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Banging on the Keyed Zither

by Joe Mills

As the children aged, I felt a certain satisfaction each time we could jettison a piece of plastic equipment. Bye-bye Pack-N-Play. Adios high chair. It was like a spacecraft launch where the booster rockets fell away. I was delighted to see it all go, except, in retrospect, for the little red Fisher Price xylophone. I regret shedding that. Not because I want a memento to sit on the shelf, the equivalent of shadowboxing a onesie, but because I miss playing it.

I loved to sit in the kids’ rooms, on the ABC mats, and hit the colored bars of that toy. In part, it may have been because that phase of parenting is remarkably similar to being a hungover or stoned college student. You’re disoriented, unable to focus on anything but feedings and naps, and simple repetitive activities are the order of the day. But, it also is a time when you are given permission to mess around and engage in “childish” activities again. You rediscover matchbox cars, construction paper, coloring books. Hanging out at the park for hours, you’re not being a wastrel, but a good parent.

In last month’s column, I talked about the “tyranny of good” and how playing the piano gives me pleasure. I didn’t, however, explore what that pleasure is and where it comes from. For me, it has multiple sources, but the first, and most primary, is tactile. I like touching the keys. I like how they feel. I like making noise with them. When we were shopping for a piano, if Danielle didn’t like a keyboard, if the keys seemed “cheap and plasticky,” (even if they weren’t), that was an instant rejection. For the listener, it matters what an instrument sounds like, but the player touches it before hearing it.

A piano, like a drum, evokes an impulse to tap on it. Who walks by one and doesn’t want to put a hand on it? So, for me, it is not primarily a string instrument, but a percussive one. Yes, it may be a symbol of sophistication and elegance, capable of complicated melodies, but it’s fun to bang on. What’s one of the first songs that kids learn? Chopsticks. And the joy of that song is pounding the keys.

It turns out I’m not the only one to consider a piano in this way. Numerous web pages address whether a piano is a string instrument or percussion one. On The Piano Education Page (http://pianoeducation.org), it is a Frequently Asked Question (http://pianoeducation.org/pnopnfaq.html), and the answer given is:

The piano is really a “hybrid”–a combination of two types. It’s a string instrument because the musical tones originate in the strings; and it’s also a percussion instrument, because the strings are set into vibration by being struck with hammers. To be historically correct, it’s classified as a “keyed zither” by musicologists.

Of course I want to be “historically correct,” so I am going to start referring to our upright Yamaha as a “keyed zither.” But, some also define the piano as a “percussive chordophone,” and since I like this phrase as well, I plan to work them both into conversation, as in, “I’m going to go practice the percussive chordophone” or “My wife is making great progress on the keyed zither.”

One site argues that “The piano is not technically a percussion instrument, but for all practical intents and purposes it is a doubly percussive instrument: the fingers strike keys which in turn activate secondary mechanisms which strike hammers.” I love the rhetorical maneuver of this sentence, the “is not technically” feint and then the doubling-down statement.

People talk about music as a mode of communication, but it also can be self-focused and narcissistic. I wasn’t plink plinking on that xylophone for my children, but to amuse myself and because it put me in a semi-hypnotic state. When I play the same notes, the same pattern over and over, when I “practice,” I’m not playing for others, but for myself, and it’s not what I’m playing that’s important, it’s the act of playing. It puts me in a flow state, an immersive involved activity. It’s soothing. It’s meditative.

This can happen with any instrument, but it helps that the piano is so large. I like playing guitar and watching sports on TV. I like that I can play guitar and walk around, even go outside. A guitar is portable, and, frankly, doesn’t always require my full attention. A piano is different. You can’t play and watch the game or check your email or do anything else. No matter your skill level, that keyed zither demands your complete attention. You go to it, and sitting on the bench, you literally turn away from the world.

Furthermore, because the piano is valued, you can do this and not be judged. To the contrary, you’re respected. I often have envied cigarette smokers because they have an excuse to take regular breaks. People understand when someone says, “Can I go have a smoke?” It may not be culturally approved any more, but the need is recognized. It’s less acceptable to say, “Can I go stand outside for five minutes and get away from you people?” You also can’t say, “Can I go bang a drum for a bit and clear my head?” But with the piano, it’s perfectly okay to excuse yourself.

The piano lets me get away and regroup. Playing it is a type of meditation exercise. In this sense, it’s solitary, and that’s one of its pleasures for me. However, at times, as I’m hammering out a tune, one of my kids will pass by and be tempted to hit the keys. They will sit down next to me, and that’s pleasurable as well — banging on the old percussive chordophone with my children.


Joe Mills

Joe Mills

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published five collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition). A new book of poetry is coming out in April: Exit, Pursued By a Bear. Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.

Read Previous Columns by Joe Mills

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