One can't help but smile as the notes to Irving Berlin's
"Let's Face the Music and Dance" leap brightly from Mike Kukral's
living room and through the screen door, before spilling from the
porch to the street. The veteran Rose-Hulman faculty member grins
as his 1934 Marshall & Wendell Ampico reproducing grand piano
plays the beautiful sounds for others to enjoy. "That's the newest
one I own," he chuckles. "It's a 1934, so that was near the end of
As a kid, Kukral was intrigued by his father's childhood
memories of the family's player piano and its mechanical
"My dad always talked about when he was a kid they had a
piano that played by itself," he says.
Fascinated, Kukral asked if he could get a player piano.
His father advised him to save his money. It was soon thereafter
that he bought his first player piano, an old broken down model, at
age 12 for $75.
Now, five pianos
fill Kukral's home, including his most cherished piece: a cabinet
style 1907 Welte Vorstezer T-100 red roll reproducing push-up
player, made in Germany. Three other pianos are in storage in
"Out of all my instruments, the Welte Vorsetzer is the
only one that's a museum piece," he says. "It took me forever to
find one of these."
Interestingly, the Welte Vorsetzer isn't a traditional
player piano, but rather a mechanism housed in a rosewood cabinet
which physically plays a piano's keys and pedals using a series of
fingerlike pneumatics. In Kukral's home the piano player tickles
the ivories on a 1927 Steinway Duo-Art reproducing grand
Cabinet players like this are rare because unlike player
pianos, the players are not actually instruments. "When the
mechanics in a player piano stopped working, you still had a piano.
When this stopped working all you had was a cabinet," Kukral
Another rarity in Kukral's collection is an unrestored
coin-operated automatic 1922 Coinola Model X nickelodeon piano,
which features percussion instruments conveniently tucked away in a
compartment in the bottom of the piano, near where the foot pedals
would be in a conventional piano. Common in speakeasies, this
roll-operated orchestrion has a snare drum, bass drum, cymbal,
woodblock, and xylophone that enable the instrument to virtually
mimic a small dance band with the piano in the lead. "This is
really early robotics," says Kukral, who has served as editor and
publisher of The Amica Bulletin of the Automatic Musical
Instruments Collectors' Association.
Player pianos operate on a pneumatic or reduced air
principle through a system of tubes, pouches, valves, bellows, and
pneumatics whose piano keys, and in some cases musical dynamics,
are directed to actuate both on and off via the perforations in the
paper music rolls.
The reproducing player pianos that Kukral collects use
live performancegenerated rolls to reproduce the sound, including
dynamics, of the songs as they were played by well-known pianists
of the time. A standard player piano simply plays the notes, with
no variation in expression. Kukral estimates that only 10 percent
of the player pianos built were the high-end reproducing
"You really have to understand physics and mechanical
engineering to restore them, and if you don't understand music, you
won't get very good results either," Kukral says.
It's the intricate mechanisms which operate player pianos
that fascinate the engineering students, faculty colleagues, and
other guests that Kukral regularly welcomes to witness his
Guests marvel at the pianos, as well as the massive
collection of piano rolls that fills a back room of his home. The
shelves of alphabetically arranged rolls routinely impress student
visitors, until Kukral reminds them that he really has no bigger a
musical collection than they do.
"I ask students, 'How many songs do you have on your
iPod?'" he says. "Each one of these boxes is one selection, so it's
not so many. I might have 5,000 or 6,000."
As a geography professor and former Fulbright Scholar,
Kukral not only appreciates the musical facet of his collection,
but the cultural component as well. "These are fine musical
instruments and it's an aspect of American culture," says the
Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity faculty advisor. "The best part of my
hobby is to share it with other people. I like to share the
history, the technology, but the bottom line is the music."