Wednesday, April 30, 2008
At the current rate, I will put in about half of the 500 practice hours I had set as a goal for this year. I'm going to have to pick it up.
The solution, as many of you know, and as some of you have pointed out, is to practice after the kids have gone to bed. This requires either a digital or a new upright with a good practice pedal. This practice pedal concept is a new one for me, and I would be interested in hearing if it actually works for any of you.
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
On the other hand, since it was, after all, MATH, that meant the answers were there, awaiting your discovery. Your answers were right, or they were wrong. Unlike English, where you could be simultaneously right AND wrong, depending on how you worded your answer, or built your supporting arguments. On one particular Algebra II test, I remember getting a wrong answer. The fact that I remember this single test question, 20+ years removed from it, should give you some idea as to how annoyed I was to have missed it.
We were learning about asymptotes. Theory being, there is a boundary to a particular function, and as you progress towards infinity, you get progressively, microscopically, asymptotically close to the boundary, but you never… quite… get… there. The question was this:
Plot the volume of a marching band as a function of its distance from the listener.
I gave the question too little thought, and drew a straight line, something like this.
The REAL answer, as you might guess, is that the line is not linear, but rather is initially quite steep, then gradually levels out over time. Like this:
I argued with my teacher on this. "Ok," she said, "Next football game, you measure the sound from the band, and if you can show me that it dies down in a linear fashion, as a function of distance, you can have your points back." The truth was on her side, and I cowered before it.
Ok, how is this piano related? I feel like my progress on the pieces I am working on is asymptotic in nature. I experience some quick, early progression, then some continued steady progress as I get closer to some mythical perfection. "Perfection", in this case, being the ability to play the pieces consistently, at tempo, and without error. Then very little progress as I pile on the time (which is, I admit, not enough these days.) Specifically, I am finding myself putting quite a bit of time into Little Brown Jug and Chiapanecas, and I am making the same mistakes, over, and over, and over. This is one of those times that I think "Man, I wish I had a teacher." But I don't. And I won't for some time yet.
So I am considering, for the first time ever, shelving these unfinished pieces, even though I don't have them completely polished... and moving on.
I mentioned on PianoWorld that when I finish Book One, I figure I will spend some time (weeks? a month?) continuing to improve Book One pieces before I go on. There are a number of pieces (Lone Star Waltz and Lavender's Blue come to mind) that I had down pat at one time, but now struggle with when I pull them out of storage for a go. I don't think I can completely solve this, but I hope to improve the situation a little prior to starting Book Two. Maybe when I return to Little Brown Jug and Chiapanecas later, they'll magically be polished?
On the other hand, if this is the start of a trend, if this is how I do on the rest of this book, it's a very bad trend.
Monday, April 28, 2008
So on Friday afternoon, Jillian sat down and went through her little repertoire. Mom (well, Grandma) was dutifully impressed in her Grandmotherly way... which is to say, not the least bit patronising, but genuinely and happily impressed. I tried to busy myself with grilling steaks and whatnot, as I didn't want to hover, and I really didn't want to show her my stuff. But eventually I relented and muddled through a couple of things. I know Cockles and Mussels is pretty much as good as it gets for me, so I played that. Then a couple of the blues pieces. Wish I'd been able to record Got Those Blues for you, because I really did well on that one. Then Little Brown Jug and Chiapanecas, to demonstrate what it sounds like when I don't quite have something mastered. Then back to the steaks.
And from inside the house, I hear someone playing Chiapanecas like they've been doing it their entire life. I go inside, and of course, it's mom. "Holy Cow, she's sight-reading the stuff that is giving me such fits!" Didn't even look at her hands, just stared at the music, and rendered it. She turns to the end of the book, and busts out a near perfect Amazing Grace. "Wow, this is fun, what else do you have?" Well, as you may recall, I have Alfred's Book Two, so I turned to the end of that and challenged her with the variations on Pachelbel's Canon. No problem at all. It was nice to have real piano music in the house, for a change.
She tried to pass it off modestly. "I guess I must have had a lot of piano lessons when I was a kid." But it was truly impressive. What I can't stress enough is that she hasn't touched a piano, as far as I know, in at least 40 years. And judging by the stories I hear of her jet-setting ways in the 1960's, probably much longer than that.
So props to you, mom, for having the mad skillz. Wonder if it skips a generation?
I was unable to coax her into entering the bidding for that Astin-Weight, unfortunately. I guess my offer to store the piano for her, and keep it properly tuned and regulated, wasn't quite as compelling in real life as it sounded in my head. Bidding ended at $107, short (far short, I'd guess) of the reserve price. This story may not be over, though... the more trouble they have in selling a 20 year old, never-been-owned piano, the more likely it is, I'd think, that I can talk them significantly down from their $8,000 asking price. You know, if it comes to that. I still haven't seen it in person, or played it yet, of course... it might sound like a clanging gong for all I know. But it looks nice, is a well-regarded (mostly) manufacturer, and would go well in this crafstman-style house we're building.
Speaking of which, drywall is up and primed, and they are putting the finishing touches on the floors this week. Serious progress.
Friday, April 25, 2008
Mom flies in to see us today. She knows Jillian and I have been learning, but she doesn't know exactly what we've been doing. I am particularly interested in what she thinks of Jillian's progress. I'll let you know.
Little Brown Jug and Chiapanecas are 50/50 for me. That means I can make it through them without errors about half the time. So I will continue to work on them, but I am also moving on to Auld Sang Lyne, which, on first blush, looks like a piece of cake. I hope so, because I could use another wave of progress. I've been working on the same few pieces for quite awhile, it seems.
Last thing... it's warmed up considerably in Chicago these last few days. Remember the cracked soundboard? I had become used to it over the last month or two. But with the change in climate, it is taking on a new flavor, and the change isn't good. It's becoming a real burden to play this thing, and I am wondering how much that has to do with Jillian's recent reticence to play / practice. Of course, with warmer whether brings the option to play outside at a moment's notice, and that probably has something to do with it as well.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
If you want it, you can bid for it on eBay. Bidding started at 99 cents, although they put a reserve on it (duh). I think I'll play, but I'm not willing to pay anywhere near what they probably want for it.
Bidding ends April 27.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
We (her loving and doting parents) sort of decided to laissez-faire the situation... she is the one who decided she needed to practice 30 minutes a day, so we decided to let the 6 year-old police herself on this. We'd just check in periodically to see how that was going. She is very bright and determined and all that, but you can guess how that went. There was very little piano practice (at least for her) over the week. Near the end of the week, my wife and I were beginning to question whether or not she was still interested in piano.
She is. She probably put in a couple hours' worth over the weekend, all of her own accord. And she's was ready for practice yesterday, and got a good report from her teacher. But this still bears watching... and we still will try to straddle the fine line between responsibly directing her practice habits (the risk being that if we are too regimented on this, we'd drive her away from it), and allowing her to learn and develop at her own pace. At this time, we're more prone toward the latter, mainly because we trust her teacher to let us know if we need to step it up. If the teacher is pleased with her progress, so are we.
Monday, April 21, 2008
Casio PX575R 88 key digital piano w/ stand. Bought 5-20-07 from guitar center on sale for 799.99. I have original receipts. Like new. Looking to free up space. Fire sale price. 200 firm.
I just got off the phone with the gentleman. As you might suspect, he tells me that I am not the only interested person. But we agreed that I would come see it this evening. He claims, as every seller seems to, that his piano is pristine, perfect, lightly used, and should basically be considered brand new. If this is anywhere close to the truth, and if someone else doesn't beat me to it, I will buy this thing tonight.
The PX-575R is not a perfect instrument... but for $200, it doesn't have to be. Its main drawbacks (32 note polyphony, no 1/4" output jacks, no MIDI connections) are either not important or completely irrelevant to me.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
The first thought is below, on Jillian's lesson yesterday. Go read that first, I'll wait.
You're back? Ok, next topic. It sure is fun to think about buying our next piano. Hopefully you won't get frustrated watching this play out over the next, oh, 4 months or so. It could be less, but it will likely take that long. We are typically very deliberate when it comes to large purchases like this. The process includes lots of late night talks over bottles of Shiraz, and maybe an overly complex Excel spreadsheet or two. This piano buying process has all of these, and it has barely gotten underway.
The first question (digital or acoustic) still isn't answered. I know which way I lean, but I want Jillian (heck, the whole family) to be part of the conversation. I want to try out instruments with her, and talk about them afterwards. So you'll know this is getting serious when we start visiting places and having these conversations.
In the meantime, I merely think about it, and participate in various pianoworld.com topics. As of today, I feel like the best use of our money would be to buy a midrange digital (think Casio Privia or Yamaha P85), and use it for a couple of years. In the interim, we'll have a good feeling for whether and how serious we are about the piano, and will either upgrade (or not) to a good upright. And of course, we'll still keep the digital... after all, starting next year, we're adding a third piano player (Jason, who is 5) to the budding ensemble, and bench time is already pretty scarce as it is.
Thing is, my dear wife is dead-set AGAINST a digital. I am sort of taken aback by the vehemence of her stance on this. As you know, I am often out on Youtube learning how various pieces go... all my Youtube "teachers" have digitals, and honestly, the sound is uniformly awful. She actually commented yesterday how annoying Little Brown Jug sounded on SolHeart's Channel. And to be honest, she's right... it sounds like the organist in between innings of a minor league baseball game. (Still helpful to me, however... thanks, SolHeart, keep posting your vids!)
Anyway, it remains possible, perhaps even likely, that we'll end up with an acoustic after all, even if it's not the best use of our (perhaps scant) financial resources. Remember, we're building a house, should be in the new place in 3 months. We'll have some money left over after closing, but things like landscaping are going to compete for those funds. So if I walked into a piano store today, and was asked for a budget number, I would have no idea how to respond. Which would make me GREAT fodder. Don't know what you want to spend, eh? Well, have a seat in front of this Bechstein here, you'll love it... (and I probably would).
Anyway, because an acoustic is still a possibility, I carry my Larry Fine supplement around and read it when I am on the train. I have several retailers bookmarked, and visit their websites periodically to see how they are doing. And, for a real treat, I muck around in various pianoworld.com topics, where dealers and various industry types argue amongst themselves. I try to stay out if it, mostly, because:
a) I really don't know what I am talking about, and
b) It can get kind of ugly, and there is enough of that in the world without actually looking for a fight on an Internet forum with people I don't already know.
But it is often very educational. And through those conversations, I have concluded that it is highly likely that, should we elect to buy a new acoustic, we'd end up with a Chinese-made piano. I am particularly impressed with what I am hearing about Hailun, Palatino, and Perzina. So whenever a thread comes up on these brands, I'm interested.
It was in one of these threads (this one, in fact... Hailun Pianos) where someone pointed me to a downtown Chicago retailer PianoForte, who stocks these models:
- Wendl & Lung
At first glance, to a member of the unwashed masses such as yours truly, this seemed like a pretty standard, albeit high-falutin' list of European makes. I've been reading enough of Larry Fine to know that a couple of these makers could sell me a piano for upwards of $200k. So why on Earth would someone suggest I visit this place? Because the last name on that list, Wendl & Lung, is a maker of inexpensive (but apparently well-built, so I'm told) Chinese pianos. One of these things is not like the other...
It's a very intimidating website. But as soon as I get over that, I'll visit them and report back. Discopalace, you feel like stopping over there one day?
BTW, Jillian has already weighed in on what kind of piano she wants. "A big flat piano, like the one at church. " That would be a 6 and a half foot Charles Walter grand.
Jillian's teacher is a tiny woman, probably not as old as she seems (she seems maybe 50-ish), who is painfully shy. She is unable to make eye contact with us when she talks to us, which is basically never. I feel bad when we DO talk to her, because it seems so uncomfortable, but there are times when we must. I am very tall, so I've found it best to be sitting when I talk to her. So when she came out to greet us, I sat down and told her what Jillian had said.
She felt awful for her, and even a little alarmed. She wanted to know which pieces Jillian had been having so much trouble with, since, as best she could recall, she HAD written fingering instructions on everything she wanted Jillian to practice. Turns out the pieces Jillian was so stumped by were things that she hadn't (yet) been assigned. We all agreed that she's doing just fine, and they went into their class.
I'm worried about my little perfectionist daughter, and will be monitoring this closely. This is, above all, supposed to be fun, and I am going to keep reminding her of that. Of course, she also said she wanted to practice 30 minutes a day, so there is a fine balance we'll have to manage here.
Monday, April 14, 2008
Of course, this illusion of progress was only a mirage, playing RH only. But when seeming to make progress on these things, I have a way of neglecting the reality of the situation. Which meant when I returned this past Saturday afternoon, and eventually found my way back to our piano (which took until Sunday), I was mildly disappointed that I couldn't just bust out all (heck, any) of these in their full glory. It turns out that much of the complexity of these pieces lies on the left hand, not the right. While the RH is busy carrying off it's snappy little melody, the LH is doing some uncomfortable and unfamiliar things, like trying new chord transitions in the middle of syncopated RH notes. You know, real piano playing. So I've still got quite some ahead of me working on these.
But my time with the roll-up wasn't totally wasted. I now give myself about a B-minus on Good People, which is a big improvement on how I was doing before. Heck, I can even make it through Little Brown Jug, although it still has ways to before it's presentation worthy. (Not that I have presented anything yet, but if I had to show you something, it wouldn't be either of these...) My progress is fair enough to keep me encouraged. I admit I was starting to have some doubts, and to a certain (albeit lesser) extent, some of those remain.
Which leads me to my dear daughter Jillian. Go figure this... while I was gone, she didn't practice at all. I joked with her about this... "What, you don't want to play the piano unless you can kick me off first?" Ok, so that's not Simpson's-level material, but I expected at least a half-hearted courtesy chuckle. Instead, she actually started to get a little teary-eyed.
"Daddy, I am never going to be able to play those things in my new book. They're hard! They don't have any numbers, and my teacher didn't write any numbers on them! I don't know how to play any of those songs!" She was really upset.
I did my best, saying that the things she played in her first book only sounded good when she had practiced them sufficiently. No luck. She called me out on this, saying that for the most part, she was able to play everything in that book pretty much right away. And, come to think of it, she's right about that. Eventually, we agreed that the problem was practice time. Now that she's in the Red Book (she uses the Schaum series, for those of you just joining us), everything is harder than before, and it's simply going to require some more practice time. I asked her if she felt like 10 minutes a day was enough (wink wink, yeah right)... "No, probably an hour." (Whoa... didn't expect that.) We settled on 30 minutes a day, and if she didn't notice a difference in a couple of weeks, we'd get some more advice from her teacher.
So I'll take any advice you piano parents / teachers might have for me... do you assign a particular time of the day as piano practice time, or do just leave it up to them to get their time in, and ask them about it near the end of the day? I could see benefits and drawbacks to both. She has a lesson today, and hasn't really made any progress in the week since her last lesson. It's too late to make much improvement before this afternoon, but hopefully next week, her practice time will allow her to experience some success.
Thing is, I went through this myself. I flew through her Green Book in about two weeks, and felt ready to conquer the world with my mad piano skillz. Even the first few pages in Alfred's were no challenge at all. So I took it pretty hard when it took me a week or so to complete seemingly easy pieces like Beautiful Brown Eyes, and later, Lavender's Blue. I was unprepared for the piano to push back on me. Jillian herself recalled how long it took me to be able to play Blow the Man Down... she has seen that some of this isn't coming easily for me.
Upshot... not that I needed any more motivation to get good at this, but if I did, I now have it: my daughter is watching me struggle, and watching me succeed. I need to be a good model here.
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
The shop is about 15 miles south of where I live in suburban Chicago. The listing information is at this site:
Apparently, the shop isn't a pure retailer, per se, but rather a tech (or group of techs) that has some pianos. Larry Fine's book suggests that techs could be a quality source of underpriced, well-maintained instruments. In the case of this particular piano, it's a 19 year old piano that has never been owned. (Huh?) Their asking price is $8k, which I'd guess is about $2500 too much for this particular instrument, and probably twice (at least) what we'll be able to afford when we replace our piano this summer. But still, wow. And from what Larry Fine says about Astin-Weight, it's probably a quality instrument.
I'm surprised at myself. I thought I liked ebony satin finishes. But the new house is in a craftsman style, and this would fit right in.
All that said, I still think we're going to end up with a digital first, even though my wife has said she'd rather we go straight to another acoustic. I just don't think I will like our choices in the $3,000 range. For the money, I would rather pay $1000 on a digital, play on it exclusively for a year or three, and spend the rest on, oh, I don't know, grass seed. But man, if we could score this, or something like it...
Monday, April 7, 2008
Or so that’s my plan. In truth, I am at a
convention of computer nerds important customer event, which means little time for anything related to piano playing. Maybe I can convince the crowd to go to a piano bar (any recommendations?), but that’s about all.
But just in case, I did, after all, bring my daughter's little roll up keyboard. And I have found it is slightly better than completely useless. Which is just another of saying it has some usefulness... I can't use it to practice the pieces I am working on. It has, after all, only 31 keys, and what I am working on these days (Good People, which is more and more starting to sound like a theme song for a 1970's sitcom) uses quite a bit of keyboard real estate. However, since I am trying to incorporate Chuan Chang's piano practice theories, that means the first step in learning a new piece is to get it down HS. So I am going through my Alfred's book (of course I brought that, you're not surprised, are you?) and working on the RH parts of the entire rest of the book. And some of them seem not so bad. Even from this little $10 toy, I can generate recognizable sounds.
It will be interesting to see to what extent this turns out to be helpful on down the line.
Last thing, and maybe I will post an entry on it later this week: Jillian starts her second round of piano lessons today, in about 45 minutes, in fact. She's fired up (I hear).
(And pardon me while I try out a sans serif font... might keep it, who knows?)
Thursday, April 3, 2008
I stewed on these statements for a few days. Eventually, I asked him to explain himself. I told him, in my best Inigo Montoya voice, "You keep using that word... I do not think it means what you think it means." I told him I felt like the word he was looking for was "skill", which is how well (or poorly) someone does something. Technique, on the other hand, is the word for how somebody does something.
How well versus how. Subtle difference.
The way I see it, it is possible that someone does something very skillfully because they have excellent technique. In volleyball, perhaps they have excellent body and arm position for forearm passes, or their armswing reaches maximum height without unnecessary movements, or they have excellent blocking footwork. Conversely, they could be gifted athletically or have lots of experience, and they are highly skilled despite poor technique. (I can think of some golfers this might apply to.)
He had a ready explanation for this... his Spanish word for skill is something along the lines of Técnico. This also didn't sound right, as I knew this word to be the Portuguese word for "Coach" or Technician... I had always used habilidad for skill, but hey, he's the native speaker, so who am I to quibble? Anyway, we had a laugh and moved on with our lives.
Now take five minutes out of your life to watch this clip of Evgeny Kissin. It will be totally worth it, I promise. He plays a Liszt Etude that I hope to play some day myself, something called La Campanella. (Italian and, I reckon, Spanish for "The Little Bell"? All this free language information today, you didn't anticipate that today's entry had so much bloggy goodness, did you?) Kissin thoroughly dominates this piece. By the end, the poor guy is sweating profusely. I have to run a mile to look like that. Wonder was his heart rate was at the end of this?
Anyway, the comments on this clip are very interesting to me. I haven't read them all (there are, at this moment, over 1,300), but many of them mention how good his technique is. I have no idea what these people are talking about. I see Kissin sitting up straight, but every musician I have ever known sits up straight, especially when playing music. My buddy discopalace (hi, discopalace, welcome...) (you ought to see his beautiful piano!) points out that his wrists are very quiet while his hands and fingers are creating all sorts of commotion. I concede this point, but is this technique? All I see... hands and fingers flying in a blur, and yet hitting all the right notes. This, to me, is not technique, it is otherworldly talent combined with lots and lots of practice.
My Alfred book purports to teach me "lessons, theory and technic"... (apparently, it's "technic" when you are talking piano). It isn't entirely clear to me which is which. And this is a big deal, because I understand that the biggest risk in my going without a teacher, especially in the early going, is that I will acquire poor technique (er, technic), which will require significant effort to unlearn.
I will have a teacher some day, perhaps late summer or early fall. What should I be doing in terms of "technic" that will minimize the damage here early on? Discuss.
And wow, isn't that performance something?
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
Last night, I left the piano in anger. First time for that.