discovered.

“When it’s family, you trust them completely,” Sara says. “They’re just as interested as you are in making the right decisions.”

Catherine Yang is a reporter for The Epoch Times based in New York.
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