Playing On The Strings

Playing On The Strings

If music for the inside of the piano has been part of the contemporary repertoire since the time of John Cage, then why do so few pianists know how to do it?

Written By

Teresa McCollough

Recently, I was asked to present a lecture/recital that I have done over the years entitled, “Playing and Teaching the Music of Our Time.” This is essentially a primer for music teachers to introduce them to the style and repertoire of living composers, while offering resources that will help them access new music and choose appropriate pieces for students of different playing abilities. I provide an historical overview of different contemporary styles, and demonstrate how to play a variety of “extended keyboard” techniques—playing tone clusters with your forearm and an octave “cluster bar”, plucking harmonics on the inside of the piano, inserting objects into the instrument to make it sound like a gamelan, etc.

This is informative for teachers because most of them spend the majority of their time training students to play traditional piano pieces, leaving “new music” as little more than an afterthought to the well-established recital or competition program. Students are often not required to play anything more modern than Bartók in many music competitions, so establishing new music as central to the repertoire requires some thought and experience. As with most things, if you’ve never done this before, then it’s just as easy to rely upon what you already know. There are plenty of new pieces that don’t require any extended techniques, and the fact that a piece of music does or doesn’t use them is not what makes it good or bad anyway. Still, I think it’s important for pianists to understand the full range of the piano’s possibilities, and it’s necessary for teachers to have as many resources as possible to further the art form. I do this every year for my university students, and it tends to open them up as both performers and composers. It’s easy to teach the overtone system if you simply open the lid of the piano and demonstrate partials on the strings. The piano has the fullest range of sound of any instrument, so understanding those possibilities expands both the ear and imagination.

“Piano Cat” music stand designed by Peter Sumner.

While I was invited to share this knowledge during my recent lecture/recital, I was told that I couldn’t touch the inside of the piano, or insert any objects into the instrument. I could discuss contemporary music, but the organization wanted to make sure that I didn’t harm the piano in any way. (Apparently, in the previous year such maneuvers had resulted in “blood on the keys.”) This mandate was a stipulation of the piano company that provided the instruments for the convention, and while many of the organizers thought it was ridiculous, some of the board members agreed with the policy. After all, no one wanted to see blood on the keys again. In order to present the recital, I was given special permission from the president of the organization, so long as the convention piano technician agreed and was in attendance. To compromise, I promised to demonstrate how to play on the strings, but agreed not to “prepare” the piano with any foreign objects. In addition, I offered to introduce a new music stand that had been built for me and was specifically designed so I could read music while playing on the inside of the piano. The concert went off without a hitch, and, as is usually the case when I play on the inside of the instrument, audience members gathered around the piano afterwards to see exactly how it was done. The piano technician reassured skeptics that touching the strings did not harm the piano, and I validated that there was no blood on the keys, or the strings.

Is anyone still writing music for the inside of the piano? And, if so, have you met with any resistance? If this music has been part of the contemporary repertoire since the time of John Cage, then why do so few pianists know how to do it? Why are teachers not learning to teach these “extended techniques”, and why is the standard repertoire so slow to reflect these changes? I am happy to continue presenting my lecture/recital, but imagine that it will eventually become outdated, and perhaps even unnecessary. I’ve yet to see that happen, but I am ever hopeful.