All the Bells and Whistles

UCSD’s Toy Piano Festival Celebrates Its 20th Year

by Scott PaulsonSeptember, 2020

Scott Paulson, one of our monthly columnists, invites San Diego Troubadour readers to the 20th Annual Toy Piano Festival, which is being held as a Facebook Live virtual event this year. Scott is the founder and director of this popular local festival, hosted on his home turf at the UC San Diego Library, where he is the events and exhibits coordinator.

Scott Paulson (far left) and friends at the Toy Piano Festival.

A collection of toy pianos.

John Cage’s birthday.

Paulson plays the toy piano at one of the festivals.

Sue Palmer at the Toy Piano Festival.

Janice Kelsh, founder of the Miniature Piano Enthusiast Club in Chicago.

Registration is now open for the Festival, a free virtual event for listeners of all ages. Hear new works for toy piano at noon on September 30th! I will be joined by my toy piano colleagues, including Sue Palmer, Andrea Wingen, Kenneth Herman, Barbara Scheidker, Samara Rice, Christian Hertzog, Peter Flynn, Alex Segal, Gail Gipson, Kiera Sullivan, Linda Kernohan, Philippe Robles-Fradet, and Daria Binkowski. Many of the premieres at this year’s festival will take a mere 20 measures or 50 seconds, as a tribute to the 20th anniversary of the Festival and the upcoming 50th anniversary of UCSD’s Geisel Library building. All of us wish we were gathering in person in the Seuss Room, but we’ll be happy to see you via Facebook Live this year!

I usually host the festival on September 5, which is composer John Cage’s birthday, because he was the first to write a serious piece for toy piano. The UC San Diego Library and its very supportive colleagues at downtown San Diego’s central library  will send out a birthday greeting to the late great John Cage on that very birth date as a reminder to register for the upcoming Facebook Live version of the festival.

UCSD’s history with toy pianos dates back to 1966 when composer Robert Erickson, a founder of the university’s Music Department, wrote a piece for toy pianos and bells that premiered on California’s PBS television stations. As I mentioned, the first composer to write a “serious” work for toy piano was John Cage, who visited the UC San Diego campus on several occasions, including a two-week stay as a Regents Lecturer in the 1980s. I was very lucky to be on campus for Cage’s lectures, as was my colleague Peter Flynn, and we’ll both perform in a Cage tribute piece at this year’s festival.

Two bonus guests have just been confirmed: Janice Kelsh, founder of the Miniature Piano Enthusiast Club, will deliver special greetings, and longtime festival supporter Judy Schulman will show us her late grandmother’s toy piano, relaying stories about its significance.

What was the inspiration for the annual festival?
In 1999, a missing service bell at a Geisel Library Help Desk spawned a long streak of toy piano activity on the UCSD campus. I hurriedly replaced the missing service bell with a playful tiny keyboard and a sign that read: “Please play on toy piano for service.” And play they did! This surge of musical activity from visitors was the inspiration to host our Annual Toy Piano Festival.

In May 2001, the Library of Congress issued a subject heading and call number for toy piano scores because of the activities at Geisel Library. Scores can be viewed under the call number M 175 T69. This was an important opportunity, because before there was a distinct call number, all of our toy piano scores were mixed with and shelved with regular piano scores in library stacks, making it impossible for a quick “grab and go” for someone like me at Festival time. Note: The Library of Congress at first declined our request. They required that we submit a definition of “toy piano” to them to warrant the distinction. We submitted a definition but my side of this story is that I also threatened to fly out and perform live to prove a point. They quickly said yes to avoid a playful confrontation.

Currently, the Toy Piano Collection at Geisel Library consists of actual instruments, commissioned scores, and extant literature and recordings. Most of the commissioned scores in the collection are composed by UC San Diego alumni.

Hear new works for toy piano on the last day of September at noon!

Free! But please register by clicking here:


Mrs. W.E. Walsh arrives in San Diego with an 1873 Schoenhut Toy Piano among her possessions.

Opera star Leontyne Price receives a toy piano from her parents and later relays this as the start of her Diva-dom: “I was center stage! And I caught the disease then.”

Jaymar Specialty, Inc. acquires the Schoenhut Toy Piano company.

John Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano is composed, the first “serious” piece for toy piano.

Schroeder makes his first appearance at the toy piano in Charles Schultz’ Peanuts comic strip.

John Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano receives its concert premiere at the New York Living Theatre.

Robert Erickson, a founding faculty member of UC San Diego’s Department of Music, composes his Piece for Bells and Toy Piano.

First appearance of a toy piano in a Broadway pit orchestra: in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Schroeder plays a prop piano on stage, but a toy piano in the pit provides the sound!

Jeanne Kirstein releases a recording of John Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano on Columbia Records.

Wendy Mae Chambers plays toy piano in George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children.

First appearance of a toy piano on a Broadway stage: In Act II of the Marvin Hamlisch musical, They’re Playing Our Song, a small red toy piano is delivered on stage as a get-well gift in the hospital scene.

Jaymar and Schoenhut split from Rochester Die Cutting, and Frank Trinca buys Jaymar and Schoenhut.

Janice Kelsh establishes the Miniature Piano Enthusiast Club in Chicago.

German composer/performer Bernd Wiesemann releases the CD Neue Musik fur Kinderklavier.

Frank Trinca, of Rochester, New York, purchases the Schoenhut company.

Janice Kelsh moves the Miniature Piano Enthusiast Club to Hagerstown, Maryland, her hometown.

Renee Trinca becomes president of the Schoenhut Toy Piano company, Inc.

Pianist Margaret Leng Tan releases her CD, The Art of the Toy Piano.

Len and Renée Trinca move the Schoenhut Toy Piano factory from Rochester to St. Augustine, Florida, where they live.

First Annual Toy Piano Festival, founded by Scott Paulson, premiers at the UC San Diego Library.

The Library of Congress issues a special call number (M 175 .T69) and subject heading for toy piano scores (granted at the request of the Toy Piano Collection at Geisel Library!)


Popular Articles

Exit mobile version