A Toy Piano Played Like A Grand, Baby

Originally published on May 16, 2011 12:00 pm

The sound of a toy piano may conjure the magic and innocence of childhood: You see toy pianos in playrooms, not concert halls.

But John Cage wrote a suite for toy pianos in 1948. In 2001, a toy piano was a central part of the soundtrack for the French romantic comedy Amelie. Pop and rock musicians including Radiohead, Tom Waits and Lenny Kravitz have used toy pianos to accent their songs.

Weekend Edition Saturday asked Angelica Sanchez for a little lesson on the small keyboard. Sanchez is a jazz pianist and composer by trade; she usually dwells in New York's downtown music scene. Her most recent album is titled A Little House, and it features original pieces written for toy piano.

Sanchez tells host Scott Simon that she came to the instrument by accident — she originally bought her own toy piano for her young son. But there was a duality to its special sound that she connected with.

"I was a big horror-movie fan growing up. The scariest part always had a toy piano or a glockenspiel in it," she says. "But then there's also this really gentle sound to it that makes you want to play lullabies."

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

The sound of a toy piano may conjure the magic and innocence of childhood. You see toy pianos in playrooms, not concert halls. But John Cage wrote a suite for toy pianos in 1948. And in 2001, a toy piano was a central part of the soundtrack for the French romantic comedy "Amelie."

(SOUNDBITE OF TOY PIANO)

SIMON: Pop and rock musicians including Radiohead, Tom Waits and Lenny Kravitz have all used toy pianos to accent their songs on their albums.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I BELONG TO YOU")

LENNY KRAVITZ: (Singing) You are the flame in my heart. You light my way in the dark. You are the ultimate star.

SIMON: Thanks very much for being with us.

ANGELICA SANCHEZ: Oh, a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Is this gimmick, I must ask?

SANCHEZ: Not for me, no. Not at all. And I kind of came to the toy accidentally. I bought this toy piano for my son at the time, not really realizing the potential in it and hadn't really listened to any of the toy pianists, didn't think about it. And when I went to make my solo record, previously a good friend of mine had written a piece for toy piano, and it was the first time I started thinking about it seriously as another instrument and what it could bring to my playing, also as a improviser. So no, it's not gimmick at all for me. It's just another sort of dimension to music - to piano playing, rather.

SIMON: So you have a toy piano there, right?

SANCHEZ: I do. It's a little Schoenhut.

SIMON: Is it the kind of thing you would buy in a Toys "R" Us?

SANCHEZ: This is an older piano that I was lucky enough to find at a garage sale for $10. It's an old Schoenhut.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

SANCHEZ: I believe it's from the 50s and it has a great sound and I was very pleased to find it.

SIMON: Well, can we ask you just to - I don't know - a little scat toy piano?

SANCHEZ: Sure.

SIMON: Just improvise a little for us?

SANCHEZ: Of course.

SIMON: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOY PIANO)

SIMON: Very touching.

SANCHEZ: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Musically, what does a toy piano do that a Steinway doesn't?

SANCHEZ: Well, it has a, of course, special sound to it and I was a big horror-movie fan growing up as a kid. So the scariest part always had like a toy piano or a glockenspiel in it that, you know, so there's that. And then there's also like this really gentle sound to it that, you know, makes you want to play lullabies or something like that.

SIMON: Yeah. And from the musicians viewpoint, what are some of the special challenges of playing a toy piano?

SANCHEZ: Well, the touch on it is a little bit different, so for me it was super challenging. The first time I ever played in public I hadn't had a lot of time to practice on it. So now that I've had some time it's, you know, you start to get the hang of it.

SIMON: You can't hold a note on the toy piano though, the way you can on a...

SANCHEZ: It's different. The note will ring after you let go of it more so than on a regular piano. But no, you can't hold it down, it just sort of stops when you hit it.

SIMON: Forgive me; is there a standard answer to how many keys are on a toy piano?

SANCHEZ: The particular one I have is 25 keys, it's two octaves, but I know they come in three octaves and even four octaves sometimes.

SIMON: Oh, I see. Yeah. And is it, I mean is it cramped?

SANCHEZ: It's a bit cramped, so I'm actually looking for a three octave toy piano.

SIMON: Mmm. And do you use fewer fingers?

SANCHEZ: No. But when I'm playing both at the same time I use five fingers on each instrument.

SIMON: Oh, one on the piano and then one on the toy piano. Okay. I see.

SANCHEZ: Right.

SIMON: Yeah. And when you go back to another piano, does it affect your technique there?

SANCHEZ: Well, actually, it's made me a bit more sensitive, because you have to be super sensitive when you play the toy pianos. So it's actually made my regular piano playing, at least in my mind, better.

SIMON: On your CD, there's a piece called "Crawl Space."

SANCHEZ: Right.

SIMON: It's not a lullaby, right?

SANCHEZ: No, it's not a lullaby.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well, tell us a little bit about the piece and then we'd like to hear some, if we could.

SANCHEZ: Sure. I grew up in Arizona as a kid and nobody has attics or basements in Arizona, but we had this crawl space on top of this ranch-style house. And the entrance to the crawl space was in my closet, so you can imagine the things I would think up about who lived in the crawl space, you know.

SIMON: Yeah.

SANCHEZ: So that's how I kind of came up with this piece. So it goes back to my horror movie reference.

SIMON: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Let's listen to a little bit of "Crawl Space," if we could.

SANCHEZ: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAWL SPACE")

SIMON: Okay. You convinced me. A toy piano is not just a kid's toy. Aahh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Let me ask about the instruments themselves. You know, it's often said that a great concert piano just grows better with age. Is that true about the toy piano as well?

SANCHEZ: I'm not sure. Since I only have the one, I suspect that they get kind of beat up. You know, this one, I think, was sitting in someone's basement for a long time. And this one is the hammer...

SIMON: Oh, you did get it at a yard sale, after all.

SANCHEZ: Yeah. And I shouldn't complain.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Yes. Ten dollars, you said?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANCHEZ: Ten dollars.

SIMON: Yeah. Someone who clearly didn't see the artistic possibilities that you did.

SANCHEZ: No. No, not at all.

SIMON: Thanks so much for being with us.

SANCHEZ: It's a real pleasure. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And you can hear more of her music on our website: nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.