Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Toy?

I had a really fun and difficult time with the topic this week. I've thought about it since it was posted on Sunday. I've roamed my house looking at the items I consider toys.

But I thought most about my pianos. The question I kept coming back to, the one that bothered me, haunted me, and followed me around all week was: Is my Steinway a toy?

Most of us would agree that the little piano below is a toy. I love garage sales and picked this up a few years ago. It sounds just like you think is does. Younger siblings love to play it. New students like to try their first pieces on it. It's cute and it's quirky that I own it.

I also have a very new-fangled keyboard with every bell and whistle. It has a whole band, choir voices, synthesized everything, drums, and it is FUN! I do most of my composing here. It is hooked into the computer and I can hear my compositions through its speakers. I get the luxury of hearing the flute as a flute. I think of this as a toy however. Why IS that? Because it's got lots of gadgets? Because it's FUN? I should take it pretty seriously as I use it for serious business. But I don't. I don't teach on it. Many teachers teach on keyboards and uprights. Students at this studio warm up on it using the headphones, or put a saxophone on their jazz piece, or play along to the drummer in swing rhythm. They love it too.

So, I'm in a bit of a quandry about this. I asked a friend today whether his Steinway was a toy. He got rather indignant and scoffed, "of course not, my Steinway is serious business!" I understand what he means. It is an instrument, a tool that is used to make music, to express one's self. At the root of my issue is the fact that when I ask people if the keyboard is a serious musical instrument, they invariably use the word "fun". So, if the grand piano is fun to me, is it a toy?

People work very hard, get a Porsche and put a vanity plate on it: MYTOY. Is it really a toy? We understand that it is an outward symbol of hard work. It's also a high performance vehicle similar to a Steinway.

Another friend said that the degree to which you use it makes it a toy. He views "toys" as parts of hobbies, rather like a man who gets lots of woodworking equipment to make things on Saturday in his garage. so, he couldn't see my piano as a "toy" because I make my living with it.

I asked some of my teaching and performing colleagues. They were a bit ruffled to even pursue the question. (That could be a whole blog in itself now, couldn't it!) If I could ask Lang Lang or Leon Fleisher, I am pretty sure that the answer would be absolutely not. So, why can I see it both ways? Can't my students find great joy, passion and FUN in learning to adore the beauty that is music? Does it have to be serious all the time? Am I doing it and my profession a disservice by even thinking about it as anything other than a high art form?

What I decided today (only because the time was up and I needed to post) was that my grand piano is and is not a toy. Brilliant aren't I. I play popular music, lead church music, and compose. I practice and perform as a classically trained artist. It's work, serious business and a tool, part of my teaching and performing, yet it's also sublimely, deeply rewarding. There is a duality here that is both amazing and challenging.

So, I guess the bottom line for me at this moment is: it depends how you play it.


  1. To be or not to be a Toy, now that is a good question. I think you answered it very well. When you are using it for work it is a tool, and when you are using it for pleasure it is a toy.

    Wikipedia states a toy is an object used in play. So I would say that you have the best of both worlds. To be able to play with something that provides an income, oh so few people get that opportunity. Yes, you are a very lucky person. Not sure why some of your colleagues got their feathers ruffled with the question, maybe they are too serious.

    Anyway, sorry it too so long to get here, I am still having trouble with bloggy world and it is not letting me get to sites, or I click on comments and it disconnects or takes me to another section of comments.

    Great post. What a quandry of such joy and love. So, so lucky to have an awesome ability.

  2. Of course your Steinway is a toy - you play with it! I certaibly consider my instruments (trumpets) toys. We only ever set the limits ourselves anyway, right :-)

  3. Welcome back to blogland, Mrsopole! I'm so glad you're here! To be or not to be a toy, THAT should have been my title!

  4. > Another friend said that the degree to
    > which you use it makes it a toy.

    This doesn't work; if you look at children, they may play with a toy for 8-12 hours a day... more than adults use a professional tool :)

    Personally, I think the word "toy" is dependent upon too much individual context for people to come to a universal definition. For some people, "toy" has a pejorative connotation of frivolity, so they'd never use it to describe a tool they use for serious purposes. For other people, "toy" has a positive connotation of lack of imposed structure (there may be discipline involved in the use of the object, but it's all internal), so they think of the object as something that facilitates their individual expression.

    I think the fact that you call your pianos toys says something about how you view music and your relationship with it. Someone who would never call a musical instrument a toy probably has a much more restricted relationship with music.

  5. if you think about how seriously children play with their toys and how (except for 'doing their scales') people always 'play the piano', I think the finest compliment you can pay your Steinway is to call it the toy you still enjoy enough to keep playing with it, now that some of the other toys are long gone.

    Or something like that - I came visiting from Avid Reader's blog, by the way, after spotting Wolfie's wig :-) .

  6. Good post.

    re-- the Virtual Book Club will be open to the public soon, Megan is taking care of the details.

    We had a piano for a long time and moved it to our weekend house. Our oldest cat used to play the piano several times a day--he just liked to. Whenever we'd ask him if he wanted to play, he'd run into the living room and start playing--he always played to show off for visitors or get our attention too... Now when we mention the word piano he looks around and cries out -- I'm thinking about getting him a toy piano, poor cat--his favorite plaything removed.

  7. If you "toy" with something, does it become a toy --even if just for that moment? (like a lampshade on the head becomes a hat to a partygoer?)

  8. Hmmmm, I wonder if Theme Thursday had all these great questions in mind when the theme was chosen?


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