In a collaborative effort, students at the University of St. Thomas are turning the tide for unwanted pianos by breathing new life into discarded parts. The initiative, undertaken by first-year engineering students enrolled in Dr. Tiffany Ling’s Introduction to Engineering Design, challenges them to design and construct musical instruments using components salvaged from old pianos.
Breaking down the traditional boundaries between engineering and music, the students receive additional guidance from peers enrolled in the Music and the Creative Process course, led by Dr. Sarah Schmalenberger. The latter group, acting as consultants, tests the newly crafted instruments, fostering a unique cross-disciplinary collaboration.
Henry Cahoon, a first-year engineering major and avid cellist at St. Thomas, found the project to be a thrilling convergence of his passions. “I am a musician and I am an engineer, but rarely do these things connect for me as they did over the course of this project,” expressed Cahoon. His team ingeniously fashioned an instrument from piano planks, guitar strings, and repurposed aluminum soup cans, emphasizing sustainability in their design process.
The inspiration for this initiative comes from Keys 4/4 Kids, a non-profit organization based in New Brighton, Minnesota, dedicated to salvaging pianos from landfills. The organization provided recycled piano parts to St. Thomas students, fostering a thoughtful approach to instrument creation.
Grant Dawson, executive director at Keys 4/4 Kids, expressed enthusiasm for the project, stating, “It’s been amazing to watch the students create from the early design stages, all the way to the final concert. These instruments are bizarre, as they’re intended to be new attempts at instrument making. That musical exploration is what this is all about.”
Keys 4/4 Kids, responsible for rescuing nearly 1,000 pianos annually, repairs, resells, and donates instruments when possible. However, not all pianos find a second life in music. The Sustainable Communities Partnership (SCP) at St. Thomas is actively engaged in finding alternative solutions for recycling the intricate components of pianos.
The SCP, known for channeling sustainability questions to St. Thomas students, has played a crucial role in connecting local governments and nonprofits with creative solutions. Dr. Maria Dahmus, Director of the Office of Sustainability Initiatives & SCP, highlighted the importance of these projects, stating, “Connecting our students with partners expands those possibilities and enriches learning in so many collaborative ways.”
After months of prototyping and testing, the newly crafted instruments were handed over to music team members for practice. Emily Torstenson, a marketing major, expressed her delight with the final design, featuring strings from a piano, keys from a xylophone, and the body of an old ukulele. Torstenson emphasized the project’s impact on waste reduction and the joy of creating something entirely new.
As the project enters its second year, plans are underway to present the challenge to a new group of students in the fall of 2024. With each iteration, this unique collaboration between engineers and musicians at the University of St. Thomas not only brings forth innovative instruments but also contributes to a more sustainable world, fostering creativity and a deeper appreciation for repurposing discarded materials.