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A Piano Novice Strikes Just the Right Chord
"I wanted to prove when I got into piano that an old person can do something as hard as this." SIDNEY O. DEWBERRY

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.

Some older students grow restless after one year, Monson said, but not Dewberry. Dewberry credits his focus to Monson, whose boisterous laugh and gushing praise for her students echo through the GMU practice rooms.

"I wanted to prove when I got into piano that an old person can do something as hard as this," Dewberry said. "I would have given up a long time ago if it wasn't for her."

Along the way, Monson suggested that Dewberry buy a Steinway. "You can afford it," Dewberry said she told him.

So he plunked down $45,000 and put the piano in a soundproofed "secret office" on the top floor of the Dewberry headquarters on Arlington Boulevard in Fairfax.

The two meet for a couple of hours every few weeks, when Dewberry feels "ready." He totes a notebook in which he indexes the pieces he has learned and Monson writes down what he should practice for the next lesson.

On a recent Thursday, Dewberry unlocked the door to his secret office, revealing a cozy space decorated with mahogany-hued leather furniture and a long wooden desk topped by a little golden piano ornament, given to Dewberry by his teacher. He sat at the piano and played two familiar pieces -- Beethoven's Bagatelle in A Minor and an arrangement of the finale of the Ninth Symphony, better known as "Fur Elise" and "Ode to Joy" -- by heart.

"I'm a real amateur," he said apologetically after he finished.

Some time back, over the course of their lessons, Monson mentioned to Dewberry her wish to make GMU an "all-Steinway" school. In December, Dewberry told her he wanted to make it happen.

To earn the official designation from the company, Monson learned, 90 percent of GMU's pianos would have to be Steinways. That meant 16 pianos. Factoring in discounts for being a school and buying in bulk, they would cost about $800,000.

To a man with friends in high places -- Dewberry chaired GMU's capital campaign from 1998 to 2005, raising $142 million -- that did not seem an unattainable goal.

"So I volunteered to see if I couldn't raise half of that money from just a few friends that I know," Dewberry said. "So I did that."

The university matched the donations, and soon Monson -- accompanied by colleagues and Newberry -- was selecting Steinways at a College Park piano store.

The first nine were delivered last month, each marked with a small golden plaque designed by Dewberry -- down to the font -- and bearing Monson's name and the name of each donor. Monson did not tell Dewberry they had arrived. She let him find out when he showed up for a lesson.

"It actually brings tears to my eyes" to remember, Monson said. "It was just one of those beautiful, beautiful moments. He was just speechless. I said, 'Which one would you like to have the lesson on today?' "

GMU's piano majors -- there are 40 of them -- seem even more overjoyed.

On a recent morning, senior Jorge Luis Martinez Padron, 24, sat on the padded black bench at one of the new Steinways and wrapped up the final, dramatic notes of Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. He grew up poor in Cuba, where, he jokes, he learned to play on pianos that lacked keys and strings.

"The piece has many colors that you can definitely bring out on this piano," he said. "This is like a Lamborghini -- it responds fast."

For his part, Dewberry said playing a Steinway is like driving a Rolls-Royce.

Dewberry still serves as chairman of his company and said he has no plans to retire. He is still working on his list, plotting the purchase of a houseboat so he and Reva can float down the Mississippi.

So it is no surprise that after 58 lessons -- logged diligently in his notebook -- Dewberry intends to stick with piano, which he said "stimulates the brain." These days, he is working on breaking himself of the habit of looking at his fingers while he plays and on mastering a simplified version of a Tchaikovsky concerto.

And he will do those things on Steinways.

"I'll get there," Dewberry said. "I got plenty of time."

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