Kevin Madill, music librarian and head of The Music, Art and Architecture Library at UBC, never imagined that a piano could be placed in a library that required absolute silence. How would it not become a decoration? How would it work? As an experiment, the UBC Music Library received a Yamaha hybrid piano donated by Tom Lee Music last August. Such a thing would be unimaginable before the invention of the hybrid piano combining both the acoustic action and digital sound reproduction systems into one. The Yamaha new silent series pianos can be muted and transmit the sound through the use of headphones. The young generation of music students now can have the option of playing piano with the silent mode or the acoustic mode.  According to the library borrowing record, the piano headphones were the most frequently borrowed item in the library the last year.

 

The piano entered the library with some concerns, explained Madill. In the past, the UBC Music Library was located in the music department, a relatively independent building with many places for students to practice their musical instruments. There was always music in the space but now The Music Library has merged with The Irving K. Barber Learning Center and was renamed the Music, Arts and Architecture Library. This major development changes how students access their musical resources and practice spaces. Because the UBC Music Library has such a vast range of professional research information, the music community members continue to come to the new space to look for information on music theory and history or a composer’s music score during certain time periods.

 

Does a professional research library need a piano? Would it bring inspiration or challenges? When Tom Lee Music proposed to donate a piano for the UBC music library, there were initial doubts from the faculty. Madill recalls worrying that it would be disruptive if a student unplugged the headset and the piano were to be played unmuted. But Madill felt adamant that the library should not be an isolated ivory tower. It should accommodate the needs of all community members be it professional or amateurs, students or teachers. It was quite an experiment to put a piano into an academic library, but how would they know the results without trying?

 

 

 

A Tom Lee Music piano technician assured Madill that the piano would be silent even if the headphones were accidentally unplugged or lost as the mute function is controlled by a switch to digital sound reproduction. With his greatest concern out of the way, he chose to put the piano by the door to the music library, in a prominent place so that everyone could see it. But with the piano in a public space, would people care about practicing it in front of others? He also worried that some of the younger students might accidently place a coffee cup on the piano and risk damaging the instrument. Thankfully, Madill had no need to worry. The piano is cherished by all based on the extraordinary love it inspires in musicians.

 

When you see someone playing the piano, immersed in their own musical world and you feel the place is alive, explained Madill. He passes the piano on his way to work every day and noticed that someone is almost always playing it. He observes students sight-reading music as they play the piano and doing their music theory homework every day. Many music students use the piano but the faculty notice amateur musicians enjoying the piano even more often. This is surprising but makes sense considering that two or three thousand people come to the library every day and UBC only has around five hundred music students on campus.

 

The response from amateur musicians and community members makes Kevin Madill and all of the music librarians incredibly happy. Professional or amateur, it does not matter as this provides an opportunity for ordinary people to incorporate classical music into their everyday lives. The piano can inspire potential audience members to support classical music by attending concerts.

 

UBC also has a many international students who may have grown up practicing piano but are attending university to study other disciplines. They may not be professional musicians but many international students do not want to give up their love of music. The library piano is a perfect option for them. Kevin Madill also observes musicology scholars who come to the library to do research and allow their younger children to play with the piano so that both adults and children can be productive at the same time. Most commonly, the library piano users do not have a home piano because their apartment or shared dorm room is too small. Having a piano in the library allows people to share in the joy of music no matter what.

 

Considering the Yamaha piano is so popular in the UBC Library, Madill hopes that other public libraries will be inspired to incorporate music into their spaces too. In the West Vancouver Public Library, there is indeed an acoustic grand piano but it is placed near the door and in most cases is left untouched. The silent feature of the UBC Yamaha piano ensures that the instrument will always be accessible and undisruptive. The UBC library is very fortunate to have such a gift, explains Madill. The library is all about providing public services and having a hybrid piano truly fulfills that function.

 

Originally published in Ming Pao Canada lifestyle magazine.
Translated by Tom Lee Music Company.