Unusual keyboard instruments featured in recital at Brockport
While Tamara Wilcox has been playing piano most of her life, it’s only recently that she has been exploring the world of some of the piano’s unusual relatives: keyboard instruments that are a mix of distant ancestors and unusual cousins, including the harpsichord, spinet, and the toy piano.
The toy piano has been featured in classical compositions going back at least to the 1940s, including a suite by John Cage. It has been championed by professional musicians, most notably Margaret Leng Tan, who is known as the “queen of the toy piano.”
Wilcox first got curious about the toy piano when she heard about a competition to write a 100-note composition for the instrument.
She recalls thinking “why not?” and found a toy piano to purchase through Facebook marketplace. Her toy piano composition was one of the winners for the competition, and she continued to explore the instrument, including acquiring a few more for her collection.
“They can’t be perfectly in tune, so it’s more of a percussive feel, but very fun,” she says, and notes that, “each has its own unique voice.”
She plays across three toy pianos in a piece called “The Nobility of Homophones,” by contemporary composer Olivia Kieffer.
Wilcox teaches and plays keyboard instruments at SUNY Brockport, where she is on the faculty of the Department of Theater and Music Studies. She has been combining her exploration of these instruments another of her interests: researching, teaching, and playing the work of women composers. On her upcoming recital, Wilcox will feature the work of a historic and a contemporary woman on each of the instruments.
The toy piano is just one of the unusual keyboard instruments Wilcox has been playing. There is the English Bentside Spinet, built decades ago by Brockport student Glenn Corson, based on an instrument from the 17th century.
SUNY Brockport used to have a Keyboard Technology Department, where you could learn tuning, building, [and] restoration. That was before Wilcox’s time, but she described it as “quite a place,” where they had “keyboard festivals that brought people...internationally with their historic keyboards.”
Corson’s family donated the instrument he built after his death. Two of the other instruments that Wilcox has been playing were built down the road from Brockport, in Bergen, at the Piano and Harpsichord Shop run by the late John O’Connor, Sr. His family has been building and maintaining keyboard instruments for several generations.
Brockport Professor Emertus Ian Henderson donated his O’Connor “Neo-Classic Fortepiano” and a harpsichord to the school.
The fortepiano is a bit more mellow than the modern piano, with less dynamic range says Wilcox. It's this type of instrument that composers including Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin would have played during their lives.
The fortepiano and piano make sound when the keys cause hammers to strike the strings. In the case of the the harpsichord and the spinet, the keys cause the strings to be plucked instead.
"If you think of how a guitar player plays or a harpist,” she explains, “the strings are plucked with actually a kind of little beak that is called a plectrum. We today use Delrin plastic, but long ago they would have used anything from leather to feather quills, anything that’s hard enough to pluck the string. The different materials will give you a different timbre.”
With each of these instruments, she says there is a “dramatic difference” in the ways it feels to press the keys and in how they respond.
The instruments are all also “temperamental, and very sensitive to humidity and temperature,” she says. They normally live in a humidity-controlled room, created especially for their storage at the college, but they are now for the upcoming recital.
Tamara Wilcox will play these instruments in a concert called “Women and Keyboards,” Monday at 7:30 p.m. at the Tower Fine Arts Center in Brockport.