IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: How to Play a Player Piano

If you see It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play at MRT, you may walk away with a question. So we’ll just answer it here:

Yes, that’s a real player piano.

Nael at Piano
Nael Nacer learns to use the player piano in rehearsal

It’s over 100 years old (which makes it older than our theatre building itself!) Here’s the gist of how it works:

  • Inside the piano is a motorized bellows system that pumps air when a switch is flipped.
  • Air gets sucked through something called a tracker bar, with dozens of tiny holes—one for each note of the piano.
  • The paper piano roll (which has tiny holes of its own) starts gliding over the bar:
piano roll closeup
The roll glides over the tracker bar (which you can see through the paper). When the holes on the roll line up with the holes on the bar, a note is played.

So, when air is able to pass through a hole, that note plays on the piano.

Yes, it’s way more complicated than that. But now you have a basic idea.

pp cross section
Player piano cross-section,

Our piano roll was composed by the ingenious Jonathan Mastro, who wrote a ton of original music for our production. He sent all the music as a MIDI computer file to Tim Baxter, who runs Meliora Music Rolls; he’s one of just nine or ten people in the world who make piano rolls today.

Tim Baxter
Tim Baxter, of Meliora Music Rolls


By day, Baxter’s an attorney; his piano roll operation is a labor of love. It’s his latest outlet for an interest in player pianos he’s had since he was a kid, when he’d spend his free time tinkering with the instruments in his home. Recently, he’s been operating his own machine that makes paper piano rolls:

The Perforator

It’s called a perforator, and it lives on the first floor of Tim’s house in Atlanta.

The paper comes from those big rolls on the right—is clamped between two heavy steel wheels—gets perforated by the “punch assembly”—and is then re-spooled on the left. The machine can punch up to 18 rows of holes in just one second!

Every time the piano is used in the show, an actor manually sets the roll to the cue, then hits a switch to make it run. As the song ends, the actor stops the roll, rewinds it, then manually sets for the next cue.

everyone looking at piano
Composer/Sound Designer Jonathan Mastro demonstrates for the cast and crew in rehearsal.

Hayley Hunt, the Assistant Stage Manager, tests the whole thing before each performance, and is on standby (in period costume!) during each performance, so she can step in to fix anything if it goes wrong.

So from the composer, to the computer, to the perforator, to the roll, to the cast, to the piano—it takes a lot of moving parts to make our show sound great!

Learn more about Jonathan and Tim:


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