About ten years ago, I was visiting a puppet theatre workroom in Chicago when I saw a toy piano that was being used as a set piece. I touched a plastic key and it was love-at-first-sound. I was always interested exploring extended piano techniques and it seem that my curiosity for new keyboard sounds stretched so far that it brought me to the toy piano.
It seem very refreshing–There wasn’t a long formal history for the instrument and there were no formulaic ideas on how it should sound or be played. But there are quite a lot of associations based on how it looks. A toy piano isn’t completely a toy because it is a piano, yet it doesn’t look completely like a concert instrument or a folk instrument. The size of the instrument makes people think of childhood, but the naive appearance does not match the out-of-tune and sometimes creepy-sound. (In fact, many people have told me that the sound of a toy piano reminds them of music in horror films.) It was the most border-bending instrument that I had come across.
Invented in 1872 by Albus Schoenhut, the toy piano was created mostly as an educational toy for children. It wasn’t until John Cage’s seminal work “Suite for Toy Piano” (1947) that single-handedly turned this child’s toy into a concert instrument. Since then, composers have used it more frequently,most notably in George Crumb’s chamber work, “Ancient Voices of Children.” With it’s short history, the instrument is still quite elusive and is finding it’s own language. I am constantly drawn to the idiosyncratic nature of the toy piano, realizing that the most expressive qualities are just noises from the simplicity of the mechanics.
I have been told that the toy piano sounds like bells, windchimes, a harpsichord, koto, kalimba, xylophone, harp, gamelan, grandfather clock, a cell phone, music box, and many other things (but never a piano.) The chameleon-like nature of the instrument is what constantly keeps me interested and curious to know what will come next–and hopefully, one day people will know the toy piano for sounding like a toy piano!
Written by Phyllis Chen