OCM Boom artist, Sarah Nicolls, writes about her extraordinary piano
I’ve designed the ‘Inside-Out Piano’ to make playing the inside of a piano easier. This means doing things like plucking a string, knocking on the wood and playing harmonics by pressing lightly on a string as you play a note. It can also mean ‘preparing’ the piano: sticking objects inside the instrument to change the sound. John Cage was an early pioneer of ‘prepared piano’, putting nuts and bolts between the strings to create bell-like sounds. His Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano are great to listen to: I played these on the London Sinfonietta/WARP Records tour in 2004, to 3,000 intelligent dance music fans who loved them!
Trying to play the inside of a grand piano is really uncomfortable. You’ve got to stand up and lean inside at a really difficult and unsustainable angle. If you’re using music, you have to reach over the music stand, losing all visual contact with the keys and making it much harder to play as your arms/hands are at the wrong angle. Its also becomes impossible to use the pedals. The audience experience isn’t much better: intriguing sounds happening whilst no one can see why or how they are being made. Someone once said I looked like a car mechanic tinkering with an engine..!
Yet ‘inside piano’ techniques have been scored for nearly a century. Henry Cowell was the earliest proponent, with Aeolian Harp in 1923. Nowadays it’s absolutely commonplace to see pianists playing inside, especially in the improvisation scene.
There is a further argument saying that the space-saving Inside-Out Piano could be the piano of the future. It offers a grand piano in sound and size, yet with a quarter (or less) of the footprint. Standing straight vertical to the wall, the piano becomes much more like a bookcase, meaning modern homes could easily house grand pianos where that was impossible before. For me, this feeds into my own desire for children to continue learning on real pianos, where the strings are accessible, playable and there to be listened to. Around 6 million children are learning or playing the piano or keyboard, so it’s a vibrant and growing community, also thanks to many who teach themselves online via you tube tutorials.