Q: What’s the learning curve like for the Thumbdrop Keyboard?
A: It’s not instantaneous but not overwhelming either. You’re really just adding new choices to the way you already play, and then only for the left hand thumb. An accomplished pianist should be able integrate the Thumbdrop up to a basic fluency in 2 or 3 weeks. For students, expect a little longer. But the extra keyboard does add at new level of complexity to the visual and tactile field of the performer. Now there’s not one but two completely separate strike locations for the certain notes. It takes a little time and practice to get accustomed to feel of where the new pitch locations fall. And then there’s the challenge of integrating new musical content. But it’s nothing like a Janko keyboard, for example, where you have to relearn your entire vocabulary of chords and scales.
We’re also putting out a booklet of piano music arranged for 10ths to help get things started. Its called 10th Avenue. It contains short arrangements of America the Beautiful, Amazing Grace, some original stride. Plus, there will be some exercises and tips for learning to use the Thumbdrop Keyboard. Also, look for some tutorial videos posted on our website.
Q: Why only 14 keys? And why in the upper bass?
A: That’s the traditional range for left hand 10ths in jazz and gospel and the similar styles. Too low into the bass register and the sound of the 10th gets murky, too high into the treble and you’re encroaching on right hand territory. We may look at expanding from 14 to 16 keys. We’ll see.
Q: Will we see the Thumbdrop adapted for both hands?
A: It’s already in development. Stylistically, the left hand 10ths are probably more important but you do sometimes see 10ths in the right hand with some jazzers – even occasionally, in classical. Solid 10th and beyond in both hands would be the ultimate package. As it stands, a two-handed Thumbdrop will have to wait for a later product phase. Hopefully. the piano community will get behind us with the opening phase and we can develop from there. But yeah, I look forward to the day when cats are pounding out two-fisted piano up to solid 12ths in both hands.
Q: You’ve stated your invention is best for unaccompanied solo settings.
A: Right. In the modern jazz ensemble setting, for example, left hand harmony tends to thin out anyway to leave room for the bass player. But what self-respecting jazz or blues artist doesn’t want to max out their resources for spotlight solos?
Q: Let’s say I can reach a solid 10th already. Why should I bother with the Thumbdrop Keyboard?
A: Well, I’d say if you can already play a relaxed 12th the Thumbdrop may not be for you.
Q: And who would that be?
A: Exactly. Most larger-handed players are still going to struggle with highly mobile 11ths, let alone 12ths. I’ve already demonstrated some interesting new usages like barrelhouse blues that includes 11ths and 12ths in the 10th Avenue Blues Expansion video and I believe better musicians than I will discover other uses. I’m pretty optimistic these giant reaches will prove to be great creative resources.
But going back to the 10th – because it’s still the holy grail hand span. First of all, I would have to ask what is the quality of your 10th now? Can you reach it comfortably from over the top or do you have to squeeze it out by undercutting from the front of the keyboard? Can you hit your 10ths with power and mobility? I mean hard and fast like octaves, because you’re sure going to be able to do that with the Thumbdrop.
I’m a good example of that myself. I can squeeze out my 10ths on a regular keyboard but they’re pretty marginal and crimped. But on the Thumbdrop I’m hitting them as fast and hard as octaves. Even my new 12th is easier than my old 10th. Also, not all 10ths are made the same. For example, the D flat major 10th is way wider than the F minor 10th. Meanwhile, the D flat 10th is right in the sweet spot for the sound of 10ths, the perfect blend of weight and resonance, yet it’s the widest and hardest 10th of all. So, I also ask how is your D flat major 10th? I ran into the D flat 10th while working on some Art Tatum transcriptions when I was much younger. I could squeeze out most of the other 10ths but it really bummed me that I couldn’t reach the D flat 10th. Actually, looking back it was one of those moments that help set me on the path to exploring alternative keyboard design.
Q: You’ve also identified uses for the 11th.
A: Yeah, this one is for the theory geeks, really fundamental. The 10th already gives you the open voicing of the root and 1st inversions of the triad. But now the solid 11th gives you the open voicing for the 2nd inversion of the triad! So you have all three. This allows unbroken scalar counterpoint with left handed open voicings which will kinda be a brand new thing for piano. For example, you can strike a solid 10th followed by a solid 11th for a descending bass line with the 7th in the bass. There’s other idioms, too. My arrangements of America the Beautiful and Blackbird are full of solid 11ths mixed in with seamlessly with the 10ths.
Q: What if I don’t feel comfortable doing the installation setup myself?
A: Most handy people will be able to do the setup themselves. You won’t even need separate tools other than the little gizmo guide that comes included plus maybe a screwdriver. But if you’re still uncertain, look to your piano tuner. We will have internet instruction videos aimed specifically at piano tuners and technicians along with the DIY vids for users. For the pro tuner it will an easy set-up and shouldn’t take them much time at all. Set-up shouldn’t be more than a modest one-time charge on your bill. After that, you can switch them in and out yourself.
Q: How do you think piano tuners will react to the Thumbdrop Keyboard?
A: I think some tuners will embrace it and some will hang back just like for players. In the end, it means more business for tuners and technicians. But it’s quite possible some traditionalist tuners may react negatively to the idea of changing the keyboard in any way. Ultimately, we hope this phase will pass as the overwhelming utility of the CutlerKeys Thumbdrop Keyboard becomes more widely understood.
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