Musical Archives! Celebrating National Piano Month

September is National Piano Month. Today’s post comes from Thomas Richardson, an archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri.

Entertainment by Dave Brubeck Quartet in the East Room during the State Dinner for President Julio Maria Sanguinetti of Uruguay, 6/17/1986. (National Archives Identifier 75854863

Many great musicians, composers, and songwriters start their musical training with one particular instrument: the piano. Traditionally it was the first instrument that anyone learning music played since many families had one in their homes (if they could afford one).

Photograph of President Harry S. Truman playing the piano while Jack Benny plays the violin, 9/3/1959. (National Archives Identifier 596420)

American brands like Baldwin, Mason & Hamlin, and Steinway & Sons, have manufactured pianos for over 150 years, ranging from small parlor-size pianos for families to grand concert hall pianos played by world-famous musicians.

Pianos have undergone a number of changes with dozens of patents being submitted over the decades. Whether someone gains their playing skills from a local teacher or a musical conservatory, the piano is a great instrument to introduce them to the world of music.

Pianos are also fixtures of the White House. With the administration of President Harry Truman, piano recitals and small concerts became commonplace during state visits and dinners. As a boy, Truman had a strong passion for music and, until he graduated from high school, he rose early every morning to practice the piano. It wasn’t uncommon for him to continue practicing, even playing the piano at the White House with noted celebrities. His daughter, Margaret Truman, embarked on a career as a classical soprano singing with orchestras across the country, and President Truman enjoyed playing as her piano accompanist.

President Richard Nixon was musically gifted as well. As he grew up, he played multiple instruments, especially the piano, and he practiced every afternoon when he was child. He followed in Truman’s footsteps by playing the piano at state dinners and other official visits. 

President Nixon plays piano while Pearl Bailey sings after a dinner honoring U.S. Governors, 3/7/1974. (National Archives Identifier 194572)

Pianos have been the subject of many technical innovations since the 1830s. Inventors and musicians looked for ways to improve the sound quality, keys, volume, and playability, all for creating a better piano. Anthony Faas, a piano maker from Philadelphia, submitted numerous patents for new methods of tightening piano strings, dampening strings, and many more. Faas manufactured pianos for over 30 years and made other instruments like accordions and glockenspiels. 

The piano is a versatile instrument played by thousands of talented musicians and amateurs. They’re fixtures in homes, churches, schools, parks, restaurants, hotels, businesses, and many, many more. For as long as there are music lovers, there’ll be the piano waiting for the next generation of students. 

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