A Piano Novice Strikes Just the Right Chord

Dewberry's fingers tickle the ivories during his piano lessons, helping him achieve a lifelong goal of learning to play.
Dewberry's fingers tickle the ivories during his piano lessons, helping him achieve a lifelong goal of learning to play. "Tickled to death" is how the university benefactor and Northern Virginia businessman describes himself after helping to raise money to purchase the Steinways. (Susan Biddle - Twp)
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 16, 2007

The story began nearly six decades ago with a young man's dream to play piano. Its most dramatic chapter ends this month with 16 sleek, black Steinway grand pianos, each worth tens of thousands of dollars.

"If you really want to hear what makes a Steinway a Steinway," George Mason University keyboard studies professor Linda Apple Monson said on a recent morning as her fingers danced across the keys of one of the new pianos, summoning the delicate notes of a Chopin piece. "Oh! That singing quality."

The young man is now 79, an "old person," as he puts it, and a novice pianist. Sidney O. Dewberry, who made his fortune helping design and engineer developments including Pentagon City and Montgomery Village, took up the instrument four years ago under Monson's tutelage. This spring, he raised the money to bring the Steinways to GMU.

When the final three Steinways are delivered this month and the 350-student music department's upright pianos are gone, GMU will join the ranks of "all-Steinway" schools, a list that includes the Juilliard School, Yale University and the University of Maryland. Monson and her students -- who describe the handmade Steinways as having a "richer, rounder tone," "variety of color" and "more action" -- say the title is a badge of honor. To GMU officials, it is a key recruiting tool for a school that has long strived to transform its identity from suburban commuter campus to first-class university.

"I'm tickled to death," said Dewberry, a white-haired man with a gentle smile and a drawl that betrays his southern Virginia roots. "This performing arts school, I think, is going to really help Mason come into its own as a cultural institution."

That is what Dewberry wants. A George Washington University graduate, he founded his Fairfax County-based engineering and architecture firm, now named Dewberry, in 1956. He joined the GMU foundation board in the 1980s, figuring that a thriving university would only aid Northern Virginia's economy and his business. Dewberry became a top fundraiser for the school, served as chairman of its board of trustees and is now the outgoing rector of its board of visitors.

But the story of the Steinways started long ago.

When Dewberry was in college, an English professor assigned him and his classmates to write down 25 things they wanted to accomplish in life. Dewberry's list included what he calls "the usual things you'd expect" from a young man in that era: "Marry a beautiful woman and have six kids, be a millionaire, and fly an airplane and float down the Mississippi River in a raft."

Also on the list: Learn to play piano.

Dewberry went on to do many of those things. He married his wife, Reva, 57 years ago, had four children and used to fly a plane from a small Falls Church airport that stood on the land where Loehmann's Plaza strip mall is now. But he never studied piano.

A few years ago, Dewberry mentioned the list to a friend, who mentioned it to William Reeder, dean of GMU's College of Visual and Performing Arts. Reeder introduced Dewberry to Monson, the associate chair of the music department.

The two began lessons in the GMU practice rooms and started with basic scales. Dewberry brought a list of songs he wanted to learn. If they were advanced, Monson penned simpler arrangements for him.

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