Players and the Next Generation
by Craig Brougher

We here in the first of the 21st century can still remember playing an original, unrestored foot-treadled player piano. We can remember collections of hundreds or thousands of original rolls. We have seen collections of vast numbers of these instruments, and they are still turning up in the newspapers.

How long do we think this will go on? Most coin-operated instruments rather suddenly disappeared from public view. Looking back on it, it was almost overnight. For awhile, we were offered instruments just for the taking, or for a very small figure. Today, you can't even buy a burned out empty case for what some people paid for a complete instrument.

My point is that the value of the remaining instruments which have not been scavenged or butchered, and which have been respectfully and artfully rebuilt will soon be valuable and rare specimens that future generations will be amazed at.

I personally count a generation as 35 years. The oldest of us will not be around much longer than 3 generations, which is 105 years. The heyday of the player piano was about 1926, and within a decade, all but disappeared. So what we have today represents 1 generation of American production (and of course a little longer from European factories) out of the 250 years this country has been producing things.

From the turn of the 20th century, look around and see how many 65-note players still exist, not to mention their rolls. The best 88-note players built in the late teens and early 20's were still playing through the 50's in some cases, and even beyond that. That's why *we* remember them. All they required, even into the 70's, were a few superficial repairs. Reproducing pianos received hose and tubing, covers and outside valve leathers, and those instruments would still play (sort-of).

But very soon, they won't. When a player quits playing, due to old materials still inside of it, it quits quite abruptly, when not played daily. The owner thinks, "Well, it must be minor, because it was playing just fine last Christmas." That isn't how it works, is it? Those of us who know players also know they stop in the same way a car runs out of gas. Given the chance, spores in valve leather perforate it and it becomes fluffy, leaky, and dry.

The point is that we are now approaching the time that players cannot be re-tubed, re-covered, and re-re-tubed and re-re-covered anymore. Many rebuilders have gone out of business because they didn't do valves, and when they finally had to do them, they realized that true "restoration" was a game they didn't like. Tackle a Solo Art-Apollo with about 150 very tricky valves sometime, and you'll get a glimmer of what I am referring to.

We sit here at a crossroads wondering about the future of player pianos, having experienced player pianos daily for our lifetime, but already we find that we have no way of describing them to the present generation. Unless they actually experience one, they think they already know what you're talking about, and that it was a crude, early caveman piece of junk like everything else, then.

What do they have in its place? CD's and speakers, and chewing-gum for the ears? Answer: Basically, nothing. In many cases, they seldom if ever hear live music from acoustic instruments, up close and personal. They listen to speaker generated performances of speaker-generated, computer-simulated sounds (but demand full-range hi-fidelity. Hi-Fi makers boost the 2-6 kHz range unnaturally, because the majority are half-deaf in this range). Duh! This gut-wrenching, bone-jarring thumping is actually necessary today as a laxative, when bound up with a combination of Ho-Ho's and Diet Cokes. So what about the old players -- organs, orchestrions, violins, and acoustic live instruments that you can experience, personally? Do we have anything to offer a teen zombie?

When I hear the typical weak, alligatored, lily-livered player missing notes and tearing paper, whose dead, worn-out piano comforts the mice living inside it, I get a little miffed, I admit. And when the younger generation today hears those things, they say, "Why would anybody want one of those?" Or, "Dude, if you think that's cool, wait till you hear _my_ new box."

In case you've forgotten, player music is distinctive. It sparkles. It's full of rhythm and chords, and riffs requiring precision, skill, and coordination far beyond that of modern musical demands. But you are going to get one chance only to impress a newcomer. It's like the first time you were introduced to spinach. It was just too different. If it was really good, you still enjoy it. If it was a matted, grey-green mass in the serving bowl that you were expected to try, even its appearance made you nauseous. Weak, out-of tune, ugly instruments are no different to a rock junkie.

Canned music is a reminder of a past performance. That's all many kids know, today. Their guitars, played in real time are, at best, an amplified recording, and at worst, electronic computerized simulations. How does one make loudspeakers "exciting?" Turn it up loud, then take their minds off it. They believe it was a great concert as long as their ears are still ringing. Hearing aids by age 22 or painful, deafening irreversible tinnitus become "keepsakes" of these memorable evenings. Their cars shudder on the streets, being systematically demolished by 100 lbs of subwoofers driven through battery cables with two or three times the horsepower of their environmentally safe sissy engines -- and they think that's cool?

Yeah, I'd say we definitely have something to show them.

A player roll is a bit more than just a virtual recording. It is "firmware." It is actually a component of the instrument itself, directly operating valves which then provides a brand-new *live performance* that instant. A player roll is a mechanical component of the instrument in that, while it was made many generations ago its program is not past, but as fresh as the moment. You activate it and the instrument does the playing, live!

They will never make these things in this way with this quality and durability, again. This is all you get, and they ain't gonna be no more. We "old timers" may take them for granted and just let these instruments languor in mold and dust, shoved away in garages and rusting in basements, but they do not "play recordings." Live, acoustic instrument performances involve and are modified by both the acoustics of the room and the human bodies (hence minds) of all listening in the vicinity. The instrument moves the roll, but responds by playing itself. That's an indirect relationship, as opposed to record players which are simply direct conduits for the percentage of whatever program happens to remain on a record or a CD. A record player interprets nothing, adds nothing, but always subtracts a bit from the performance.

Let's keep the basics always in mind, remembering that quality live, acoustic performances can never be compared to speaker-driven music and have an altogether different effect on the human psyche. That's their unique _Intrinsic Value_, along with their handsome good looks! Their _Historic Value_ is equally important, when and if the instrument plays as it was designed to play. Likewise their _Artistic Value_ can only be realized when their art is recreated. Finally, the _Sentimental Value_ is there in both the instrument and the performance. Speakers likewise have none of this.

Everything hinges on the imposing beauty and performance, therefore. You cannot say that old phonograph records have these qualities to the same degree that a player does, because a player is kind-of a living thing that breathes air, just like we do, and its performance does not have to degrade with the years. It is history. It is NOT archival.

In someone's home, it seems to be the first thing we notice, and the last thing we forget. Its price, unrestored, versus its price fully restored should say something to this point, all by itself. But if you think you've seen some new smiles with a simple demonstration of a player roll, I suspect you haven't seen anything, yet. Just wait till the next generation.

Craig Brougher

I Don't..

This page was last revised on March 14, 2014

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