You may have seen a player piano, but it's unlikely you ever saw one like this.
The 1927 piano is a treasure of the University of Illinois Music and Performing Arts Library and has a room of its own, along with about 1,500 player-piano rolls, some of which were created by well-known musicians.
It may be one of the last to survive.
A reproducing player piano could accurately exhibit the full expression of playing, such as the dynamics of the pianist who recorded the rolls, said Kirstin Dougan, head of the Music and Performing Arts Library.
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Companies called Ampico and Duo-Art toured the country's great music halls with what they called "comparison performances," in which the artists accompanied the pianos and music critics were encouraged to critique the concerts, according to Craig Brougher, a restorer.
In many ways, the punches in the paper rolls recall early computer programs, when IBM cards — literally cardboard — were laboriously punched to create a simple program. They were still used in the 1970s at the University of Illinois.
Only about 5 percent of players sold were reproducing pianos.
Visitors can make appointments to view the piano and its extensive collection of rolls (each one a song, usually a dated one).
"I know that UI and Stanford are two libraries who have working pianos and rolls. There are only a few of these in the world, and this restored Steinway is in very good condition," Dougan said.
Mel Septon of Player Pianos Plus in Northbrook said the UI's reproducing player piano might be his last such restoration.
"Unfortunately, two people who have done this kind of work have passed. So, as far as the reproducing Steinways, it's going to be very difficult to find these parts," he said. "It's very time consuming. I had to modify the parts and regulate the mechanism. But I'm really pleased and honored the university chose me."
Formally known as pianolas, or player pianos, the earliest models were first on the market near the end of the 19th century.
"People didn't have radios then," she said. "This was their musical entertainment if they couldn't play."
Player piano, pianola and reproducing piano are names sometimes used interchangeably, but the piano in the library is a reproducing piano, made by Duo-Art, which also made rolls.
The foot-driven player piano requires some skill on the part of the operator to impart musical expression and phrasing, but "the reproducing piano is designed to achieve this without any manual intervention," a historian records.
"Its function is to faithfully reproduce the music of human pianists, who recorded their work for the music-roll medium."
"It actually recreated a live performance," Dougan said. "And this was long before the cassette tape or CD."
The new technology was threatening to some musicians in its early years.
Marching band legend John Philip Sousa (who has an archive of his own on the Urbana campus), wrote of the "Menace of Mechanical Music."
"The new technologies of player pianos were so dangerous that (he) felt compelled to spur his public to action before music was reduced to a mere 'mathematical system of megaphones, wheels, cogs, discs, cylinders and all manner of revolving things,'" he wrote in 1906.
As video killed the radio star, the same thing seemed to be happening with player piano and radio. Even more so, Americans stopped believing they needed a piano for a family member to deliver mini-concerts.
The music library's Steinway Model M walnut piano was made in New York in 1927. Steinway made relatively few models over the years, and the M was the most common size for a home piano.
To make them "player ready," they had to lengthen the case somewhat (6 inches) to allow for the player installation.
The MPAL reproducing piano was purchased from the Drendel family in Springfield.
The library's about 1,500 player piano rolls were cleaned and rehoused as necessary by the conservation department of the University Library. Some of the rolls are too damaged to be used, but they have not been removed from the collection.
"A lot of these songs that used to be popular were given to the library," Dougan said.
The rolls were all donated to the library, she said, and they contain a mix of popular and classical works. The pieces date from the 1800s to the mid-1970s.
"Performers include Jelly Roll Morton, Gershwin, Paderewski and Eubie Blake," she said.
In 2017, MPAL received a grant from the university's Office of the Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement and additional funding from university librarian John Wilkin, which made possible the renovation of the piano and a secure room for it.
The piano and its case were renovated by The Piano People of Champaign.
Now the piano is a rare survivor, far more accurate than the standard model as far as human interpretation.
Source: The (Champaign) News-Gazette, https://bit.ly/2NItsZU
Information from: The News-Gazette, http://www.news-gazette.com
This is an AP-Illinois Exchange story offered by The (Champaign) News-Gazette.