Beyond the 88: Playing Around Inside the Toy Piano
The toy piano is a different beast from a modern grand—and in a way that’s what makes it a great instrument for exploring piano preparations. Toy pianos are a lot cheaper, after all, and a lot easier to repair or replace if you damage one. But that aside, this diminutive instrument also offers a great timbral world all its own to experiment with.
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.
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:
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.
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!