Alyssa Michaud
McGill University

The Amateur Musician in the Age of the Player Piano
Between 1900 and 1930, thousands of advertisements for player pianos exploded onto the pages of newspapers and periodicals. Although advertisements are frequently guilty of sweeping proclamations about the impact of new products on buyers’ lives, these overstatements can tell us a great deal about how marketers believed readers would perceive their products. This paper maps the changing relationship between amateur musicians and automation technology in the early twentieth century, illuminating a steady shift in the way this technology was advertised by companies and utilized by musicians. While the earliest advertisements described player pianos as automata that could take over the job of playing one’s piano, later promotional material can be roughly grouped into two categories. The first focused on selling the device’s mechanical ability to recreate professional musical performances without sacrificing human artistry, while the second highlighted its ability to amplify the musical abilities of the amateur. In this paper, I will link the developmental history of player piano technology with a new account of the relationship between the device and its amateur users, shedding light on the creative nature of human use, and its implications for the development of instrumental technologies and the practice of music-making. Issues I will explore include the place of the amateur player-pianist in the traditionally clearly demarcated roles of composer, performer, and listener; and the link between the automation of musical performance, and other types of domestic labor that became increasingly automated with the invention of new household technologies in the early twentieth century.

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Alyssa Michaud is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at McGill University. Her dissertation research examines automation technology in live musical performance across the past century, centering on three case studies: the player piano, the drum machine, and holographic performance media. She has recently presented her work at the International Musicological Society in Tokyo and the MusCan annual meeting in Calgary. In addition to her research, Alyssa works as a choir director in Montreal.