Keyboards – one handed and four limbed
Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-04-16
My thoughts wandered across modern versus old instruments, disability, and something best termed "implied choreography" the other day, when my daughter broke down and wept as I did a walking bass under a munged "Fü Elise" to my grandson, and morphed Pachelbel’s Canon via a minor key and into "Puff the Magic Dragon".
(If you want resources for disabled piano-players, skip down to the notes at the bottom of this post.)
Regular readers will know my daughter was recently in a car accident, all the nerves in her right arm insulted by a broken humerus, and while she is getting some movement and sense back in her fingers and thumb, the wrist is still useless, and there are no twinges in the muscles required to give a "thumbs up" or Vulcan "live long and prosper" salute.
Hence my daughter’s crying when seeing my grandson enjoying himself. Will she ever be able to play her flute or recorder to him? Maybe not. Guitar she’ll be able to do something with, as her left hand is unaffected, but she was really distressed by the piano.
She may well end up needing her wrist splinted for a long time: with at least some movement in the fingers, and a splinted wrist, she’ll be able to make something up. She cheered up a bit when I reminded her about how piano teachers of earlier decades whacked you with rulers to keep the wrist straight, but of course, that wasn’t to stop the wrist adduction/adbuction, merely limit the flexion and extension.
While there have been pieces written for one-handed pianists, often by composers who had lost a limb (or friends who have lost a limb), they are tremendously difficult. On the plus side (ooops, almost wrote "other hand") for my daughter, most one-handed piano pieces are for the left.
But the bummer is that it is hard to imagine having ready access to the one instrument that could make a huge difference… a proper organ with a decent set of pedals, one that would let Bach improvise a two part fugue with both hands tied behind his back (or at least, something like BWV 598). I’ve only ever played one like that once, a glorious electromechanical pipe organ in Wesley Church in Geelong, when I was a little tacker. (The pipe organ I was most familiar with was a lovely little single-bank job, and only used the feet for pumping the air through).
Organs with a decent set of pedals are hard to find, especially if you want one with a couple of banks for your hand so you can swap voices quickly (the dodgy hand maybe changing the stops).
Electronic home keyboards with a full set of pedals? Never seen them, but perhaps some allow addons. While some pedal keyboard midi controllers exist (I’m not talking about sound-effects switches), most only cover a single octave, although there are recipes to build your own. (Won’t do it myself… color-blindness and soldering-irons don’t mix!)
Which brings me to the "implied choreography"….
I’d love to watch a really good organ player going ape on some pieces that wear out the legs, something like that which made Louis Marchand run away from an improv competition: Papa Bach in full flight.
With all four limbs moving in ways demanded by the music (whether scored or improvised), and with complex contrapuntal rythms in each voice/limb, Bach’s whole body must have been dancing (unless he was so brilliant he didn’t have to move!). Imagine what he would look like today, fully kitted out with banks of synths on either side of him, and a bank of pedals for each foot. Add in the movements required to change the stops (or flick synth switches from one voice to another)… and you have to get what I’d call "implied choreography".
Body movement co-ordinated with the music? Of course! Entire body moving in complex patterns? Probably as complex as you can get.
So… would that body movement qualify as dance? Could it be an art form even with the sound turned off and the organ rendered transparent so you could see the body?
Air-guitar is for wimps…. try air-cathedral-organ!
- On Marchand: Marchand and Bach were to have an organ improv competition in Dresden. As each organ is very different, you need to spend time with an organ to figure out how it wants to be played. The story (possibly apocryphal) goes that Marchand walked in while Bach was familiarizing himself with the organ, saw what he was up against, and fled the city, leaving Bach to "win" by default. What must Bach sounded, and looked, like, for a highly-regarded and famously-up-himself Frenchy to be scared away?
- OneHandWinds.unk.edu : an international forum website on musical instruments adapted for persons with disabilities and related discussions.
- Teaching Piano Music For One Hand by Adrienne Wiley, a subpage under a series of links at Cello Heaven about disabled musicians with hints.
- Google Books "One handed: a guide to piano music for one hand" by Donald L. Patterson
- "Repertoire for Piano One Hand" from PianoEducation.org
- There are "narrower keys" available for some keyboards, which are not only useful for children, but those with limited stretching in a hand… and some of those one-handed classical pieces need hands like Liszt’s! See Steinbuhler, a manufacturer and refitter.
- A chapter in "Sounding Off: Theorizing Disability" that has a focus on piano: The horrors of one-handed pianism: Music and Disability in The Best With Five Fingers
- Pedal keyboard midi controllers – and a homebrew recipe
- One-handed tin-whistle suite (sheet music and CD available)