Slice of Life Story -The Old Piano Roll Blues

The sound of a piano being demolished is somewhat disturbing. A jarring medley of discordant sounds assaulting the senses. Chopin meets chopping!

 Yesterday, an article in the Sunday Age captured my interest. It concerned a man who has a somewhat unusual job. Paul Mc Donald, destroys pianos which have outlived their usefulness.  Paul’s action were described thus:

‘Paul Mc Donald tickles the ivories with his axe before plunging his blade into the keys, scattering shards of wood across the concrete. Sweat shines through his bushy beard from the effort of destroying an upright piano…’

Why all this violence towards pianos you ask? Well, this is an increasingly common scene as old and unloved pianos are dumped because people neither have the space or the inclination to keep them in tuneful condition.

Recyclable parts are removed before the man with the axe has a smashing good time. Some unworkable pianos find a new life as television props or are converted into fish tanks. The less fortunate ones become fire wood.  Pianos, it turns out have a lifespan of between 80 and 100 years and less if they are not tuned annually. The high cost of repair makes for a sad end. The New York Times recently reported, ‘There is an abyss between the emotional value of pianos and their actual worth.’

As a child I recall the large pianola that my Nana owned. It stood in the corner of the lounge room; piano rolls piled on top. It was always fun to pretend you could actually play the piano as you sat atop a stool and gripped the sides so as to not topple off. I would pump the pianola pedals with all my might to keep up the tempo. The adults would urge you to keep pedalling.  The rolls had the lyrics of the song printed on them and they scrolled down in the same way an auto cue does today. It no doubt played a part in my formative reading. Although the words, ‘She wore red feathers and hula- hula skirt’ -might have raised eyebrows in certain polite circles. I can actually dredge up some of those songs to this day. They are indelibly seared into my brain.

The pianola was a magnet for sing-alongs when my Mother’s family gathered. I have strong recollections of these special occasions. Rousing renditions of favourite songs would shake the windows and rattle the walls of that big house. What fun it seemed to the small boy I once was. That pianola eventually passed on to my Aunt. I hope she still has it and I hope it stills belts out a mean tune. I hate to think of it being hammered into submission by the axeman. It’s a shame. We are losing a piece of our musical history. 

'I want to hear it again
 I want to hear it again
The old piano roll blues.'

The old piano rolls
These pictures are not from my Nana's house, but from a bed and breakfast house in Castlemaine,Victoria I stayed at in 2008. It reminded me so much of my childhood memories at Nana Smith's place. 


  1. When I was a child my family had an old "player piano" and reading your post brought back those memories so strongly I smiled as I remembered the smell of those paper rolls. And my daughter has never quite forgiven me for selling another piano we had rescued from a church and no longer thought we needed. I too am guilty of losing a piece of my family's musical history - and now I shudder to think of the axe man and his work. I hope our piano did not meet with that fate.


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