You may not realise it, but a piano is a living, breathing musical beast


  • Lifestyle
  • Thursday, 24 Apr 2014

Pianist Will Pickvance’s methods might be quirky, but his claim to know the instrument’s ins and outs holds true.

A lecture on the anatomy. That description invariably paints the picture of a human skeleton with body parts singled out for identification and description. Will Pickvance pictured something similar, but he’s not about to sterilise his hands and arm himself with a scalpel any time soon. Far from it.

Pickvance is a pianist who attempts to explain the mechanics of the piano and the instrument’s relationship with its player. And instead of likening the invention – which has its roots in 18th century Italy – to a sophisticated piece of machinery, he equates the black and whites to a living, breathing musical beast. Preposterous? Not if you hear his take on it.

The Briton was in Malaysia recently to present his much touted The Anatomy Of The Piano workshop (he calls it a lecture) at PJ Live Arts, in Jaya One, Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

And where else would an idea of such inane proportions have struck him but at an old veterinary lecture theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland?

“It’s a place where they dissect animals to teach the vet students, and I thought, ‘Why not have a piano concert here,’ since I like to play in strange places,” revealed the musician, who later developed the concert idea into a lecture, inspired by the surroundings.

Music to his ears: Will Pickvance’s interest in piano begun after hearing ragtime music emanating from a slot machine when he was a young boy.

He reckons the piano’s innards point to an aquatic ancestry, which is perhaps why he has even played one in a swimming pool ... with water! “I’ve even played them on mountain tops,” Pickvance offered rather dubiously, which is difficult to either accept or refute. Such is his sense of wit.

According to Pickvance, the piano can be likened to the human body.

“The piano’s exterior is like the human skin. If you strip it, you get to see the skeleton of the instrument. And when you peek in, you see how the circulation works,” informed the 36-year-old in a scholarly fashion. He believes the heart of the piano is the process of an audience enjoying the sound of the instrument.

It’s this breakdown of the nuts and bolts of the instrument that encompasses his “lecture”, or infotainment, as it should be described. “It’s a piano concert with some diagramical assistance and descriptions of the genetic makeup of the piano ... with a little history on the instrument thrown in.”

Ultimately, it should all be presented in an entertaining manner.

“It should be engaging, likewise a student learning the instrument from a teacher. Otherwise, education suffers,” he reasoned.

As far as The Anatomy Of The Piano is concerned, he cautions that his philosophy’s unconventional nature might not be for the faint-hearted.

“There’s a little bit of chemistry and biology involved,” he teased.

Pickvance, who hails from Worcestershire, England, got into the instrument as a young boy after hearing ragtime music emanating from a slot machine. “I was about seven or eight, and I peeked through the window (of a casino) and watched a guy winning as Scott Joplin’s music came blaring out of the machine.”

His grandfather would contribute to his early listening diet, passing the intrepid musician music by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Fats Waller and the like. “He was like a librarian. He would make these mixed tapes and pass them to me. He was so busy compiling all this music, I don’t think he had the time to listen even.”

When he finally got to bang on his own set of black and whites, it was his great grandfather’s Chappel & Co upright piano that was subjected to his growing curiosity. “If there’s one bit of advice I can share, it’s to play according to your physical ability. I found out early on that was the best way to enjoy the instrument.”

And enjoy he did, igniting a passion that kept him in the music halls more than on the football field.

“The kids in school seemed to think what I was doing was uncool,” he said, but proficiency eventually won him a set of admirers ... of the female variety, too.

Of course, before the ladies swooned, Pickvance had to trudge through formal lessons, and while he accepts his teachers were good, academic excellence was never a source of fascination.

“Those jazz manuals my teachers put me through weren’t working for me, so I quickly harboured hopes of playing my own stuff,” he explained.

Pickvance’s homage to the instrument has earned him gigs to play along to silent movies in theatre halls. When a cinema in Edinburgh, Scotland approached him to accompany Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin flicks, it was an offer too good to refuse, and he ended up doing it for nearly five years.

Popular music may have “updated” certain musical instruments, but the humble piano has remained in its natural guise, almost identical to when Italian Bartolomeo Cristofori made the instrument in 1709 while attempting to improve on the harpsichord. And be it the pounding of Bill Evans and Dave Brubeck in the jazz world, or the hammering from rock and pop legends like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, the instrument has remained a mainstay in popular music.

Pickvance theorises that it’s the piano’s versatility that’s made it omnipresent. “Whether it’s Rachmaninoff stabbing on one, or hearing it in the sound of pop music, or boogie woogie grooves and rock ’n’ roll, the piano will always be there because of its range of expression.”

The Briton is dead on the money, too, and cites the likes of German Nils Frahm and Jamie Cullum as the instrument’s torch bearers for the future. 

“The greatest music of all time was written on piano. I just can’t imagine a future where people are no longer playing Scott Joplin, Mendelssohn and Brahms. And because I’ve found new ways to love this all, I think the future is bright.”

And that future seems to have Picvkance distinctly etched in it, too.

Visit www.willpickvance.com for more info and www.pjlivearts.my to learn when he’ll be back in Malaysia.

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