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Producer's notebook: why I had to make the trip to Titusville, PA

Travelling for a story is important but it's also time-consuming and expensive. Producer Andrea Bellemare talks about why the trip to interview David Steinbuhler and tour his factory in Pennsylvania was so vital to the making of her documentary.
David Steinbuhler at work in his factory in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

I was standing in the middle of a factory surrounded by ribbon weaving machines, watching yards and yards of bright rows whipping out of machines, in pink, red, white, yellow, multi-coloured waves. Beyond those machines were rows and rows of spindles of thread and stacked boxes of ribbons, ready for shipping. I didn't expect that a radio documentary about pianos would have led me to the heart of Pennsylvania's oil country, and to a family factory that makes ribbons, cloth tape.

Right hands,wrong piano

The piano was built for the larger hands of a man, and that leaves a lot of women and smaller-handed men struggling to play. But with the help of one Canadian, everything could change. Listen to the documentary →

I was there with David Steinbuhler, whose family has owned that factory in Titusville, PA, for decades. We were on our way to see the workshop, in a small corner of the factory, where he's been labouring away for 25 years on a passion project unconnected to the family business. Steinbuhler has been making and refining small piano keyboards so that pianists with smaller hands can feel the power and control their larger-handed colleagues do on a regular-size keyboard.

I grew up playing the piano, but I struggled with larger reaches and chords, especially as I progressed to more difficult music. Some pieces I couldn't play as written. When I came across small piano keyboards in the comments of blog post about designing better for women, I knew I had to find out more.

David is the technical mind behind the Donison-Steinbhuler Standard, a trademarked name and method to standardize smaller keyboards so people with smaller hands can play more easily.

Before heading to his piano workshop on the mezzanine, David was showing me the machines in the rest of his factory. It was fascinating, because we so rarely get a chance to see where the things we use daily are made. More importantly, it showed me a side of David I'd never have seen if I had done an interview with him through a remote studio connection.
David Steinbuhler

At one point, it seemed that might have been the option I would have to go with to get the tape I needed. Travelling for a story is important but it's also time-consuming and expensive. I had already flown across the country from Toronto to Victoria to interview Christopher Donison (the other half of the DS Standard) and Linda Gould (a pianist who had to stop playing due to injuries). Another trip might be out of the budget, which I had already exceeded.

But, it just had to happen. My mentor Alison Cook and I decided it was important for me visit David too, after I told her about the phone conversation I had had with him. We had been focusing on Christopher's story, because he had come up with the idea and gotten the first piano with a small keyboard built, but David talked about overcoming personal hardships, sending his family to rehab and finding God in his work to build these pianos. A studio interview with David was not going to cut it.

I knew that I couldn't do this story without going to see him and honouring the efforts he had put in for 25 years. It wouldn't have been a balanced story and it wouldn't have helped listeners to understand what was at stake, to say nothing of the sound I was able to gather in the factory.

While I was there, I saw a whole corner filled with unused, brightly-coloured machines that were about chest high. These machines, which David had invented, were used to tie little ribbons into bows, that could be sewn onto lingerie or doll's clothing. David said the machines weren't in use anymore because factories in China could do the same thing for cheaper. He couldn't compete with cheap mass-production, but he could specialize — and that led him to work on pianos.
Linda Gould sits at the bench of her her DS Standard piano in her living room in Victoria, B.C. Gould bought the first commercially available smaller keyboard, after injuries forced her to abandon her dreams of being a concert pianist.

In all, I spent around eight hours at David's home and touring his factory in Titusville, gathering tape, taking photos, asking questions. Those little details informed how I approached my piece when I got home and set down to write my script and picked which clips to use. I knew what mattered, I could picture where David sat down to work, I knew what I wanted people to feel and see and hear.

My job as a storyteller is to bring listeners along on a journey with me, through sound and characters and narrative. I'm lucky that the people I spoke to for this documentary invited me into their lives, their homes, and shared their day with me so I could make a story about something they're incredibly passionate about.

I hope someday that alternatively size keyboards are widely available — but it might take years longer to make any headway. I didn't really understand that until I was standing in that factory, looking at the machines, the sawdust on the floor, the box of uncut ebony. Sometimes, you just have to be there.

About the author

Andrea Bellemare
Andrea Bellemare is a reporter and producer with the CBC Kitchener­ Waterloo radio and digital station, where she's worked for the past three years, focusing on tech and transit stories.

Before joining CBC K­W, she worked online with the CBC Trending team, where she produced the award­-winning Human Library interactive national video chat, and in TV at CBC News Network as a chase producer, writer, story editor and control room producer. Andrea has also reported for the wire service Agence France­-Presse.

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