Friday, May 23, 2008

Not much (piano) going on this week

Two factors have, happily, conspired against my playing any piano this week. First, we had a good week of weather. Spring is no longer a rumor around these parts, it's actually happening. We've been outside with the kids pretty much every free moment we've had. Second, Jillian and Jason have begun traipsing up and down the street without training wheels. At first, this required that I run alongside, saving them from potential catastrophes. (This is ok, I needed the conditioning in preparation for next week's volleyball tournament in Atlanta.) They've gotten better as the week wore on, though, which means less running, and more just keeping an eye on them, applying band-aids as required, and hollering as cars approach.

Anyway, I don't have much piano progress to report. I haven't even begun Scarborough Fair. Instead, I wanted to post clips of two pieces I find very compelling, and would like to learn over the next, oh, year or so.

(I promise will try very hard not to flood you with Youtube clips. But for now, you'll just have to deal with it.)

The first is from Ludovico Einaudi. It's a recording of Nefeli, off his Eden Roc CD. Nefeli is not the easiest of his pieces... that would be Limbo, most likely, but I couldn't find a clip of Limbo that I liked. Nevertheless, I am told Nefeli isn't impossible, and I would like to begin learning it some time next year. Limbo might come before that.

Any of you out there taking Christmas list notes, you might be interested to know that compilations of Einaudi sheet music can be had off Amazon. Just saying.

Next is something that appears to be much more challenging. The video clip itself is interesting enough. It's a compilation of self-photos, taken every day for over six years. Just the discipline required to do this is frankly pretty astounding. But I am much more interested in the accompanying piano music. Most of it is left of middle C, and there are even runs anchored on the lowest note on the keyboard. How cool would it be to be able to play this?

The music is Everyday (go figure) by Carly Commando. $7 off her MySpace page.

So, family (I know you're out there!), between now and the time I can play Liszt or Chopin, this is the sort of music you're going to hear me practicing. Well, that and my regular pieces I'll be playing out of Alfred's. Consider yourselves warned.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"Daddy, when can you play this?"

Don't ask me why I have this... but in our piano bench, I have the music for Liszt's La Campanella (Paganini Etude No. 3). You may remember I mentioned this piece in an earlier, and, as it turned out, very useful post on Technique.

Jillian and Jason pulled this music out for me the other day and asked when I was going to be able to play it. I didn't even blink. "I can play it right now."

We all marched straight down to the computer, and I pulled up Kissin's rendering it on Youtube, which I will now embed for your viewing and listening pleasure. (Sue and I learned how to do this last night! You people are in for it now!)

"No, daddy , on the piano, not on your computer."

Since then, the music has been lying around. (We're not the tidiest family in the world, you see.) La Campanella is the one of the pieces I hope some day to be able to play, albeit not as well as Kissin...or Yundi Li, who does a completely different but equally masterful job with it:

I've been toying with the first page. (That would be about the first 20 seconds, well before things get really out of hand.) It is exciting to make recognizable sounds from pieces I've known and appreciated for a long time. Of course, "recognizable sounds" is not the same thing as music, but it's a start.

I'll get back to you in about ten years when I have the whole thing down.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Progress update... entering the Home Stretch of Alfred's Book One

Over the last two or three weeks, here are the things I have been working on in Alfred's:
  • O Sole Mio
  • Greensleeves
  • The Stranger (still my favorite piece of the book so far)
  • Jericho
  • Go Down Moses

I am pleased enough with my progress on these to begin Scarborough Fair this week. On first glance, I don't think it looks too daunting. The end of this book is in sight, with the following caveats:

1. The last two pieces (The Entertainer and Amazing Grace) are supposed to be real killers.
2. When I am done with those, I am going to spend quite a bit of time reviewing Book One pieces before starting Book Two.

I figure I will stay on Book One for at least another two months, which would put us near moving time. If this plan holds to form, I'll start Book Two after the move.

Monday, May 19, 2008

eBay is annoying

Having been a pretty vigilant eBay watcher for the last month or so, I have concluded that I am probably not going to find what I am looking for there. There are bargains to be had, for sure... two types of bargains, as best as I can tell (specifically in terms of digital pianos, if not items in general).

The first is the imperfect item. if you are willing to take a keyboard with a key or two that doesn't work, or something with a crack in the cover, or perhaps a hissing speaker. And for those of you out there capable of fixing these things, good on ya! But me, I know my limits. Fixing things designed to handle electricity coursing through them at lethal levels... that's not one of my gifts.

The other is the big ticket item. People who, within the past couple of years, plunked down large amounts of money for Clavinovas or high-end Rolands, and either have given up, or upgraded. I have seen a number of these go for surprisingly little, given how much they cost new. Of course, I think a recent Lexus LS would be a good buy, too, but that doesn't mean I am about to replace my 2002 Ford Focus with one.

I'll keep a casual eye on eBay and Craigslist, just to make sure nothing compelling falls through the cracks. But I reckon there are hundreds of others doing exactly this. This means that, when things sell, they go for a generally fair price.

Upshot: might as well buy new.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

You'll never believe this...

... but I never heard back on that U1 for sale.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Acoustic gods are toying with me

Just when I decide a digital is the way I'll go, there pops up a new ad on Craigslist that reads thusly:

Yamaha upright piano U-1 for sale - $1500
Yamaha upright piano U-1 for sale (2001 make, but without bench). Great condition. Free delivery.

I would expect a "great condition" 2001 U1 to go for, um, about $5300. So what's up with this? A relatively new U1, the Honda Accord of pianos, for 1/3 price, and free delivery? That can't be right.

When I see something like this, I figure that one of two things is going on. The first, and most likely, possibility is that this is too good to be true, and therefore isn't. That is, it's not really a 2001, and/or it was in somebody's basement that was flooded, or maybe it was left in the garage and comes with it's very own family of possums free of charge. The other possibility is that everything is exactly as stated... in which case somebody has surely beaten me to this.

And while we don't have $1500 lying around, I've made the standard inquiry (serial number, pictures, still available?) and will report if I hear back.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"Ole Bessie"

Having decided that we’re going to buy a digital, this brings up the question of whether our old upright (henceforth to be referred to as “Ole Bessie” or merely “Bessie”) really is obsolete. Consider:

  • Jillian and I are still playing Bessie on a daily basis. Yes, I have my complaints, but if she (Bessie, that is, not Jillian) isn’t useless now, she may be equally not-useless in a few months.
  • The soundboard crack is capricious. Some days, it's so bad, I can't stand the feel (to say nothing of the sound) of the piano. On other days, there's no sign at all the anything is amiss. It's been a cool Spring, which seems to agree with her.
  • Selfishly, having more than one piano in the house increases the odds I can grab some bench time when the opportunity arises. After all, in about 8 months, Jason is going to begin HIS lessons, and it's hard enough negotiating practice time with just Jillian.
  • The new house is going to be roughly 4800 square feet. Even after we combine our stuff with the in-laws’, it doesn’t add up to 4800 square feet worth of stuff. We’re not in a position to be throwing away large pieces of furniture.
  • Bessie already has a cracked soundboard. What’s the risk in moving her? That we might damage her*? Please. I know this is heresy to those of you in the industry, who hate the idea of laypeople moving pianos. But if you’ve been with us for awhile, you know that the real owner of the piano is my brother-in-law, a professional mover. He’ll be the one in charge of this ordeal. And sure, for all we know, maybe he’s the one who cracked the thing in the first place. But it's his piano, and there really isn't much more damage we can inflict on her.
* Funny story unrelated to piano, but a variant on the theme of "What's the worst that could happen?" I played basketball in college. While the team itself was very, very good, I was an absolute nobody on it. In my entire career (if you count 2 seasons as a “career”), I played in a total of 12 games, scoring two points. But I got lots of free shoes and meals out of the experience, not to mention instant and unquestioned credibility in any pickup game I wandered into during my college and graduate school years.

Anyway, one Thanksgiving, we were in
Hawaii, playing in a tournament. We had been eliminated earlier in the day by a very good Ohio State team, led by Jay Burson, an amazing little point guard roughly the size and shape of a Kewpie doll. So, having nothing to do the next day, we went to the Chart House and had a wonderful dinner. Afterwards, the coaches sat at their table for a very long time, just talking, the way old folks (like me, it turns out, although I didn’t know it at the time) do after a big, satisfying meal. We players were not so interested in continuing to soak up the atmosphere. But the time ticked on. 30 minutes, 45 minutes... we were tired, and we were all getting pretty antsy to go back to the hotel and go to sleep. One of the guys on the team, a starting guard, nudged me to do something, to tell the coaches it was time to go. Without a hint of derision, he asked in a very simple, matter-of-fact tone, “C’mon, aw2pp, who cares if they get mad? What are they going to do, bench you?”

It wasn’t funny at the time. Well, yes it was. He did have a point.

House update

Cabinets are in. This is really starting to come together quickly. Mid-July is starting to seem like an under-estimate of the time frame.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Going to "work" with Daddy

Jillian (kindergarten) and Jason (pre-kindergarten) go to school at our church's school. This is not our long-term plan. Part of why we choose to live where we do is because the public schools are very good, and it would be a shame not to make use of the tax dollars we spend to support them. But for now, while our children fall in the "early childhood" category, we believe our church's school provides a superior education to that offered in our otherwise excellent public schools. One consequence of this decision is that it seems like they have LOTS and LOTS of school holidays. Last Friday Jillian was off from school (but curiously, Jason was not).

So Jillian came to work with me in the morning. I was already going to take the afternoon off, so our plan was that after lunch, we would go home to pick up the rest of the family, and drive out to St. GenElburn to see our house-in-progress. (We're building the house in an unincorporated area of Elburn, zoned to St. Charles schools, but the closest town is Geneva... hence the name. I like it. It's believable to me that there could have been a St. GenElburn, the patron saint of... cracked soundboards? I'll take your nominations on this.)

Jillian and I had lots of fun. We went to one of our company’s office buildings and checked into a small glass-enclosed cube (officially known as a “Team Room”, but more commonly called a “Fishbowl”). I made a couple hours’ worth of calls while she drew clowns on the white boards, then used that stinky spray to clean it up. Given the small size of our fishbowl, we were pretty loopy after awhile from the fumes. Hopefully, this went unnoticed by the customers I was calling on later in the morning. If I start seeing orders for large quantities of free software and/or services, I will know otherwise.

After lunch, we had some time to kill before picking the rest of the family up, so we visited our local music store, which carries a limited line of Yamaha keyboards. I was interested in seeing what they sounded and felt like. I also wanted to know what she thought.

We probably tinkered on these for 30 minutes or so, playing what parts of our lessons we could remember. Jillian preferred the smaller, un-weighted keyboards. "These are easier to play." I passed up the opportunity to lecture her on the merits of weighted keyboards. It's a difficult position to be in... I want my children to be, or at least grow up to be, independent, thoughtful decision-makers. Partly, that means when they exercise this independence in a way I hadn't anticipated, I can't go back and say "No! Not like that! Not THAT kind of independence…" She did like the couple of models that had an LCD display of the notes being played. I had to admit, that is pretty cool.

They had a soon-to-be-obsolete YDP-625 on "clearance" for $699. A fair price, but not one so compelling that it required immediate action. I was prepared to not like this DP, but I have to admit... I liked the sound, and I liked the touch. Mind you, this is only the second weighted-action keyboard I've tried, the first being a Casio PX-110 at Best Buy awhile back. Given the 15 minutes combined I’ve spent playing these two, I'd say the Yamaha is superior to the PX-110. Of course, for $300 more, it should be. But the Casio has already been replaced by the PX-120, so it's not exactly a fair comparison. What WOULD be interesting would be to compare the PX-120 to the new Yamaha, the YDP-635.

But I digress. I could live with a YDP-625. This realization alone has sort of cemented in my mind that my next piano purchase is going to be a digital. This entry-level digital piano was far superior in touch and yes, even tone, to the piano we’re playing right now. I can’t begin to image what newer units are like, with improved keyboard actions and sound samples.

Back to Jillian. She had quite a day. Went to work with daddy, out to lunch, played in the new house for awhile, kicked the soccer ball around when we got back… at the end of the day, Sue asked her what her favorite part of the day was. “Trying out pianos.” Apparently, I have successfully recruited a partner in crime.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Fun conversation

Daddy, why don't you play the piano much these days?

Well, Jillian, I do still play it. We've just been busy lately, that's all. But I sometimes play when you are at school, or at soccer practice. I get time when I can.

Ok. I was thinking to myself, it seems like I play more than you.

Well, you might. But that is ok, really. I'll get enough practice, I promise.

You know what you need... a recordion!

A what now? An accordion? (I pantomime playing an accordion.)

You know... (She pantomimes putting on a pair of headphones, and playing a piano. Then closes her eyes, and shakes her head back and forth, Stevie Wonder style...)

Oh, ok. You mean a Digital Piano. Yeah, we might do that.

And you know, you could play your songs, and nobody would hear you.

Oh, and that's important?

Well sometimes, when you do play, you play the same thing... over and OVER again. It's not so, you know, interesting.

And a digital piano would make the music more interesting?

Well, no, but only you would hear it. Then you could turn it up louder if you wanted other people to hear you.

It's certainly a thought, Jillian.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Using my time wisely

Here's a question I posted in the Alfred's Book One Thread on PW.

What part of the learning process for a given piece is the most beneficial to long-term expertise? To illustrate what I mean, suppose there is a learning curve for a new piece, which can be broken up into five stages:

  • Stage 1 - I sound like a complete idiot. It's like I've never played piano before. It takes a very long time to stagger through the new piece, and it is very painful to listen to this part of the process. (Lately, this has taken a couple of hours.)
  • Stage 2 - Innocent bystanders can start to make out the tune, but I'm still not at tempo, and make errors all over the place. (Lately, this stage has been very brief, but I reckon will get longer as the complexity increases.)
  • Stage 3 - A period of refinement where everything gets smoother. Once in awhile, I even make it the whole through piece without an error, causing me to think I am further along than I really am. To me, this is the fun part.
  • Stage 4 - A lengthy period of time where the last couple of kinks get ironed out.
  • Stage 5 - Perfection. I can play the piece in my sleep, at tempo, without errors, and it sounds like real music. (Scientists have theorized as to the existence of this stage, but it has not been directly observed in my universe.)

In which of those stages am I improving the most? Which is the most valuable? Reason I ask is, more and more, I am finding myself putting considerable time in the Stage 4, ironing out the little things that trip me up. And I am beginning to question whether or not this is the best use of my practice time.

I may pose this question to the teachers at PW, but if you have any insights, I'd love to hear them.

I'm going to miss out on that Pramberger JP-52 on eBay. Somebody placed a bid ($2,000), and there is no reserve. The timing just didn't work out for us. On the other hand, that Astin-Weight once again failed to meet it's reserve bid, so those kind folks at ANR still have it sitting in their warehouse. I think Jillian and I might pay them a visit on Friday (she has no school for some reason). It would be interesting to compare it with one of their Wendl & Lung uprights, or a used U1 or U3.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

My first visit with a piano retailer

The Fine Arts Building is one of the ancient structures on south Michigan Avenue. Everything about the building is old, from the mosaics on the walls and floors, to the single working elevator staffed by an actual elevator operator, an elderly Polish gentleman who spoke enough English to know which floor you wanted. There were giant paintings, landscapes mostly, in the lobby and stairwells. There is a ballet studio, yoga studio (I was surprised at how many mats they cramped into a small space… yoga must be a friendly thing), coffee house (natch), full size auditorium, and music shops for every imaginable instrument. Supposedly, the Chicago Aeolian showroom took up the entire main floor back in the day.

Pianoforte Chicago is on the 8th floor of this building. I got off the elevator, ignored the urge to tip the elevator man, and started looking for… Lord knows what I was looking for. I only knew PFC (there, now spell checker will stop heckling me) was on the 8th floor, and they had Faziolis. While I wandered the halls, I heard a very good flutist practicing, and a not-so-good violinist practicing. I noticed the floors, all hardwood, had really skinny (maybe 1 inch?) planks, and figured they had to be original. Then I found it:

Pianoforte Chicago
Business hours: Thursday and Friday, 2 PM to 4 PM
And by appointment

It was Tuesday at 1:26 PM (not business hours, unless my math failed me), and yet the door was open. I walked in, found a guy on the phone, who made that “Just a sec” motion. This gave me a moment to look around. I was in an office that looked and felt like a college professor’s. The next room over, where the guy was on the phone, was a much larger room, about the size of a half volleyball court. In the back of the room were a couple of shiny grand pianos. Then a bunch of chairs (40, I’d guess) arranged in auditorium style, all facing towards a stage in the front of the room. On which sat a shiny… no, that doesn’t do it justice… gleaming Fazioli grand. I’d bet it was about 7 feet or so. For a moment, I wondered what Little Brown Jug would sound like on it, but then I snapped to my senses. I wasn’t going anywhere near that thing.

He got off the phone and asked if he could help me. I told him I would tell him my situation, and he could decide that himself. So I described our situation in brutal, detailed, shameless honesty:

Daughter and I have been playing three months on the grandparents’ ancient upright… younger siblings will begin piano lessons in future years… building a house… upright isn’t going to make the move when we close in July… thinking of a digital… or a used Japanese upright… or a new Chinese upright… been reading the Larry Fine books… In our situation, what would he recommend?

The gentleman’s name is Thomas Zoells, and his outfit is basically a one man show. On the forums, Thomas has an absolutely sterling reputation. (We seem to be blessed with a number of really good retailers in the Chicago area, now that I think about it.) It’s arguable that this level of transparency isn’t the best way to begin a relationship with a piano retailer. But in this case, I didn’t see the harm. I truly wanted him to give me an opinion about how best to proceed, given our situation. If, in the process of doing so, I got the feeling I was being steered improperly (I think I have good instincts for this sort of thing), I could always push back. As it turned out, this wasn’t an issue.

PFC does indeed sell a Chinese upright, Wendl & Lung. It’s a 48” studio made for (read: voiced and prepped for) the European market. They are not distributed in the US except by him. (Although, curiously, ANRPiano, the folks selling that Astin-Weight on eBay, also claim to sell Wendl & Lung… maybe they get away with this because they aren’t really a retailer? I’ll get back to you on this.) We talked a little bit about the relationship between W&L and Hailun. On the pianoworld forums, I have previously read that W&L and Hailun pianos are identical, made side-by-side in the same factory, and then re-badged depending on the destination. Thomas didn't agree with this, and argued that the W&L uprights have some… how did he put it...? “Bells and whistles” that the standard Hailun doesn’t get. But most importantly, the W&L pianos get voiced in a special way, to make them more agreeable to the Europeans comprising the target market for these pianos. Thomas said that W&L have a much mellower, considerably less bright tone than the regular Hailun uprights. (I think the world “shrill” came up about this point...) “Remember,” he said, “these pianos are not targeted for the American or domestic Chinese market. Hailun is, and they are going for a very different sound." This, in the parlance of my industry, means the voicing is not a bug, but rather a feature.

The price conversation on his W&L uprights starts at $5,000. Then he began talking about upgrading (see! Didn’t I mention this last time?). He has a lineup of European makes at various price points, starting with Vogel, going to Schimmel, and moving on up to a Grotrian that could set me back $35,000. If I had to find a fault with Thomas, it would be how quickly the conversation turned from the entry-level instruments I wanted to see and talk about, and towards the pricier (and, one assumes, more profitable) models. He said something like "There are sounds you can make with those better pianos that you simply can't coax out of these other brands we've been talking about." But I’m picking nits here… I would probably do the same thing, just to be sure it was a feasible option for my prospective customer.

I told him I wanted to try one of these out, but I wanted my daughter to be there with me. I figure if she is part of the process of selecting the next instrument, it increases her sense of ownership, and hence, commitment, not that this is a problem at this point. (Of course, if I end up buying something on eBay, there goes that good idea.) He agreed, and I told him I would get back with him once school was out. Maybe we’ll pay him a visit in June.

Thomas seems like a good guy. He isn’t a lifer in this business… he was a banker before, but opened this shop because he’s always loved music. Given the brands he carries, and the overhead of maintaining retail space in one of the most expensive addresses in town, I don’t have any delusions about scoring the “best” price from him. But he seems trustworthy, which is worth something.

Next probable retail visit: aforementioned ANRPiano. I may stop by there on Friday.

Monday, May 5, 2008

When does it let up?

"It", in this case, being the mental energy I give to this piano thing. There are some easy answers to this question, but I am not entirely sure those are the correct answers.

I probably spend more time thinking about piano than I do actually playing it. Part of the reason for this is that I don't get nearly as much practice time as I need, or as I would like. I try to do the mental play thing described in Chuan Chang's book, where I mentally rehearse pieces I know, but still have trouble with. The easy answer, in this case, is that I would think about piano less when I am not playing it, if I simply played more. My goal was to put in an hour a day during the week days, and maybe a total of 5 hours over the weekend (which is how I arrived at the 500 hour figure mentioned in my last post...) Surely, I say to myself, if you were able to put that kind of practice time, you wouldn't be thinking about it nearly as much.

But is that really true? If I played more, would that exhaust, or at least vent the mental energy I spend on this away from the keyboard? I'm not entirely sure it would.

Much of the mental energy I devote isn't to playing, per se, but rather, as you know by now, to The Next Piano. What's it going to be? Acoustic or upright? A high-quality instrument, or something just to hold us over for a couple years? Where in the new house should the piano go? Each prospective answer to those questions opens up new branches on the decision tree, more what-if's to be explored.

If you're playing along with me here, the easy answer is obvious: Surely, I say to myself, once I buy The Next Piano, I will stop thinking about it so much, and concentrate on learning to play.

(Must... resist... overused... quotes... from... "Airplane!")

Again, though, I have my doubts. I have seen others go through this on from what I can discern, those of us who go through this have a little bit of James Bond in us. There is always The Next One. In Bond's case, the next girl. In our case, upgrading. Upgrading from a digital to a better digital (or an upright). Upgrading from an upright to a grand. Upgrading from a grand to a bigger grand. I haven't read Grand Obsession yet, but I think I know where the premise of the book is coming from.

I've been aware of this going on in me for a month or two. It has been going on for longer than that, of course. But it isn't getting any better. I am currently watching about 9 auctions on eBay... some digitals, a "new" (not really, but unused) Pramberger, and yes, they have that Astin-Weight listed again (no it doesn't look like it's going to sell). I checked these auctions probably a dozen times over the weekend. And I'm not even bidding on any of them! I'm just "edumacating" myself, as I told my wife, to be ready when the time comes to make an informed purchase. She nodded knowingly. She knows me well.

Topics for future consideration include teachers, recording methods, new Ludovico Einaudi releases, Chopin (this blog's name was almost an awful pun on his name), recitals (virtual and otherwise), and future releases of Larry Fine's book. These are things I don't think about much these days, but others do, and I might.

This blog helps. It causes me to attempt (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) to organize these thoughts in a way that makes sense to complete strangers. That has a way of reducing the perception of chaos, if not the chaos itself. And certainly, when this initial surge of interest wanes, you'll be the first to know. Well, second. My wife will know first, then you. I'll come around eventually.