Some days you receive the strangest emails... On the 28th March 2018 Julian Allwood, a colleague from Cambridge University, popped up in my inbox.  He asked, would I like to help break the world record for the most people playing a single piano at one time?  


Of course, by that he actually meant 'let's get 88 people playing it at once, one per key' (thereby rendering the record unbreakable unless you start putting multiple players per key).  Oh, and it would be a group of 88 schoolchildren playing it, and we'd get schoolchildren around the country to design 5m long mechanical contraptions to allow that many people to reach the keys...

Some of the engineers taking part in the classroom visits as part of the 88 Pianists project - Three of the engineers taking part in the classroom visits as part of the 88 Pianists project are pictured in a Sheffield classroom.
Some of the Sheffield engineers taking part in 88 Pianists classroom session


A daunting task for sure, but Julian is the same person who, a couple of years ago, coordinated and cajoled a group of 18 of us into writing a joint manufacturing paper (Manufacturing at double the speed, Journal of Materials Processing Technology).  If he could manage that, surely this couldn’t be that much harder? It seemed that the answer was an obvious yes to taking part, and so I committed The University of Sheffield (or at least our small part of it) to help make it a reality. Several colleagues at other Institutions were equally convinced, and so it began.


Of course, as any good academic knows, this type of activity can only work if you have a strong team behind you.  Thankfully two of our MAPP-aligned PhD students, Ryan Brown and James Wingham, were up for the challenge, as well as Undergraduate Engineering students James Rayson, Jack Trethewey, Robin Watkins-New and James Whitehead, recruited through our Sheffield Engineering Leadership Academy.    


Step one was to come up with concept designs for the piano-playing contraptions.  Two local schools, Hallam Primary School and Lydgate Junior School, signed up (thank you very much to all the children and teachers who took part with such enthusiasm!).  We went in with a variety of musical, engineering and design activities, culminating in asking the children to come up with wild and wacky concepts (think Wallace and Gromit) for how a person might play a piano key from five metres away. 


It’s fair to say we were a mix of excitement, nerves, and a jumble of other emotions on the morning of the first visit, but the first thing we noticed was how excited the children were to see us.  Their enthusiasm, creativity, and general thirst for new things were inspiring to say the least, and the children were coming up with ideas from pretty much the moment we arrived. Concept designs included unicorns, TNT, and a reindeer chasing a chicken nugget…

Since then we all got together down in Cambridge to choose the final 88 designs and worked on converting the designs into workable mechanical solutions.  Massive thanks to James Wingham for taking the lead on this, as well as for his excellent CADwork, and to Ryan Brown and Oliver Leete for helping out too.

Alongside all of this our wonderful composer, Martin Riley, came up with an entirely new piece of music for the final performance, which took place at the Birmingham Conservatoire in August 2019.  

Editors note

88 Pianists set the world record. They were featured on The One Show on Tuesday 20th August 2019. 

Visit to watch the films of the performance.