I don’t know at exactly what point I decided I was interested in pianolas (also known as player pianos). When I first started learning piano technology, such as basics of tuning, regulation, repair and so on, I was not really encouraged by any of my succeeding teachers to learn about players. Which was probably fair, at least at the time.
Player pianos are essentially a regular piano, but with a second integrated mechanism inside which plays the piano for you, using either human power (you pumping pedals) or electricity. If you want to know more right this second, before continuing with the blog, you can check out some of the many online resources here or here, or here.
So I learned the fundamentals of being a pianotech, concentrating on first doing the basic things well, then learning more as I went along. Truth be told, there is a lot to know about regular pianos without getting into how player pianos work! The player action adds a considerable level of complexity.
When I got back out in the real world, after my studies, and started working, I would occasionally come across the odd player piano. Most of them were in a dilapidated state, and the player action no longer functioned properly. I would just take care to avoid touching the player mechanism, and tuned around it. If there were repairs needed that required the extraction of the player mechanism, I would balk at doing this and refuse the job.
Over time this started to bother me, and I did some armchair research online. I started to become rather more interested in players, and thought I needed to gain some hands-on experience.
This brings me to last year, when clicking through the classifieds (a guilty pleasure), I spotted an ad for a “FREE PLAYER PIANO”. I clicked for details and recognized that the ad was likely placed by a lady who had contacted me some months prior, trying to sell the piano in question. I had responded with an answer in which I tried to balance both positivity and reality. Yes, a buyer might be found, but it would take time, and there would probably be some serious haggling involved.
The reality of the current piano market, in this area (Maritime Canada) as well as elsewhere, is that there are many more old pianos available, than there are people that still want them. These things were often well-designed and constructed, and therefore often still play well enough to basically work, but at the same time are worn down and at a much-reduced level of performance. This is especially true for player pianos, because the player action is more complex and has more things that can go wrong with it. If one element of the propulsion chain (for example) is compromised, usually with air leaks, there will be insufficient power to drive the music roll, and therefore no music will play!
And so I went to see the piano in the ad. I first made sure that the piano structure was fundamentally sound: that the case was intact, that the sounding board and particularly the bridges were not compromised, and most importantly that the pinblock still had sufficient grip on the pins to ensure enough torque resistance, and therefore a reasonably stable tuning, at pitch. I was happy to find all these things seemed to check out. (Note that I am a professional; if you are going to invest more than 0$ in any piano, have it looked over by someone who knows, before making a commitment!)
This inspection is important, because an obvious (but sometimes overlooked) detail is that the instrument must be viable in all its components, including the piano (e.g. the strength of a chain depends on the weakest link). If the instrument has a wonderful, fancy player action, but the piano action or structure has a significant defect, then the complete package will not deliver. While nearly any problem can be surmounted with sufficient resources (time and money), the instrument must be worth it — but this is a topic for another post.
I then checked the player mechanism for completeness, and while it did “work”, you would essentially have to be an Olympic-class athlete to make music on this piano for any length of time. As described above, the seals around the various bellows and pneumatics were no longer tight, so pumping the pedals was an exercise in inefficiency and it was necessary to pump like a madman just to get the roll to move in a slow manner.
Acknowledging that I would have to rebuild the player action completely, I agreed to take on the piano. I called my movers, who professionally and safely transported the piano to its destination – my place! I now had a new, old, Willis player piano!
NB: it is really fairly important to have professionals move a piano. These large full-sized uprights (also known as upright grands) often weigh in the 800 lb. range. When it is a player piano, with the weight of the extra action they can get up to a whopping 1100 lbs! It usually costs several hundred dollars (no, there is no such thing as a “FREE” piano!), but worth it to avoid nasty surprises to people and property.