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Seeing The Roll-Up Piano In A New Light

July 29, 2008

I always thought roll-up pianos were a bit of a joke. I'd see pictures of them in those in-flight catalogues on domestic airplanes and wonder if anyone bought them, or if the people who bought them would also be likely to buy a set of foldaway, rubber golf clubs.

With its limp-looking plastic keyboard and (I supposed) tinny sound, I couldn't imagine anyone, even a child, finding any practical use for a roll-up piano, besides, perhaps, using it to wrap around a bottle of white wine to keep it cool for a picnic.

Recently, though, I changed my mind about the object. Though I'm still not willing to go as far as to call it a musical instrument, I now see that it might be a very useful gadget to have around after all -- especially for singers. My change of heart came a few weeks ago when I had the pleasure of interviewing American countertenor David Daniels for an article I was working on for the LA Times about memorizing music. I was asking Daniels about his techniques for learning singing roles and was startled to hear that Daniels works not at a polished grand piano when he's in learning mode, but with none other than a roll-up keyboard.

"I do my best work with my little keyboard -- my roll-up piano -- sitting outside on my terrace in the outdoor air with a diet coke and a pencil and my score," Daniels told me. "I look at the score, and look at the score again, and then walk around and sing the music from memory. I can't stand being in the house in front of a piano. It's too distracting. The roll-up keyboard is great for briefcases. It even plays chords."

As someone who loves being mobile (I own one of the lightest laptops there is on the market today because I like to be able to work anywhere and not feel tied-down to an office) Daniels description of his learning process appeals to me greatly. The roll-up piano allows him to do his work wherever he wants. He sticks it in his suitcase whenever he goes away.

Of course, the roll-up keyboard is really only of use to singers and maybe some composers. I don't suppose many other serious musicians, least of all pianists, would get much out of owning one.

By the end of my conversation with Daniels, I had decided to hock my clunky 40-pound Casio keyboard and buy one of these little roll-up numbers. "Where did you buy your roll-up?" I asked the countertenor before we signed off. "From Restoration Hardware," Daniels said. "In fact, I bought three of them just in case one goes kaput."

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