Piano substitute for a traveller?
August 25, 2012 2:49 PM   Subscribe

What portable, acoustic instrument is easiest for a keyboard player to pick up?

I have played the piano since ever, but never really got any good with anything else. I would love to be able to take an instrument travelling but I am too old to pick up significant new muscle memory (read: really very lazy.)

So I'm looking for something that fits these criteria

1. Portable (let's say of hand luggage dimensions)
2. Entirely human powered
3. Capable of producing an actual tune
4. Some decent selection of notes (see 3.) can be produced with a single hand, no feet, breath, forearms, elbows, requirement for other hand to be in motion in a particular way, etc.

Being able to produce more notes or some kind of a drone using up to 2 hands would be nice. I guess guitar-like instruments kind of fit these criteria but I can only play guitar if I ignore 5 of the strings, which leaves a fairly unsatisfying instrument.

So far I have... dulcimer? glockenspiel?
posted by doiheartwentyone to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:53 PM on August 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

(It violates your "breath" proscription, but otherwise...)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:53 PM on August 25, 2012

Kalimba is my favorite. Mine came tuned to a C major scale spanning two octaves and a third, however with a teensy bit of ingenuity, I was able to squeeze in a couple accidentals at the expense of the third.
posted by Ardiril at 3:04 PM on August 25, 2012

Melodica was my first thought too. Maybe thumb piano, or some kind of tiny accordion? (I am not a musician.)
posted by box at 3:04 PM on August 25, 2012

posted by supercres at 3:13 PM on August 25, 2012

The polygonal spinet/virginal (second pic here, for example) in a suitable transporting box would perhaps fit your bill. Random pic of such a box here.

I have traveled in trains, trams, buses and the Amsterdam Metro with mine, in a black box on wheels. I have seen a dude in San Gimignano playing street music on a similar instrument. I am hearing that a retired harpsichord maker has one on his sailboat.

Granted, they can sound utterly poor, but sometimes, they're just great. Mine is the dearest of all my instruments to me (self-link, obviously).

And they amuse the public: fellow travelers did like it a lot, especially if it should sit in such a black box (no amount of colorful "I love Classical Music" - stickers wipes away that slight baby-dracula-on-the-road impression: "hey, have you taken your grandma on a ride?"
In a little church in Sweden where they also do cremations in a separate building close by, my ex-wife once was just about to open the box, when her fellow performer of the time, a middle-aged soprano with a lot of discipline and strictness, came around a corner, saw the dog-coffin-sized box on the ground, and treated those present to a piercing shriek and a prolonged fit of uncontrollable giggles.
posted by Namlit at 3:18 PM on August 25, 2012

I was going to suggest autoharp as well. You can strum for chords or pick for melody or, if you get really good, strum and pick. (Selected for the harp skills, not his voice)
posted by fiercekitten at 3:26 PM on August 25, 2012

I'm not sure about the autoharp, it seems geared to play chords so if you want a note do you have to figure out two chords that share only that note and push both buttons?

The spinets look fun but they seem too big for me (standard hand luggage dimensions are 56cm x 45cm x 25cm - 22in x 17.7in x 9.8in) unless they make specially tiny ones.

I will need to investigate the kalimba/mbira/thumb piano family. My only experience of those is a toy one from a friend.
posted by doiheartwentyone at 3:27 PM on August 25, 2012

Hurdy gurdy? You do have to turn a crank with your other hand, though.
posted by mollymayhem at 3:27 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would think that an accordion would suit your needs rather perfectly. I personally love them.
posted by item at 3:45 PM on August 25, 2012

Oh. Missed the details in your number 4. Maybe not so much on the accordion. In that case, I second the suggestion of the melodica.
posted by item at 3:47 PM on August 25, 2012

Silly but semi-serious suggestion: Toy Piano.

Or violating #2, a small battery powered keyboard + rechargeable batteries.
posted by fings at 3:59 PM on August 25, 2012

Mbira? Harmonium / dulcetina?
posted by jet_silver at 4:19 PM on August 25, 2012

Just came in to second your own suggestion of a glockenspiel, or like mallet instrument.

I think you could either create (though that violates your laziness dictum), or purchase something like like this backyard xylophone. I was in a band with someone who had made something like this, and it was pretty cool.
posted by baniak at 5:03 PM on August 25, 2012

The Hammer Dulcimer has one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard.

It's pretty much a manual piano, where you operate the hammers directly instead of via keys.

You can find them in smaller sizes if you want a travel version.
posted by iurodivii at 5:40 PM on August 25, 2012

Ukulele is easier than guitar (and quite portable).
posted by spbmp at 6:24 PM on August 25, 2012

The zither family looks huge.

And there is also the hang

But I think I will give the melodica a go. Thanks all!
posted by doiheartwentyone at 1:11 AM on August 26, 2012

Yes, accordion! It's surprisingly easy for a pianist to pick up, especially if you have some background in music theory or jazz (for the left-hand chords). Melodica is fun, but you can do much more at one time on an accordion, AND you can sing too if that's your thing.
posted by zadermatermorts at 8:58 AM on August 26, 2012

posted by fings at 2:46 PM on November 9, 2012

Searchers, I ended up with a duet concertina with which I am super happy.

I'd mostly discarded the accordion/concertina family because I tried one once and couldn't get my head round the way the same button could produce two notes depending on whether you were pushing or pulling. But it turns out that of the three types of concertina ("Anglo", "English" (!) and "duet"), only the "Anglo" have that property, and duet concertinas are even more piano-like because they have low notes on the left hand and high notes on the right hand.

Oddly, although far fewer duet concertinas were made than the other types, they tend to be a bit cheaper.
posted by doiheartwentyone at 8:57 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

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