A Brief History of me & Toy Pianos

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Hello! I’m Olivia Kieffer, Composer in Residence for the 2017 Florida International Toy Piano Festival. I’m a percussionist and college teacher, living in Atlanta. Periodically, I’ll be making blog posts leading up to the Festival, chronicling my time working with the Pinellas County elementary and middle school students and preparing for my lecture recital. Plus other musical adventures! Today we’ll start with a little back story.

It was May of 2015, and I had just moved to Ormewood Park, which is a nice Atlanta neighborhood with old houses that have big porches. My dear friend (and a totally boss keyboardist) Amy O’Dell asked me to write her a toy piano solo, which would be part of an upcoming concert of toy piano solos written for her, called “Find Your Inner Child” (and, turns out, an album as well, with all of those pieces on it!).  In her parameters for the piece, she threw out the idea, “you could use 2 toy pianos; one for each hand.” Score! So, I hunkered down in Garageband with my m-audio keyboard, and squirreled together this piece Nobility of Homophones in less than 2 weeks, from bits of old music that no one was supposed to hear + some new ideas + a whole lot of connective material. I loved every moment of writing this piece! It was a pleasure to shrinky-dink/Tetris the intervals so they fit into the range of the instruments.

Me (L), Amy (R): we are totally in a band together. OK 2 bands. 

In June I went to the Charlotte New Music Festival Composer’s Workshop, which was a life-changing and radical 2 weeks where I got to meet one of my musical heroes, and I came home to a gift from my roommate; a red 25-key toy piano. I took it out to the front porch to play that night, in a rainstorm where all the power went out, and decided I wanted to write a short toy piano piece for each one of my friends. In July was Amy’s awesome “Find Your Inner Child” concert, after which she went on to perform Homophones in many venues and concerts, including at the 2016 Florida International Toy Piano Festival.

“Big Red” & “The Klunker”

But actually, my first encounter with a toy piano was several years before that, when my husband (at the time) came home with a disheveled and gloriously out of tune #Schoenhut baby grand with no legs, that he found at the thrift store. I brought it to school and my percussion ensemble students used it in a performance of John Cage’s Living Room Music. That beautiful instrument now resides in California, where it enjoys the daily ocean breezes.


Fast forward just a bit, to September 2015. I had just moved (again!), this time to my friends’ basement in the backwoods of Decatur. Their 4 year old daughter had a pink 18-key toy piano, which is just the klunkiest, most marvelous thing ever. She let me take it downstairs and I played it, alongside my red 25-key, and started writing the miniatures dedicated to my friends.

“Clibberace”(like Liberace), plus rye whiskey, sans candelabra

I made rules about the pieces, like “you only get 1 hour to write + videotape each piece” and “it has to be circa 1 minute long” and – let me tell you – I followed those rules without fail. What an enormous pleasure it was, tinkering out those pieces! This project is now a completed book of 55 toy piano solos (some for 2 toy pianos, but most for 1), called “The Texture of Activity.” It spanned 9 months, and more than 100 hours of sporadic notating. This music is filled with love!

I expanded one of these pieces, Down the Hatch, She Wrote (for William Susman), and arranged it for vibraphone duet. And created a book of vibraphone solos derived from the toy piano miniatures. But more on arrangements, next time! Cheers!

**You can buy the 1st edition “Texture of Activity” score book by emailing Living Creatures Press. A 2nd Edition is in the works, edited by another one of my musical heroes, which will be exactly the same music but notated quite differently (aka. WAY easier to read)!**







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