The toy piano may have been conceived for children, but contemporary pianists and composers have taken the instrument far beyond the nursery, as Maggie Williams discovers

International Piano, London, March/April 2007

John Cage, George Crumb, Milton Babbitt, Michael Finnissy, Stephen Montague and Michael Nyman have all written for it; it has featured in concertos, two- and four-instrument settings, miniature operas and free improvisation sessions; and it has a history dating back over 135 years. Yet its origins were as an educational play-thing, so why has the toy piano attracted the attention of so many contemporary composers and musicians? 

The mechanism of a toy piano contains small plastic or wooden hammers which strike steel rods rather than strings to produce a sound. The length of the rod and the way that it has been ground determines the tone and pitch or each note. Schoenhut's instruments (see below) are used by the majority of performing toy pianists and the company is one of the oldest toy piano manufacturers in the world. Renee Trinca, president of Schoenhut, explains that the company's dedication to tuning is essential. In the context of the instrument's main role as an educational tool, Trinca says this equates to "making Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star sound like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. We place a high emphasis on tuning, tone and sound."

The status as a tuned instrument has encouraged contemporary composers to write for the toy piano. John Cage's Suite for Toy Piano is generally acknoledged as being the first "serious" work for the instrument. Written in 1048 as an accompaniment for a dance suite entitled Diversion, the piece uses just nine consecutive notes but demands fleet fingerwork and incredible dynamic range from the pianist. Listening to different recordings or it reveals that even with such limited resources, there is plenty of room for interpretation. Margaret Leng Tan, one of the toy piano's greatest exponents who has recorded Suite for Toy Piano twice, enthuses about the piece's "inventiveness and the difficulty - all those double notes! In the score the dynamic range goes from ppp to sffz, and by writing such deliberate details Cage is challenging you to try to fulfill them. It takes you to another level, to make a performance of it - without those markings you wouldn't make that effort. There is a limited range of dynamics and articulation in the toy pinao if you work at it."

Having performed Cage's work, Tan decided to explore the toy piano's potential as a serious instrument, and in 1997 produced an album of works written for it. The Art of the Toy Piano (Point Music) features a fascinating selection of arrangements for the instrument alongside new works by contemporary composers. It proved to be a watershed in the toy piano's history. Tan says: "At the beginning of my toy piano career there was no repertoire, so to begin with I made arrangements. Some things just seemed as though they were meant to be played on the toy piano, such as Philip Glass's Modern Love Waltz. In fact I prefer that work on the toy piano: on the grand piano it sounds like any other piece. The same goes for Satie's Gymnopédie no. 3 (also on The Art of the Toy Piano). I think there's a poignancy to it - it has a magic that matches the original. 

"When I began to commission original pieces, composers got excited about it. There is no precedent, so they felt completely free - you can go as far as your imagination takes you. The composers wrote gorgeous pieces, such as Toby Twining's Satie Blues, which takes part of one of Erik Satie's Gnossienne then uses it to build a piece for grand piano and toy piano together. It's a magical composition and sound. A successful work for the toy piano is one the capitalises on what the instrument has to offer. You can arrange any piece as long as it fits the range, but it may not sound good. It should sound better on the toy piano than on the regular piano. I go by instinct in that respect - it has to exploit the qualities of the instrument, or why bother?"

Tan explains that the toy piano is best considered as a percussion instrument. "It's a repackaged glockenspiel. Some listeners think the toy piano sound like a gamelan; it reminds them of Asian percussion orchestra or a more punchy version of a celeste." The percussive sound also informs the types of works that are best arranged for it. "The toy piano is closer to the fortepiano rather than the piano in sound, so you can play Classical works on it. I've played Beethoven in Beethoven's house on the toy piano, and Bach sounds beautiful on the instrument. But it's quite schizophrenic - it has got very complex overtones and can sound quite sinister. It's the horror movie instrument of choice."

Austrian pianist and toy piano aficionado Isabel Ettenauer has also been active in commissioning for the instrument. Her 2005 CD The Joy of Toy showcases works by composers including Stephen Montague and Henry Brant. "I think of the toy piano as unique, not a small version of the grand piano. Composers must accept that it's not going to sound like a piano. I've had compositions that would sound nice on a concert hall grand but are a nightmare on the toy piano, and therefore don't work out. I've had approaches that are really successful, including a piece for multiple toy pianos, Cover Versions by Geoff Hannan, where I play four instruments like the manuals of organs. The toy piano has also been used as part of broaded performance pieces, such as Joe Cutler's La Maison de Fred (2001). This uses a narrated story with the toy piano, using it as an accompanying instrument. I've also used it mixed in with electronics - Karlheinz Essl's Kalimba uses pre-recorded and live music together."

Liket Ettenauer, Tan also uses the toy piano as part of wider ensemble of sounds, including other toy instruments and her own voice. Her recording of Wrong!Wrong!Wrong! by Chinese composer Ge Gan-Ru uses voice and self-accompaniment by a toy orchestra, and will be released this May on New Albion records. "It's a melodrama in the Peking opera style", she explains. 

Both Tan and Ettenauer, as well as other toy pianists, including New York-based Wendy Mae Chambers and German pianist Bernd Wiesemann, give regular recitals on the instrument. "I usually get a great response", says Ettenauer. "People are intrigued by it and excited by the sound. They're also amazed by the variety of repertoire, and I can give concerts in venues that don't have a grand piano." Tan also enthuses about the toy piano's stage appeal: "My role as a performer is to entertain, inform and educate about new music and also to persuade. People who would never generally go to a new music concert might come to see me. Audiences leave the concert with a smile of their face. They're theatre events rather than just concerts. It's very vivid and colourful - there are all these toy instruments involved, and all this choreography."

The toy piano also finds a role as an improvisational instrument with players including British pianist Tania Chen. She says: "I would recommend using it as a found object. It gives texture in a broader context. And it's a pitched instrument so it provides lots of potential. I wrote a piece with the composer John Lely in which we chose objects including the toy piano and vacuum cleaner - it worked well in the context of other sounds. Amplifying the toy piano also opens up all sorts of new possibilities."

But is there real art to playing the toy piano? Surely with an instrument which has such a limited range and basic dynamic control, anyone stands a chance to being a great player? "Can you be a bad toy pianist?" asks Tan. "You can be bad at any instrument! There are constraints, but if you work hard you can overcome the limitations. The same goals apply as for practicing the real piano." Than also believes that working with the toy piano has benefited her "regular" piano playing. "My fingertip control is paramount. When I go back to the real piano [I find that] it's refined my technique no end it works such as Bartók's Mikrokosmos. I can play this so reliably now after working with the toy piano. I tell my students: "Take any chance you get to work with a toy piano - it will do so much for your techniqe." My motto is Marcel Duchamp's statement: "Poor tools require better skills"."


The origins of the toy piano reaches back to 19th-century Germany. Created as a variant of the glass dulcimer, the first toy instruments had glass bars that were struck with small wooden hammers. Unsurprisingly the bars were prone to breakage, either in transit or in the hands of their less-than-delicate owners. Albert Schoenhut, a German immigrant to Philadelphia, spent years as a young man repairing broken glass bars in imported pianos for a toy store before designing his own instrument in 1872, which replaced the glass components with flat steel sounding-plates. The plates were struck with round wooden pegs activated by adult-sized wooden keys. 

Schoenhut set up a company to manufacture his new toy pianos and by the early 20th century the A. Schoenhut Company was producing many different styles of instruments. When Albert Schoenhut died in 1912 his five sons ensured that the business continued to flourish until the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. The company declared bankruptcy in 1935. 

All was not lost, however. Albert's son, Otto, and his nephew, George, set up O. Schoenhut Inc. in the same year that Schoenhut Senior's company met its demise. The new company specialised in making toys and dolls. In tandem, Albert F. Schoenhut, another son, set up the Schoenhut Manufacturing Company to produce toy pianos and model railways. The Schoenhut Manufacturing Company was short-lived, folding in 1941, but O. Schoenhut Inc. bought its premises and the toy piano making element of the business. 

Although Schoenhut may have effectively invented the toy piano, another major US toy manufacturer, Louis Marx, also had significant success in selling them during the early part of the 20th century. In 1923 Louis Marx helped his fater, Jacob, to start the Jaymar Specialty Company, a subsidiary to the family's main toy business, to produce toy pianos. In the late 1970s O. Schoenhut Inc. was bout out by Jaymar, although both brands continued to appear on instrument fronts. Jaymar continued to be a family business until 1988, and was then bought by Frank Trinca, along with his business partner Stan Patykiewicz. The company was renamed as the Schoenhut Piano Company in 1997. 

Schoenhut's current models range from an 18-key toddler piano to the 37-key-three-octave model used by Margaret Leng Tan, Isabel Ettenauer and others. The Trincas have also kept Schoenhut's history alive by revitalising a 44-key histroical model to tie-in with the company's 135t anniversary in 2007. Unlike the company's other pianos, the 44-key version uses strings rather than steel rods. 


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