CPP Engineering Building piano hits the wrong note with some students, faculty

By Reyes Navarrete, Nov. 6, 2023

On the second floor lobby of the engineering building sits a vintage 20th century Conway baby grand piano, and its presence has been a point of contention for both faculty and students and has been written about online on Reddit.

The instrument is in need of some repair since some of the keys do not work, it has the tendency to go out of tune and the action mechanism of the instrument needs to be updated. In addition to the maintenance of the unique piano, some students and faculty who work near the piano have mixed feelings about the instrument, noting how disturbing it can be in the shared community space, but also acknowledging the potential it has for providing enjoyment.

According to the College of Engineering magazine “Xpressions of Xcellence” CPP staff and alumni John and Lisa Rotunni donated the piano in January 2015, after the former Dean of the College of Engineering Mahyer Amouzegar mentioned how much students would enjoy it.

“As I recall the situation, I mentioned that there was a piano available and Dean Amouzegar was very enthusiastic about the possibility that students would enjoy it,” said Lisa Rotunni. “I personally know a lot of engineers and scientists who are also musicians. We speculate that there are some fundamental mathematical concepts that help make the connection. Plus, I think people overlook the extent to which engineering and science are really creative disciplines.”

The piano sits nestled at the entrance of Building 9 second floor between two glass door entrances. Before the piano was in that space, there was a shelf with literature that the faculty and department had on display.

Physics and astronomy Lecturer Josef Velten sees students playing the piano most mornings on his way to teach his class. He feels the piano is a nice way to relax for a few minutes, even if the person playing is not a great piano player.

Tahmineh Karimi Moghadam, a civil engineering student plays the vintage Conway piano on the second floor of the engineering building. | Reyes Navarrete

“I find it’s nice,” Velten said. “If some people are practicing, you know, I’m in favor. I mean, I as a teacher struggle for people to be unafraid of asking questions in class, and are unafraid to learn in public. I’m not going to gainsay them. That’s more or less what my comments were all about, like, yeah, it’s good. I think that is from the perspective of me as a teacher. So if someone’s like, ‘Oh my God, why can’t they practice away from other people?’ I’m not saying that’s invalid. I enjoy it and I don’t mind people screwing up a little bit in public, like, we all could do with being comfortable screwing up the public more, you know?”

Faculty who wanted to remain anonymous have mentioned the noise pollution produced from the piano. While Velten has heard some faculty mention the noise produced from the piano, the extent of sound produced could be heard through walls, down the hallway and on the third floor of the building.

“My two cents, I would defer to the people who have their classes and offices closer to the piano than I,” Velton said. “So yeah, in terms of what to do with things, there’s always options.”

John Hartman graduated from CPP in May 2023 with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering. While at CPP, Hartman walked past the Conway piano everyday as an engineering student.

“I went down, sat on it, tried to play something, and it was so out of tune,” Hartman said. “The action was so messed up. It was unplayable basically.”

Noticing the state the piano was in, Hartman took it upon himself to tune the piano guerilla style on two separate occasions. He first emailed the Dean’s office asking for permission to work on the piano. After getting the OK in person, he went into the building on a Saturday evening, while a professor was leaving, and was able to begin tuning the instrument using a piano tuner app on his phone.

“I tuned it at the end of 2022, and I tuned it again,” Hartman said. “I think I was doing midterms during spring semester this year, but it kept going out of tune. That’s why I kept re-tuning it because if a piano hasn’t been tuned in years. You have to keep doing maintenance tuning because certain keys, certain strings, will slip out of tune as people play it. You need to keep working them free because it depends on friction.”

The tuning took him about four hours to complete. According to Hartman, the tuning process includes an initial tuning to get the pitch of the piano where it needs to be, then after some time, the piano needs to be finely tuned. The instrument would have to be periodically tuned and updated more often since many students might sit and play the piano.

“It’s not too hard,” Hartman said. “It costs a lot less than a lot of other things to maintain in the building. And it kind of adds culture to something that can feel culture-less sometimes. It kind of almost makes you feel when everything is working, and someone who knows how to play is playing it, it makes you feel like you’re a part of society. Instead of just, you know, getting your work done for your class or whatever.”

Owen Yim, a mechanical engineering student, had a similar sentiment about the piano.

“I have mixed feelings,” said Yim. “I obviously love music. So yeah, I enjoyed that there’s music around this area, especially because it’s such a tight and stressful environment. But then again, it is a tight and stressful environment, right? Because what if people are taking exams and, you know, people are doing office hours, they need to focus on homework, and then there is just random music playing and some people don’t like it.”

If the piano is played respectfully and with the classrooms in mind, Hartman said there should be no problem with playing it. He also suggested a sign or printout showing how a piano works would provide context to people who are unaware and can be an opportunity to marry the concept of engineering and music.

“It was always a little bit amusing to me, that it was such a big deal,” said Hartman. “Because to me, it’s not really. Somebody donated it, and somebody said ‘yes’ to receiving it. So it’s there. So why not like, have it be there to the best of its ability you know, instead of just kind of neglecting it is kind of how I feel about it.”

Feature image courtesy of Reyes Navarrete

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