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!