Very few people get to bring their childhood fantasies to life. If those fantasies involve unique, monstrous creatures that earn national recognition while staying your friend forever, you might as well forget about it. That is, unless you’re Adrian Mann, creator of one of the world’s largest pianos. After adventures all across New Zealand, the Alexander Piano—an nearly 19-foot behemoth Mann started building at age 15—has recently returned to its creator’s workshop.
It all began in 2004, when Mann stumped his piano teacher with a question. In pianos, the bass strings are wrapped with copper wire in order to deepen the sound without requiring extreme length. He wanted to know: without the copper, how long would the bass strings have to be in order to sound the right notes?
“She didn’t know the answer,” he says, and Mann—who, as a child, built a treehouse with running water and a working phone system—was used to figuring things out on his own. “So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll find out.’” He bought some piano wire, strung it up in his backyard in Timaru, New Zealand, and started plucking. “The length was so long—22 feet or something—but the sound was so amazing,” he says. Right then, he knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to build an enormous piano.
Like all dreams, Mann’s required a lot of help. A neighbor lent him her garage for building space. (“I had been wanting to build a small clavichord,” he says. “[But] she said go for gold.”) Others donated tools, timber, cash, and—when it became necessary—more building space.
The project also required a fair amount of luck. “I was building something I had no idea how to build,” he says. For instance, he made the case early on, before taking some measurements he now knows to be crucial. The fact that it ended up the right size was “really a fluke.”
When he finished the piano, in 2009, he was twenty years old. His creation measured 18 3/4 feet, more than double the size of an ordinary nine-foot concert grand. He invited his piano teacher over to see it, and he named it the Alexander Piano, after his great-great-grandfather. Then he started holding concerts.
Over the years, the piano has bopped around a lot, enjoying the hands of a number of notable local musicians, who generally admire its flexibility and rich tone. It’s done stints at a shipping terminal, in a number of schools and performance spaces, and in a church in Timaru.
At one point in 2011, Mann struck a deal and had it installed in the foyer of the Otago Museum in Dunedin, hoping Elton John would play it when he came through on a tour. They were stymied by an endorsement deal: “[Sir Elton] is contracted to Yamaha,” Mann says. “So he can’t play in public on anything else.”
Mann is now 28, and restores pianos for a living. About two years ago, he set up his own workshop in Dunedin. More recently, he decided it was time to bring the piano there. “I just wanted to have it here with me,” he says. So on September 21—late at night, with a fire department escort—Alexander came home.
Mann plans to keep holding concerts, and he hopes people will come and see the piano. He also loves to play it himself, when he has a free minute. But he’s got something else in mind, too. He’s learned so much about the instrument in the interim years, he says, that he’s come up with a lot of new ideas: “I really want to build another one.”
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