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"THE PIANOLA NEWS" — Sunday: February 8, 1998 - Vol. I, No. 5
[Updated Weekly]

The "Piano Roll Style" —
Does it really exist?

You'll never see that popular expression "piano roll style" in print before the mid-'Sixties, for it's of recent origin. This article has been prepared to examine WHERE and WHY these words were coined — long after the hey-day of the Player-Piano — and ... to discover if a "piano roll style" really exists at all.

In the 'Fifties (and before), people simply bought old Player-Pianos, often still in working condition, and enjoyed the music. There was no artist pedigree needed, and old commercial rolls were plentiful and inexpensive. Generally speaking, the typical Player-Piano roll collector talked about TITLE and BRAND rather than the artist. For example, "That Mel-O-Dee roll of GYPSY BLUES is really good. I hope I can find a copy some day" — or "Did you ever locate an Ampico roll of BALLET EGYPTIENNE?" This was the period before raucous rock music took over the airwaves, and most of the collectors were content in finding copies of music that had been popular in the 'Twenties, 'Thirties and early 'Forties. Occasionally, one would order a QRS Roll (by the Imperial Industrial Co. in New York City) of some modern selection, just to show their friends that new rolls were still being made. Such a contemporary purchase might include MONA LISA, THE OLD PIANO ROLL BLUES or SOUTH AMERICA, TAKE IT AWAY! (from Call Me Mister, the Broadway musical).

Rarely did the typical collector of a ½-Century ago discuss the artist and relate it to actual keyboard playing. (Many people did say, "I sure don't care for those 'Cook' rolls" — comparing the short, thin and predictable rolls by J. Lawrence Cook of the 'Fifties to the old arrangements, but that was a special situation, since he was arranging most every new selection in that era.) Owners of electric expression players, the so-called 'reproducing' pianos, sought out particular rolls and the subject of the alleged artist rarely became part of their conversations.

Things changed in the 'Sixties. Long-playing records of 'reproducing' player rolls began to appear on the market and several owners of extensive roll libraries — who were involved with these LP's — began to discuss the pianists' NAMES that were stamped on the leaders and box labels. Irving Tushinsky began his Sony-Superscope Keyboard Immortals radio program, featuring Welte-Mignon and other 'reproducing' rolls. Readers Digest published a well-recorded "Welte Legacy" series of 33 1/3 r.p.m. album sets. Suddenly, people were discovering? Paderewski, Hofmann and Lhévinne in the sphere of classical music ... and Scott Joplin, "Pete" Wendling, Zez Confrey and Thomas 'Fats' Waller in the field of old 88-Note rolls. Player clubs were formed. There was a collective rush to hear "immortal performances" and fleeting solos "captured on paper rolls" ... aided and abetted by the re-publication of old advertising from the 'Teens and 'Twenties — most of it total puffery! After a decade of overdosing on the old player roll literature, many people were convinced that artists could be brought back to life, either by careful pedaling on a standard player ... or by turning a few screws on an electric 'reproducing' model. (Owners of the electric expression players often likened these adjustments to fine-tuning a colour television set ... as if the pneumatic system had something to do with replicating an artist's keyboard performance.)

Everybody was happy except the record collector — the person who owned the original Edison cylinders (and Diamond Discs), the Pathé records or the old 78's — or the customer who really LISTENED to their long-playing LP reissues of the old piano music. Cassettes and then CD's would follow, further recycling these original audio recordings — making available important out-of-print performances from the Pianola era. What's even more special about these historic records is that many of the artists whose names were stamped on roll labels performed the same material for recording horns and early microphones, in the gramophone industry.

Something was wrong! The old player rolls, when compared to the audio, sounded NOTHING like Lhévinne, Grofé or James P. Johnson. Buyers of overpriced original rolls (and recuts of same) as well as customers of 'Sixties-and-after audio felt shortchanged. Why did Josef Hofmann play Beethoven's TURKISH MARCH on his 78's with practically no sustaining pedal, with a virtuoso "clipped staccato" and a modest dynamic range, while the Duo-Art roll of the same material featured HEAVY sustaining pedal, a mathematical "punch/skip/punch" formula-staccato line and LOUD-LOUD-LOUD dynamics for the zenith of this piece? Hofmann performed his version of TURKISH MARCH for acoustic 78's, electric 78's and radio transcriptions, yet the music roll — while impressive — sounded nothing like him. Similarly, a 'Fats' Waller 78 — and there were many! — had a capricious 'vamping' Harlem stride accompaniment set against an imaginative staccato treble ... but the old QRS Rolls — though "pleasant-sounding" — suffered from connected melody notes and a formula Fox Trot bass, differing little from any commercial rolls of the day.

To the rescue came the catch-phrase, "piano roll style". Roll collectors, record industry merchants and purveyors of solenoid players (and/or the MIDI music for same) continued to echo "piano roll style" as if it were a musical truth, something carved in stone.

We are led to believe that George Gershwin had a "live performance style" and also his "piano roll style" — and ditto for Pauline Alpert, Lee Sims, Zez Confrey, Vladimir Horowitz and anyone else whose original AUDIO is being compared to the music rolls ARRANGED IN THEIR NAMES.

In fact, an LP was issued not long ago which featured the commercial rolls of Zez Confrey, composer of STUMBLING, JAY WALK, DIZZY FINGERS and the immensely popular KITTEN ON THE KEYS ... plus some pedestrian songs of the day such as BOUND IN MOROCCO Fox Trot — all published by QRS. None of these original rolls sounded like Confrey's Victor Records. In 1926 "played by Confrey" labels began to appear on Ampico 'reproducing' rolls, some featuring the same selections as the earlier 88-Note releases. The record jacket notes, written by a noted pianist-composer, said that "Confrey changed his style in 1926" — citing that cocktail lounge playing had replaced the earlier rolls of a bouncier nature.

What changed, of course, was the music roll Arranger — that anonymous person who did all the artisan work with music scores, graph paper and sundry arranging machines. Early Confrey (on QRS) sounds like Max Kortlander's formula, from the note elongation and pedal effects to the musical content. Late Confrey (on Ampico) sounds like J. Milton Delcamp or Milton Susskind, the two arrangers responsible for the flow of popular rolls from the second factory. Confrey on 78's sounds like Confrey: lively, sparkling and with a "thrust" to his keyboard performance. While low in fidelity, there is enough musical information on the old 78's for one to get a good idea of what his real unchanging keyboard style was like!

Things really hit a low in the late 'Eighties, when "ghosts" were used as a metaphor for solenoid player sales. "Metaphysical" was the word used for Aeolian's Mel-O-Dee (88-Note) and Duo-Art 'reproducing' rolls of Gershwin's SO AM I — even on National Public Radio and the commercial broadcast media! What's amusing here is that there is no SINGLE "piano roll style" for George Gershwin. Listen to a few rolls — along with his audio recordings for an antidote — and you'll discover that Mr. Gershwin had 4 individual styles: 1) Perfection Rolls which were merely 'sheet music transfers', i.e. 88-Note rolls laid out directly from the printed scores; 2) the Rudy Erlebach style as in SWANEE; 3) the Robert Armbruster style as in SO AM I and RHAPSODY IN BLUE, I-II; 4) the Frank C. Milne style as in KICKIN' THE CLOUDS AWAY and SWEET and LOW DOWN. You can compare routine rolls by Erlebach, Armbruster and/or Milne, experiencing all the perforation lengths, expression (when it exists) and sustaining pedal effects — plus the "performance arrangement" itself. There will be no difference between one of their own releases and a "played by Gershwin" selection.

Milne often used the same formula for several artists, so the Edythe Baker rolls by Aeolian had exactly the same musical 'tricks' which were used on the Gershwin rolls listed above. A typical "played by Baker" and a "played by Gershwin" roll from Frank Milne's pencils and graph paper would have these features: "crush notes" on a light staccato line in the chorus; crossed-hand effects at a low dynamic setting with the Soft Pedal on (which musically defeats the purpose!) ... and a dynamic 'building' of precisely the same steppings (given the differences in melody, of course).

"That's Gershwin's 'piano roll style'!" is the usual claim at this point, even though he had a total of 4 different ones!

Rudolf Friml, composer of ROSE MARIE and CHANSONETTE (related to DONKEY SERENADE in the motion picture version of The Firefly) actually recorded 78's for the music publishing house of Schirmer's in the 'Forties. Some of these wonderful discs even announce the composer-pianist, much as old Edison cylinder records did at one time. You can play any Friml recording by Schirmer's — especially CHANSONETTE or his CONCERT WALTZ — against his alleged performances on QRS-Autograph, QRS 'Recordo' or Ampico (spanning about 15 years' time) and there's not one scintilla of Rudolf Friml on the commercial rolls. "Pleasant" they are, but not authentic!

Defenders of the "piano roll style" theory usually have something to sell: players, rolls, audio, books, etc. When confronted with the fact that rolls don't "agree" musically (due to arranging formulae differing from factory-to-factory), those clinging to the idea usually shift gears and say, "I don't care about that. I just like to hear the music." "Fine," the Devil's Advocate would say, "but why is the pianist on the roll label being 'trotted about' so extensively? Why isn't he being retired or reduced to a smaller typeface?" It's a strange situation, for the "piano roll style" types usually return to the ARTIST-AT-THE-KEYBOARD + PLAYER ROLL of the ARTIST + YOU-THE-LISTENER, ignoring the manufacturing pressures and processes, the unrestricted advertising of the past and the machinery which brings the music to our ears: ladder chains, moving rolls, leather valve diaphragms, folding wood and rubberized cloth pneumatics plus a host of variables which would drive a performing musician to an early nervous breakdown.

Mr. Henderson recalls an incident at The Musical Wonder House in the 'Sixties, when a 'Fats' Waller fan brought some QRS rolls along for his Guided Tour. These were Imperial Industrial Co./QRS Rolls made by J. Lawrence Cook, with titles like GOT TO COOL MY DOGGIES NOW ... and they featured all the predictable arranging effects of that prolific arranger in the Bronx. "That's not Waller! It's Lawrence Cook," exclaimed Mr. Henderson. At this point, the roll's owner started pointing to sections of the moving perforations, saying, "Maybe so, but that part's DEFINITELY 'Fats' Waller" — as if a paper music roll could be divided in two people! Earlier, in the 'Fifties, he used to 'correspond' with collectors through the then-new medium of reel-to-reel tapes. A collector in Long Island (who owned a Chinese-style Weber Duo-Art grand) recorded some Erlebach rolls which were supposedly duets with George Gershwin. "The tremolo melody," he said on the tape, "is George Gershwin, and all the treble parts were played by Rudy Erlebach." Being able to DIVIDE a roll and single out portions appears to be a common trait among those who subscribe to the "piano roll style" school of thought!

(A side anecdote to the FAKE-Gershwin 'duet' roll story, above, concerns roll collector Bill Burkhardt in Michigan. He acquired some of the personal effects of Max Kortlander — who owned Imperial Industrial/QRS (and which also involved his brother Herman). Bill discovered, not long ago, some tape reel 'correspondence' between the factory and Mr. Henderson. This included a few music roll performances, recorded by Mr. Henderson at the request of Max Kortlander, plus some conversation about the musical arrangements. The roll company management informed Mr. Henderson that the music had to conform to the QRS formula of the 'Fifties ... and that an old Autopiano arrangement didn't have the right "player roll sound" for their enterprise, and so the roll reissue project was dropped. Commercial roll companies, as Mr. Henderson was soon to learn, didn't want to take chances, "make waves" or turn out distinctive arrangements. It's no wonder that the famous classical and jazz artists on rolls FAKED-in-their-names are so lackluster, when a formula dominated the releases. [Decades later, this same Autopiano roll of MAD HOUSE RAG was published by Atlantic Music Rolls in N. Harpswell, Maine and proved to be a successful Ragtime roll reissue!]

The tape had been in storage for almost 45 years! Bill donated this long-forgotten magnetic 'correspondence' to the ARTCRAFT Studio, where it now rests ... an artifact from those pre-Cassette, pre-Internet days of musical communications!)

Of course, the fact of the matter is that there is no "piano roll style" at all. What exists for the listener today is a formula arrangement, usually lacking the essence of the artist's individual approach to the music. The idea that a pianist plays differently when 'recording' player rolls is sheer nonsense. Most musicians have their repertoire so well honed that the playing time differs by only a few seconds from one performance to another. Videotapes in the collection of Lois Konvalinka (Wiscasset, ME) include Dick Cavett's old program featuring William Bolcom and Joan Morris; their rendition of LIME JELLO varied by only a few seconds from the Studio recordings issued a few years later. You'll find that most pianists will — given the performance conditions and the particular instrument — adhere to a standardized time for their renditions. That some old music rolls added 25% or more to the playing time is not due to their "piano roll style".

As the new Century begins, we hope that more owners of Player-Pianos make the effort to HEAR the artists whose names were stamped on the old paper rolls. Frank Milne (a.k.a. "George Gershwin", "Pauline Alpert" and "Eddie Duchin") is o.k. when judged by the commercial standards of the time — but he didn't perforate anything which resembled the exciting performances of the actual musicians. It used to require an Edison or old Victrola (and a trip to the Salvation Army Thrift Shop) to locate the original audio. Today, it's a matter of ordering a Cassette or Compact Disc transcription of this valuable 'source' material.

The next time you hear the expression "piano roll style" be suspicious . It's a cover-up for the fact that ARRANGED music (as on perforated rolls) isn't RECORDED music (as on old phonograph records). "Piano roll style" legitimizes somebody else's (usually formula) musical work and contributes to the myth that Player-Pianos are record/playback instruments, which they never were. Player-Pianos are an exciting OWNER INVOLVEMENT medium ... and soar musically when the perforated arrangements are challenging. As we've said before, focus on the MUSIC and forget the 'artist'. In doing so, "piano roll style" will evaporate. The Pianolist is the "conductor" of the mechanical piano anyway, and that's more fun than listening passively and trying to explain the schism between an artist's audio and his roll. Some of the best old player rolls were often totally anonymous releases, arrangements produced without anyone's name on the label — including the actual factory musician. Good music never needs an explanation or a pedigree!

Think in 'BASS-TREBLE' Scale Divisions
for spectacular music roll performances!

The ability to "shift accents" from the Treble to the Bass side of the player action (and vice-versa) is what differentiates an ordinary music roll rendition from a virtuoso performance. In other words, the "back-and-forth emphasis" of one ½ of the piano's keyboard is where the ART exists. (It's amazing, but most of the commercial 'reproducing' rolls rarely explore this technique — which is the essence of contemporary Interpretive Arrangements, i.e. modern rolls for vintage expression players.) The Pianolist who explores the avenue of RAPID SHIFTS in this area is the one who turns heads during a performance. (The effect also applies to 'reproducing' roll scores.) The roll interpreter who plays the entire keyboard in a homogeneous loud/soft fashion is destined to become the "musical wallpaper" for kaffee-klatsch conversations — as many 'reproducing' rolls were designed to be, originally!

SPEED is what makes for exciting "solo" effects on a pneumatic player. This means that the a) lever controlled or b) action choke (with buttons or levers) designs tower above the instruments which used c) pneumatics-only for the divided scale Soft Pedal. (With a little practice, preferably with the front panel of the upright piano removed, a skilled Pianolist can determine the "delay" in the pneumatic style of a Bass-Treble hammer rail lift. Once learned, the interpreter can perform rolls with an amazing degree of dexterity …though admittedly on a second tier when compared to the other two kinds.)

In order to get the 'most' out of the LEFT/RIGHT accenting resources of the player, one must develop skill in reading the roll arrangement as it plays. The trick, here, is to "track the melody line" … and this should be done manually, since many of the Themodist (solo) perforations were inappropriate and often botched in the old arrangements. You learn to follow the melody on an instinctive basis. A concert Pianolist can do this upon the initial playing of a roll. The average person should, after one or two practice sessions, get the "shape" of the arrangement in his mind, and achieve similar performance results for pulling-out the melody (by suppressing the other ½ of the arrangement).

Naturally this has nothing to do with the art of playing the piano by hand. Being a roll interpreter is akin to conducting the orchestra or playing a pipe organ, since the musican is always a bit "ahead" of the performance. All this is dictated, for the Pianolist, by "feel". Once someone knows the delay in a foot pedal accent AND the amount of linear space in which a Soft Pedal (half) takes effect, the manipulation of these facets should be as simple as shifting the gears of an automobile transmission or the running of a sewing machine.

Again we state that RAPID SHIFTS are necessary to simulate the excitement inherent in a good keyboard performance. It's best to use the Bass or Treble soft device for only an inch or less of the music roll arrangement, taking up the slack with the pedal work. It short order you ought to be pulling accents out of triplets and separating the dotted-8th/16th note patterns. Sure, it involves a lot of finger work, but you don't have to play the keys!

There are — of course — some highly promoted pseudo-Pianolists on the concert circuit today, who possess none of the skills described above. To quote an American roll interpreter, who has extensive concert performance skills (including with symphony orchestras), this type of Player-Pianist "operates the Pianola levers as if they were light switches." The person who holds a finger in place for about 4 inches to a foot of a music roll arrangement is not in full control of the instrument, since the LEFT/RIGHT Soft Pedal effects are being "anticipated" instead of being "felt". Many opportunities for accents-within-accents are missed when a sluggish roll interpreter waits for a single use of the pedal. Your chances of seeing the "light switch Pianolist" are quite rare in our musically sophisticated times, since these people tend to appear in club events and over-hyped concerts, in which "BEING a Pianolist" is touted as something really special … when, rapid Soft Pedal use is ubiquitous among unheralded Player-Pianists in homes the world over!

Begin by looking for the melody and keep your eye on it from the start to the finish of the roll. Develop those quick "finger skills" by dampening ½ of the keyboard for just a portion of an inch at the most. If you miss a few melody notes (criss-crossing over the scale division), it won't matter if the accenting is a constant upward/downard flow of dynamics. The faster your fingers will fly, in concert with intelligent pedaling, the louder will be the applause when you reach the end of the roll. Practice makes perfect … and you can bask in the glory of running circles around commercial 'reproducing' rolls. Nothing beats a skilled Pianolist with SPEED in the manipulation of the Bass-Treble soft controls!

Back issues of "The PIANOLA News"
Vol. I, No. 1 (1-10-98)
Vol I, No. 2 (1-17-98)
Vol. I, No. 3 (1-25-98)
Vol. I, No. 4 (2-1-98)
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[Original announcement for 'The PIANOLA News': 12-31-97]

- L. Douglas Henderson, dba ARTCRAFT Music Rolls, P.O. Box 295, Wiscasset, Maine 04578 (USA)
(207) 882-7420 - E-Mail:

A second ARTCRAFT Website? Not really, but a "toe in the water" featuring some basic information has been on the Internet for close to a year. There's a short bio on the business which might be of interest to 'hard-core' ARTCRAFT fans. Check out this URL: (Make sure that "www" isn't in this URL!)

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