Toy Story

Once considered to be trifling amusements for small children, toy and baby pianos are now regarded since the pioneering efforts of John Cage, as respectable musical instruments with a growing repertoire and accomplished practitioners all over the world. Andy Hamilton introduces a beguiling miniature musical oddity.

In the world of serious music, the toy piano is a niche product with a minor by unassailable place in experimental genres. John Cage was the pioneer, as in better-known fields. Following him Suite for Toy Piano (1948) and Music for Amplified Toy Pianos (1960), a repertoire has developed, despite the instrument’s apparently limited expressive capacity. Composers such as George Crumb, Mauricio Kagel and Zygmunt Krauze have included it in their works, and pianists such as Phyllis Chen, Margaret Leng Tan and Bernd Wiesermann have continued to develop its possibilities. Improvisers such as Steve Beresford and Chris Burn have also performed on it, along with a range of other toy instruments.

The toy piano isn’t really a scaled down piano; rather, it’s a relative of the xylophone and glockenspiel, its hammers hitting metal rods instead of strings. It began to be mass-produced, with other toy instruments, in the later 19th century. The schoenhut is the Steinway of the toy piano world, while at the truly miniature end of the spectrum are the diatonic Echo Piano and the chromatic Rhythm Pocket Piano from East Asia. A sign of the instrument’s growing status was the first Toy Piano World Summit, held in 2012 in Luxembourg, with participants including Phyllis Chen, Isabel Ettanauer, Pascal Meyer, Xenia Pestova, Margaret Len Tan and Bernd Wiesemann.

Improviser Chris Burn makes an important dinstinction between the baby pianos are diatonic, and only have white keys with the black keys painted on. I do have a Disney baby with *black* keys – bright blue in fact – but they are fixed and for visual effect only. The keys on the babies are very narrow and it requires a lot of care not to play two notes at once.’

Toy pianos such as the top-of-the-range Schoenhut generally have a chromatic keyboard, though on earlier Schoenhuts up to about 1920, the black keys were painted on. As such, the toy piano can be a stepping-stone to a full-sized instrument; baby pianos, meanwhile, are playthings for very young children. Many Schoenhut pianos come with a stool which adult performers sometimes use; the baby piano is far too small to warrant a stool, though they often come with detachable legs.

John Cage is a constant point of reference among toy pianists. In Conversing with Cage, edited by Richard Kostelanetz, the composer explained that his works just before the suite has been for prepared piano; ‘I wanted to find a way of writing for unprepared or normal instruments. The place to begin would be with the simplest aspect of the piano, namely, the while keys. I tried to write in such a way that these [white] pitches, which were the most conventional, would become new to my ears.’ Cage continues: ‘I wanted to approach each sound as though it were as fresh as a prepared piano sound. Actually, the Suite can be played on any keyboard instrument. I like the sound of a toy piano very much. It sounds like a gamelan of some kind’ (page 69, 2003 edition).

During the late 1970s, Chris Burn had begun looking at Henry Cowell’s piano music and early Cage prepared piano pieces. He was intrigued by the variety of tone between different instruments, the fact that the focal point as a performer is tiny, and by the often monochrome sound of individual instruments. His duo with Richard Sanderson, The Toy Boys, featured Sanderson on toy and Burn on baby pianos.

As an improviser, Burn developed techniques such as clusters and glissando, using the fixed blue keys of his Disney model like guero, slapping the case to vibrate the whole instrument, and even throwing it in the air so that the sound was literally thrown around.

For Cage’s Suite, he uses different pianos: ‘A bell-like one for the outer movements, a tinly one for the third and a clunky one for the fourth,’ he explains. ‘The best way to play the Suite is to strip away conventional pianistic mannerisms such as might be applied to a piece of Chopin,’ Burn adds. ‘Play it straight without any subjective involvement, in a mechanical way as far as possible.’

This is not the approach of Singaporean pianist Margaret Leng Tan. She became enamoured of the toy piano in 1993, the year after Cage died, when she presented a tribute at Lincoln Center’s Serious Fun Festival. To show the diversity of his piano music, she played all the instruments he wrote for: conventional, prepared, string, bowed and toy pianos. ‘This last, I thought, would be particularly fitting for a “serious fun” festival!’ she comments. ‘The complex overtones unique to each toy piano give the instrument an offkey (microtonal) poignancy.’

Leng Tan comments at length on how the Cage Suite’s simple appearance masks delicate technical intricacies: ‘The three inner movements are essays in inventiveness employing the most sparing of means. With its many subtle rhythmic delineations and myriad details of touch and articulation, I had to apply the same level of effort and concentration as with the regular piano. I realised that the toy piano had the potential to be a real instrument. Cage’s meticulous and exaggerated dynamic indications ranging from sffz to ppp reveal his sense of humour and irony, but he is also challenging the pianist to achieve the impossible. The pianist tries their utmost, and subtle differences do emerge’.

Leng Tan has recorded several volumes of The Art of the Toy Piano – first a CD from Philips/Polygram, then a CD/DVD for Mode, who are releasing Volume 3 later in 2015. One Volume 2, she also plays regular piano, music box, psaltery and percussion. Leng Tan’s performances are very visual: in Toby Twining’s An American Buenos Aires (A Blues Tango), she plays with a red rose in her mouth. For ruined piano maestro Ross Bolleter’s affecting Hymn to Ruin, Tan takes the conceit further, by locating ruined toy as well as full-size instruments. Tan plays the toy piano like a conventional one, though her expressive gestures seem to overstate the effects achievable from its simple mechanics, contributing to her project’s slightly demented but appealing quality.

Improvising pianist Steve Beresford describes Margaret Leng Tan as ‘Ms Toy Piano’: If you look at the score for Cage’s Suite, which is her party piece, there are ridiculous things like radical dynamic markings: in reality, you can only do dynamics a little bit. She plays the top-of-the-range, professional toy piano, the Schoenhut, which is better made than most other brands, and it’s in tune. Today there are lots of makes of toy pianos, but in the past most of the good ones were from China and East Germany.’ Why did he play toy piano rather than electric keyboards? ‘Because when I started out in the 1970s, electric keyboards were too heavy, and I didn’t have the money for one. Now it’s hard to buy toy pianos in toy shops.’

Isabel Ettenauer, who has recorded two CDs of toy piano music on her own label, plays the Schoenhut and other models. She has a collection of around 40 toy pianos of all brands, and uses different models for different compositions. Sometimes composers write music for selected models; there are huge difference in sound, and also action of the keys, she points out. She mostly uses instruments with a chromatic keyboard, but sometimes small diatonic baby pianos, for special timbres and colours: ‘The toy piano’s sound varies from model to model. It is liberating, as it doesn’t have the long tradition that a grand piano brings with it,’ Ettenauer argues. ‘In solo concerts, the many different models not only serve as a kind of stage set but also offer a very varied sound spectrum, sometimes with other small instruments such as music box, wind chimes, melodica or kalimba, or expanded through live electronics.’

‘A Schoenbut upright usually has a much bigger sound than a Schoenhut grand, although the key action is much more easy going on a grand,’ Ettendauer adds. ‘The French Michelson ne toy pianos – produced between 1939 and 1970 – especially the bigger models, have a very sumptuous and clear sound.’ Leng Tan, meanwhile, prefers the vintage modern-style Schoenhuts: ‘Until 1985 the Otto Schoenhut factory in Philadelphia made richly resonant, in-tune pianos with solid keyboard actions. The French Michelsonne has consistently sweet, pure bell tones but I find the action rather spongy and not conducive to great virtuosity as required in some pieces.’ She explains that the tuning of the rods is fixed in the factory, but one can tune them by filing if the pitch is flat, and even wrap wire around the rod to add weight if the pitch is sharp.

How do these musicians respond to the objection that these are limited, childlike instruments? Chris Burn explains ‘As in just about any other form of art, limitations can be inspiring; you can use the boundaries to define your work. The child-like quality of the instrument clearly appealed to Cage.’  There’s a beguiling incongruity, like an adult going back to primary school and sitting at the small desks and chairs. Leng Tan argues that the instrument’s limitations are a strength, not a disadvantage: ‘It is restricted in its compass and dynamic range but then, so is the harpsichord and clavichord. Marcel Duchamp, the Dada artist, said “Poor tools require better skills”. This is the challenge facing the serious toy pianist.’ She continues: ‘With the quality instruments that I have and 20 years of dedication, my boast is that any articulation and nuance I can create on the adult piano, I can do on my toy pianos too. The same goes for virtuosity!’ She appreciates an accolade awarded to her by the Guardian: ‘The toy piano’s Rubenstein’.

There’s an ever-growing body of toy piano works, Leng Tan comments, thanks in part to the annual UnCaged Toy Piano Composition Competition initiated in 2007 by her colleague, Phyllis Chen. The toy piano continues to come into its own as a legitimate instrument, she argues: ‘Pianists are increasingly drawn to its imaginative repertoire. I have ever been invited to coach pianists on toy piano for New York University’s Piano Artist Master Class Series – unthinkable five years ago!’