Comedy or inspiration?

About ten years ago, a video by comedian musicians Aleksey Igudesman and Hyung-ki Joo went viral in the piano world.  It was called “Rachmaninov Had Big Hands”.

This was not the first time anyone has ever tried to play the piano with pieces of wood.  The inspiration for Igudesman and Joo could have come from Rainer Hersch’s comedy routine featuring a Chopin Prelude.

Or, it could have been inspired by the second movement of Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata.  Ives, a master of writing unusual combinations of notes, called for a 14 and ¾ inch long piece of wood to play a cluster chord.  Start watching at 1:45.

Igudesman and Joo’s  comedy routine not only made viewers around the world chuckle, but they were inspirational (for me, at least!).  During my senior year at the University of New Hampshire, I studied Copland’s Piano Variations.  One variation has octaves in both hands.  (I can reach a sixth.)  The variation is bombastic and it sounded too puny with only one note in my right hand.  It was then that my teacher, Arlene Kies, told me about an idea she had.  (Apparently, Arlene had been thinking about this idea for quite some time, but she was unsure about how I would react!)  What if I had something that I could pick up and use to play an octave?

Contrary to Arlene’s fear, I was not at all put off by the idea, but instead went straight to work to create such a device.  My first attempt was simple: two pencils and some rubber bands.

pencildevice

This worked fairly well; the cross was easy to hold.  My dad and I made a few more prototypes out of Tinker Toys and wooden dowels.  Eventually, I found a design that I liked.  Robert Englund, a woodturner in New Hampshire, created the final product.  The cross is placed off-center to voice one note louder than the other.  I experimented with several materials to put on the end of the wooden legs.  The wood itself was too loud.  Felt was too slippery.  The winning material: wine cork!

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The Octave Device, as I have named it, works fairly well as an extension of my hand.  It is most useful for long passages of octaves with time to pick up and put down the device.  Watch me demonstrate!

P.S. Just for the record, I’m not the first pianist with a limb difference to think about doing this!

Check out this clip, supposedly featuring an Australian from 1933!

In 1906, Burt Amend was granted a patent for his device to play chords.

It All Started Here

I kneeled on the sofa, my elbows crossed over the armrest, my neck craned forward, my eyes glued to the piano. Emily was having a piano lesson and I had been invited to watch.  As my best friend learned new melodies and chords, I moved my fingers simultaneously, imagining what it might be like to produce those sounds myself.  It must have been a magical thirty minutes, because afterwards I went home and proudly told my parents:

I want to take piano lessons!

Well, sure, honey.  There’s just one problem.  We don’t have a piano.

To my great fortune, my grandmother, a former amateur pianist herself, gave me her instrument.  My parents contacted piano movers and soon our house was transformed- there was a piano in the living room.  What grand possibilities awaited me!

My father went over to the piano first.  He did not have much of a musical education, but he knows one tune and to this day, he can sit down at a piano and play it.  And so he did.

“Dad,” I said, “you played three notes in your right hand.”  I sighed.  Maybe this was going to be harder than I expected.  See, I was born with an atypical cleft hand, which means that my right hand has only a thumb and a pinky.  My parents are remarkable; they raised me to believe that I could do anything, so I played baseball, danced, did gymnastics, and found solutions to everything except counting to ten on my fingers.  When I asked to play piano, my parents didn’t even think about my hand.

Yet here I was, faced with a challenge before I even had my first lesson.  What was I to do?  I honestly don’t remember whether it was me or my father who had this idea, but soon enough we decided that I could play it with my hands crossed.  My right hand played the melody, my left hand played the chords.  Ta-da!

Crossing hands is still one of the most useful, basic tools I have for adapting piano music.  Sometimes I leave my hands crossed for an entire passage, while sometimes I cross hands for just one chord.  Although it is, admittedly, a little awkward, crossing hands allows me to play more of the notes written and to put fast Alberti bass passages in my left hand.  If you are experimenting with cross-handed playing, be sure to determine which hand is better on top.  In general, my right hand crosses over my left, but for some passages it is better the other way around.  If nothing else, it’s a good party trick!

Postscript: Now that my hand has grown to its adult size, I can play both three-note chords in this tune!

F# chord, first inversion:

f-sharp-inversion

C#7 chord, third inversion:

C# 7 inversion.jpg