October 15, 2010
My Player Piano at Skylands
When I bought Skylands, my home in Seal Harbor, Maine, a very unique piano came along with it. Quite battered and out of tune, it was an old Steinway grand with a broken down built-in player mechanism, dating from 1926. There was no question about it. The piano would be taken to the Steinway restoration center, in Long Island City, New York. There, expert craftsmen took it apart, piece-by-piece. It was delivered back to Skylands completely restored, looking and sounding fabulous.
A player piano, or reproducing piano, was a very popular novelty in the early 1900s. It’s a bit complicated explaining just how it works, but basically, it operates using suction pumps and valves. Paper rolls with perforations that correspond to musical notes pass over a tracker bar, which sucks air through the perforations and into pneumatic devices that set the piano keys in motion. Piano roll manufacturers would hire well-known pianists to create master rolls on special pianos hooked up to perforating machines. After an editing process and approval by the artist, the pianist signed the work for reproduction. Player pianos were at their peak in the 1920s, before radio technology was perfected and before the Great Depression. Whenever I’m at Skylands, my reproducing piano is a really fun thing to play!
1 My beautifully restored Steinway player piano looks stately in one corner of the parlor.
2 The Steinway & Sons emblem on the harp, or cast-iron inner frame
3 The soundboard is decorated with an impressive list of royal customers.
4 Beneath the keyboard are some of the controlling levers. The key coverings on this piano are original ivory, which disappeared from all new pianos in 1988, following a worldwide ban on the sale of ivory.
5 When player pianos were very popular, many pianists of note, in classical and popular fields, were called on to make rolls. George Copeland, a master of Debussy, actually played Le Clair de Lune for this roll.
6 The roll is attached to a spool, which fits into the spool box. The free end of the music sheet is hooked onto the take-up spool which unwinds the roll at an even pace across the tracker bar.
7 You can see the intake holes of the tracker bar beneath the paper. The tempo for this piece should be set to 80.
8 The tempo lever beneath the keyboard
9 The tempo guage
10 The music score is programmed onto the paper by means of perforations. Air is sucked through the perforations into the tracker bar, triggering the correct piano keys.
11 A closer look at the perforations
12 And another
13 More controls
14 This lever controls the volume.
15 More levers - the one on the left rerolls the spool.
16 You can see that some of the black keys are playing.
17 More keys in action
18 The music rolls are kept in this closet.
19 They have all been catalogued.
20 Brahms Rhapsody, In B Minor - actually played by Arthur Rubinstein!
21 There is an extensive classical collection.
22 During its heyday, The Aeolian Company had more than 9,000 roll titles in their catalog, adding 200 titles per month!
23 Quite an assortment of titles
24 It's interesting to note that The Girl From Ipanema was written in 1962 - obviously a newer addition to the collection.
25 A different hooking device