This toy is no toy—it’s made to play

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Denison’s HyeKyung Lee is an accomplished pianist, composer and assistant professor of music. She has performed all over the world, with residencies on several continents, and her talents and interests range far and wide. But today, during the provost’s Tuesday Lunch Series, faculty and staff were treated to a “small” and fascinating aspect of her expertise—one that has a great big sound.

Lee has taken on the study of the toy piano—and by that, we mean an actual musical instrument. “Toy piano is not for children—it’s simply a musical instrument in small scale,” she said.

To illustrate the power of it, Lee took her audience on a historical tour of the toy piano in modern times, citing the work of important influences like Margaret Leng Tan, John Cage, Isabel Enttenaur, and Phillis Chen, showing the ways classically trained piano masters have taken music to new heights with the toy piano’s “magical overtones, hypnotic charm, and not least, its off-key poignancy,” as Tan once described it.

Lee’s own toy piano, which she brought with her today, is a three-octave Schoenhut. “It’s a percussion instrument, basically,” Lee said. “It’s a series of metal bars, hit by hammers. And it can’t be tuned.”

As a composer, Lee finds interesting challenges with the toy piano. “Writing for piano is quite precise–writing for toy piano is not. Each instrument will be different. And it’s difficult to control soft and slow pieces.”

Lee closed her presentation with a performance of the second movement of her own composition, “Dream Play.”

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