Monday, February 27, 2006

Adventures Inside the Piano

Today in the theatre on the second-last day before opening, I finally began to get comfortable with some of the inside-the-piano sounds in several of the scores. One of the works (Andrew Staniland's Ashlike on the Cradle of the Wind) calls for the strings to be plucked with a plectrum (new music geek-speak for guitar pick) directly on the string. Since the internal layout of the keyboard is not as obvious as the layout of the piano keys, it is necessary to put stickies inside the keyboard on the edge of the string, preferably in bright colors (to be seen properly on a darkened stage), and preferably on the black keys so that one can find where the correct notes are to pluck with the plectrum/pick. Only in the last few days have I got the hang of doing an on-string tremolo with a pick, rather difficult to do properly because of the danger of plucking an adjacent string and ruining the effect. Fortunately, the register that Andrew's work calls for is in the area of the keyboard where each note is triple-threaded for optimal overtone production (and on-string tremolo efficiency).

Next, the piano part in Rose Bolton's Netsuke calls for a dulcimer-like effect on the strings. I originally tried the ends of a pair of pencils, but couldn't get the right sound. Next I stripped the erasers off the pencils to get more of a metallic sound, but Rose's fine score called for a higher grade of metal. Finally I tried a pair of spoons from our Oneida everyday flatware set held on the spoon-end and played on the handle-end. Perfection, but again demanding a high level of accuracy as well as secrecy (Wendy doesn't yet know about the missing spoons liberated for the purpose of artistic excellence).

Playing a lot of new music that calls for various sounds inside the piano ("extended techniques") requires a certain kind of inventiveness on the part of the pianist. I recall in one work that called for a metal chisel to be slid across one string in order to bend the pitch (it really does work)--well, I tried it with an empty glass bottle and got an even better effect, without the screechy sound. And once where I was called to pluck strings with my finger, I used a Palm stylus to even better effect and also saved my fingernails, although dropping the stylus inside the piano resulted in a somewhat concerned note from a piano technician when he fished it out several years later.

But it's important not to practice these extended techniques too long. Once when I was learning a work that took place entirely inside the piano, I worked on the piece for an entire hour, had a breakthrough session, and then found upon finishing that from bending over the innards of the piano for so long, I couldn't stand up. Moderation and practicality in such matters is essential to success, in addition to learning the fine art of standing up and sitting down with one's foot on the damper pedal.


  1. Put the spoons back in the cutlery drawer!!!!!!!!

  2. Actually, I use an orange peeler to pluck the strings; the peeler fits on your thumb like a ring, so I can go back forth from keyboard to strings with no problem.
    I had to perform a piece with a lot of going back and forth, and unfortunately, the piano tech. was very uncomfortable with anything being attached to the strings, so I had to choreograph and memorize every partial. It wasn't too difficult in the end.