Music News & Reviews

$600K grant helps UK buy 18 high-tech pianos

The 18 new pianos include the AvantGrand hybrid pianos, a variety of upright acoustic pianos and 11 Disklavier Conservatory Grand Pianos.
The 18 new pianos include the AvantGrand hybrid pianos, a variety of upright acoustic pianos and 11 Disklavier Conservatory Grand Pianos.

Everett McCorvey announced to a crowd in the University of Kentucky's Schmidt Vocal Arts Center on Monday morning that "the Phantom" would be accompanying soprano Rebecca Farley in a song.

With McCorvey's penchant for theatrics, it was tempting to look around for a black-caped, white-masked man to swoop into the room. But instead, the piano simply started to play — moving keys and pedals — with no one on the bench as Farley sang Think of Me from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical The Phantom of the Opera.

The instrument was one of 18 new Yamaha pianos, some with technology that allows them to play themselves like the one accompanying Farley, bought for the UK College of Fine Arts through a $600,000 grant to the Lexington Opera Society.

The purchase included 13 Disklavier pianos that incorporate digital technology that allows the instruments to record performances and even manipulate those recordings. UK is now the biggest academic owner in the world of those sorts of Yamaha pianos.

"People in this town step forward to make things happen," McCorvey said.

The grant was a combination of a $300,000 donation from the W. Paul and Lucille Caudill Little Foundation and matching money from an anonymous donor.

Speaking on behalf of the Lexington Opera Society, former Lexington Mayor Pam Miller said, "So we own the pianos. Should we give them to UK?" She then giddily handed the piano ownership papers to UK's fine arts dean, Michael Tick.

The pianos have actually been at UK for a few weeks, and Cynthia Lawrence, who holds the endowed chair in voice at UK, said they have already been changing the way she teaches.

"It's an amazing tool," Lawrence said. The digital technology allows her to work more directly with students and hold classes and sessions, she said, even when accompanists are not available.

"We're spread so thin," said vocal coach and accompanist Nan McSwain. "We can't always get to every student's class, so this is great when we can record an accompaniment and take it with them."

Neither she nor fellow coach and accompanist Tedrin Blair Lindsay said they felt threatened by the technology.

"You still need someone to play it originally," said Lindsay, who is a contributing culture critic for the Herald-Leader. "It's just a more efficient use of our time."

That extends to features such as the digital piano's ability to change musical keys with a simple command.

But in performance and the most vital rehearsals, the accompanists said, singers will still want a human being.

"The computer doesn't know when you're having a hard time and need an extra moment to take a breath," McSwain said. "But we do."

Lawrence said she thinks the new pianos will be a helpful recruiting tool for prospective students.

"We don't have the best facilities for a music school," said Lawrence, echoing an often-heard complaint about UK's aging fine arts building, on Rose Street at Patterson Drive. "But when new students see this, they will get the feeling that this is the school with upscale, modern equipment."

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