Friday, February 29, 2008

One theory on all the waltzes...

This occurred to me on the way home from work. I was thinking about Jillian's observation, about how the LH part is so boring... maybe that's, if you'll pardon the expression, a feature, rather than a bug. That is, the Alfred's authors are smart people, who know MUCH more about music than I do. (We're just going to start calling the Alfred's Authors "Alfred", it's just easier that way.) So Alfred decided (see?) to give one hand some boring work to do, while the other hand has to do fancy things like play 8th notes. This was, it lets us rookies feel like are playing actual hands-separate music. And, I reckon, we are, albeit very simple music.

Thoughts on this?

"All it does is go 'Oom pah pah Oom pah pah...'"

The problem with our piano I alluded to last time is that there is a new vibration in the middle / lower registers, something I haven't felt before. I thought I was the only one who noticed it, until Jillian was talking about it, and actually imitated it. I felt very much vindicated by this, and so now we are really are going to have someone come out and take a look at it. If it will cost more to fix the piano than it costs to buy, say, a Casio PX-200 or a reasonably used / priced upright, then we may, after all, bid adieu to our big, clumsy, lovable piano when (or even before) we move.

Anyway, I have been light in reporting my progress (or, lately, lack thereof) in Alfred's. I went through the first 60 or so pages very quickly, taking no more than a couple of days on any piece until I had some trouble negotiating the G and D7 chord transitions. Given these troubles, it took me maybe a week to go through the Harp Song / Beautiful Brown Eyes / Alpine Melody pieces. Pretty much everything since then has taken at least three or four days, and the time period is getting longer the more I progress.

I have spent all week on the Lone Star Waltz. One evening, after fighting with this thing for four days already, I noticed that the second round (after the DC al Fine) is played with both hands one octave higher. Somehow, this made the transition infinitely easier, and I am now comfortable enough to progress to the next piece. Not so comfortable that I am ready to put Lone Star Waltz to bed, mind you, but comfortable enough to try working on something else.

After a week of Lone Star Waltz, what awaited me? What did my success buy me the right to attempt?


Jillian commented, while I was in the early (and necessarily ugly) stages of learning this piece. "Wow, daddy, the left hand part looks pretty easy. And pretty boring. All it does is go 'Oom pah pah Oom pah pah...' is all piano music like that?" I tried to explain it as a matter of 3/4 time (an AWFUL explanation, in retrospect, remind me to undo that one, she deserves better). But you know, if all you had to work with was Alfred's Book One, you might think that, yes indeed, all piano music goes "Oom pah pah oom pah pah" with the one hand or another. By my unscientific count, there have been... well, let's count the number of "Oom pah pah" songs pieces:

  • Page 42 - What Can I Share? This one has the added bonus of asking the right hand to join in the fun. I did like this piece, FWIW.
  • Page 49 - Waltzing Chords Again with the right hand. The left hand is just doing some chords, which, I guess, is actually even less exciting. Alfred is just lulling the left hand into complacency here.
  • Page 65 - Beautiful Brown Eyes Man, did I have trouble with this one. And it seemed so simple on its face.
  • Page 69 - Alpine Melody Just because the right hand is going the work doesn't mean it's not an "Oom pah pah" piece:
  • Page 71 - This one isn't even labeled.
  • Page 73 - Waltz Time They should have just named this one "Yes, another one of THOSE".
  • Page 90 - Lone Star Waltz
  • Page 94 - Café Vienna
I'm afraid to look ahead, out of fear that more await me. So that's 8 waltzes in my first month of learning the piano. No wonder Jillian thinks all piano music sounds like that.

Any theories as to why they do this? I'll let you know if any occur to me.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

"We'd call something like yours a Landfill Piano"

So the phone conversation between me and the tech at the tech went like this:

Me: Can you tell us a little about our piano? We might want to have y'all come out and service it or something. And if you could tell us what it might be worth, that help, too.

Tech: I can give you kind of a ballpark estimate on that, for anything firmer, like insurance purposes or something, we'd need to evaluate it in person.

Me: Well, we've been told it's an antique that is worth quite a bit of money.

Tech (laughs knowingly): Oh, wow. That's nice. What is the maker?

Me: That is sort of hard to read. Kellen & Co.? Hellen & Co.? Not sure. It's a little faded. But it says very distinctly 'Upright Grand'.

Tech (laughs again): Upright grand? That's an oxymoron. It has to be one or the other. Is it tall, or flat?

Me: Tall. Very tall. 5 feet easy, maybe more.

Tech: So it's an upright. Look inside the cabinet for some sort of nameplate. You might even find a serial number in there.

Me: Ah, yeah. Heller & Co., New York, serial 11101.

Tech: Ok, give me a second to look it up. (Puts me on hold, comes back about 2 minutes later.) Ok, sorry for the wait. Your piano was built in 1910. You're right, they were marketed as 'Upright Grands', but that was just a marketing scheme. Says here your piano, if it is in good condition, you could maybe get $300 for it. What sort of work do you want done on it? Just a standard tuning, or is there something more that needs to be done?

Me: ...

Tech: Hello? Are you still there?

Me: Sorry, yes, I am here. We just thought it was worth, you know, a lot more than that.

Tech: Oh yeah, that happens a lot. Well, you never know. Sometimes you get people who are interested in these things purely as pieces of furniture. You might be able to get more money that way. But as a piano? We'd call something like yours a 'Landfill Piano'.

Me: A what?

Tech (laughs): A Landfill Piano. Oh yeah, I mean, you could spend some money on a rebuild or something, and we'd be glad to help you with that. But they don't make the parts for these pianos anymore, so if you wanted to replace the action or something, we'd have to machine new parts. It would be a pretty pricey thing to do. If you want a nice piano, you're probably better off just calling a moving company, and have them haul it off to a landfill or something. Then, ...

Me: Well, we know someone in the business...

Tech (clearly enjoying this): Oh, good, that helps. Then, with the money you'd save, you would be able to buy a new piano that will last you the rest of your life. We sell-

Me: Well, the piano actually belongs to my in-laws. Let me talk to them and see what they want to do.

Tech: Ok, so give us a call if you have any other questions. We'll be glad to come out and take a look at it for you.

And now here it is, our 1910 Heller and Company 'Upright Grand'. I understand that we are breaking every rule in the Where Should We Put Our Piano? book. It's on an exterior wall... heck, it's next to the front door, and this is the coldest winter in 30 years. Supposedly, we are putting all kinds of stresses on it in terms of moisture and temperature extremes. Meh. It's survived 98 years... it safely dodged the landfill... it's a survivor.

There is, however, a new issue with the piano that has cropped up the last week or so. I think I am going to have the tech come out after all. More on that next time.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Programming note...

Hi, I am totally new at this, and I am having some difficulty with the dates that are being assigned to my posts. I don't understand what is going on, but while I figure it out, bear with me.

Entry # 4 - The Hustle

(Note, there are multiple versions of this story. The one I am about to report is the version that was told to me.)

So the conversation between the Old Lady and the Brother-in-law-mover (BILM), it was said, went like this.

OL: Losh sakes, I can't believe I have to move this piano again. It was my grandmother's. But every time I move from one condo to another, it costs me an arm and a leg. And I don't even play any more. Durn arthritis.

BILM: Yeah, that's too bad.

OL: So how much are going to charge me for moving it?

BILM: The going rate is $500 plus mileage.

OL: Heavens, not again. You know, this piano is an antique.

BILM: We'll be very careful with it.

OL: You know, it's worth over $5,000. I just had a technician over to service it last month, in fact. He said that, with a little work, it would be worth over $10,000. (Pauses.) It was built in the 1800's. (Long, thoughtful pause.) Say, if you want it, I could let you take it, and we'll call it even. You could probably sell it and make lots of money. Like I said, I don't play anymore, I don't have any use for it...


And so, that afternoon, unannounced, Brother-in-law-mover showed up at his parents' house with his "new" piano. "Ma, I am just going to keep it here for a few weeks while I line up a buyer. If you want, I'll pay you some percent of what I get for it. Thanks for keeping it for me."

Four years later, the piano remains at the parents' house. No buyers. Makes a nice shelf, however, on which to place pictures, lamps, and the Manger scene during Christmas. And it is the instrument Jillian and I are learning on.

There's more to say, though. Pics next time.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Where are we so far?

Where are we so far on this piano learning thing? To review:

  • About a month ago, my daughter started piano lessons. Her method book, as best as I can tell, is the piano equivalent of the old Dick & Jane books. In fact, it appears they came out about the same time, and were illustrated by the same people.
  • It took me about 1 week to go through that book. It's most difficult piece was something about a train, complete with a repetitive left-hand chord that was supposed to sound like the rhythmic clacking of a train in motion. Oh, and a dissonant right-hand note pairing that was supposed to be the train's whistle. I had to play this a lot to get it right. My life LOVED this.
  • The following weekend (that would be about three weeks ago today), I went out and got my own method book, the Alfred's All in One Piano Book.

And now, after a couple of weeks of almost daily practice on this, I am a little more than 1/2 way through it, page-wise. Maybe more. It's about 144 pages long. I'm in the 80's somewhere. At this point in the book, we have learned maybe three chords. One of them requires the use of one of those dreaded black keys. I had some difficulty with that transition, especially with my right (dominant) hand. I'm sufficiently satisfied with it now to move forward, but I do so in hopes of continuous improvement.

In the meantime, my repertoire consists mainly of snippets of pieces only my 60-something in-laws would recognize. "Oh, is that All Night Mary Ann?" ("Why, yes it is, how on earth could you possibly have known that?") And if you give me a few minutes, I can muster up a rousing version of When the Saints go Marching In... with melodies on either hand, mind you (albeit not at the same time... THAT would be something.)

What I am working on right now is Blow the Man Down. I had spent about four days on a piece that preceded it, Lavender's Blue. I felt good about overcoming some early difficulties with it, and boldly plowed forward. My first few attempts at Blow the Man Down sounded like I had never touched a piano before. It was truly a back-to-square-one experience for me. I am thisclose to doing it well enough to move on and try the next thing (Lone Star Waltz), but nowhere near good enough to put it to bed permanently.

Oh, and I bet my father-in-law that, by May 1, I will have a version of Scott Joplin's The Entertainer ready for public consumption. Boy, do I talk a big game.

Jillian, our six year old daughter, is about 2/3 of the way through her Schaum book. I think she'll have it done mid-March or so. She consistently complains that it is too easy, so once in awhile, I will catch her playing pieces out of my book. For example, She likes my version of Happy Birthday much better than the one her teacher gave her. Which is funny, because tomorrow is my dad's birthday, and we think it would be need to send him a video of this. I'll post it here if we can pull it off.

Next time, a word about Landfill Pianos. Maybe even a picture.

What's this all about?

I am typically not big into the whole New Year's Resolution thing. I figure if a thing is worth doing (lose weight, quit smoking, finish that scale model of the Eiffel Tower using only toothpicks), you may as well get on with it, regardless of the date. It's not like January 1 is that different, from a cosmic / eternal perspective, from any other day. Nevertheless, a couple of factors came together at the beginning of this year, causing me to decide that 2008 will be The Year of Learning Piano for me:

  • I like music. A lot. I'm listening to music right now, in fact. I played saxophone 25 years ago, so I know to FACE the spaces on the Treble clef while Every Good Boy Does Fine. But other than that brief stint of band-nerdness in middle school, I am not a musician.
  • More importantly, I always wanted to learn to play the piano. Says so at the top of this blog, in fact. Just never had access to one. But Life's Little Instruction Book claims, as plain as day, that you are never too old to learn to play the piano. I always figured I was going to test that little maxim out, it was just a question of when.
  • We're living with our in-laws, who, it turns out, have an ancient piano. We'll reserve for another day discussing this piano, and how it was acquired by a family that does not play piano. It's old (100 years, at least), it's probably not worth what it would cost to get rid of it. But the important thing is, for the first time in my life, I have daily access to a working piano. Likewise, you'll have to come back another time to find out why on God's Green Earth my family of five (soon to be six) and I are living with my wife's parents. (Short story, we're building a new house. I am sure this will come up again some time.)
  • My oldest daughter (just turned six) started taking piano lessons at the local park district.

I "helped" her with her first two lessons. And by "helped", I mean I played them myself. Extensively. Over, and over again. "Ok, daddy, I understand..." "No, you don't. Let me do it again." None of these pieces ever required using two hands at the same time, mind you... oh no, hers is for the "I have never touched a keyboard before, and I barely know how to read" crowd. But after cruising through her entire book in just two weeks (it's the Schaum Green Book for those of you scoring at home), I decided to go out and get an adult piano book. As best as I can tell, the difference between a children's piano book and an adult one is that the children's book has pictures on the tops of the pages. Pictures of flowers, bunnies, fish, or choo-choo trains. The songs pieces are pretty much the same in both books.

(BTW, that little strike through is very important there... pianists don't play songs, they play pieces. I've been warned on this.)

So a few weeks ago, I went out and picked up my very own copy of the Alfred's Adult All-In One Piano Course (Book One). It starts with the assumption that you know absolutely nothing. It tells you that the piano has keys, the ones on the left make low sounds, and the ones on the right make high sounds. It tells you that "(the) piano keys are named for the first seven letters of the alphabet beginning with A." You look at the keyboard, and, wouldn't you know it, that leftmost white key is indeed an A. After overcoming the shock of learning that middle C isn't really in the middle, you then get to play some notes.

As an aside, if you are looking for this book, or one like it, DO NOT JUST WALK INTO BORDERS OR BARNES & NOBLE. Go to a music store. Unless you want to play the guitar (I do, just not today), these stores will not have anything to help you learn.

This blog, then, is where I am going to track my progress. And my daughter's, too, which will be the more interesting journey, I bet, when all is said and done. Tomorrow, if I remember to make an entry, I will let you know how far I have progressed. But other stuff, unrelated or tangentially-related to piano, is sure to come up, too. After all, my wife and I are expecting our fourth child in August. We're building a house (I mentioned that, right?), and it's arguable that this would be an interesting enough topic in its own right to blog. But the fact of business is that our builder is so professional and organized, there really isn't much to discuss. If we can settle the issue about whether kitchens should have tile or hardwood floors in time, we should be in this house in July. (By the way, thoughts on that question? Tile or hardwood in the kitchen? Discuss amongst yourselves, and get back to me.) July is also about when I think I will be done with this Alfred's Book. Maybe earlier, hopefully not later. After that, there will be plenty more to discuss... there are two more books in this series, and if I (we) get bored of it, there are other series to take up... Thompson's, Fabers', and maybe others. I'll take recommendations. Heck, maybe we'll even vote on it or something.

And also, there is my daughter's learning to talk about, too. What's not to like here?

So that is all for now. I hope this is fun for all of us. Let me know if there are any questions. That will save me from having to come up with something interesting to discuss next time.