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The Piano Puzzler turns 10: A note from Fred

Composer Bruce Adolphe joins PT host Fred Child on the air every week with a Piano Puzzler. Bruce re-writes a familiar tune in the style of a classical composer. Fred gets one of our listeners on the phone and together they to try to guess the tune, and the composer Bruce is imitating. The Piano Puzzler turns 10 years old this month.

Check out our top Piano Puzzler picks from year's past.

Also, read Bruce's reflection on the last 10 years of the Puzzler.

A note from Fred

April 17, 2002. At the very beginning of that day's broadcast of Performance Today, I intoned these fateful words: "Today, we'll introduce a new weekly feature. 'Keyboard Conundrums' with compositional quizmaster Bruce Adolphe testing the musical acumen of one of our listeners. Play along at home, and feel free to shout out the answers!"

Bruce had popped in to the PT studios for an entirely different interview, but our show’s editor at the time, Anya Grundmann, spotted some music poking out of his shoulder bag. Her innocent "what's that?" led to that one and only "Keyboard Conundrum." We thought we might play with a few alliterative titles, and the next week we called it the "Piano Puzzler."

That was April 24, 2002.

Anya and I saw this as a nice 6-week feature on PT. It was a smart and (heaven forbid) fun way of talking about the remarkably distinct "voices" of the great composers. And a nice once-a-week change in the texture of the show: some off-the-cuff banter, a few of Bruce’s inevitable puns, a little (heaven forbid) humor and even spontaneity in a daily classical music broadcast. As we neared the end of that initial batch, Bruce opined that he might be able to come up with another half dozen. Did I mention that that was in 2002?

Since then, Bruce has written about 400 Keyboard Conund..., pardon me, Piano Puzzlers. Each is a tasty bite-size musical morsel, anywhere from 45 seconds to about 3 minutes, but...ponder for a moment: taken together, the complete collection of Piano Puzzlers is now about 13 hours worth of insightful, delightfully clever, cunningly educational, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny musical wizardry. In terms of sheer length, Bruce’s Puzzlers rival Wagner’s Ring Cycle. And when was the last time Wotan made you shout "How Much is That Doggie in the Window!"?

Piano Puzzlers are part of Performance Today every Wednesday, but they've taken on a life of their own beyond our broadcasts. Bruce has done Piano Puzzlers on stage at music festivals across the country. Bruce and I were invited to do Puzzlers for an august international audience of composers, musicians, pundits and arts administrators at a palace in Salzburg, Austria. (And yes, the 'composer' for the first one we chose was the hometown hero: Mozart.) After hearing and falling in love with Piano Puzzlers, the brass section of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra asked Bruce to write a "brass puzzler." (Bruce's 'Santa and Isolde' weaves together 12 opera highlights and 11 popular winter holiday tunes in 8 minutes.)

In our first ten years of Puzzlers, our guests have included Susan Stamberg, Robert Siegel, Nina Totenberg, Peter Sagal… and hundreds of listeners from all across the country. Some professional musicians, quite a few amateur players, and every single caller an intelligent, curious, and brave soul. My favorite listener comment so far: "because of your puzzlers, I have been listening with more attention that ever before. I actually 'Whoop' when, after turning on the radio in the middle of a piece, I correctly guess a composer! This game is really changing my mental involvement with classical music. Who'd a' thunk?"

Thanks to Bruce Adolphe, we've all learned a thing or two about listening, and about musical thunking.

Enjoy playing along at home, and feel free to shout out the answers!

Fred Child, Host of APM's Performance Today