The Player Piano Man: Karl Theil, MD

Hematopathologist and director of the Pathology Residency Program at Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio


Karl Theil, MD, at a 1929 Knabe Ampico B player grand piano.
Karl Theil, MD, at a 1929 Knabe Ampico B player grand piano.

When did you start collecting pianos? What drew you to it?

Collecting player pianos dates back to my high school years, when my family inherited my grandmother’s player piano and had it professionally restored. My dad started looking for more piano rolls (the music storage medium used to operate player pianos, which are continuous rolls of paper with holes punched into them), and ended up buying a broken-down player piano for $25 just to get the rolls that came with it. Together, we restored the piano and player mechanism. One thing led to another, and, before long we had filled the basement with player pianos.

Although I’d taken piano lessons since 4th grade, it became clear that the piano rolls were capable of much more musicality than I was! I really enjoyed figuring out how the player mechanism worked, taking it apart, and putting it back together to hear it play again for the first time. I love collecting and the thrill of the chase, too. Every Thursday, I look forward to checking out the musical instrument ads in the newspaper to find more pianos and rolls.

Are they difficult to find?

Back in the 1970s when I was in high school, player pianos and rolls were pretty easy to locate – almost none of them worked and people were glad to get rid of them. Nowadays they are harder to find locally and the best source is probably eBay. Collectors have a national organization (Automated Musical Instrument Collector’s Association, or AMICA) with regional chapters around the country, which is a good resource. I’m always on the lookout for rolls at auctions and antique malls, and word-of-mouth works, too!

For the layperson, how does a player piano “play?”

The heyday for player pianos lasted from about 1915 to the early 1930s – the days when families gathered around a phonograph (which doesn’t sound as “real” as a player piano), before there were radios, let alone TVs.

The player mechanism is based on air flow: Negative pressure is generated by operating a foot-pumped bellows below the keyboard. Each punched hole in a piano roll corresponds to one note on the keyboard. When a hole in the roll passes over a detector (called the tracker bar – a linear array of single holes that aligns with the roll), a valve is opened that directs negative pressure into one of 88 small bellows. These bellows activate the appropriate key on the piano. Because the negative pressure in the system is uniform, each key is struck with the same force, lending a more “mechanical” (and uniformly loud) sound to these pianos.

The most sophisticated player mechanisms operated using electric motors instead of the foot-pumps and had elaborate ways of quickly varying the level of negative pressure in the system, which allowed notes to be played with different degrees of loudness or softness, accents and crescendos. These were known as “reproducing pianos” because they could reproduce the expression in a real piano performance, and these mechanisms were only available in the most expensive, highest-quality pianos.

Many of the famous pianists of the time (including Rachmaninoff, Gershwin, and Grainger) recorded rolls for these pianos. Unfortunately, the market for reproducing player pianos crashed with the Great Depression and the increasing popularity of radios.

Although I prefer the old mechanisms and rolls, it is surprising how the technology has evolved. The modern player pianos use solenoids instead of bellows to activate each note, and CDs or MIDI interfaces instead of rolls. You can even connect your piano to the Internet to enjoy a remote live performance played in real-time on the piano in your living room.

Which pieces are you most proud of having in your collection?

We have eight player pianos (5 baby grands and 3 uprights) and one player reed organ. All of the main mechanisms that were manufactured are represented, and each plays with a different kind of roll. My favorite is a 1924 Knabe 5’8” baby grand reproducer with an Ampico mechanism.

Are there any parallels between your hobby and your career in hematology?

The experience of collecting player pianos can be a lot like the practice of hematopathology in an academic center: We get excited when we see the next-best example of a classic diagnosis to add to our teaching collections. I am just as impressed looking at the realistic camera lucida drawings in pathology textbooks from the early 1900s (Were they really that good then?) as I am with what could be achieved using air, cloth, leather, and felt in a reproducing piano.