Story by Jimmy Lee.
When you tell people you play the toy piano professionally, hearing snickers or getting a blank stare just comes with the territory. It’s something Phyllis Chen is not unfamiliar with.
“People used to turn their noses when they heard I played classical music as well,” says Chen. “But that’s OK. That’s not a major concern of mine.”
The more pressing matters on her mind include finishing her latest commission, a composition for string orchestra and toy piano, which she will debut in April in Austin, Texas.
Chen is just one of a few musicians demonstrating that the toy piano is not just a plaything for children. “When I touched it, it was like how I felt about the piano. I just loved the tactile experience of playing it and fell in love with the bell-like sound,” says Chen, who first came across the miniaturized instrument when she was 21 (it was being used as a prop in a puppet theater). Now she’s composing new pieces and releasing CDs highlighting the toy piano. “I knew that there wasn’t a lot of music out there for it, and it made me feel like I can create new repertoire for something that doesn’t have boundaries and the traditional thinking that is expected in classical music.”
There is, however, a lot of misconceptions about what Chen does. For one, she is not anything like Schroeder of the Peanuts comics and cartoons, playing Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” on her toy piano. And she’s not the child whom producers from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno assumed she was when they inquired about her appearing — they weren’t interested in adult toy pianists, apparently. And some people who venture into one of her concerts might walk in with wacky expectations, like the one time a few audience members told Chen they thought she was going to be a miniature pianist (as in a small person).
“It’s a profession filled with misunderstandings,” says Chen.
Another refrain she hears often is that people who hear toy piano automatically assume it’s music meant for kids. But what she’s playing is verging on the avant-garde, and could even be construed as too arty; it’s music not for the masses. One of the first pieces she performed publicly was written by John Cage, the master modern composer most notorious for “4”33’,” which is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of the orchestra sitting in silence.
So how does a classically trained pianist, who started playing at the age of 5 and has music degrees from Oberlin (undergrad) and Northwestern (master’s) and is nearing completion of her doctorate from Indiana University, end up behind a toy piano? For Chen, it started with tendinitis that affected her hands. The doctors told her to take a break from the piano. “In a way, it was a blessing in disguise. It gave me the actual chance to do my own thing,” says Chen.
Her hands, since childhood, have gravitated toward sonic-producing objects. She was the one who wanted to start the piano at age 5, not her immigrant Taiwanese parents, who moved Chen, born in Schenectady, N.Y., and her brother to the South when she was 1, after her father became a professor at Virginia Tech. “Now, thinking about it, I rented bassoons, oboes, clarinets and flutes — all these things when I was a kid. I just wanted to get my hands on them and play them,” recounts Chen. “It was again the tactile experience.”
She does still play the piano, often with the International Contemporary Ensemble that she co-founded. She has also tackled the violin and yet another keyboard instrument: “I was completely in love with the accordion, and I totally thought I would become an accordion player,” says Chen. She even joined a klezmer band, but bearing it on her shoulders was too much while dealing with her tendinitis. The toy piano, on the other hand, “was an easy instrument to play because of the light touch.”
Chen exhibited that touch at a concert last September at New York City’s Joe’s Pub, while seated on a short stool. Yet she still loomed large over two toy pianos, one in the shape of an upright and the other a baby grand. You not only hear the bell-like tinkling of the notes she plays, but also the movement of the keys as they’re being depressed. And it’s really noticeable when Chen’s fingers are flying across the few octaves that fit on the keyboards. Her instruments project a clangy sound that dissipates quickly. There are no rich, resonant tones that you’d expect from a concert Steinway. And Chen is perfectly fine with that.
“[Toy pianos are] really kind of like a voice. They all have their own weird quirks,” says Chen. “It’s funny, but I’ve met instrument makers who say, you should put this into maple wood, and I could tune it for you [to make it more like a real piano]. Well, then, it’s not a toy piano if it’s perfect, beautiful sounding.”
With the toy piano, there are no unwritten rules to be bound by. Rather, the toy piano is pushing Chen to be a better artist. “I don’t feel as musically stuck anymore, or stifled by the classical tradition,” she says. “Now I could finally give myself the permission to do whatever I want and take responsibility for it.”
This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here.