Artist Roster – Phyllis Chen, United States

Read below to hear straight from Schoenhut Artist Roster Resident, Phyllis Chen about her life’s journey with the toy piano.

Many people have asked me how I came to play the toy piano. Contrary to what it might seem, I started playing classical piano at the age of five and found the toy piano when I was 21. I was always interested in exploring new sounds and unconventional piano techniques, but my journey with the toy piano was plunged forth by an unexpected happening in my life.

I gave my first toy piano performance in 200phyllis-upside-down021-270x2441 at the Chicago Humanities Festival and  later in 2003, I performed my first solo toy piano performance in Toronto. Though the concert was only 23-minutes,it was one of the most engaging and fulfilling performances I had.  I became very curious about the toy piano, but still considered it one of my many side projects.  It wasn’t until I was studying for my doctorate degree at Indiana University, I slowly became injured with tendinitis due to the stress of all of my teaching, performing and general anxiety about grad school. I was completely crushed that I had to stop playing piano for almost two years, but I found that window of time to be a much-needed break and re-assessment of my artistic pursuits. Up until then,I knew that there were many other artistic and musical curiosities/interests of mine that were not being fulfilled by playing classical piano.  It was really natural for me to play the toy piano at that time–it was my only connection to making music during my recovery and it gave me the great feeling of freedom to compose for the instrument. I also reached out to  many composers that had interested me and started building repertoire for the music. I fell in love with the instrument not only for its sound and quirky characteristics, but also for everything that it symbolized for me at this turning point. When people ask me how I fell in love with the toy piano, I feel they are caught up in a means and not seeing the end: I truly believe that the toy piano has become a vehicle for me to express many things that I could not express on the standard-sized piano. Though many people see it as an instrument with many limitations, I feel  a lack of inhibition when playing it.

While I was younger, many of my friends could attest to the number of never-fulfilled multimedia pieces that I wanted to create. It’s hard to know exactly why it seemed so impossible, but after my recovery, it became natural for me to pursue my interests and visions in creating multimedia works with the toy piano as my central voice.  By further exploring the instrument through electronics,an entirely new palette of sounds have come to me that was never possible in the standard piano. I feel that an entirely new world opened up for me that can still be accessed through a keyboard.  With so much untapped potential and no set boundaries on how it should sound or be played, I think that there is still a lot of artistic exploration that can happen on the toy piano. Now that I am no longer injured and performing a lot on both piano and toy piano, I still find the toy piano to be my instrument of choice!

I get a lot of questions about the instrument itself, so please visit Schoenhut toy pianos.

~Phyllis Chen

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