|Photo by libito at fr. wikipedia|
Many, many years ago, when I played the cello in the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, we performed Kodaly's colorful and raucous Háry János Suite. I remember being awestruck watching the percussion section go to town with their parts, of being hit with an unbelievable wave of sound coming from the brass section. Most of all, however, I remember the cimbalom player that took center stage for two of the six movements. The cimbalom's sound enchanted me and the merging of a more folksy sound with the traditional orchestral sound opened up a new world for me aurally. I never fail to grin from ear to ear the moment I hear the suite's opening chord and subsequent glissandi up and down the orchestra and the piano. It is just so much fun and unabashedly so.
It shouldn't come as a surprise then, that when I was recently asked if I could cover the piano part in our community's orchestra concert, I had to restrain myself from jumping up and down with joy and anticipation - OF COURSE!! Yippee!!!
But there was one slight problem. After saying yes to the conductor, he handed me not one part but two parts. The second part was the cimbalom part. He wondered if I'd be willing to cover that too on the piano. Well, what was I supposed to say? I couldn't exactly imagine that fantastic part played on the piano but at the same time I imagined that it probably isn't easy to find a cimbalom player and there's that other inconvenient issue of money. So I walked away with the two parts in my hand, mostly still ecstatic, but also feeling the stubborn side of myself starting to rise to the surface.
Well, the stubborn side won out - I decided that I had to at least try and find a way to give people in the orchestra and in the audience just a taste of what the cimbalom is all about. In the end, after some scrounging around in our garage, I settled on using long strips of welded-wire fencing that I placed on top of the strings. With the sustaining pedal depressed just a bit, this wire buzzing again the strings produced enough of a percussive, twangy sound to be acceptable. I have to say it was a lot of fun to watch the reaction from the orchestra members when I first started playing the prepared piano during rehearsal. It brought an element of surprise and of play to the experience which is what I wanted. It also made the cimbalom part stand out from the rest of the time, when the piano really was a piano.
Here's a little informal recording that I made of what welded-wire fencing in a piano sounds like. If I get my hands on the recording the school made of the concert, I'll try and post clips of it here too so that you can hear it in contrast to the orchestra.
So there you have it...one very inexpensive solution to playing the cimbalom when you don't have a cimbalom or a cimbalom player. Oh, and before I get any nasty comments from horrified piano technicians out there, I must tell you that I did run this idea by a certified piano technician prior to the welded-wire fencing debut. He said that as long as you don't put them on the wound bass strings and as long as there is no danger of the wire slipping through the strings it is perfectly safe.
And if this whole prepared piano thing interests you, here is a story that showed up on National Public Radio just this past weekend. But I warn you, if you watch this, you may get caught by the experimental piano bug!