Posts tagged: player piano

Remembering Bob Berkman: A Musical Journey with a Player Piano Enthusiast

By , September 13, 2023 1:48 pm

Over the last fifteen years, we have had the opportunity to connect with musicians, educators, and researchers worldwide through the sound archive, but none captured the enthusiasm of Bob Berkman and his Player Piano.

Remembering Bob Berkman

We met Bob and his partner, David Mavis who came down from Buffalo, New York through a connection with Ben Roth our sound digitization specialist. He was invited to speak back in 2013 at a Judaic festival that was held yearly at the FAU Libraries about his work creating Piano rolls for QRS and to highlight how a player piano worked with a bit of history. I was fortunate enough to be able to record a few videos prior along with his lecture.

The one thing that has never left my mind, however, is his kindness and generosity in sharing his musical knowledge with anyone he meets. Upon our meeting, he went to work setting up his Player Piano and explaining all the pieces as we asked if we could record behind-the-scenes footage before his lecture. And with a giant smile, he went about putting together his Player Piano talking about it as he put the pieces together assessing the foot pedals and gears to make sure his piano was performance ready.

Over the years, Bob would reach out periodically asking for a recording, or if we had a copy of the video we created years ago that he could have. I never forgot his kindness and often found myself researching old newspapers for information about musicians and record labels, finding a Player Piano ad or two and compiling a file to send him which he was always glad to receive.

Unfortunately, Bob Berkman passed away this summer in July from a serious illness at the age of sixty-eight.  Here, at the Recorded Sound Archives, in celebration of National Piano Month, we would like to honor the memory of a wonderful human who shared immensely his love of music with others and all that would listen.

Below you will find a link to our website where you can listen to four albums by Bob Berkman. Along with a few short clips we recorded in 2013 during Bob’s time in Florida.

Visit our website to listen to Piano roll recordings compiled and played by Bob Berkman:


Bob Berkman explains how the pianola works

Bob Berkman Sets Up the Pianola

Bob Berkman on Pianola History and Performance Excerpt.

Blog Posts

Can “Boardwalk Empire” era Jewish piano rolls still find an Audience?

Bob Berkman: Nostalgia with a Twist

If you read this post and it touched your heart, please consider donating to Buffalo String Works ( which is an organization creating accessible, youth-centered music education for those in the Western New York Community where Bob lived.

Can “Boardwalk Empire” era Jewish piano rolls still find an audience?

By , October 14, 2013 8:35 am

Vintage Jewish piano roll boxes

Player pianos, pianolas and piano rolls were all the rage during Prohibition. 

By the early 1920’s new advances in piano-roll technology gave rise to a complex, performance-oriented style of music that became the soundtrack of an era.

All types of music were recorded on piano rolls, from Ragtime  to folk songs; from Jazz to Cantorial masterpieces. So….can these “Boardwalk Empire” era Jewish piano rolls still find an audience in today’s  fast-paced electronic world?

Can these relics of another age resonate with a modern audience?

The Judaica Sound Archives at FAU Libraries invited Bob Berkman, one of the last great piano roll aficionados, to demonstrate his skills before a live audience….and…..his appearance was a huge success!

Yet, relatively few people have ever had the pleasure of  attending  a live pianola concert featuring Bob Berkman and his authentic piano rolls.

A wonderful opportunity

Bob Berkman

Now the JSA is giving you the chance to peek behind the scenes, get a front row seat and enjoy the experience of a by-gone era.

These clips were created from video taken at Bob Berkman’s performance during FAU Library’s 2013 kultur festival by Alethea Perez, FAU Recorded Sound Archives operations coordinator.

(1) Bob Berkman explains how the pianola works.

(2) Bob Berkman sets up the pianola.

(3) Bob Berkman shares some historical facts about the pianola and plays some tunes.

Related Links:  Bio     Online Collection



Pianola pushed up to piano and ready to play.


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Bob Berkman: Nostalgia with a twist

By , October 1, 2012 2:33 pm

Bob Berkman’s pianola brings a rich new sound to vintage early 20th century Jewish music

The first time I heard Bob Berkman’s CD, Klezmerola, I just couldn’t stop playing it. I loved the old time sound that Bob was able to achieve with his pianola. I loved the way the sound of the pianola (player piano) augmented the  impact of the music that had once defined a generation of Jews and now was fading from memory.

I am delighted that the Judaica Sound Archives at Florida Atlantic University can now boast a collection of 47 Jewish songs by America’s premier pianolist, Bob Berkman.

I wrote the following review in September 2008 for the Association of Jewish Libraries. After listening to the CD many times since then, I still feel the same way.

“Take an almost vanished technology (player pianos), add vintage Jewish music and stir with just a hint of ragtime and what do you get? Klezmerola! An absolutely delightful CD album that is fun, fresh and freylekh. In this album of “Jewish music from rare piano rolls” Bob Berkman does an incredible job of bringing the music to life with a vitality achieved by actually foot-pumping an old upright player piano. The accompanying 16 page booklet provides information about each song and about the rediscovery of Jewish piano rolls. Such old familiar Yiddish songs as “Odesser Bulgar,” “Yosel,” and “Die Griene Cosina” seem especially well-suited for Bob Berkman’s pianola interpretations. I would be hard pressed to choose a favorite track.  I loved them all!”

In the liner notes for his two volume CD, Klezmerola at the Yiddish Theater, Bob Berkman tells us that ” Piano roll manufacturers…were eager to record and sell current hits, and for attracting immigrant Jewish customers there was no greater source than Yiddish Theater…The market was never a large one…and surviving examples are rare.” The music on these three CDs took over 35 years to assemble.

The piano rolls only contain notes (like sheet music). Bringing them to life with dynamics, accents, phrasing, and emotion is the work of the pianolist, the person operating the player piano. Bob Berkman’s unique talent revitalizes this vintage music, providing a generous portion of nostalgia. . . . with a twist!

Bob Berkman’s love affair with the pianola began in 1975 when he was hired by QRS in Buffalo, NY, the world’s last remaining piano roll manufacturer. His talents brought him the opportunity to work on such films as Ragtime, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, and Reds ( in cooperation with  Stephen Sondheim). He has appeared on NPR, BBC, and CBS Sunday Morning.

Using a 1912 “push-up” portable pianola, Berkman effectively turns any piano into a player piano allowing him to perform  in venues all across America. In great demand as a speaker and performer, his unique and deeply personal work with Jewish rolls has been especially gratifying to him.  His important discovery of George Gershwin’s only Jewish piano roll and the haunting A Gitte Nacht by the obscure Samuel Perlstein are among his most treasured accomplishments.

For information about how to buy recordings by Bob Berkman, please click here.

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