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Edinburgh Fringe 2015

Anatomy of the Piano (for Beginners)

Will Pickvance

Genre: Music

Venue: Summerhall


Low Down

Will Pickvance has adapted the grown up version of his hit show, Anatomy of the Piano, for the younger generation. And his captivating style of storytelling enables him to hold an audience ranging in age from 2 to, well, quite a bit older, in the palm of his hand. What better way to introduce the next generation to the joys of Bach, Beethoven and Fats Waller than by exploring how the piano came into being? For example, did you know that the piano started life with the cavemen? Neither did I. Read on.


Will Pickvance is on a journey, he tells us, as we settle into the atmospheric Victorian surroundings of Summerhall. Quite where he’s going to or where he’s come from is a little unclear, but he’s ended up here almost by accident. Desperate to be an astronaut in his formative years, he implored Santa to leave a spaceship on the top of his house one year. His parents thought otherwise, however, and popped a piano by the Christmas tree. Thus began a long and, so far, fruitful relationship for someone who is now an extremely successful writer, composer and musician.

In what is part lecture, part musical, Pickvance makes his instrument of choice come alive as we embark on a fantasy journey into the piano’s ancestry and anatomy, from its beginnings in a cave, to its underwater years through to its position today as one of the most versatile instruments around.

Pickvance’s fertile imagination, his eye for the surreal and his sense of the absurd connects him immediately with his audience who sat, spellbound, mouths agog, young and old alike throughout this virtuoso performance. True, talking about Santa will always grab youngsters’ attention. But he was clever enough to build on that with a series of analogies that make the piano seem like a human body, capable of evolving through time. And the child in Pickvance emerges with his clever use of graphics, visuals and an enchanting cartoon during which he explored the subtleties of Bach and Beethoven with such eloquence that, as he finished this part of the recital, you could hear a pin drop. Mesmeric doesn’t adequately describe it.

With his focus always on his young audience, Pickvance’s engaging questions were never short of answers. And, when you’ve captured kids’ attention, their inhibitions dissolve and their imaginations run riot, so the fact that he ended up with more helpful suggestions than he could deal with is a tribute to his skill as a communicator.

Careful to incorporate enough subtle humour in his script for the older musicians amongst us, we had laughter spreading around the auditorium like ripples on a pond.   I’m still trying to work out just why it was so funny, but perhaps it was just the combination of the words and their delivery, plus the fact that Pickvance just looks believable even though he’s mixing a lot of fiction with occasional facts. I suspect he’s that gifted with words and silliness that he could set the telephone directory to music and get a laugh from it.

His reverence for his instrument is genuine and his playing is simply sublime – he wouldn’t look out of place in any concert hall. Yet he’s also a consummate improviser, twisting the classics from Bach and Beethoven as well as demonstrating just how much great jazz pianists such as Fats Waller drew on their classical forebears.

Pickvance may not have embarked on the space odyssey of his boyhood dreams, but, in the piano, he’s discovered something that can take him wherever he now wants to go. And I hope he gets there as he’s a rare talent – whimsical, scatty, absurdist and a damn good musician to boot. Highly recommended viewing for young and old alike.