Spare a nickel?

Many people have asked me if I have ever busked as a toy pianist. My only real attempt at busking took place on Queens Street in Toronto over five years ago. At that time, I was performing a lot more solo toy piano pieces. I was also prepared to play some transcriptions of Scott Joplin rags, Bartok’s Makrokosmos and Stravinsky’s “Five Finger Pieces.”

I probably played for about two hours and made about $6. Though the toy piano is a strange instrument, it is kind of lost on the busy streets. First of all, it is so close to the ground, when people are walking by, they have to hunch over to see me. The only people I was eye-level with were children and people in wheel chairs. The people in wheel chairs all stopped to hear me play, but not a lot of pedestrians. The other thing is that the toy piano is not a very loud instrument. With all the noise on the streets, people couldn’t hear me until they were a few feet away. It wasn’t until then that I realized the toy piano is a very subtle instrument. There are many expressive elements, but they must be listened to with full attention.

I think this is why it’s uniqueness is magnified most in concert settings. The toy piano pokes fun at traditional concert rituals. This element is missing when busking. It was an interesting experience for me. I think I’ll try again though…maybe this time in the subway car.

Skipping Rope

This past year, I hosted the first UnCaged Toy Piano Competition, a composition contest for toy pianos and electronics. This was the first time I hosted and judged a competition. We received over fifty entries from the US, Germany, Croatia, Australia, Mexico, Japan, Norway and Italy. We were thrilled with the general turn out! It was difficult to judge because all of the pieces are so different from one another.

Though he was not technically named a “winner,” I was pretty charmed by Ross Manning’s piece “Rotation” for toy piano and electric fan. It is more like an invention than a piece. The insides of the toy piano are exposed and a heavy rope lies across the toy piano beams. The rope is attached to a fan, so when you turn on the fan, the rope jumps and bounces around on the metal rods. This creates a pretty alien and unpredictable sound effect. The piece can be played as long or short as desired. “Rotation” will be set up as an installation for the UnCaged Winners concert in September. (more details soon)

Ross is from Australia and a member of the Clatterbox. I found him on their website for inventing the bass toy piano. Read and listen to it at the Clatterbox website.