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Century-Old Player Pianos Come to Life at Stanford

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Stanford's player piano collection opens a world of musical and cultural highlights from the early 20th century. (Courtesy Stanford University)

Player pianos that are 100 years old will come to life this Saturday at Stanford University, reproducing historic performances by composers like George Gershwin and Igor Stravinksy. The concert is part of the university's new Player Piano Project.

Player pianos were “capable of reproducing the nuances of touch and timing of a pianist who recorded in real time,” explains Kumaran Arul, a music instructor at Stanford. The pianos play music recorded on perforated rolls.

Arul led the effort to acquire and preserve the more than 7,500 rolls and 10 player pianos from a collector in Australia.

The pianos became very popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and then died out as phonographs improved.


In listening to the rolls, Arul and his colleagues are finding that old pianists were not as tied to sheet music as today’s musicians are. They were willing to take more risks, and be more flexible with rhythm and tempo changes.

Nayantara Jain, a senior piano student at Stanford, is using the rolls to inform her own playing.

“These actual composers playing their own pieces do things that teachers will tell you are not OK,” Jain says. “It just opens a whole world of expressive possibility and it’s really exciting.”

On Saturday, the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, composed of student players, will accompany Percy Grainger, a pianist who died in 1961, as his 1921 roll runs on a player piano. Rex Lawson, a player piano expert from London, will play a foot-operated version of a player piano, manipulating the roll as it plays.

A player piano roll containing the touch and timing of a performance by Arthur Rubinstein.
A player piano roll containing the touch and timing of a performance by Arthur Rubinstein. (Courtesy Stanford University)

Lawson is optimistic that the concert and the Player Piano Project will bring much-needed attention to the old pianos and rolls.

“These things are not toys,” Lawson says. “They’re serious musical instruments, and it’s jolly good, finally, that people are beginning to take them seriously.”

Soon the rolls will also be available to musicians beyond the Stanford community. Kumaran Arul and his colleagues are in the process of building a custom scanner that will digitize the rolls and make them available online.

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