The Piano Puzzlers Story - By Bruce Adolphe
It was a dark and stormy afternoon, way back in my teenage years, with friends huddled around the piano, when I first discovered that I could get laughs by improvising in the styles of such musical giants as Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, and Stravinsky. This party trick needed a sophisticated audience, and my friends, destined for careers in music, got all the jokes.
A knack for noodling in a variety of styles on the piano keys is a typical talent of composers. Growing up, I was inspired by master noodlers like Victor Borge and Leonard Bernstein. Later on, when I became a teacher, I discovered that humorous improvs could help make a musical point clear to a group of restless theory students. Playing one tune in several styles is a great way to teach harmony as well as other aspects of composing, and students can learn a great deal by trying their hand(s) at it themselves. However, it was not in the classroom, but in the pre-concert lecture setting that the puzzlers started to come into their own, providing a way to communicate compositional ideas to a general audience without bogging down in technical terms.
My lectures at The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which began in 1992, eventually became saturated with familiar tunes recomposed in the styles of great composers, and this whimsical approach to scholarship caught the attention of NPR producer Anya Grundmann. Anya and NPR commentator Fred Child cooked up the idea of the call-in game show, with a style inspired by both Car Talk and Will Short’s radio puzzles. After years on NPR, Performance Today moved from Washington, D.C., to St. Paul, MN, to be part of American Public Media.
In order to make the show both fun and musically compelling, I realized that it was necessary to go beyond improvisation to meticulous composing. After all, if I am going to play the piece two or three times for the contestant and the listening audience, it really should be exactly the same each time, to be fair. Some of the Puzzlers use a composer’s vocabulary without reference to a specific composition, others refer to a famous piece, and then there are Puzzlers that fall into a category that I call “musical mergers”. They are a kind of quodlibet (look it up!). These merge a folk or pop tune with a work actually written by a famous composer. For example, the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations is merged with As I Walked Out on the Streets of Laredo, and London Bridge is Falling Down is merged with Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor. There are many of these sorts of Puzzlers, and I know that the serious piano mavens out there will have a blast identifying them.