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Old pianos hit just the right note for ECU


Gifted with a world-significant collection of historic keyboard instruments, the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) at ECU seeks to lead the world in historical keyboard instrument teaching and research.

What’s the collective noun for a group of pianos? A cacophony? A grand? A scale?

No term seems sufficient for the collection of 140 historic pianos – including the First Fleet Piano of 1788 – that was gifted to WAAPA by Australian collector Stewart Symonds in 2016.

WAAPA’s Professor Geoffrey Lancaster says the collection, dating from 1736 to 1874, is helping to position the Academy as a hub for collaboration and innovation across disciplines.

While many of the pianos are not in playing order, WAAPA intends to restore and maintain the collection for both teaching and research purposes.

“The collection is of international significance and opens the door to both internal and external research opportunities for WAAPA,” Professor Lancaster says.

3D printing on a grand scale

Working with the School of Engineering, Professor Lancaster says there is a potential collaborative research opportunity to replace components in the pianos through 3D printing.

“We are hoping to research the acoustic and physical properties of damaged or worn components in the instruments, and then work with the engineering team to design and produce an equivalent 3D printed version,” Professor Lancaster says.

While the project is in its early days, the cross-disciplinary research is likely to be the beginning of a series of collaborations across organology, musicology, acoustics, engineering, conservation, education and design.

There is also potential to research and engineer new materials to replace the baleen and ivory used for components in historical pianos.

“Materials conservation is the intersection of art and science,” Professor Lancaster says. “By using modern technology and combining expertise from engineering and science, we can build on the original design innovations that made them special, and develop the materials that will keep historical pianos alive.”

Striking chords around the world

The Symonds collection at WAAPA provides an outstanding opportunity for students to hear and work with historical instruments.

And each instrument has a unique story. Since joining ECU, Professor Lancaster has published two monographs detailing the history and provenance of pianos in the collection, helping to reveal new details about their makers and their economic and social impacts.

Professor Lancaster says through WAAPA’s stewardship of the collection, ECU is ideally placed to become part of an illustrious network comprising some of the most significant tertiary music institutions in the world.

These institutions include the Royal Academy of Music in London, The University of Edinburgh, the Conservatory of Amsterdam and Cornell University in New York.

“The First Fleet Piano is of world significance and the research, teaching and performance opportunities that come with having it and the Symonds collection sitting with WAAPA are very exciting,” Professor Lancaster says.

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