Keys of Playfulness: Conversations with a Toy Piano Maestro

Classical Contemporary Pianist and Toy Pianist, TRICIA DAWN WILLIAMS, leaves her beloved collection of Pianos for a while and answers Marie Benoît’s questions about them and her forthcoming concert next month
 

Could you introduce yourself to our readers?
I am a classically trained pianist specialising in late 20th century and contemporary music.  I enjoy playing both solo and as part of an interdisciplinary performance. When I am planning my concerts, I am always looking for something new, something exciting and luckily my partner and composer Ruben Zahra shares my views and supports me throughout.  Ruben and I have been collaborating on several projects for the past 20 years.

How many children do you have?
I have two daughters, Șehrazat and Seda who are both married.  I recently became the proud grandma of our 7-month old Yazmira, daughter of Şehrazat. As you can imagine, she's a bundle of joy (when she's not screaming her head off for no reason!).  I look forward to the day when I can share my love for piano and music in general with her.

I also teach piano at The Box - A Creative Arts Space in Mosta.  I have a bunch of lovely students, with the youngest being 4-years-old and the oldest 46.

So my days are split between practicing in the morning and teaching in the afternoon whilst also trying to squeeze in some admin work in between or late at night.

 

Many are acquainted with your work. You are probably the only musician in Malta who plays on toy pianos. Can you tell me something about your musical background and how you came to select playing on toy pianos with which you are obviously enamoured?
I had my first piano lesson at the age of six with a local teacher, Rita Micallef.  I always had plenty of toy instruments at home, like most children I guess.  Amongst these I had three toy pianos, two blue and one black.  The black one was beautiful, made out of wood in the shape of a concert grand.  However these were just toys, each piano key made only one sound but I used to spend hours playing with them.  This encouraged my father to send me to piano lessons.  It might sound unbelievable, but I still remember my very first few piano lessons.

The toy piano turned up again in my life, this time in the form of a tabletop red toy piano that has 18 keys and thankfully played the proper notes even if somewhat out of tune.  This little red one was gifted to me by Ars Ludi Ensemble when they came to Malta for a piano and percussion ensemble performance and one of the pieces, an arrangement of Tierkreis by Karlheinz Stockhausen was scored for three percussionists, grand piano and toy piano.  Ars Ludi brought the toy piano with them but it was easier to leave it here with me rather than fly it back. It was exciting playing a piece where I could hear the sound of the grand piano clash with that of the toy piano and I wanted to do more of this. 

Unfortunately, the toy piano world is a place of its own.  There are several models to learn about.  Some of them are not being manufactured anymore whilst other companies like Kawai are investing in making new ones.  So, between one concert and the next and life in general ... I never found the time to explore this whole other world of sounds BUT 'thankfully' ... Covid came and we all had to stay inside with nothing to do.  As performances started being cancelled and my patience running out, I looked at the little red toy piano that had become a dusty decoration by that time and thought .... Now is the time ... no excuses.  I had only one toy piano book but it was perfect because it had 25 pieces for an 18-key toy piano, all around one minute long.  It was sent to me by a US composer, Olivia Kieffer with whom I now have a very good rapport as she's a toy pianist, percussionist and composer.  I started playing these pieces and was simply having fun ... the same fun I had when I started learning piano as a little girl.  It was the time during Covid when you could still go out in pairs in the countryside, so along with Ruben, we went to Dingli Cliffs and filmed three short pieces by Olivia Kieffer.  I posted one of them directly to Facebook and overnight this video had over 12,000 views and lots of comments and resharing.

Somehow, this video grabbed the attention of the largest toy piano manufacturer Schoenhut Toy Pianos who asked me to choose any toy piano I wanted and they would ship it over to Malta paying all expenses.  I chose a 37-key traditional spinet.  Since then I haven't looked back.  I now own one Jaymar and three Michelsonnes that are vintage and took a lot of hunting to find good quality ones and convincing the seller to ship them to Malta.  The other six are all new, they are mainly Schoenhuts of different sizes and timbres and a Kawai that came all the way from Japan.

Once I had this modest collection of toy pianos and started posting videos, composers from all around the world started contacting me and sending me their music.  Together with my partner, we filmed several other videos in Malta and also abroad for my ongoing project "Around the World in 18 keys".  The latest filming was done in Chios, Greece where I recorded the piece Restlessness by Israeli composer Yfatt Soul Zisso that will be premiered shortly on YouTube. I also started to include a few toy piano pieces in my concerts with the idea that eventually I will perform a toy piano recital where I could bring along all my toy pianos.

 

Are you the only one in Malta who has specialised in playing on toy pianos or are there others?
As far as I know, no other pianist has taken up playing the toy piano professionally.

 

What, with your experience, is the difference between a normal piano and a toy piano?
Size, sound, touch.  Anyone seeing me play the toy piano might think it is easy or perhaps I am just fooling around but believe me, it is easier to play the same piece on the piano.  In fact, sometimes I am tempted to learn a new piece on the piano and then play it on the toy piano but I restrain myself from doing that as it becomes harder in the long run.

Each toy piano key is half the size of a normal piano key, luckily my hands are very small. Some toy pianos have keys made of plastic, others of wood.  The hammer action when you press a key varies from one model to the other so that's quite tricky.  Also, the vintage models do not have everything necessarily working perfectly so you have to become really familiar with your pianos to bring the best out of each one of them.

 

Is there music which is specially composed for toy pianos?  Have you ever composed anything for toy or normal pianos?
There are many composers who have written specifically for toy pianos starting with John Cage who wrote his Suite for Toy Piano in 1948 and which I recorded and filmed in Mdina a couple of years ago.

I have not composed any piece for either the piano or the toy piano but I have made simple arrangements out of piano works for piano and toy piano.  I leave the composition of music to the expertise of others whilst I enjoy playing their works.

 

Could you tell us something about the concert which is going to take place on the 3rd May?
Tiny Keys - Big Sounds: contemporary compositions for toy piano is the first concert in the series "ToyPiano+" that will take place throughout 2024 and 2025 with the support of Arts Council Malta.

It will take place on Friday 3 May at 8pm at the Spazju Kreattiv theatre where I will present a programme for toy piano, electronic music and small percussion instruments. For this concert I have commissioned ten new works to local and foreign composers.

The music of each composer will explore the toy piano in a different way. Albert Garzia is intrigued by the contrast between the raw mechanical toy piano and an accompanying backtrack of synths and drum machine. Atau Tanaka uses live electronics to capture the live sound and produce echoes that "mirror" the soloist on the toy piano. For Daniel Cauchi's and Olivia Kieffer's works, I will alternate between the toy piano and additional percussion instruments, such as the cajón, wood blocks and jingles. While for the music of Veronique Vella, I will have one hand on the keyboard and the other hand turning the crank of a music box - an old fashioned cylinder with pins that rotates over a strip of paper with perforated holes to create a melodic loop. Tiny Keys - Big Sounds also includes new compositions by Luc Houtkamp, Alexander Vella Gregory, Mariella Cassar-Cordina, Christopher Muscat and Kris Spiteri.

 

Now for some questions which will allow us to get to know you better.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Taking long walks amongst nature, something I always look forward to when I travel for my concerts and receiving confirmation of a performance of a work I really wanted to play, usually that keeps me on a high for a few days and the excitement builds up when I start practicing the piece.

What is your greatest fear?
Losing my loved ones, especially my two daughters and now my granddaughter.

What is your greatest extravagance?
It must be all my pianos.  I own two Yamahas - a grand piano and a concert upright and ten toy pianos, four of which are vintage and the rest came all the way from the US and Japan.

What is it that you most dislike?
Dishonesty

Do you have a code that you live by?
Don't do to others what you don't want done to you.

 

Tickets for the concert on 3rd May are available online via Spazju Kreattiv's website - https://kreattivita.org/en/event/tiny-keys-big-sounds-contemporary-compositions-for-toy-piano/

For further updates on all Tricia Dawn's projects you can log on www.triciadawnwilliams.com and subscribe to her newsletter.

April 6, 2024

Source: The Malta Independent


 

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