Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

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!

See Also


3 Responses to “Keyboards – one handed and four limbed”

  1. I’m so sorry. The only glimmer of hope I can offer to your daughter is that the body is an amazing compensator – so I have injured the nerves in my left leg and foot, but over the years, it’s amazing how much I have learned to do.

    I like the idea of the whole body playing music. It would be awesome to see.

  2. Dave Bath said

    Thanks LE.
    As I indicated, the worst case scenario is tolerable. (I hope the resources I gave at the bottom of the post are useful for people in tougher situations).

    I know things can only get better, and the crush stuff comes back first because the pipes are intact so the wires can regrow down the right path. The cuts, where the rewiring takes longer, and the brain can gradually adapt (providing it’s not a sensory nerve going down a motor pipe).

    I’m a pessimist, and reasonably good at finding ways to tolerate the worst, so when things turn out better than expected, life is good. (And if they don’t, at least you are prepared for it and have the minor pleasure of “I told you so!”).

    My own right hand nerves were snicked when I cut the arteries in my forearm as a kid. Year later, I was doing HSC piano and qualified to go to the Con (thought about doing that for a few seconds, too!). Showing my scars to my daughter also helped her somewhat.

    You can live quite happily with shot shoulders and wrists as long as you have an elbow and fingers. (My own shoulders are crap, and one was immobilized for months after a reconstruction. At least my daughter has been able to squirt water into her armpit… and is glad she didn’t have to wait months like I did to be able to wash my armpit after surgery… TOXIC!!!)

  3. memeweaver said

    Love the thought of a dancing Bach.

    Can only sympathise with the piano dilemma. Very tough. Maybe duets would be a possibility with a willing participant? (ie not pieces for four hands, but regular pieces for two hands adjusted to accommodate two players)Have no idea if such pieces exist. But if they don’t, maybe they should. Could be slightly easier than the typical piece for one hand.

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