UCSD’s Toy Piano Festival: An Unusual Tribute to Tiny Music

The toy piano has been a musician’s cult favorite since John Cage fell in love with the instrument and composed his own piece for it in 1948; music lovers around the world have grown to know and even prefer the miniature equivalent to its much larger counterpart. For the past 14 years on September 5th, UC San Diego has celebrated the birth of John Cage and the establishment of the tiny piano’s place in the world; but first, we take a look at how this pint-sized creation got its start in the mid-19th century and what role UCSD plays in its continuing recognition.

Erm, So What Exactly Is a Toy Piano?

Though it’s tempting to think these instruments may be something other than what their name implies – miniature versions of pianos – they are indeed just that. Also known as the kinderklavier (child’s keyboard), they are small piano-like musical instruments that come in multiple shapes, from scale models of the impressive grand piano to toys that resemble normal pianos only in that they possess miniature keys. Toy pianos are no more than 50 cm in width, are generally made out of wood or plastic, and technically use the same musical scale as their full-grown counterparts, although their tuning is generally much more approximate.

A Tiny Stradivarius!

Rather than hammers hitting strings as on a standard, full-size piano, the toy piano produces sound by way of hammers hitting metal rods that are fixed at one end, a design that was first patented by a woman named Alice Bennett in 1930. The hammers are connected to the keys by a mechanism similar to that which drives keyboard glockenspiels. And now, as with most things, there are even electronic versions.

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A Little Background. . .

At a young age, a man named Albert Schoenhut began making toy pianos in his home. The hammers on his early toy pianos struck a sounding bar made of glass instead of the strings used on real pianos; he later exchanged the glass bars for those made of metal, making the instruments more durable. Albert’s toy pianos were more than just playthings: they actually stayed in tune and were accompanied by sheet music so as to encourage young children to play. In 1866, John Dahl, a buyer for a major department store, heard of Albert’s talent and brought the 17-year old to Philadelphia to work as a repairman on glass sounding pieces in German toy pianos that had been damaged in the shipping process.

Albert decided he liked the business enough to blaze his own trail in 1872, when he founded the Schoenhut Piano Company. As his reputation for the craft grew, Albert began adding other instruments to his roster, including a ukulele-banjo, xylophone, and a glockenspiel. By 1917, Schoenhut had produced a 10-page catalogue of upright and grand pianos of all shapes and sizes – even mini piano stools! Word was spreading quickly about these tiny instruments. 

Makin’ Tiny Tunes

The first composer to write  a “serious” piece for toy piano was American composer John Cage, who is said to have liked the abrasive chiming and limited range of the instrument. His Suite for Toy Piano, written in 1948, consisted of five short movements, none over two minutes, and used nine consecutive white notes of a piano keyboard – which is significant because some toy pianos only have white notes (the black notes are sometimes only painted on as a reference point).

Currently, the Toy Piano Collection at Geisel Library consists of actual instruments, recordings, extant literature and commissioned scores. In 2001, the Library of Congress took notice of UCSD’s impressive Toy Piano Collection and issued a special call number and subject heading for all Toy Piano Scores: M 175 T69.

The Festival at UCSD: A Celebration

UCSD’s history with toy pianos dates back to 1966, when composer Robert Erickson, a founder of the university’s Music Department, wrote a piece for toy pianos and bells that was premiered on California’s PBS television stations. Now, the Toy Piano Festival celebrates these tiny instruments annually on John Cage’s birthday: September 5th. In preparation for the festival in the Geisel Library, composers visit the Library and pick a specific toy piano from the collection; they then write a piece specifically for that particular instrument. Since some pianos only have nine notes and others just three octaves, each piece has its own special charm and unique limitations.

This year’s festival will feature new works from local composers, a work from John Cage, and for all you Seuss lovers, songs from The Cat in the Hat Songbook. Performers and composers will include: Sue Palmer (the Queen of Boogie Woogie!, Ryoko Amadee Goguen, Christian Hertzog, Kenneth Herman, Gail Gipson, Ellen Lawson, James Chute, Samara Rice, Alex Segal and Scott Paulson.

The 14th Annual Toy Piano Festival will be held at the UC San Diego Geisel Library on Friday, September 5 at 12 noon.

[images & info courtesy of: toypiano.com, libraries.ucsd.edu/blogs, liveauctioneers.com, globaltoynews.com, wikipedia.com, pinterest.com]

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