ARTCRAFT Newsletter - #4 (October 16, 2000)


    Years ago, any discussion of the "solo" system for standard music rolls, called The Themodist™ by Aeolian (or Melodant™, Solodant™ and other trade names by player rival manufacturers) fell on deaf ears. Back in the 'Forties and the 'Fifties - since contemporary QRS Rolls were being issued without the feature - those "jalopy" rebuilders of the day disconnected, or usually removed, the mechanism which caused the pneumatic stack to be divided into Theme and Accompaniment divisions.

    Today, with a more sophisticated - often foreign - type of collector, there's a renewed interest in the Themodist ... especially since it was used outside of the States on a greater variety of player action installations. (For the sake of brevity, we will use the trade-name Themodist™ for the Aeolian as well as the other similar "solo" mechanisms, some of which had names, as with Ludwig Hupfeld; many foreign manufacturers also tendered the installed as a generic product.)

    The question is, however, "Does the Pianolist really benefit from this device?"

    The answer is "It all depends upon your style of player action and ESPECIALLY the type of music you most frequently perform on the instrument."

    At best, the Themodist is a creative tool when used judiciously and at its worst it can be a useless musical interference, primary due to the drab nature of the original rolls created for this "solo" mechanism.

    Let's begin by examining the Themodist in the days of the 65-Note and 88-Note pedal players by Aeolian (and Angelus by Wilcox & White).

    The Themodist is really a "bypass" for suppressed vacuum on pedal players. (It has a different, original purpose on these pedal instruments when compared to the later electric 'reproducing' player action designs that employed the feature.)

    When activated, the Themodist connects the foot pedals to the striking pneumatics directly, while softening the Bass/Treble divisions in a pneumatic-mechanical fashion. The non-solo notes are 'regulated', in other words. Thus, whatever Bass/Treble notes are designated as "solo" by the double-perfections on the left/right margins of the player roll, these will be struck with the force dictated by the Pianolist's pedal strokes. Meanwhile, the other notes on the keyboard are considered to be accompaniment, and they will remain at a fixed, muted level before and after the "solo" keys have been struck, no matter how heavily the individual operates the pedals.

    [It should be noted that these double (horizontally oriented) "solo" holes for the Themodist were called "accents", "theme", "melody", "Themodist cuttings", "solo" and other literate terms until a couple of decades ago. Then, unfortunately, a trashy term called "snakebites" appeared among the lower elements of the collecting field; use of this inappropriate term should be discouraged for this interesting player action  mechanism, which is based upon sound musical theory.]

    The Pianolist usually has the option to add "solo" notes through the medium of buttons or levers on a player equipped with the Themodist-style of device. Thus, when the 'on/off' lever appears on a pedal player, one can override or introduce their own ideas about "solo" passages, and not rely upon the often lackluster arrangements by the old roll factories. On such players, the interpreter can use standard music rolls, substituting the lever or button manipulation for the accent holes found on rolls scored for the Themodist.

    At this point it should be mentioned that there were basically TWO types of the mechanically-operated Themodist feature: fixed action chokes and the so-called 'graduated accompaniment'. What this meant was that some players required the accompaniment level to be SET with a screwdriver ... while others featured 'long sweeping' Bass/Treble levers which allowed the roll interpreter to graduate the dynamics of the accompaniment levels ... while continuing in both cases to control the "solo" via the foot pedal strokes.

    Which is better?

    Again, it depends upon the style of music that one plays. The fixed (action choke) accompaniment is FAST, running almost instantaneously. The graduated accompaniment requires rapid finger manipulations ... but ... when the regulated vacuum is being raised and lowered rapidly on some kinds of virtuoso music, the 'clunking' of the hand levers often competes with the musical performance. (If one accepts the Themodist as scored on the rolls, the graduated levers can be operated in unison without the 'clank' and noise ... but then one is subject to another's musical opinion, when all pianos differ in their sonority and musical spectrum. This arrangement is not altogether satisfactory when playing complex music rolls.)

    One of the annoyances of the fixed - but fast - accompaniment is that if one alternates between 4-hand Overtures or Symphonies and then switches over to light, airy piano solos (such as Nevin's NARCISSUS or MacDowell's TO A WATER LILY), the piano keys will either "skip" at one setting or fail to soften when playing anything at the other extreme. In these cases, it's best to use the Soft Pedals without the Themodist and rely upon one's own musical taste ... after experimenting with the performance results first. (Note: setting the fixed accompaniment level on this kind of "solo" system usually requires getting under the piano and adjusting the desired intensity level ... so it's essential to do this for the typical style of rolls being performed, PRIOR to a home musicale!)

    [If you are really into the variables of the Themodist hand controls, be sure to check out our article in THE PIANOLA NEWS concerning Aeolian's "Temponamic"™ disc, which combined the tempo lever with the accompaniment graduation. It differs in purpose when used on the standard pedal players and their electric 'reproducing' pianos. Here's the address of this additional text -]

    Those who call the Themodist roll a "partial 'reproducing'" or a "semi-reproducing" arrangement or just plain "expression", really don't understand WHAT this accenting device is all about.

    The Themodist divides the music scale into solo and accompaniment, using marginal perforations and/or one's Pianola controls in the keyslip. It doesn't create the dynamic shadings or introduce anything else.

    [A similar design would be the 116-Note Aeolian Pipe Organ rolls (which play on  my '12 XY Solo-Orchestrelle) vs. the Duo-Art Organ Rolls, approximately 15 1/2" wide ... basically the 10" earlier roll outfitted with swells, stop changes and other interpretive commands controlled by added marginal perforations. The 116-Note organ rolls, alone, merely divide the arrangement into 2 manuals, but require an intepreter to create the musical performance. The Duo-Art Organ rolls are of the 'reproducing' variety, which take the predetermined theme-accompaniment nature of the perforated score and add the elements of semi-automatic expression. So ... be wary of anybody who claims that Player-Piano rolls with the accent perforations are "reproducing" or anything else. As we said above, this was a musical tool for the creative Pianolist ... and, as such, it has nothing to do beyond dividing the Bass/Treble scale into "solo" accents and fixed accompaniment levels.]

    The problem with the Themodist on many old rolls is manyfold, which is why it's strange that the 'top' instruments, such as the Steinway Grand Pianola, rarely had an on/off lever in the spoolbox. Much of the time the bass octave accents were not "themodized" (as they wrote in Aeolian's original termology); the rolls just followed the treble melody, so when the roll was controlling everything, one missed the rich, organlike bass notes such as one experienced on a Knabe-Angelus or Weber Pianola Piano with the "solo" system switched off. Also - the factories tended to "track the melody" with nonstop, SOLID treble use of the Themodist; this eliminated any opportunity to pull the accents out of the triplets or highspeed figurations, unless there were an on/off switch in the player action design ... in which case, the Themodist roll didn't need to be purchased! Finally, because the piano factories 'knew' that many customers never fully understood the musical concept of separating the perforated score, there was a tendency to have the Themodist turned on for a couple of feet, and then off - without notice, and without regard to the the musical composition. Thus, in many passages of complicated music, just when you need the feature, it quits with the word "Normal" stamped on many Aeolian rolls! If one has to keep scanning the moving roll to see when the Themodist is running or not - especially in cases of an orchestral cadenzas - then the device is a distraction ... since the Pianolist can add his/her own "solo" from start to finish manually, if desired.

    There are just 2 musical cases where the Themodist becomes a handy tool on pedal players:

    1) When the MELODY criss-crosses over the Bass/Treble division frequently, as in Rubinstein's MELODY IN F, for example. [Note: some player action manufacturers put a 'score line' on the tracker bar, or similar device (like the Gulbransen Melody Bar) in front of the moving roll ... and this served to give the operator the same information as to "where" the melody line was, viz. in the bass or treble part of the scale.]

    2) When a virtuoso treble passage - such as a Liszt cadenza - takes place, wherein a staccato melody is surrounded by highspeed accompaniment notes. There, the Themodist "pulls out" the melody with ease. [Note: in the ARTCRAFT arrangement of 'AMENA RESADA' in the Duo-Art roll of BRAZILIAN SUITE, both melody and accompaniment are in the treble half of the piano most of the time. While the Themodist is used, the GRADUATED STRIKING by the overlap cutting on the perforations gives the illusion of a "solo" melody being pulled out of the cluster, which is really not the case. The industry didn't have our 'Interpretive Arrangement' methods in the old days, so the Pianolist had to be content with homogeneous, organ-like perforations, rendering the Themodist a marginal asset at best for this kind of musical composition. With BRAZILIAN SUITE, if the Themodist were disconnected, the Duo-Art player would still convey the illusion of accented notes, not due to regulated vacuum but instead through the art of graduated staccato perforations!]

    A final annoyance of the Themodist is that it often interferes with the 'touch' as registered by the foot pedals, when playing at the softer levels, just as the automatic sustaining pedal can play havoc with subtle passages. The "solo" system and the automatic pedals are pneumatic add-ons, so can - at times - rob the player of its necessary sensitivity.

    Having said the above, I'd like to comment that the Themodist™ (or whatever name it might be called on a non-Aeolian player) is a handy interpretive tool to have, but it's not necessary for all performance situations. It's also best to purchase an old Player-Piano that has an on/off control for the feature. The Simplex instruments produced an interesting variation with the ugly-sounding name of "Ac-Solo"™; this was a manually-controlled Themodist system which could be switched on or off, at will, but which was not operated by the music roll perforations.

    The Themodist on electric 'reproducing' players was something else, since its presence meant a dual vacuum system for both the expression roll arrangement and/or the human interpreter, i.e. the Pianolist.

    Unlike the pedal player, were one is "choking" or "suppressing" part of the scale for a "solo" accent bypass effect, the electrically-pumped Theme-Accompaniment player (like the Duo-Art or the Artrio-Angelus) is under FULL POWER at all times. When playing softly, nothing is "choked" but instead the excess vacuum is 'bled out' through a muffler system. A rapid shift from fortissimo to pianissimo is not that risky with a manually-controlled electric Duo-Art, for example, since there is a FLOW of high vacuum always available.

    Thus, the Pianolist - or the 'reproducing' expression roll - for the electric player actions is really alternating between 2 independent vacuum systems: one continuous (the acompaniment) and one released by the Themodist accents on the roll or the Pianola levers in the keyslip, or both.

    Musically, it's a different situation when one is regulating vacuum on a pedal player and using the "solo" feature as a bypass, when compared to the electric theme-accompaniment player. The 'reproducing' action doesn't have to build up its power, but just diverts the vacuum into the stack - with graduations of the theme and accompaniment - or leaks it out through a muffler style of system.

    Therefore, a Themodist design is absolutely necessary for the highest musical value of the electric 'reproducing' player. Some standard divided stack designs are very fast, as was the Welte-Mignon Licensee, but when compared to what a "solo" system will accomplish, it's on a second tier, in spite of a quality piano such as Baldwin or Sohmer being used. Even the fastest Ampico designs, such as the B-model grands, can't being to compete with the potential of the "solo" 'reproducing' actions. As Aeolian said in one of their techicians' manuals: "The Duo-Art is superior to all divided stack player actions" ... which meant they were musically equal to the other electric "solo" designs, of which the elusive Artrio-Angelus in the States was one of the musical rivals.

    The ability to shift between 2 discrete graduated vacuum systems gives the Duo-Art - and its kin - a performance potential that is beyond the pedal players (even with the Themodist) and puts it many shades ahead of the divided stack models like the Ampico, Welte, Artecho and the others in the 'reproducing' genre.

    In truth, however, Aeolian often missed many musical opportunities for using the Themodist to ACCELERATE the dynamic swings in their old Duo-Art rolls. ARTCRAFT, today, frequently uses the accompaniment for the melody while recalibrating the theme. This puts the "shifting" nature of the design at the forefront, since it reduces the time it takes to change either 1/2 of the vacuum system to the required level. As an arranger, I "grab the nearest dynamic needed for that particular impulse, regardless of whether it's the 'solo' or not" ... and this is a territory that wasn't explored by The Aeolian Company. FLIGHT OF THE BUMBLE BEE, THE CARIOCA and other highspeed ARTCRAFT virtuoso rolls might "use" the accompaniment for a few perforations - at the theme's dynamic level - while the REAL theme is being built up for the next major series of accents. It's a Pianola trick, but it works! (Ask anybody whose heard our rolls of MERENGUE, FLIGHT OF THE BUMBLE BEE or any ARTCRAFT Duo-Art roll with fast passages in the arrangement. The "solo" division appears to be operating at all times, when technically it's not.)

    In conclusion, it's our opinion that the Themodist™ and its related "solo" systems are mandatory for an electric 'reproducing' piano ... if one wishes to achieve the full spectrum during rapid dynamic changes. (One can always butt-in with the Pianola levers on the old expression rolls, when they miss many musical opportunities, as mentioned in the paragraph above.)  The pedal player doesn't really require this accessory, and most old rolls tend to interfere with the pedals' "touch" as well as the musical choices for the roll interpreter. Finally, one must decide upon the merits of the 'graduated' accompaniment versus the fixed settings (which are fast) on the pedal players with the "solo" mechanisms.

    We, at ARTCRAFT, tend to use the Themodist on 88-Note rolls only when it's needed, so on VIVA REGINA MARCH by Ian Whitcomb or Scott Joplin's A BREEZE FROM ALABAMA, the "solo" appears during the single chorus where the melody criss-crosses over the Bass/Treble divisions of the pneumatic stack. Still, those who can "read" the accent perforations can achieve the same effects with the Soft Pedal controls, by suppressing the side of the scale without these double-holes on the sides of the roll.

    (Note: Aeolian used the Bass/Treble break at D#-E. Simplex and others chose E-F. Ampico broke their scale at F-F#, so there will always be variables in this ability to pull out a Bass/Treble accent, due to the lack of industry standardization. The Pianolist must study the limitations here and make a musical compromise which is satisfactory to the listeners' ears. Given an inaginative accenting ability on the part of the interpreter, most people won't detect the "fuzziness" which might occur when the melody reaches that Netherworld of D# through F# in the middle of the piano scale. If one 'knows' the Player-Piano being used, these performance adjustments become second nature.)

    We hope to have shed a little light on the advantages and the negative aspects of the "solo" system. One really doesn't need it when operating a responsive pedal player, and if turned off, many of the original Themodist-Metrostyle rolls will broaden the Pianolist's horizons when the automatic "solo" feature is disabled.

    If you can "pull out an accent" or "isolate the theme" on any style of roll, that's the important part of one's musical performance.

L. D. Henderson, ARTCRAFT Music Rolls


    While most Player-Piano owners are familiar with the built-in player actions - or the 'vorsetzer' (pushup, console) external models which operate through the piano keyboard - there was a development trend which ran for many decades, viz. building a Pianola with the control mechanism "away" from the actual pianoforte itself.

    Perhaps the most commonly-encountered were the Tel-Electric/Telektra solenoid players, made in Pittsfield, Mass. for about 15 years' time, primarily in the 65-Note roll days. The Tel-Electric had a bank of solenoid strikers (similar in concept to the Disklavier electromagnetic banks of today) which were controlled via small boxes, often many feet away from the actual instrument. Most used small special brass rolls in cartridges, but the later models in the 'Teens had the 88-Note scale in slightly larger ones. Brass rolls gave way to cardboard-like rolls (with standard QRS-style spools in the same narrow widths) as the Great War made supplies of brass difficult to acquire. The Tel-Electric was used extensively by technicians, who "converted" standard pianos to players, and was also associated with some major piano manufacturers, such as Baldwin as well as Ivers & Pond, which promoted them in lieu of the pneumatic Pianola designs of the day.

    This writer has heard both 65-Note and 88-Note Tel-Electric models play ... but never experienced the cardboard style working in its 'old age'. The performances are generally muted and not that exciting, due to the use of solenoids over pneumatics. The control boxes had a 'sparking' effect and one never really got a good view of the roll at the ACTUAL STRIKING POINT, as on a standard player action's tracker bar. They did have a limited use - and were promoted as such - for music on yachts (being relatively unaffected by humidity changes), for a series of pianos being synchronized in dance halls and finally, by allowing a bedridden invalid the opportunity to "play" rolls on a piano - even from another room. Advertisements of the day show an affluent Edwardian hostesss operating the control box at the dinner table. The Tel-Electric had rather narrow appeal, but was well designed, so many are still "bopping keys" in contemporary American collections, almost 95 years after being built. Shortly after the 88-Note perforated paper roll was 'standardized' in 1910, the Tel-Electric began its descent into oblivion.

    During the Tel-Electric decade, there was an unusual external-piano player offered by Theodore Brown's Simplex Company in Worcester, Mass. Previously, the 65-Note pushup Simplex had a spring motor, troublesome hard rubber valve 'plugs' and rolls which didn't quite match the spools of the typical Aeolian Pianola products of the day (though an enterprising modern collector can 'convert' them with a little ingenuity). This was the Simplex Jr., a small, narrow external player which was shown in advertisements sitting next to the treble part of an otherwise standard upright piano. While I've never seen one of these Simplex Jr. players, it's obvious that the idea was to allow the piano keyboard to be "free" ... something which was not longer an issue when inner-players began replacing the piano-players (pushup Pianolas) in the 65-Note era. In fact, Simplex introduced the small Junior model about the time that Aeolian purchased the Geo. Steck and Weber-Wheelock-Stuyvesant companies for their inner-players: 1903. A series of tubes would have to be run from the remote Simplex to some hole cut into the upright piano case, and a pneumatic stack installed within the instrument. Clearly, the Simplex Jr. came out "too late" and required too much carpentry to achieve much of a sales market.

    Not to be outdone by remote player designs, Melville Clark introduced at least 2 forms of his Master Apollo Piano-Players in the 'Teens ... once the standard 88-Note rolls were locked into place. I have seen several of these, which were meant to be attached to grand pianos, but none of them was in working condition. As can be expected, the quality of workmanship on these Apollo 'remote' players was superb, so they can impress an enthusiast even in idle condition. One design was for the regular 88-Note scale, also for the Apollo 'Style X' (a.k.a. 'Art Apollo' and 'QRS-Automatic') expression rolls. The other was for the Solo-Apollo ... a Melville Clark design which had dual pneumatics for the 'melody' and the 'accompaniment' ... requiring a special 15 1/2" wide music roll! The Solo-Apollo had a telescoping take-up spool and other "convertible" features, so it could play regular 11 1/4" 88-Note rolls as well as the leviathan Solo-Apollo arrangements. Actually, the external Solo-Apollo models I've seen - but not heard - were the Art Solo-Apollo, i.e. the deluxe 'reproducing' expression players, as well.

    So far so good, but what does this have to do in contrast with a conventional Melville Clark player grand piano? Well, the Master Apollo players were large boxes with the pedals/elec. motor and the spoolbox, which "rolled under" the sounding board of a conventional grand piano, when not in use. The Pianolist heard the music projected directly toward him or her, and not from the angle of the keyboard artist. Moreover, the keyboard was free for regular hand-playing purposes - or a technician's service call. The downside of this player was the HUGE umbilical hose with both the "vacuum supply" and often 100s of tracker bar tubes which were encased in a large circular junction block, connecting to the rest of the player action installed under the instrument.  The idea of being seated where the audience would be probably contributed to the weak sales of this large and strange external player. In spite of its cumbersome design and strange connection to the player stack - attached to the piano - some deluxe companies such as Mason & Hamlin offered a few of these Apollo player combinations.

    Bush & Lane used a 'ferris wheel' design for their Multi-Player external units, also known as the Musicale. These were for the Welte-Mignon Licensee 'reproducing' actions, so the whole idea of an external player now converted the pneumatic assembly to the realm of a "sound system" with little or no participation by the owner. The Welte control unit - about the size of an Orthophonic Victrola console - could be placed a great distance from the piano, since the pneumatic commands were sent through electric wires and converted back to the pneumatic operations at the player action installed in the instrument. The Bush & Lane device also saw few customers, but shortly afterwards The Aeolian Company picked up the option with their Concertola consoles, used for Duo-Art pipe organs as well as for Duo-Art 'reproducing' pianos. (It might be noted that the Ampico had just introduced their B-model grand, which could handle "long-playing" rolls, so perhaps the 'ferris wheel' for holding 10 standard sized rolls was a way of circumventing this development.) I have heard Concertolas play, and the models designed for pianos, while mechanically ingeneious, leave something to be desired when compared to a performance by a built-in 100% pneumatic player action. Also, the problem of adjusting the roll tempo - after it's set by perforated commands at the start of the roll - is something characteristic with all paper roll player devices: a Pianolist needs to monitor the tempo after about 2 minutes time. What hostess would leave the room and tweak a teensy tempo lever within the Concertola cabinet, every so often, when the whole idea was to press buttons on a control pad ... at the dining room table, built into the walls or sitting next to an easy chair in the library? In spite of this obvious tempo problem - and the complexity of the design - the '30 Concertola gained an amazing about of customers for both the organ and the piano markets.

    When Aeolian bought The American Piano Co. in '32, which had gone bankrupt, the Ampico B-model components were now available for the Duo-Art player - on special order. Thus, a "single program" Concertola was designed - along with "P" series rolls (designating a 'Program') - for a remote control using the Ampico B-sized long-playing spools. For a few years, until '36 approximately, one could order the New Ampico (as the B was called in the trades) roll player in a grand piano drawer ... or a remote control console, but for the Duo-Art system instead. Ampico and Duo-Art rolls were (unimaginatively) arranged in tandem for both 'reproducing' players from '32 until '39, when Ampico - alone - was allowed to continue to '41, most being graph paper arrangements by the prolific Frank C. Milne.

    The advantage of the "single roll" Concertola was that the cumbersome 'ferris wheel' holding an array of standard rolls - coded to control the tempo lever at the START of each selection - was eliminated.

    The obvious question is, with radio broadcasting so available, why bother with these remote units for expression players? (Remember, commercials were not common, at first, so the name of the orchestra was often the 'advertisement', as in the CLIQUOT CLUB Eskimos or the IPANA Troubadors, and so forth. Then, when commercials began, it was common to have uninterrupted "remote broadcasts" from hotels -- or musical programs for dinner or dancing. One of the last of these mealtime programs, I remember well ... right into the end of the 'Fifties: The Morris Plan Masters of Melody ("conducted by Albert White with Frances Weiner on the violin"). The Morris Plan was a Savings & Loan or banking company in San Francisco. Their live broadcasts were designed to be heard at suppertime, in any home equipped with a radio receiving set. Similarly, KPO (later KNBC) had a Wurltizer Organ for a similar broadcasting purpose. When one considers the Welte and Aeolian developments for "remote" players, it's amazing that they were ever marketed in the first place! Radio was ideal for background music, whereas players - being live mechanical music - had roll libraries not really designed for "unattended" performances, let alone exotic remote control installations.

    Of all the remote control players, the seldom-seen Apollo models by Melville Clark were designed for the "most musical" upscale customers of the day.

    It's this writer's opinion that the developers never really did a "study" on the aura and use of the Player-Piano, in the marketplace. Generally speaking, most roll interpreters prefer to be AT THE INSTRUMENT, just like the keyboard pianist. They enjoy the applause for their aesthetic efforts, something that's a little hard to gain when running something from a remote control unit. The later "background music" electro-pneumatic 'reproducing' players were for the wealthy patrons, and it's doubtful that much INTENSIVE LISTENING was ever done by those who had a Musicale or a Concertola. Clickety-clickety and 'sparking' that the Tel-Electric models were, they are fascinating; many are performing today, not for musical enjoyment but rather "look-at-this-unusual-player!" attitudes. After the visitors marvel at the design, the group usually switches over to a pneumatic player for the bulk of the evening's entertainment. (I have never seen anyone play more than 2 Tel-Electric rolls in succession. Most people are intrigued for about a minute, and then rewind - or walk away - before the first roll ever finishes.)

    It's not often that an "idea" surfaces again and again for so many years, when there's apparently almost no market, but ... the Player-Piano manufacturers certainly kept on trying, didn't they?

L. D. Henderson, ARTCRAFT Music Rolls

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[End of ARTCRAFT commercials!]


    We have another special photographic URL for you, featuring pictures of 'ARTCRAFT North' - our seaside camping/perforating idyll - and also a "CHAMBER OF HORRORS" ... just in time for Hallowe'en. (We do warn the squeamish in advance, for this is a MUSICALLY-ORIENTED site, guaranteed to frighten all true piano enthusiasts.)

    Go to this Website for the Newsletter #4 photographic link -


    Finally, we wish to thank the many people still 'waiting' for their ARTCRAFT Rolls. Full-time Studio activities commenced on the 16th, so if you are waiting for a roll order, we will be handling yours shortly.

    Best regards from Maine!

L. Douglas Henderson
Wiscasset, Maine 04578 USA

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ARTCRAFT Newsletters and ARTCRAFT Music Rolls are published by L. Douglas Henderson
ARTCRAFT Music Rolls, PO Box 295, Wiscasset, ME 04578 USA
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