Pianoman

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 production."

As a kid, Kukral was intrigued by his father's childhood memories of the family's player piano and its mechanical movements.

"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.

piano man 2Now, 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 Ohio.

"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 piano.

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 explains.

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 pianos.

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"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 collection.

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."