On Playing the “Pianola”

This article appeared both in ‘The appreciation of music by means of the “Pianola” and “Duo-Art”‘ by Percy A. Scholes, Oxford University Press, 1925, and as a separate booklet by the Aeolian Company to accompany the Themodist ‘Pianola’ Practice Roll, which is reasonably common and well worth using.

In view of the statement that ‘a child can play it’, the following instructions may seem unnecessary. It may, therefore, be well to explain the apparent paradox of an instrument so simple that a child can certainly produce quite musical results without previous knowledge or practice, yet so vast is its potential power for the interpretation of music that not one of the so-called demonstrators of the instrument can be said to have reached the limit of its possibilities – just as it is impossible to say that even the greatest pianist has ever acquired complete mastery over the resources of the Pianoforte.

The truth of the matter is that, with the Pianola, a child can instantly produce the most brilliant technical passages with a clearness, equality and faultlessness beyond the power of the most eminent virtuoso, and if the composition depends almost exclusively upon brilliant technique for its effectiveness then the child will succeed in giving a performance in which the shortcomings in expression way be outweighed by the amazing execution; but, before sentiment can be adequately expressed, the Pianola player will need much practice to acquire quality and variety of touch, the power to bring about subtle and sudden changes of tempo, prominence of the melody, a nicely balanced accompaniment, and skill in the use of the levers for actuating the soft and sustaining pedals of the Pianoforte.

Reading the rolls

It will be found necessary, and is fortunately easy, to be able to read and understand the perforations in the music rolls sufficiently well to know what to expect before the notes are actually played. This form of notation may be regarded as a visual representation of music as played upon the Pianoforte keyboard, for the perforations are in precisely their proper relative positions of pitch, their length in the roll indicates their duration of sound (apart from the effect of the sustaining pedal) and the distance at which they follow each other across the Tracker-bar will determine their rhythmical spacing, which in almost all Pianola rolls will be found to be in exact accordance with the time value of the notes in the printed music.


Position at the instrument

Before attempting to play the Pianola, obtain a suitable seat; this should not be less than 22 inches high, preferably with the top slanting from a height of 23½ inches at the back to 22½ inches at the front. Such seats are, of course, to be had.

Place the feet upon the treadles of the Pianola, with the toes slightly projecting over the top ends and the heels not above the centres. Sit sufficiently far from the instrument to avoid any uncomfortable bending back of the feet when the treadles are in their normal position, because it is important that these should completely return after each stroke and not be kept partially depressed all the time.

The Duties of The Feet

As the ‘touch’ of the Pianola is controlled by the feet, each foot must be trained to act independently of the other, in somewhat the same way as a pianist’s hands are trained, but with this difference, that for Pianola playing one foot should be practically exclusively prepared for melody playing, accentuation and phrasing, the other foot serving as an auxiliary, to provide sufficient reserve power, and also to play the accompaniment and any passages in which general modulation of tone is more important than subtle phrasing.

Both treadles acting equally throughout the entire compass of the instrument, it does not matter whether the right or left foot is used for the more important portion of the touch, but it is best to use for this purpose the foot which happens to be the more active – if the feet are not equal in strength and agility.

If the heel of the accentuating foot be raised, the thrust of the toe can be quicker and stronger; while for the other foot, a smooth ankle movement is usually best.

Although this different action of the two feet will be almost always desirable, it may sometimes (when no melodic phrasing or accentuation is required) be found convenient to use both feet equally. More rarely, there will occur cases when two or more strong accents follow in rapid succession, making it necessary to use the feet alternately for accentuation.

Amount of Force

Although for a single accent all possible power can be used without obtaining more tone than is sometimes needed, one must carefully avoid too much continuous power, for this is capable of being not only greater than a pianist could produce, but also much more than is desirable. The two most noticeable cases in which this fault is likely to occur will be found in rapid successions of chords and brilliant passages, particularly if the latter are in the upper treble. It should be remembered that the moment a strong accent has been made the pressure should be released by both feet, unless another accent is required immediately, otherwise the following notes will probably be too loud, and unnecessary energy will be expended. There is nearly always sufficient reserve power left in the instrument, after accenting strongly, to play several notes without any further movement of the treadles.

Very light rapidly alternating foot work is best for obtaining extremely soft effects of touch, especially if the passages are rapid, or if there are quick repetitions of the same note, or chord, whereas when more tone is desirable a longer stroke can be taken, though seldom more than half the available movement of the treadles, while the accentuating foot should make the shortest stroke with which the effect can be obtained.

Control levers

The Tempo Lever should be held lightly and freely between the thumb and forefinger of the right hand.The Subduing Levers can, in most cases, be used by the thumb of the left hand, enabling the middle finger to be used for the sustaining pedal, with the forefinger available for the soft pedal. But when the isolation of individual notes (not already ‘themodised’) may be desired, it will be found necessary to use the thumb upon the lever for subduing the treble, and the forefinger upon the lever for subduing the bass, in which case the sustaining pedal must be controlled by the little finger. When this form of manipulation is required it will be best to turn the left wrist and elbow outwards; the forefinger can then be released while the thumb is held back.

Placing the roll in position

Keeping the Gear Lever at the left, as for re-rolling, place the roll in position between the metal holders, making sure that the
flange of the right-hand holder goes into the groove in the spool end. To make certain of this it is advisable to press a finger upon the right-hand metal holder, while you turn the roll round with the left hand; then, if the holder is rotated by the roll, the flange is doubtless in the correct position or if the roll can be turned without moving the holder, the flange is not in the groove, but will probably slip into its place during the rotation of the roll.

Then place the ring of the roll upon the hook in the take-up spool, and before commencing to use the treadles, turn the take-up spool with your hand until you have wound past the thicker front portion of the roll, and brought the thinner paper on to the Tracker-bar.

For Pianola playing the Tempo Lever can be moved over to the highest speed, then, after placing the Gear Levers to the right, the treadles can be used to hurry over the plain paper. Now the Tempo Lever should be pushed over to the extreme left, about two inches before the first perforation reaches the Tracker-bar. This will stop the roll and give you the opportunity to decide at what speed, and with what particular degree of power, you will commence to play.

Directions For Using The Pianola Practice Roll

During the practising of the first five excerpts, the automatic sustaining pedal should be made use of, by placing its lever to the on position.

The first two examples are intended for the study of foot work only. Therefore, the Tempo Lever should be set at the speed number indicated upon the roll, and all the control levers should be left entirely alone. The hands, however, should hold on firmly to the hinged cover for the levers. Then the whole of the attention must be given to the foot work.

Example I. The roll begins with the well-known Prelude, Op. 18, No. 20, of Chopin. The expression indications have been purposely omitted, in order that entire freedom of touch can be used in various ways, at the will of the performer. Students should play this Prelude several times, and endeavour to obtain every conceivable modification of power from fortissimo down to the lightest pianissimo at which the notes will actually play at all.

Example II. For the practice of accent, an excerpt has been taken from the Noël of Balfour Gardiner.

There are three essentials for an effective and powerful accent. First, there must be enough reserve power in the instrument to cause the treadle to offer some resistance to the pressure of the foot, otherwise the treadle will sink away and the energy be wasted; this resistance can be created by strong pressure with the reserve foot just before the accent is required. Next, a sharp thrust must be used, as a heavy push does not give a crisp accent. Finally, and most important, the action of the accenting foot must take place at the instant the first fraction of the perforation belonging to the particular note reaches the corresponding hole in the Tracker-bar. As only a short stroke should be used, if this action occurs even a very small distance in advance of the note, the foot will have expended its force almost uselessly in merely creating reserve power which never approaches the force that can be exerted upon a note, or chord, by the direct and instantaneous action of the foot. And, if the stroke is used after the note has played, the energy is utterly wasted so far as that attempted accent is concerned.

The rhythm of this fragment from Noël being so obvious, it is only necessary to remark that as much contrast as possible should be made between the accented and the un-accented chords, making the former crisp and incisive, whilst taking care not to use a downward thrust of the foot upon the latter. Every possible degree of accentuation should be tried, from a light but distinct touch to the terrific power that may be exerted upon the chords at the end of this short extract.

Example III. After acquiring the art of obtaining a wide range of touch (including definite accents), surely and without undue effort, it is well to proceed to a careful study of the Tempo control, for which purpose the third extract has been chosen as a type of light, fanciful music, in which considerable excesses of tempo variation can be used.

Before attempting to practise this, certain combinations of tempo and touch should be considered, because the manipulation of the Tempo Lever must be accompanied by suitable foot work.

The well-known effects of rallentando and diminuendo, crescendo and accellerando, also the usual form of allargando, can only be artistically expressed if the gradations of touch are in exact accordance with the gradations of tempo.

When practising these effects it must be remembered that the Pianola requires at a rapid tempo more power than it does at a slow tempo, to produce the same degree of force, whilst the number of notes to be played will also considerably affect the case.

In addition to the gradations mentioned, rapid movements of the Tempo Lever will be required for sudden effects. Frequently a tenuto must be made upon some individual note, or chord; sometimes it is necessary to halt for an instant before an accented note in order to broaden the effect, or it may be that a ‘breath’ is needed between two phrases, and occasionally a sudden pause is required. These quick movements of the Tempo Lever will vary in amount, according to the speed at which the roll is being played and the nature of the effect required, whilst the accompanying touch must be suited to the particular purpose.

The Metrostyle line has been specially marked for this extract (from the Sérénade Badine, by Gabriel-Marie) and can be used as a guide for the tempo by following the red line with the pointer attached to the tempo indicator. This will result in variations of speed in accordance with the interpretation of the person who originally marked this line. The amount of movement has been purposely exaggerated, but in such an avowedly frivolous piece, considerable freedom is permissible, and it must be remembered that in Pianola playing it is most important to avoid any stiffness of the tempo movement, or the effect will become extremely mechanical.

For practice, first play this extract through, following the Metrostyle line with the pointer, keeping the touch rather light, without attempting special variations of power. It may be desirable to repeat this once or twice in the same manner, until the various effects of tempo can be made smoothly, or rapidly, as required. Then endeavour to combine the variations of touch, as indicated by the usual expression marks, with the same movements of the tempo as before. Finally, disregarding both the red line and the expression marks, play this excerpt again, using your own interpretation, which should result in the gradations of tempo and touch being felt and expressed in their true proportions, through the medium of the Tempo Lever and the treadles.

Example IV. Throughout the next extract the two Subduing Levers must be held hard over to the left and kept there, because the whole of the attention is now to be given to the melody playing; thus the accompaniment must be kept subdued, while the Tempo Lever had better be set at a moderate speed and allowed to remain there. In fact, we are to treat this extract merely as a study in obtaining the right kind of touch for each melody note, without distracting the attention by any other manipulation, although in actual performance of Grieg’s delightful tribute To the Spring, variations of tempo and modifications of the accompaniment tone would of course be made.

Take the greatest care to play every melody note with a definite touch from the phrasing foot, making sure that the exact degree of power required is produced at the commencement of each note, and using short strokes of the greatest possible variety of strength. Do not pass from this extract until you can hear the melody, not only clearly and distinctly, but with a certain quality of touch that is acceptable to your musical taste.

Example V. The next extract is from Raff’s La Fileuse, which will serve as a study for the use of the Subduing Levers as ‘graduating accompaniment levers’.

Bear in mind the following broad rule: When the melody is Themodised by means of the double perforations (near the treble or bass edge of the roll), if any melody note requires to be distinctly stronger than any accompaniment note occurring simultaneously, both of the Subduing Levers must be held hard over to the left and kept there during the whole section in which the Themodist perforations appear. The word Solo should be found on the roll at the commencement of each Themodised section, and the word Normal should be found at the end of such sections, but the double perforations will serve as the best guide for holding back the two levers, the broad rule being that while these pairs of perforations are visible between the top spool and the Tracker-bar, on whichever side~ of the paper they occur, the Subduing Levers should be tightly held over to the left.

There are, however, some important exceptions from this rule. The space between two successive melody notes may be sufficient to allow for special phrasing of the intermediate notes of the subordinate part; it will, therefore, be found necessary in many cases to allow these levers to return partially, or entirely, to their normal position after the first of the widely separated melody notes, making sure that they are again held over to the left in time for the playing of the next Themodised note.

These levers of the Pianola have a graduated effect upon the accompaniment, inasmuch as they allow more power to be produced when fully over to the right than when nearly over to the left, but as the variation of foot pressure will very considerably affect the result (except when the Levers are held hardover to the left) care must be taken not to counteract the graduation by faulty foot work.

Further cases in which these levers should be released or only partially held over will be found when the melody is being played strongly and the accompaniment may seem too weak; or when volume of tone is required, when the accompaniment may have to be brought up to such a strength that it will probably overpower the melody before sufficient fulness of tone is obtained.

If the mechanism of the accompaniment control has been adjusted to give extremely soft effects for single notes, it may be necessary slightly to release the levers when rapidly repeated notes occur in the accompaniment sections, otherwise the controlled power may not be sufficient to play such portions satisfactorily.

In the extract from La Fileuse, some of these exceptional uses of the Subduing levers can be practised, and for this purpose marks of crescendo and diminuendo have been made at places where fairly long intervals occur between the melody notes. At these points the levers should be released after the one melody note and brought back to the left before the next, the movement being as gradual as the space of time will allow, and the foot pressure conforming to the variation of touch required.

Where the long crescendo is marked as extending over several bars, the beginning of this should merely be an increase in tone of the melody. Then the levers may be gradually released, together with increasing foot pressure, until the greatest power is reached at the end of this section; before arriving there the accompaniment will probably equal the melody in strength, but the general effect will be better than weakening the accompaniment and sacrificing power for the sake of emphasising the melody. In addition to these methods of using the Subduing Levers as illustrated in the excerpt, there will be found, in the performance of different compositions, cases necessitating the independent use of the bass or treble lever.

During an unthemodised phrase the treble or bass section may have more effect if the opposite section is subdued, and this can be accomplished by holding back the lever corresponding to the section it is desired to subdue.

It is also possible to emphasise certain notes, not already themodised, if the desired note occurs without any other being struck simultaneously in the same portion of the keyboard (bass or treble), by releasing the corresponding lever for the commencement of the note, and returning the lever to the left before any note of the accompaniment occurs in the same section of the instrument.

Example VI. Finally one must add the use of the Sustaining Pedal, and also the less needed soft pedal, to the manipulation of the other levers. For although an automatic sustaining pedal is provided in the Pianola, most people will prefer to have this vital part of the Pianoforte under personal control, and the last extract will serve to show the way in which the automatic sustaining pedal is introduced into the Pianola music roll.

In the section of Tchaikovski’s Valse des Fleurs given, the Sustaining Pedal perforations will be found, as usual, on the extreme left-hand side of the roll, and when the automatic lever is placed to the ‘On’ position, these perforations will remove the dampers from the strings, during each group of these holes. It will be easy to note the difference in effect if the automatic lever is turned ‘Off’. You are then free to use the Sustaining Pedal Lever more or less than the amount automatically provided, but this is a matter for your own taste and judgment.

With regard to the soft pedal, it might be well to point out that it should not be used for merely producing pianissimo effects if these can be obtained by light foot work. But in cases of rapidly repeated notes, as in that of the frequently found tremolo accompaniment, it will be desirable to use the soft pedal for modifying the touch of the reiterated notes, which require a fair amount of power in the instrument or they will not play properly.

As the last remark may be remembered best, may I conclude by urging all would-be Pianola players to begin by believing in the artistic possibilities of the instrument, and entreat them not to end their efforts until they are able to give proof of the justification of their faith.

The Electric Duo-Art Pianola Piano

The Electric Duo-Art Model is primarily intended for the reproduction of records by celebrated pianists, so that their interpretations can be studied and enjoyed. Doubtless it will prove of interest to give a short account of the method by which the Duo-Art rccords are produced –

The ‘celebrated pianist’ is asked to play upon a Grand Piano that in outward appearance does not differ from the usual instrument. Into this piano is inserted an electric cable containing a large number of wires, half of these leading to specially devised contacts under the keys, the remainder running to positions near the point where the hammers strike the strings, whilst the cable itself passes through the wall of the room, coming out into a sound-proof chamber, in which is installed the Duo-Art Recording Apparatus. Here the other ends of the wires are attached to electro-magnets which operate the punches in the powerful perforating machine, each punch corresponding with its proper note upon the Piano.

The Pianist plays, the punches perforate, the permanent record is produced!

This method of recording ensures accuracy of reproduction, the length of the perforation being determined by the period during which the key is held down. As the machine causes the punches to repeat at the rate of 4,000 pulsations to the minute, it is a proof of the agility of the Pianist’s finger if he is able to attack and leave the key of the Piano during a single movement of the punch, yet such staccato notes are frequently found in the records, and these perforations measure about the 32nd part of an inch in diameter.

The Rhythm is determined by the spacing of the perforations in the music roll as it passes through the recording machine at a uniform speed (usually eight feet in one minute), and this spacing is in exact accordance with the interval between the notes played by the Pianist, so that when the music roll is placed upon a Duo-Art Piano and caused to move at the same speed, there must result perfect reproduction of the most subtle rhythm.

Mr. John B. McEwen (Principal of the Royal Academy of Music) has mapped out a chart to illustrate the different tempo phrasing used by two great Pianists when playing the first four bars of the well known so-called Raindrop Prelude by Chopin.

The Melodic outline is shown by its position in the horizontal sections ; the vertical columns represent the regular divisions of the rhythm, each one being of the value of one quaver; the Bar lines are shown by darker lines.

The MIDDLE SECTION shows the rigid metronome tempo with the notes occuring exactly upon the rhythmic positions indicated in the printed music.

The UPPER SECTION is taken from the Duo-Art music roll recorded by Busoni.

The LOWER SECTION shows the amount of tempo rubato used by Pachmann.

In both records the first note is in excess of its actual value. Busoni held it an extra quaver, while Pachmann increased its normal length by a dotted semiquaver.

The short notes are all extended beyond their value by both these artists, and this excess of time is balanced by a reduction of some of the longer notes, particularly the dotted minim in the second bar, so that eventually the termination of the phrase occurs very close to its actual rhythmic position.

Where the note F is repeated at the beginning of the fourth bar, theoretically the previous note should extend exactly to the commencement of the bar, but if the note is to be played twice, there must be a point at which the finger is raised, and this is shown by a slight division in the marking of the two notes just before the bar line in the middle section. It is interesting to observe that while Busoni raised the finger for a very short time and played the two notes with the different values indicated by the composer, Pachmann made a wider space between the notes and played them as though they were of equal value!

The highest note of the phrase is slightly shortened by both pianists, but it is almost certain that if a vocalist had to sing that melody, the top G would be considerably extended.

Likewise the Touch of the pianist is recorded and reproduced, still by means of perforations in the music roll, in conjunction with mechanism in the recording machine and in the Duo-Art Piano. With four Dynamic Controls, sixteen different degrees of touch can be produced; extending over the whole range of finger power, from the lightest pianissimo to the strongest accent, and in combination with the Themodist device the melody is differentiated from the accompaniment, each having its own set of dynamic controls with the full range of touch just explained.

When the original record is made it contains several stray wrong notes which no pianist can entirely avoid when playing passages requiring force and rapidity. One of the finest artists recorded no less than three-hundred and sixty false notes in a single composition. Fortunately there is a method by which the music roll can be edited under the supervision of the pianist himself, and every blemish removed, whilst omitted notes can be cut into their proper places. Nor do the possibilities of editing end at note correction; the touch itself and even the rhythm can be improved upon if the artist should so desire.

It is obvious that when this revision is carefully carried out under the direction of the pianist, there must result a most finished interpretation. This explains Percy Grainger’s statement that his records represent him not merely as he did play, but as he ‘would like to play’.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to the artistic effect came from Paderewski, when, speaking of his Duo-Art record of one of his own compositions, he said that listening to the reproduction gave him the same feeling in his heart as when he played it himself.

For the purpose of playing artists’ records upon the Electric Duo-Art it is only necessary to place the roll in position, set the Tempo Lever at the figure indicated upon the music roll, and start the electric motor. The Duo-Art record will then be played with all its variety of expression and will re-roll itself without any further attention.

Ordinary Pianola music rolls can be played upon the Electric Duo-Art instrument; then the expression is under your personal control by means of the levers already illustrated (see diagram).

The lateral movement of the Temponamic Lever will give the whole range of tempo variation, from a pause to presto, whilst the turning of the milled head of this same lever will give gradations of tone to the unthemodised notes. The effect of this lever should first be tried in the ‘Normal’ sections of the roll, but it can of course be used to vary the accompaniment during ‘Solo’ sections, and in these themodised portions the lever A must be used to vary the touch of the melody notes. This will increase the strength of the themodised notes as the lever is moved to the right, and the manipulation of this lever should be slightly in advance of the playing of the notes.

During unthemodised portions of the roll, the levers E and B can be used to take the place of the themodist perforations, the upper one opening the bass valve, and the lower opening the treble valve, but these two levers will have no appreciable effect until the lever A is also moved, when the power will be proportionate to the position of this lever and will be exerted upon either the bass or treble portion of the Piano or the entire keyboard, according to the independent or simultaneous use of the levers E and B.

The most effective way of obtaining sudden accents will be found by holding the lever A nearly, or hard, over to the right and then quickly moving the levers E and B at the moment the chord you desire to accent is about to play. Or, of course, if the accented chord, or note, occurs in either the treble or bass, only the lever corresponding to that section of the Piano need be moved, but lever A must still be held over to the right in order to provide the necessary power.

The ordinary pedals of the Pianoforte can be used by the feet, as usual; or the automatic pedal can be made use of by setting the lever in the music aperture in the correct position for this purpose.

With practice it is possible to obtain wonderful effects with the controls in this Electric Model.

Foot-operated Duo-Art Pianola Piano models

This instrument is intended for cases where the ordinary electric current is not available. It serves for the playing of Duo-Art records without the manipulation of any levers, giving an exact reproduction of the tempo phrasing, but it requires careful foot work to give the correct amount of power for the themodised notes.

It is possible to estimate the strength required, by observing the value of the dynamic perforations on the right-hand side of the roll. These occur in four parallel lines, the outermost being of the value of one degree of power, the next, two ; then four; while the inside line is of eight degrees. The various combinations of these will produce all the numbers from one to fifteen, so these perforations serve as an indication of the power needed for reproducing the touch, as recorded upon the roll.

The unthemodised notes will not be affected by the variations of foot pressure, unless the power is dropped to a lower amount than that arranged for by the dynamic perforations on the left-hand side of the roll, but no amount of effort will increase the tone of the unthemodised notes beyond the limits imposed upon them by these dynamic perforations.

As a broad general rule, it may be said that one can feel the trend of the power required for the melody by keeping it clearly above the tone of the accompaniment.

This instrument is specially suitable for the use of ordinary Pianola rolls, since the controls are quite the same as in the Pianola Piano. Hence nothing more need be said, except that the Duo-Art lever in the music aperture must be set according to the kind of music roll it is desired to play – Duo-Art or ordinary Pianola.

Pedal-electric Duo-Art Pianola Piano models

The latest and most complete instrument combines the advantages of the electrically controlled Duo-Art with all the features characteristic of the Pianola itself. Consequently the remarks relating to the Pianola Piano will apply to the corresponding mechanism of this instrument.

It is also immediately available as an Electric Duo-Art Piano for reproducing the records of the great Pianists, in precisely the same manner as the ordinary electric model, but the lever controls are different in the Pedal Electric instrument, being mainly designed for use in Pianola playing.

If it is desired to use the electric motor in place of foot work, whilst playing the music rolls with your own expression, it will be found that the four levers, used by the left hand, are just the same as in the Pianola Piano, while the Temponamic Lever is now arranged so that the Themodised notes can be modified in tone by turning the milled head to the left.

In this form of control some practice will be necessary before it is possible to judge the exact manipulation of the levers for producing the effects required. The graduated levers can now be made use of for effects of crescendo and diminuendo in unthemodised passages; there being a constant source of power, the graduating of these levers will give the exact values for which they have been adjusted.

It would, however, be well to state that when you substitute the electric motor for your own personal energy, you are depriving yourself of the main enjoyment of Pianola playing, and cannot hope to derive as much musical satisfaction as you will when you shut off the motor and get into intimate touch with the source of tone production. Whereas for the playing of Duo-Art records the electric motor is by far the best form of motive power, because the dynamic effects have been calculated to reproduce the required expression under the condition of a constant source of power of a definite amount.

If this wonderful instrument is used for the two proper purposes for which it is designed, i.e., Pianola playing by foot work and reproduction of artists’ records by means of the electric Duo-Art control, you will derive the greatest possible pleasure, musical gratification, and educational advantage that any expenditure could provide.