The “Spirio” of Trinity


Photo credit: Genevieve Humphreys

Photo by Genevieve Humphreys

The sound of live music in Trinity’s Ruth Taylor Recital Hall no longer depends on the presence of a live musician. On Feb. 8, the Trinity University Department of Music unveiled its newest tool: The Steinway & Sons “Spirio” Player Piano, donated by James and Janet Dicke.

“I had a phone call from Mrs. Dicke just out of the clear blue last spring,” said David Heller, professor of music. “She said, ‘Would Trinity be interested in something like [the Spirio] for its students?’”

When James and Janet Dicke were in town for graduation last May, Heller and Carolyn True, piano faculty in the Department of Music, were able to further investigate the Spirio.

“The four of us had an appointment and we went out to the Steinway gallery to actually see one of these pianos on the floor, and it was at that point that we made the decision that yes, we were interested in getting something like this for Trinity, and then the Dickes bought one for their home as well,”Heller said.

The Spirio piano is capable of accurately recreating performances from current and past pianists. The model gifted to Trinity can also be used to record live pianists and play back immediately. The piano is kept in Ruth Taylor Recital Hall so that it can be used in tandem with video projection, as it was at the unveiling ceremony.

“We were able to not only show the reproducing part of it, but also project George Gershwin and hear his sound coming out of the piano. It was amazing,” True said. “It’s voices from the past, it’s pianists from all over that don’t necessarily come to San Antonio often. It’s going to change the way I teach my piano pedagogy class, the way I teach piano lit, because I’ll be able to show these incredibly important historical figures in piano.”

“I think students were really impressed, one student was particularly emotional,” Heller said.

The Spirio piano will be used to expand student familiarity with less commonly studied professionals.

“Figures that young pianists today might not recognize, like Dame Myra Hess. And to see, actually, Vladimir Horowitz playing on the video and then you see the piano replicating what he has done, it’s just fascinating to watch,” Heller said.

“Not only pianists, we have pianist composers. So, we’ve got Rachmaninoff, who, the things that he left on his score were spotty at best in terms of pedaling indications, things like that, we get it right from them,” True said.

The Spirio Piano differs from other player pianos because it can recreate more than just the speed and notes of a performance.

“The Spirio technology allows you to come up with, I think, two thousand possibilities of how the key is pressed: how fast, how slow, the depth, the pressure. In other words, it’s a more true replication of what the artist is doing,” Heller said. “It’s a historic document for us.”

“It’s a tool for academic investigation,” True said.

This donation is the latest in a series of generous offerings by the Dicke family. James and Janet Dicke previously donated over 30 pianos to make Trinity an ‘all-Steinway’ school. This status means that every piano on campus is a Steinway & Sons piano. This manufacturer has been a leading brand since 1853.

“I know that any practice room I choose, I will get a really high quality sound, and I won’t have to worry about that influencing the way I practice. I always feel comfortable on the pianos I’m playing,” said Ethan Jones, sophomore piano student. “That was one of the big, main deciding factors as to why I wanted to come here because of the awesome pianos we have.”

The acquisition of the Spirio piano provides Trinity with both an opportunity for advancement in the field of music and an opportunity to reflect on the continued support of the Dicke family, according to Heller.

“We are so, so thankful to the Dickes, because they continue to be so supportive of this department and of the university,” Heller said. “They really are model citizens for us here at Trinity and, their generosity is just unbelievable… I hope that the students at Trinity don’t take for granted what we’ve got in the practice room.”