Author: Alan Shockley

Beyond the 88: Playing Around Inside the Toy Piano

Hand inside toy piano

In last week’s installment of “Beyond the 88” I talked about several on-the-strings techniques, after first showing how to construct a weighted, cloth-covered mute. Here in my last beginner’s guide, I’d like to move from the piano to its playful, diminutive cousin: the toy piano.

The Toy Piano: Some Preparations and Nontraditional Techniques

Yes, I realize that the toy piano is a different beast from a modern grand piano. However, in discussions with the editorial staff for my book The Contemporary Piano I was adamant that I needed to include a chapter on the toy piano. So many pianists are including the toy piano as part of their regular gigging equipment, and, truly, the instrument is coming into its own right now. Just look at the work of Margaret Leng Tan, Phyllis Chen, David Smooke, Isabel Ettenauer, Karlheinz Essl, Amy O’Dell, Elizabeth A. Baker, Xenia Pestova, HOCKET piano duo, and many, many others who are currently showcasing the toy piano in live performances and/or composing new works for it. Beyond this widespread toy piano boom that’s happening, I’m personally very fond of it, and want to do my best to encourage more composing/performing and experimenting with this instrument!

And, here’s a great argument for experimenting with preparations on the toy piano—toy pianos are a lot cheaper than concert grands, and a lot easier to repair or replace if you damage one. I bought a lovely 37-key Schoenhut “Day-Care Durable” upright at my local flea market for $25—and it came with the original mini-bench. Tell enough of your friends that you love toy pianos, and they will start finding their way to you. One of my colleagues picked one up for me at a garage sale a few weeks ago, and just brought it to the music department. (And, the lid of this “grand” was already mostly ripped off, so the first thing I did was remove the lid entirely. Suddenly it’s the perfect instrument for tone rod preparations.)

For many of these techniques or preparations, you’ll need access to the toy piano’s tone rods. Most modern toy pianos, and certainly every chromatic instrument that I’ve run across myself, uses small-diameter metal rods for their sound. Plastic (or wood) hammers are set into motion from keys, and the hammers hit these metal rods, rather than metal strings as in a piano. Different models will offer up access to the tone rods in their own ways, requiring different levels of instrument dismantling. My “travel” instrument (purchased so I would have a toy piano that I could pack in a carry-on suitcase when I was flying to the Florida International Toy Piano Festival a couple of years ago), is a Michelsonne that has a keyboard that folds flat into the cabinet of the instrument. Fold down the keyboard, and you have instant access to the tone rods and the hammers, no disassembly required. As mentioned above, my latest Schoenhut grand had a lid attached with hinges (barely) and an articulated arm that served as the “stick” for the lid. Remove the hinge screws and the ones for the arm, and the lid is out of the way, exposing almost the full sounding length of the tone rods. Other instruments may require removing a few more bits of the casing, but usually even this will mean removing only a few screws.

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So, get yourself access to the tone rods.

Then try muting! Hand muting the rods is very easy. Sound notes with one hand on the keys, and press or pinch with the fingertips of your other hand on the tone rods. You can even vary the pressure of the muting fingers and change the amount of pitch and resonance remaining in the sound. For some really delicate sounds, you can also try plucking the low-register (longer) rods, or running the flats of your fingernails across the full range of tone rods.

Underpressure techniques on the toy piano are great! Play as usual on the keys, but don’t press hard enough for the hammers to strike the tone rods, or run your fingernails across the front edge or the tops of the keys, and you get the clack of your fingernail skipping across the gaps between keys, and the rattling of the plastic keys and the action.   You can also make a rattling sound on the keys by shaking a finger laterally between two of the sharps (works particularly well between E-flat and G-flat, or B-flat and D-flat, as there you have a gap of two white keys giving you a little more space to move). All of these techniques produce even more sound on a toy piano than on a piano, because the toy’s actions are more primitive and have few or no soft surfaces to deaden the sound. There’s none of the refinement of a modern piano here, so the action and the keys themselves are noisy!

There are plenty of preparations to try as well, but here are three easy ones that have a big effect on the sound:

Poster Putty

Take a small ball of poster putty, maybe about the size of a standard wooden pencil’s eraser, and press it onto the end of a tone rod. Play on the key and voilà, a muted thunk of a sound! Poster putty also lowers the pitch about a half step in addition to muting, so you can get some nice timbral contrast by alternating between an unprepared note and the very next higher note with poster putty added to it.

Mini Plastic Hair Clips

These are available from your local drug store or big box “we have everything” place, are inexpensive, and come in packs of several. Clip one of these onto a tone rod and play the key as normal. The clip takes away some of the body of the sound and narrows it to a more percussive one.

Alligator Clips

These are also easy to find, at a Radio Shack (if you can still find one of those) or from an online seller that carries electronics parts. Attach an alligator clip onto one of the tone rods and, again, play as usual. These take even more pitch and body away from the sound than the mini plastic hairclips, and the resultant sound would blend really well with a prepared piano—maybe with the strings prepared with piano tuner’s mutes? (Someone write this toy piano/prepared piano piece!)

Both the mini plastic hair clips and the alligator clips change the timbre but mostly don’t alter the pitch.

With a little work, you can also bow the tone rods. Make a bow by buying a spool of low-test monofilament fishing line. (No need for 30-lb or 50-lb test line; 12-lb or 8-lb will serve here.) Cut several strands of the line the same length (about two feet is generally comfortable to work with), and tape the bundle together at each end. You’ll also need some bow rosin. Apply bow rosin to the bundle by dragging the bundle of fishing line back and forth across the block of rosin. Then loop the bundle under one of the tone rods and, while pulling the line into contact the tone rod, also slide the line across the rod (one of your hands will get closer to you while the other moves further away, and then the reverse). You should get a delicate, sustained note from the rod. (You can even experiment with how placing the bow at different parts of the rod will bring out certain harmonics, and how bowing with the bundle arced under more than one rod can sound two notes at once.)

There are many more creative options to explore, wherever your imagination leads you from here. A few years ago, a student of mine made a robot “player” toy piano. I’ve already purchased the spare parts and bought some blank music wire stock for the tone rods in order to create a toy piano in an alternate tuning. One of my colleagues has just proposed to me a way of rebuilding a toy piano to optimize the hammer strike points, and he also has some ideas modding the instrument that may allow adjustable tuning for the tone rods. When your whole instrument cost you $25 or less, it’s easy to embark on taking the whole thing apart and to take the risk of not being able to reassemble it in anything faintly resembling its initial configuration.

So, to wrap up. It’s high time pianists got a little more comfortable with playing inside and experimenting with their instruments. Maybe you can start here at the end and get your feet wet experimenting with a toy piano, then move on to a grand piano and try some inside-the-piano techniques, some surface preparations, and some string preparations. Find a toy piano, dismantle it, and find some new sounds inside it! And, go on, pick up some plastic children’s flatware at your nearest IKEA for inserting preparations into the strings of your grand piano, and dig in!

Have fun, and find some new sounds for yourself!

Beyond the 88: A No-Fear Guide to On-the-String Piano Techniques

Hand inside the piano

The beginner’s toolbox of preparations I’ve talked about in the previous two (1, 2) articles might be, in some ways, less scary to many pianists and composers than playing inside the piano because, once the foreign objects (paper, aluminum foil, glass rods, plastic straws, etc.) have been placed on or in between the strings, the pianist plays the instrument pretty much as usual. This is part of the disconnect—or the magical nature—of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. The scores for Cage’s little pieces look so musically simple, and so easy to play. Look at the beginning of Sonata V, for instance, with its right hand melody and accompanying chromatic seesawing left hand—what could be easier?

For now, try turning your sound off and just looking at the first page of the score to Sonata V in this video.

But, what’s not clear from looking at this bit of score is that, in order to play this set of pieces, Cage asks for about 2/3 of the notes of the piano to have their strings prepared by inserting or threading materials between the strings, including various kinds of bolts, screws, bits of rubber and plastic, and an eraser. So, the piece asks for a ton of prep work, but then Cage gives the pianist a simple set of pieces to play on this modified instrument, which the pianist then approaches in much the same way as if she were playing a piece of Clementi. The result, however, is otherworldly.

Now turn your audio volume back up and play the video again.

Preparations are one thing; asking the pianist to reach into the instrument and play directly on the strings, as well as on the wood and other metal surfaces inside the instrument, may seem to be another kettle of shrimp entirely. Much as I started with minimally invasive and generally safe preparations, I’m going to suggest starting with a gentle-slope approach to playing inside the piano—minimal risk of wear and tear on the instrument, with, nevertheless, big timbral results.

First of all, before reaching into the piano, thoroughly wash and dry your hands (duh).

Rule of thumb: avoid touching the soft parts inside the piano—just don’t touch the dampers or any of the felt. The dampers are really delicate and a pain to adjust correctly. The felt is easily compressed, torn, soiled with oils from your hands, or otherwise damaged, and, again, some of the piano’s felt parts are labor-intensive to replace. (And, there’s mostly no reason why you should need to touch these parts in order to play inside the instrument.)

I’m going to stick to techniques that involve playing on the strings here. There are lots of other safe inside-the-piano techniques—ways of making sounds on the metal plate, on the soundboard, and elsewhere—but for now, I’m going to introduce a handful of techniques on the strings that will provide many new timbres to explore.

A pianist can even take advantage of further “training wheels” by wearing thin cotton gloves while experimenting with many of these techniques. When I was writing my book chapter on piano harmonics, I was exploring these on my prized home piano—which, after years of dreaming and saving for, I had just purchased a few weeks before. I admit that even though I had performed inside-the-piano techniques many, many times and had always been careful with other folks’ instruments, I found myself facing potentially harming my own new pride and joy with a conscientious newbie’s extreme temerity. Touching the strings with clean hands shouldn’t do any damage, but it doesn’t take much transfer to the copper windings of the bass strings to open the door to marking the surface of the strings with tarnish. I’ve bought several pairs of these ubiquitous, one-size-fits-all-but-not-particularly-well-for-the-long-fingered-amongst-us cotton gloves for the purpose of experimenting with my new grand, and, really, here’s an investment of $1.49 that has no downside. Wearing a single glove for performance might take a little getting used to, especially if you’ll need both hands on the keyboard for part of a piece, but it is possible to play many of these techniques gloved—protecting the string but without altering the sound.

Piano harmonics  

Lots of scores call for the pianist to sound harmonics. They are quite easy to play and can be sounded with one hand playing on the keys as usual, and a fingertip of the other hand lightly touching a harmonic node of one of the strings.

I won’t go into the physics behind harmonics, or the way that sounding many of the overtones can give the player access to just intonation notes that are pretty distant from their nearest equal tempered neighbors. I’ll leave that to further reading, or your own explorations.

So, put a glove on one hand and reach that hand into the piano. Start on the bass strings, because on these long strings there are lots of partials that will ring loudly on each string. Locate the approximate midpoint of any one of the lowest bass strings, lightly touch that point with a fingertip, and set the string into motion by playing the corresponding key with a finger of your other hand. If you’ve located the midpoint, playing the key should sound the second partial, which will be the octave above the fundamental (in other words, an octave above the string ringing as a whole, here produced by the string in halves). If you want to hear the sound of a second partial harmonic in performance, there’s a repeated 2nd partial harmonic D flat at the beginning of Annea Lockwood’s Red Mesa (1993). Note that this is a high note, not one played on a bass string. Watch a performance by pianist Andrea Lodge here. If you want to get an idea of how fast a pianist can play a single line of harmonics, check out Johan Svensson’s Study No. 2 (2015) available here in a performance by Jonas Olsson.

Depending on how large the grand is that you’re using and the length of your arms, the bass strings may be long enough to require that you stand up to touch the center node of the string. Further your experiments by then slowly moving your gloved finger along the string closer to the keyboard end of the string, while repeatedly sounding the string from the keyboard. You can try to locate the third partial, which sounds a perfect fifth above the second partial you’ve already located. Keep searching for the successive harmonic overtones; one I’m particularly fond of is the 7th partial, which sounds two octaves and a minor seventh above the string’s fundamental, and is 31 cents flatter than the nearest equal tempered note. On the lowest strings of a concert grand piano, it’s possible to sound some very high partials, so there are a lot of harmonics to explore even if you restrict yourself to a single bass string. You could then experiment with playing a simple melody in harmonics on one bass string.

Once you’ve found the first several partials on one bass string and gotten comfortable with sounding those, you can easily locate those same partials on any of the neighboring bass strings.   Play a cluster of three notes by fingering the third partial on three neighboring strings and playing all three keys simultaneously. (George Crumb uses three-note clusters like this in his trio Vox Balaenae.)

Muting with the fingertips

The weighted cloth-covered mutes described earlier are a better choice if you’d like a range of strings muted and for them to remain muted for a whole passage. However, if you’d like just a few different notes muted, and would like to alternate quickly between muted and unmuted notes on the same pitch, then muting with the fingertips might be the way to go. Touch a fingertip to the string close to the end of the string and depress the corresponding key to produce a rounder and darker sound than without the mute.

Though touching the strings with your clean hands should do no harm, it is possible to tarnish the outside of the bass strings with prolonged handling (a cosmetic effect, not an aural one). But, if you’re worried, don one member of your $1.49 pair of gloves and use your gloved fingers for muting. Either way, it’s an easy technique to learn.

Composer and pianist Henry Cowell explored a lot of on-the-strings techniques in his music, especially in the first third of the 20th century. Some of Cowell’s techniques I’d classify as advanced, but a few are easy and now widely used—and are probably familiar sounds to many of us, including glissando across a range of strings, various kinds of pizzicato on the strings, and the Aeolian harp or autoharp technique.

Glissando (on the strings)

Depress the damper pedal and run a fingertip or fingernail across a range of strings, perpendicular to the strings. Experiment with the differences in sound depending on register and range for the glissando, plectrum (flesh of fingertip, multiple fingertips, fingernail(s), guitar pick of various thicknesses), and contact point on strings (a gliss at the middle of the string sounds different from one played very close to the end of the strings).

Autoharp (or Aeolian harp) technique

Cowell introduced a specialized on-the-strings glissando in his piece Aeolian Harp: finger silently a chord with one hand, then perform a glissando across all of the strings in that register with the other. Doing this will cause the strings of the chord notes to ring freely, and will add a bit of noise from the strings of the other notes in the register (which will not ring freely, since their dampers remain at rest on them). Judicious use of the damper pedal to mask the transitions will allow the player to connect one chord to another smoothly. Since actual Aeolian harps are played by the breeze, whereas an autoharp has the player choose/finger the chord with one hand and strum across a set of strings with the other, this technique is closer to autoharp playing, and I (and several other composers) use this label for it.

Pizzicato

Plucking the piano’s strings is very easy to do! Depress the damper pedal or hold down keys to raise the dampers off of the strings you want to pluck, and pluck with your fingernail or the flesh of your fingertip. Experiment with plucking near the middle of the string for a full, round sound, or near the end of the string sul ponticello for a brighter, less-focused-on-the-fundamental sound. You can get a very harp-like sound by plucking in the middle register with the flesh of your fingertip, plucking close to the middle of the string. (Just think, harp sounds without waiting 15 minutes for your harpist friend to tune their instrument. Harpist-friends: I’m only joking…I meant 20 minutes.) Try muting and plucking together! Then, muted, plucked and sul ponticello placement!

Cowell, when he started his inside-the-piano playing, referred to his new approach to the instrument as if it were a new instrument, saying that his pieces were for the “string piano.”

If you’ve stuck with me this far, I think you can hear the big, big sound world that can open up to you if you start reaching into the piano and exploring some of its resources that aren’t available just at the keys.

Even though there are many more techniques for the piano to explore, next week I’m going to move from the piano to the toy piano and delve into some preparations, inside-the-piano techniques, and even some instrument alterations for this unique instrument.

Beyond the 88: More no-fear piano preparations

Golf tee inside the piano

In the last post I talked about some easy surface preparations for piano, but I didn’t mention that there’s a long history of these. Some early piano makers experimented with creating “stops” for their instrument that would change the timbre of the piano. Many of these were essentially mechanisms for surface preparations. The bassoon stop, for instance, lowered a parchment roll (or a parchment roll covered in silk) onto the strings, producing a gentle buzzy sound against the strings when notes were sounded by the keys, much like the surface preparation of placing paper on the strings of the piano. (No I don’t know why folks in the 18th century thought this sound = bassoon.)

Even some modern upright pianos, rather than tying a sostenuto mechanism to the middle pedal, instead install a “practice mute.” On these instruments, pressing the middle pedal lowers a curtain of wool felt between the hammers and the strings, reducing the volume of the instrument.

With a few exceptions, there aren’t a lot of current piano makers who are offering stops on their instruments such as the bassoon stop, so it is up to individual players and composers to dream up their own surface preparations and discover other timbral resources for the instrument.

Here is one more easy and safe surface preparation, which I’ve saved for last because it requires some work. This is for a weighted, cloth-covered mute. This mute has several things to recommend it: since you build it yourself, you can customize each mute to the length you need, and it will cover the number of strings you’d like; it’s cheap and easy to make; it goes on and off easily, and it is safe to use on the piano strings in any register. It’s easily my favorite mute, as it’s totally consistent: place one of these mutes on a set of strings, and it dampens the sound of every string.

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I first heard about this mute from composer Stephen Hartke, who made some of these mutes with children’s socks and ordinary filling materials and used them in his piece Meanwhile (2007) written for Eighth Blackbird. Jennifer Jolley also heard about Hartke’s mutes and has blogged about making these herself. (Note these make an excellent composer task-avoidance project! Jolley remarks that adding googly eyes is optional.)

Here’s the basic idea: fill a sock with BBs or dry rice or other weighting material. Sew the end of the sock closed. Wrap the sock in another sock and sew it closed as well. And then probably enclose all of that in one more sock and seal. Finis.

Rather than using socks, which I had trouble filling all the way to the top and, since I was sewing each layer separately, I ended up with an end of the mute that didn’t mute so well, I’ve made a very slight modification. I start with two layers of t-shirt fabric, shape this into a single thick cylinder about two inches across, and double-stitch the end of the layers together. I fill that cylinder with BBs (leaving a tiny space at the top, so the mute will bend and curve easily), then double-stitch it closed, et voila, my own custom mute. Without a specific piece in mind for these, I simply made a variety of lengths, so I have one for just about any piece.

STRING PREPARATIONS

Now for a few simple and safe string preparations. The surface preparations—resting light objects on top of the strings like the paper, aluminum, and cloth items that I’ve talked about thus far—are the safest (and probably the least “scary” to new experimenters). String preparations, which involve inserting foreign objects between the strings, may be a little more intimidating, and there is indeed more opportunity to do damage with these. But, by approaching with care, there are lots of string preparations that you can try without causing any harm at all to the instrument. And, these can open up many additional sounds from the piano.

First, the protocol: Again, start with clean, dry hands. Next, you have to protect the delicate felt of the dampers, so before inserting or removing anything that you’ve previously placed between strings, always first press and hold the damper pedal down, lifting the dampers off of the strings. This prevents your lateral movement of the strings from scraping or compressing the damper felt.

Don’t try to insert anything close to the dampers, or within a couple of inches of the ends of the strings. Richard Bunger in The Well-Prepared Piano warns never to insert anything that doesn’t flex within an inch of either end of the string, and this is very good advice. Let’s play it super safe and, for now, don’t insert any string preparations at all within two inches of either end of the string.

One thing this means is basically no string preparations for the very highest register where the strings are very short and stiff. Also, it’s safest when you’re getting started trying these to avoid the more delicate wound strings of the bass register. Best to try string preparations nearer to the flabby middle of the steel strings in the middle register.

Next, in order to insert most items, in addition to releasing the dampers, you should gently move the two strings apart before placing the preparation material between those two strings. There are lots of items that pianists over the years have used for this. I recommend using a (dull) plastic children’s knife. (A bamboo wedge works very well, also, but plastic children’s knives are easy and cheap to come by.) Lots of pianists use screwdriver blades for this, but plastic is much safer to use than steel. After depressing the damper pedal, place the blade between the two strings, pivot it so that the knife edges gently push the strings apart, place the preparation in between the two strings, then pivot the knife back to release the strings onto the preparation. Then you can release the damper pedal, and check the note.

For a first string preparation, try plastic straws. You can experiment with the difference in sound between preparing with a straw between strings 1 and 2 and nothing between strings 2 and 3 of a unison set, and straws both between strings 1 and 2 and also between 2 and 3. Then try this: place a straw between strings 2 and 3 only. Play the note. Then depress the una corda pedal (left pedal) and play the same note. Cool, right? Since the una corda mechanism moves the action over so that the hammers hit fewer strings in the multiple-unison sets, now you have two different prepared piano sounds available at one key, using only the pedal and a single straw!

Next, try rubber piano tuner’s mutes. These rubber wedges are very gentle on the strings and transform the piano’s ordinary notes into a lovely muted thunk. Since these are soft and wedge shaped, you don’t need to use the children’s knife to insert these—just press and hold the damper pedal before inserting or removing, to protect the damper felt from getting squeezed by the pressure of inserting/removing the mutes.

You could also try wood golf tees. (Try the trick with the una corda pedal with these too!) Rubber cap erasers are also nice—cut a slit across the bass of the eraser and snap that over the middle string of a set of triple unisons. This will modify the sound of all three strings.

Once you’re feeling brave, you could next experiment with some harder materials as string preparations: plastic screws, plastic screw anchors, wedges of bamboo, one jaw of a wooden clothespin. These all work as string preparations, can produce some very interesting sounds, and you can use these on all the strings that are sufficiently long for preparing purposes.

And once you’ve tried all of these, and a built up a familiarity and a comfort level with them, you could try some metal items. Safest to restrict these to use with the flat steel strings, and safest to use soft metal items—small copper tubing, brass bolts and screws, aluminum machine screws. Best to avoid steel, and not to use any metal (or anything with a sharp edge) between the delicate wound bass strings.

I like Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s instructions in her piano solo scape (2011): the score indicates that eight specific mid-register notes should be prepared with screws, and says that the resultant sound should have a “’gong like’ quality,” but she leaves the size, materials (Steel or, even better, brass? Could I get away with hard plastic screws?), and the size and type of screw completely up to the pianist.

Now, obviously, John Cage’s prepared piano works don’t limit themselves to what I’m calling soft metal items. And, I will freely acknowledge that there are some wonderful sounds available by inserting steel bolts of various lengths and diameters, and bolts with additional nuts, or with nuts and loose metal washers kept in place by the nuts to add a rattle to the sound. But, I would not recommend that these be used for the wound bass strings, and great care should be used when inserting steel items even on the steel strings. Save experiments with hard metal items for once you’re thoroughly comfortable with the other string preparations I’ve covered, and consult with a professional before trying these at home!

Beyond the 88: A No-Fear Beginner’s Guide to Preparing the Piano

inside of a piano

In my university music department, I run a weekly composition colloquium, bringing in guest composers and new music performers, as well as faculty speakers, with the latter often coming to talk about things like idiomatic writing and extended techniques for a particular instrument, or setting up a composer website, or digital publishing. A couple of years ago, some of my composition students asked me if I could spend one of those meetings on extended techniques for piano. I dug through my scores, found some of my own and some Crumb, Cage, and Cowell, (among other things), and began jotting down ideas. I did a little organizing and saw that it might make sense to talk about techniques on the keys, inside-the-piano ones, plus a few simple preparations. I thought, “There has to be a book out there that already does this,” but a couple days of searching didn’t turn up very much. The campus library had a copy of Richard Bunger’s The Well-Prepared Piano, and I found several dissertations that dealt with one facet or another of the topic: one on body health and piano extended techniques, another on a pedagogical plan for introducing young students to extended techniques, even a giant historical treatment of extended techniques for piano, and then several studies of particular parts of the repertoire (especially on the works of the “Three C’s” mentioned above).

But, I didn’t really find what I was looking for. And I thought this book was needed.

So, now I’ve written that book (The Contemporary Piano: A Composer and Pianist’s Guide to Techniques and Resources), it’s out in the world, but I still feel like there’s more to do to let pianists and composers know a little more about the sonic resources available within the instrument, and to encourage safe experimentation with the piano. Recently clarinetist Heather Roche conducted a study to determine a body of multiphonics that were easy for clarinetists across models of instrument and across levels of performance experience—some universally easy multiphonics. I’m thinking of these articles as something like this for the piano—some basic, easy preparations and inside-the-piano techniques for every pianist to try.

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I think lots of pianists and composers are a bit intimidated by the idea of reaching inside the piano, or of inserting foreign objects into the instrument. I totally get that, and I have experienced this trepidation myself. Pianists are often insulated from their instrument in ways foreign to most players of other instruments—clarinetists clean and adjust their instruments regularly (even assembling and disassembling them each day). Oboists fashion an essential part of theirs (and many oboists carry their toolkits around with them). Cellists change their own strings. Percussionists regularly replace instrument parts or fashion new mallets or parts themselves. Practically everyone tunes their own axes. But, not pianists. So, to a lot of pianists, suggesting that they tune, adjust, and repair their instrument (much less reach in to play inside it or prepare it with other crazy implements) may feel a little like you’re asking them to repair their own Tesla or dabble in a little light surgery on themselves rather than visit a trained mechanic or board certified surgeon.

Now, if you’ve already toured Annea Lockwood’s Ear Walking Woman or Frankensteined your Baldwin at home with nuts, bolts, and barbed wire, there may not be much here for you. But, if you’ve always been afraid of reaching into your piano, I hope something here will give you the confidence to try out some new resources. I’ve geared these toward application on grand pianos of any size, but many of these can be adapted to work on upright pianos as well.

Some quick guidelines before getting started: before reaching into a piano, always carefully wash and dry your hands to remove excess oils.   If you’ll be experimenting with a piano that’s not your own, you probably want to get permission from the owner and/or the piano technician who maintains the instrument first. (I’m happy to write you an endorsement for any of the experiments listed below, if that will help.)

Surface Preparations

Surface preparations (which involve preparing the piano by resting a foreign object or objects on top of the strings) are the least invasive preparations to try, so let’s start with those.

After cleaning your hands, a second caution: don’t use hard materials for your preparations. Cloth, paper, cardboard, rubber, plastic, wood, and thin bits of bamboo—these are the safest materials. For string preparations, the steel strings of the middle and high register are the least delicate, and the wound bass strings are the most delicate. It’s safest, if you’re unsure, to avoid using metals entirely, but there are softer metals that are mostly safe to use as surface or string preparations: many aluminum, copper, and brass materials should be fine to use on the middle and upper register strings and, with care, can mostly be used on the bass strings, too. (But, again, feel free to start with baby steps and save all metal preparations for much later.)

So, let’s get started! First, rest an ordinary piece of letter-sized paper on top of some middle register strings, away from the dampers. Then play the keys for that register.

It’s a great sound, and the preparation is both safe and easy to apply or remove—even in the middle of a piece.

You can also experiment with different weights of paper, which will change the duration and quality of the buzziness of the paper on the strings (try poster board, a small piece of cardboard, thick cardstock, tissue paper, or Japanese rice paper). You can also try paper on strings in different registers, though it’s generally most effective in the middle register where we began.

Next, take a piece of aluminum foil, maybe about half the size of the sheet of paper, and place it in the same way on the string tops in the middle register. Aluminum foil buzzes similarly to paper, but it definitely has a different sound.

For related but slightly different sounds, it’s also easy to fashion a string preparation from strips of paper or aluminum foil. Cut a foot-long (or more) strip of either material .5 to 1 inch across and thread this under one set of three unisons, over the next set, and under the next, and so forth. A pencil or a plastic children’s table knife can be used to get under the strip and push it up between unison sets, without actually touching any of the strings or putting any pressure on them at all. The strips each produce a tighter buzz than resting the sheets of aluminum or paper on the strings.

One surface preparation that I love and that George Crumb uses in a few works is placing a thin glass rod on top of the strings. This produces a metallic, jangly harpsichord-ish sound, and it also goes on and off the strings easily and is safe to use on strings in all registers of the piano. Registral placement of the glass will be limited a bit by the interruptive braces of the particular model piano you’re using.

Several composers have explored coaxing other sounds by applying glass objects to the strings. Some ask the pianist to use the base of a glass tumbler or a bottle as a slide on the strings—a sort of slide guitar technique. Sofia Gubaidulina’s Der Seiltänzer (1997) for violin and piano exploits the glass tumbler-as-slide, for instance. C. Curtis-Smith’s Rhapsodies (1972) has the pianist invert a small wine bottle, placing the neck between two sets of unisons, and then pressing and sliding. Ashley Fure’s sextet Soma (2012) has the pianist spin a 4”x4” glass tile on the strings to sound “thin wisps of high partials that blossom sporadically into rich clusters.”

Pretty much any time I enter a non-musical realm seeking something for the cause, I suddenly gain an advocate who enthusiastically tries to help.

As a grad student preparing to play Crumb’s trio Vox Balaenae, I had no idea where to find an appropriate glass rod. I asked the composer when my student trio had a coaching session with him. He suggested the chemistry department would have them. I approached someone in chemistry about glass rods, and they kindly gave me a couple of lengths. In the Google age, this has gotten exponentially easier. A quick search of online sellers shows me that 1/4” glass stirrers in one-foot lengths are easily ordered. I just picked up six one-foot rods for $7 including shipping. Longer rods prove more expensive and may ship more slowly, but are available from scientific supply places. Or find a chemistry lab, explain to someone there that you want to play a piano with glass on the strings, and see if they’ll help you out with a couple of lengths of glass!

This brings me to my experience asking for help with my experiments with pianos and toy pianos. Pretty much any time I enter a non-musical realm seeking something for the cause, and sheepishly explain what I need it for, I suddenly gain an advocate who enthusiastically tries to help. Go to the industrial supply place seeking music wire to reboot your toy piano in an alternate tuning? Suddenly there’s a clerk in steel-toe boots combing shelves for back stock and other diameters. Go to the sex shop seeking variable speed personal vibrating devices to play piano strings with? Get a careful tour of a whole case of possibilities, and next the manager is quickly unsealing boxes and loading in batteries for you to hear the range of speeds. It’s amazing how supportive people can be.

So, grab some paper, aluminum foil, glass, and cardstock, and go try some of these surface preparations!