Will Pickvance returns to the Fringe this year with his whimsical Anatomy of the Piano (for Beginners), an anatomical lecture about the piano. Children’s Correspondent Tom Moyser met him to find out more about this prolific and unique species, piano-forte.
At the end of all my shows, I thank the piano. Otherwise, it’s not going to get its due.
Will Pickvance and I meet some time after his performance of Anatomy of the Piano (for Beginners). At the end of the show, children flood the stage, hitting the strings with hammers, bashing the keys, experimenting with the pedals. “That piano is a beast of a thing,” Pickvance explains, “which can stand being knocked around. If it was a concert instrument, you couldn’t do that.”
He uses, in his words, “an old, crap piano” because “one of the things about the feel of this show is having a piano that you might expect to have in your average house, a family heirloom, or something you’ve found on Gumtree. If it was a concert instrument, I think it would already take away a bit of the magic.”
Pickvance’s background gives him a good grounding in both piano and anatomy. “I did a degree in biology. The plan for me by my father was that I would be a doctor. I didn’t really want to be a doctor; I wanted to be a piano player.” He likes being able to bring his “experience of student life and study into the show.” He ventured into “theatre, direction, composition,” before doing shows “more on the improvised entertainment side” before finally starting “doing these scripted shows about three years ago. It’s a format that I really like, just piano and stories.”
The show’s first iteration was for adults and was inspired by its first venue, the anatomy lecture theatre in Summerhall. “I just liked that room so we wheeled the piano up. I had about a month beforehand, and I thought, ‘What am I going to do? Am I going to do a straight concert or shall I do something a bit different?’ It’s in this amazing old room, which they’ve always had cadavers in, animals for dissections. I thought, ‘Why don’t I present this as though the piano is an animal which I’m going to do an inspection of?’”
“Once you’ve got an idea like that, it’s a very fertile idea.” With his science background, Pickvance knew the format of a dissection well. He wanted to work out “what would that mean musically? The imagination can run quite wild.”
He took the show to Perth Fringe, where it was suggested he adapt it as a family show. “I completely regutted it,” he explains, “as a story about me as a boy playing with all the composers instead.”
I ask Pickvance if he has learnt anything about the piano from performing the show. “I suppose, before I started doing these shows, I’d never thought of going onstage with a musical instrument being a double act, but it kind of is. In my adult show, I talked about the blind date - because as a pianist you never take your piano with you. Whereas if you’re a violinist you take your Strad with you so you can form that long-term friendship. With piano you just turn up and you’re at the the mercy of what you’ve been given. That can affect what you play on it or how you play on it. So now at the end of all my shows, I thank the piano. Otherwise, it’s not going to get its due.”
Doing the show has made Pickvance reflect on other differences as well. “There’s no other instrument I can think of which you’d use as a shelf, or you’d put your cup of tea on it. And also the fact that it’s such a versatile instrument. It fits into so many walks of life: it can do the pub sing-along, it can do the concert recital, it can do the ballet school, it can accompany the hymn in school. It just keeps churning up new stories, new backgrounds. I don’t think any other instrument has that range.”
“I think the idea that pianos have these different personalities, and they’re somehow connected to this species, I find that fun. And that I’m some kind of, I don’t know... what would you call it? Some kind of mediator or translator?”
Whisperer, I suggest. “Yes! In fact, Fest did a nice article on me just before the Fringe and they called it piano-whisperer. I thought that was nice. If someone asks, what is it? And I say, yeah, I’m going to sit down and play some music and talk about composers. If you said it like that, if you were flyering someone, they wouldn’t be interested. But hopefully a good reviewer, a good article would be more descriptive than that.”
Of course, both children and adults are fascinated by Pickvance’s lecture. When he lifts off the front of the piano to expose the insides, there is an audible gasp. “I know!” says Pickvance, “and yet every piano’s like that. People say ‘Oh, it’s a special anatomy piano’. They think it might be different to any other piano. Just seeing all that mechanics, the moving parts.”
I ask Pickvance if he feels he’s on a mission to sell piano playing to children. “I don’t think I’m trying to sell them hard on it. I’m not saying everyone should learn the piano now at all or anything like that. What I think I do like to do is illuminate, or ask people to maybe look at it in a different way, certainly if they’ve been put off it. Maybe a different approach would have sparked something different in them. How many grown-ups do you meet who say ‘I wish I’d carried on. I wish I hadn’t stopped.’?”
In fact, Pickvance’s own summary of the show is as “an antidote to boring piano lessons.” The ideal audience reaction? “I’m going to go back to that tonight, I’m going to take the front off it, I’m going to mess around.”
Anatomy of the Piano (for Beginners) runs at the Scottish Storytelling Centre this Fringe. Follow Will on Twitter @willpickvance and find their full Edinburgh listing: http://www.broadwaybaby.com/shows/anatomy-of-the-piano-for-beginners/715380