Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Wild West and Player Pianos

A few weeks ago, I was at my parents house playing their piano. They own an old player piano which I really enjoy playing because I feel like I'm stepping back in time when I sit down to "tickle the ivories". When I think of player pianos, I picture a few cowboys sitting around a saloon with the piano playing in the background, horses tied up out front, a few good looking ladies walking around in those big dresses, some tumbleweed rolling through the streets, the swinging doors - the wild west.

I don't know that my parents piano was ever in a saloon in the wild west but when I sat down to play that day, it got me thinking about how a player piano works. With a little research I discovered that it took several people during the late 1800's to develop a piano that could play on it's own. Basically, the notes to be played are represented by tiny perforations on interchangeable rolls of paper, while the player mechanism is powered entirely by suction, generated by the operation of two foot pedals.

The operator, or "pianolist", achieves dynamic shading of the music by varying the degree of pressure applied to the foot pedals. In addition, a set of hand-operated levers mounted just below the front of the keyboard provide accentuation, tempo control, activation of the sustain and soft pedals and selection of play and rewind modes. In the hands of an accomplished operator, a convincingly lifelike musical performance is achievable.

A player piano can of course be played by hand in the normal way, as the piano action and keyboard are entirely conventional. In fact, it is usually possible to play the keyboard while the roll mechanism is in operation, should any additional notes or harmonies be desired. The term "Pianola" was originally a trademark, first used by the Aeolian Company just over a hundred years ago, but in more recent times has become a generic reference to the self-playing piano.

The player piano was, for many, the main source of home entertainment during its peak of popularity between 1900 and 1930. You don't see too many old player pianos these days, however I've noticed a lot of hotels have player pianos that use MIDI to interface with computer equipment.

Even though I'm not a cowboy and there weren't any horses tied up out front, it sure was fun to sit down and play an old player piano for a while. To see a video of me playing my parents player piano, click here. By the way, this piano was converted to a "normal" piano years ago so if you think I was just moving my fingers to imitate the piano - think again.

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