He does it so well that organizers recently invited the music department adjunct faculty member perform his “The Crail Family, 1910” composition at the International Toy Piano Festival in St. Petersburg, Fla. It’s that crossroads where serious composers write for and play a “toy.”
Among the instrument’s most recognizable devotees is Schroeder (from Peanuts) and among its most heralded, experimental guru John Cage. Between and beyond, B-52s, Radiohead, John Medeski, Tori Amos and Dresden Dolls have all used the toy piano to chime in to their catalogs.
Q: How did you come to toy piano?
A: Toy piano has been popular for quite a while now, since the '70s at least. There’s not a huge repertoire of music written for toy piano. I got into it because in 2008, I was studying for my doctorate at the University of Oregon and I thought I would try to write a piece for the department, for my doctoral recital.
Q: How is it different than playing “real” piano?
A: It’s not at all like a regular piano. There are fewer keys, for one thing. I have a toy grand and it has 37 keys (compared to 88 for a full-size piano). And you write for that range. It has a sound kind of music-boxy. Like a glockenspiel. It is rich. All it is is hammers on metal rods. Fundamental pitch can get lost. There are a lot of things you can’t do with it that you can do with a regular piano. The volume control is in your hands. And sometimes the keys stick together.
I think there’s always going to be an element of cuteness to it. I mean, it is a little piano. Some serious musicians and composers also play and write for it. I’ve seen some really amazing performers on toy piano, some real strong pianists play. It’s hard to make fun of somebody who can do that. There are a number of toy piano nerds out there who love it.
Q: What was the piece you wrote?
A: It’s called “The Crail Family, 1910” and it’s about six minutes long. It’s based on what I imagined about people featured in a very old photograph shot in Wyoming that I saw in a picture book called “The Early Days in Jackson Hole.” I like to look at pictures, especially of people, and think about what their lives might have been like. I can’t actually know but I can create a fantasy around the rest of their lives.