Wednesday, June 25, 2008

But enough about me...

I promised, months ago, that we'd be keeping track of not only my piano progress, but also the progress of Jillian, my 6 year old daughter. And yet, some ginormous percentage of the content here is about me. Could I be more narcissistic?

Jillian, as you might recall, takes (well, took) piano lessons earlier this year. We signed her up at the local Park District (the equivalent of a community center, or whatever quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded recreational entity applies to your locale). She went once a week, from January to the end of May, where she and another beginning piano student shared a half hour lesson with a teacher. Her progress astounded us; and not only us, but her teacher as well. Jillian, as is her wont, was less impressed with herself. In fact, she was quite discouraged at one point, but those days are a distant, vague memory now.

The summer is presenting a little bit of a challenge for Jillian. Lessons are over; she doesn't have pieces regularly assigned to her; she doesn't have deadlines to meet. She has, therefore, asked me to print things out from the Internet. She has asked for, and has worked on, simplified versions of:

So that's cool. So cool, in fact, I should have mentioned it earlier. Sue and I are totally proud of her. But last night, Jillian found a new way to test the limits of her piano expertise. She began teaching her brother.

I mean, not to channel Harry here, but Holy Cow! My six year old daughter is teaching my five year old son how to read music, and how to play the piano. I'm... I'm... stupefied. Sure, the piece is almost trivial in its simplicity (it's the first piece in Jillian's first lesson book, the Schaum Green Book), but can you remember the first time you made notes on the piano? Wasn't it thrilling? I remember thinking it was pretty cool when I played this back in January. Sue tells me it's hard to tell whether Jillian or Jason is more excited about this. She also tells me nobody quite knows whose idea this was. Which is as it should be.

Then this morning, as soon as they woke up, they worked on scales.

Lord only knows how long this will last. But it seems likely to me that when we move to St. GenElburn at the end of the summer, we'll be signing up another piano student. Grandma says she is going to go buy earplugs.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Like the new look?

Just wondering. Feel free to complain, prop, or what have you.

Day One in Dallas: Foiled!

I walked into a music store across from Chipotle, last night's (and potentially tonight's) dinner destination. The Stoner Behind the Counter greeted me:

Stoner: "Hi. Can I help you?"

Me: "Yeah, do you have any practice rooms? With pianos?"

Stoner: "Um, for what?"

Me: "To practice piano. I'm in town on business for the week, and thought I would kill some time playing some of my piano lessons."

Stoner: (picks up the phone, for a moment, then puts it down) "Well, we give piano lessons here."

Me: "Right, but I have my own teacher." (Yes, I'm a liar.) "I just figured I'd check around and see if there were any places that had a piano I could practice on while I'm in town."

Stoner: (picks up the phone again and stares at the receiver... but says nothing)

Me: "You don't get asked this question much, do you?"

Stoner: (puts the phone back down) "No, nobody ever asked that before." (pauses, thinks really hard) "We could maybe let you use our piano. I'd have to ask my manager, though. We'd probably have to charge you something."

Me: "Ok, no problem. How much do you think it would cost?"

Stoner: "Well, the hourly rate is $25 for piano lessons. So probably that."

Me: "Even though there would be nobody giving me a lesson..."

Stoner: "Well, yeah, we'd work with you on that. Can maybe my manager call you?"

Some guy in a suit was perusing sheet music behind me. He was apparently listening to all this. I'm sure he tried to hold back, but at this point, he could no longer contain himself, and he burst out laughing. Anyway, I actually gave Stoner my number, saw him write it down, and headed out the door.

I haven't heard back from them, by the way. Nor do I expect to.

I then went across the street to Walgreen's to pick up some AA batteries for the roll-up I brought along. Got back to the hotel, only to discover the roll-up takes AAA's. Three of them. (3? WHAT? Don't these people know that batteries come in even number packages?) The good news is that our TV remotes at home all take AA's, and the price was right, so I will bring the AA's home with me. We'll be needing these eventually, I'm sure. Hey, kids, daddy is bringing presents home from Texas!

Finally, I DID find a piano at my hotel. It's in the bar / restaurant. Surrounded by people. At all times. Except after 10:00 PM Sunday through Thursday, when it's off limits.

So day one ended, with no piano playing.

(Hat tip to Sawtooth on the Grand Staff recommendation. I fired off an email to them this morning, and will probably go by there later.)

Monday, June 23, 2008

Hello from somewhere over Missouri

Looks like Missouri, I guess. Come to think of it, if I asked you to describe Missouri, from 32,000 feet, what would you say? Sure, it's got that big muddy river on it's eastern border (and boy howdy, it is ever bloated these days). But let's say, like me, you passed that 20 minutes ago. Is there a single identifying characteristic you could use to decide whether you're over Missouri? Illinois has miles upon miles of cornfields. Missouri has those, too. Arkansas has all sorts of lakes and hills... (you could even call them mountains, unless you're a Mountain Snob because you hail from a place like Colorado or Alaska or Tibet that has real mountains.) Missouri has those, too. Texas has a couple of very large cities. Missouri, too. It's like Missouri is a mash of all central time zone states.

Eh. Probably none of this will make sense when the airplane lands and my brain begins consuming oxygen at standard atmospheric levels.

Anyway, I'm flying right now, and will spend this week in Dallas, for work-related reasons. Next week will be our annual mid-summer trip to visit my dad in Montgomery, Alabama. Could be some seriously light posting in these parts for the next couple of weeks. Unless I find a piano in my hotel, in which all bets are off; you might even see daily updates.

I did, after all, bring both Alfred's Book One AND (gasp!) Book Two. Why Book Two? I have now made it far enough in The Entertainer that I actually turned the page before I left, and began the RH parts of Amazing Grace. Having done so, I actually feel better about Amazing Grace, after day one, than I did day one of The Entertainer.

Speaking of The Entertainer, I have two questions. (This has to be the worst post ever... I'm all over the place. I apologize to new visitors, it gets better, I promise.) The music in Alfred's isn't the whole thing, of course, just the first part. There are three, IIRC, with the first part repeated in between. So my first question is, how hard is the rest of it? I figure I may as well give it a try.

Second question... I feel like swinging the 8th notes when I play it. Is this an acceptable thing to do when playing ragtime?

I'll let you know tomorrow whether or not the Crown Plaza in Addison has a piano I can practice on. Won't that be fun?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Furniture-Style Digital Pianos

I've been thinking a lot about last week's Guitar Center visit. Up until recently, I have always assumed I was going to buy a stage-style digital piano. Something that looks like this:

Casio PX-120 (going retail price: $499)

Pretty simple, huh? It's just a keyboard. The main reason why something like this appealed to me is that it's cheaper. (Did I mention we're building a new house? I did, right?) And in the case of the Casio Privias, I believe they represent good value. At $500, the PX-120 is the base model of the Privia line, and is the cheapest weighted-key keyboard currently on the market. (Of course, you can find some other discontinued models out there, like the Casio PX-110 and Yamaha P70, for less.)

I am very interested in a digital piano that feels and sounds (insofar as is possible) like an acoustic piano. The closer the resemblance, the more I'm interested. I am somewhat interested in being able to record from my digital piano onto my laptop. But with the little research I've put into how to do this, I am sufficiently persuaded that it's a pretty trivial thing to do. I am completely disinterested in other features, like using it as a MIDI controller, synthesizing sounds, using hundreds of voices, etc. So any digital piano that brings these extra features to the table (and of course charges for them) is pretty much out of consideration, for me.

Here's the problem. A stage-style digital piano needs a stand and three pedals if it is going to be a reasonable replacement for an acoustic. (Yes, I know that one pedal might suffice, but I am not at all impressed with the single pedal units I have seen.) Throw in these extras, plus some headphones, some chords, and a bench, and suddenly the $500 PX-120 (the cheapest weighted-key unit on the market) is now $700. At that price point, you're getting close to the entry fee into furniture style digital pianos. Something that looks more like this:

Casio AP-200 (going retail price: $799)

Then there is the sturdiness factor. Ole Bessie, our piano, doesn't bounce around when we play her; neither do the pedals don't slide around all over the floor. I don't want a digital piano that bounces and slides around, either, but unless you have a large, sturdy stand, it will. What's more, I believe that if your keyboard looks like a toy, young children will treat it as such. (I read it on the Internet, it must be true.) Conversely, if your keyboard looks like a piano, kids will treat it like one. Our kids beat up on Ole Bessie, sure, but she's up to the task. That a furniture-style digital piano looks sturdy means something to me. A stage-style digital piano, even on a factory stand, looks like a piece of equipment. A furniture-style one looks like, well, a piece of furniture. This is a meaningful difference to me.

So next time I find myself at a Guitar Center or Sam Ash, I am going to see if they have one of these lying around. (Headline from this link: "Basic CELVIANO wiht grand piano level sound quality." Doesn't anyone proofread any more?)

If Ole Bessie makes it to the new house (cracked soundboard and all), I will want to forestall a digital piano purchase for a little while longer, in order to get something like an AP-200.

If any of you have (or have tried) a furniture-style digital piano, I'll take your recommendations.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Wait, what?

Pulled up my eBay watch list just now, and saw that the auction for the Baldwin 243 I mentioned the other day is over. "Item is no longer for sale."

Obviously, I'm no eBay expert, and I wasn't bidding, but something isn't right here. There was at least one bid on the piano, and it still had like five days to go. But the de-listed item now shows zero bids.

Can sellers just pull auctions like that? Or do people do back room deals in instances like these, to avoid paying eBay fees?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Not much progress on The Entertainer

Jillian had her tonsils out Friday morning. She's doing fine, and is even fighting a little cabin fever. If we can just get her to drink more water, we'd all feel better about her progress. I made her (and Jason and Rowan) an Einaudi CD to fall asleep to. They seem to like it so far.

(Side note, speaking of Einaudi. I placed a late Father's Day request for the Einaudi sheet music book. I think I could get started on Limbo.)

Because Jillian was sleeping a lot after her surgery, there wasn't much piano playing this weekend. (Our piano, you see, is just steps away from the hallway that leads to bedrooms.) And it's sort of funny, every time I did sit down at the piano, Jillian would appear within a few moments. Once, after I'd been on the bench for maybe five minutes, she mimed to me that she would like to play the piano. I have always immediately honored these requests... any time my daughter wants to get on the piano (except when someone is or should be sleeping), I'm all for it. Another time, I had played maybe ten minutes before she asked to go kick the soccer ball with me in the back yard. How do you say "No" to that? Another time, yesterday, in fact, I had only enough time to sit down and open Alfred before she showed up and asked to play Uno Spin (highly recommended, BTW, if you are looking for a kid game for, say, a birthday present or something). She's going to make me think she doesn't like my piano playing.

I joke, of course, but right now, I'm not very fun to listen to. I am working on The Entertainer, and have spent most of my bench time over the last week working on it HS. I pretty much have the individual hands down, and have even given in when it comes to using my thumb on a black key. (There's just no getting around it, resistance is futile.)

"We WILL use our thumbs on black keys."

But there is just so far you can go HS... at some point, to make actual music, you need to use both hands at the same time. And that is where I am now, trying some of the individual phrases hands-together. Slowly. Methodically. Over... and... over... again. Making errors basically each and every time. It's a necessary part of the process, but one from which I wish I could spare the rest of the house.

Finally, there is another local piano on eBay. It's a Baldwin 243, about 20 years old, currently at $500. But it already has a bid, will probably have quite a few more, and we're not in a position, yet, to go after it. But when the time comes, I could see being interested in something like this. I like the plain, simple, minimalist lines.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Can I have those 15 minutes back, please?

(Warning: This is my longest post ever. It will probably take you longer to read than it did for me to experience. Oh well. I am on a train, and have lots of time to be wordy. Deal with it.)

The other day, I had a 1:30 meeting scheduled at a customer site in the Northern Suburbs. I had arranged for two others to join me, since I am not smart enough to answer the questions this customer (well, any customer) might have. One of these gentlemen met me at the door:

“They canceled.”

Ugh. And I had driven 23.7 miles to get there, or so says the expense report I submitted this morning. The good news is that I suddenly had a couple of hours to kill before a 4:00 PM team call, so I headed home to get some unexpected piano practice. After all, I knew the rest of the family was out looking at the still-under-construction-house. (It's coming along great, the new close date is August 20, thanks for asking.) I am in that painful early period of learning The Entertainer… you know, that stage when it’s best that nobody else hears, because I play the same small snippets over and over and over, and make lots and lots of mistakes in doing so.

Anyway, I got in my car, talked briefly to Sue, and had just hung up the phone when, Holy Cow, there’s a Guitar Center! Sue’s mom has a work friend who recently purchased a digital piano from Guitar Center. “They got everything there! They really hook you up!” I stopped in.

Based on various forums, I had some preconceived notions about Guitar Center. Based on my extremely limited experience, I can now confirm some of these, and refute others.

Preconceived Notion #1: Guitar Center is loud.
Status: Confirmed. And how.

When I opened the front door, three sound sources competed for my attention. The first was the store’s PA system, tuned to a local radio station. The second was a room on my left of amps and speakers playing some hip-hop. The door to this room was wide open, exposing everybody in range to the sounds. The third was a kid testing out a guitar, with the amp cranked up high. As I moved through the store, some of these sounds (except the PA) died out, only to be replaced by others. It’s a loud, chaotic place, and I would go bonkers if I worked there.

Preconceived Notion #2: Guitar Center employees will let you test out instruments in peace.
Status: Highly dubious.

I found the keyboards. Wow, did I find the keyboards. Workstations, synthesizers, small keyboards, giant keyboards (wow, is that Yamaha CP33 huge!), and of course, digital pianos of all sorts… stand-alone portable keyboards through full cabinet models that looked just like console pianos. I tried to avoid eye contact with any employees, which should have been enough to convey that I wanted to be left alone. But out of the corner of my eye, I saw that I had been spotted and was being followed.

“Hi, welcome to Guitar Center, my name is Danny.” I turned and faced a college-age Hispanic kid with Kojak’s shiny head. “Faced” is probably not the correct verb… I was easily 15 inches taller than Danny. He smiled, and offered his hand. As I shook it, I formed two additional impressions. First, apparently Danny’s hand muscles didn’t work, because as I shook his, it did not respond at all. Second, he was missing his upper right front tooth. (That would be the Maxillary Central Incisor, and yes, I had to look that up.)

“Do you have any questions about keyboards? Is there any model in particular you’re interested in buying today?” Wow, aren’t we accelerating sales cycles? I did go in there with questions, to be sure… questions like:

• Does the Casio PX-120 feel like an acoustic piano?
• How do the PX-120, PX-200, and PX-320 compare in terms of sound and touch?
• Can I tell the difference between Yamaha’s GHS and GHE keyboards?
• Do the pedals on any of these look and/or feel like real pedals?

In retrospect, it might have been interesting to pose these questions to a salesperson, and next time, maybe I will. But these are highly subjective questions, and only I can answer them for myself. Which is what I tried to communicate when I answered, looking away, “Ok, thanks, but I am just here to play a couple of models I’ve been looking at.”

“Well then, I would suggest you start out by comparing these two. They are, by far, our most popular models.” He motioned to a Yamaha Arius YDP-140 and YPG-625 placed back-to-back.

Yamaha YDP-140

Yamaha YPG-625

Mind you, I have already tried the YPG-625, and was duly impressed, especially by the sound. But at the going rate, to say nothing of Guitar Center’s sticker prices ($999 and $849, respectively, and hold that thought), these are simply not on my radar. I like that the YDP-140 sort of looks like a piano, which is sort of important to me. But from what I know about it, you aren’t getting much for your $1k, compared to, say, a Casio PX-800. It took me a few moments to process all this, and all the while, Danny patiently waited for me to respond in some way to his suggestion. When I didn’t, he asked, “Do you have any questions about them?”

I picked up the YPG-625 price tag, looked straight at the missing tooth, and said, “I thought these were being discontinued. When are you getting a 635?”

“A what?”

“A YPG-635. Yamaha is replacing this model with a new one, the YPG-635. I heard that these were supposed to be available soon. I’m wondering when you will have any in stock.”

“Well, I know a lot about keyboards, and I haven’t heard of a 635. This 625 is, by far, our most popular model, and everybody who buys one likes it. I really can’t image why Yamaha would want to replace it.”

“Well, maybe I am mistaken.” (I wasn’t, and I knew that.) “Could you go check that for me? I’ll be here.”

“Oh, sure, I can go ask.” And away he went. Which was, as you probably suspect, the point. This gave me some time to do what I wanted to do in the first place, which was to play some of these DP’s.

Preconceived Notion #3: Bring headphones to Guitar Center. Status: Confirmed.

Danny left, but there were three other people in the keyboard area with me: a teenaged girl, her friend, and her dad, who paced anxiously. The girl was an outstanding piano player. I know this because she maxed-out the volume of the piano she was on. She played some extremely sophisticated Baroque-sounding pieces. Frankly, if I played as well as she did, I’d crank the volume, too. Her friend... er, not so much. In between comments like “You’re going to have to teach me to play piano some day,” The Friend flitted back and forth between various keyboards and workstations starting rhythms. She had a lot of fun getting a rhythm started on one keyboard, then finding something complementary on another. The even got three going at once. After a few minutes of this, the Piano Player decided to do some experimenting of her own. She changed the sound of piano she was at into something that sounded like a Wurlitzer at a hockey arena, and then went back to playing Scarlatti (or whatever it was). This cracked them both up. It was sort of funny, I had to admit, but I was also trying to concentrate.

I had found the DP’s I wanted to try, and was busy forming my opinions. I played Scarborough Fair on the Casios and on a couple of Yamahas. I had the volume turned down as low as possible, lest somebody (other than me) hear. I had forgotten about Danny. Then there he was.

“Ok, we have a YPG-635 in back, but it’s in the box. Do you want us to set it up?”

I said to the missing tooth, “Oh, Lord no, don’t do that. But does that mean you are going to start stocking them? Maybe I’ll come back in a week or two to try it out.”

“No, we have the one, but we aren’t going to get any more. Yamaha stopped making them. They got a couple of bad reviews. People really like the 625 better. So Yamaha is going back to making those instead. It’s by far our most popular model, have you tried it out? We have like six or seven of them in stock, you could leave with one today.”

(I'll pause a moment while you digest that last paragraph. Re-read it again, if necessary.)

Sometimes Jason, our giant five-year old, gets preposterous notions in his mind. Things like “I saw a bug crawling through my spaghetti.” When he gets this way, it makes no difference what you do or say in response, he persists in his belief. It’s a very frustrating feeling for us, his parents, because you know he is either lying, or fervent in his mistaken belief, but there is no swaying him either way. It’s futile. That futility is exactly what I felt at this moment.

This post is long enough, and my train stop is coming soon, so I won’t deconstruct how illogical, misguided, and mistaken Danny’s statements were. I thanked him for looking up this information and getting back to me, and wished him a good afternoon.

Preconceived Notion #4: Guitar Center prices are competitive. Status: Doubtful, but TBD.

There were no sales, no markdowns, no clearance items, no demo / floor models. Everything was stickered at least 10% above the prices I have seen on the Internets. The PX-200 was priced at $699 (about $200 too high). Perhaps Guitar Center is willing to negotiate, but it’s hard to consider a YPG-625 for $850 when I could go to my local music store and buy theirs for $200 less. The Guitar Center sticker doesn't even make me want to start a conversation.

It is, however, by far, Guitar Center's most popular model. Don't know if you knew that.

My time wasn’t a total waste, though. Let’s review the questions I had hoped to answer:

Does the Casio PX-120 feel like a piano? As a matter of fact, it does. I was extremely impressed with the Casio Privias, and would be happy to own one. Even the older PX-575 was impressive in terms of touch and sound, despite the fact that it uses an older sound source.

How do the PX-120, PX-200, and PX-320 compare in terms of sound and touch? I could not distinguish between these three in any way that was important to me. Same touch, same sound.

Can I tell the difference between Yamaha’s GHS and GHE keyboards? Unfortunately, yes. The GHS keyboards that I played (the YPG-625, YDP-140, YDP-S30, and P85) had a loud thunk at the end of their travel, felt plasticky to me, and bounced back very quickly on release. (Note to self, add “thunk” and “plasticky” to spell check, they belong.) The GHE keyboards, on the other hand (which would be the P-140 and YDP-223), were much quieter, felt more substantial, rebounded naturally, and were superior in every meaningful way. Of course, GHE keyboards cost twice as much as their GHS counterparts... they should be better!

Do the pedals on any of these look and/or feel like real pedals? Some did. Plastic pedals (like on the Yamaha YDP-S30, or in the Privia 3-pedal unit) felt very light, fragile, and insubstantial. Metal pedals (like on the YDP-140, YDP-223, and the Casio cabinet models, like the AP-500) felt like the real McCoy.

Thankfully, this whole ordeal took only 15 minutes. Of course, with that time, I could have made it through The Entertainer twice, maybe even three times, had I just gone straight home.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Feed Me!

For those of you who are into RSS / Atom feeds, I added a widget there on the left. Click on that feed icon (looks like ), then select which reader you want to use to monitor blog posts. Of course, if you are into this sort of thing, you already know that.

If you aren't, these feeds alert you when I (or some other blog or news source) post new content. This saves you from having to actually visit the various sites; instead, you monitor all your content in one place, like a My Yahoo homepage, or in your email client. This really annoys those professional bloggers out there, the people who make money off their pages' ads. Me? Yeah right. That'll be the day.

For more information, here's a start:

Just trying to help.

Monday, June 9, 2008


Pinch your shoulder blades together for a second. I'll wait.

The muscles you used to do that are the Rhomboid muscles, or more simply, the Rhomboids. You simply cannot sit or stand up straight without your Rhomboids. As Sue will tell you, my posture isn't the best, and hence, my Rhomboids probably aren't all they could be. However, when I am at the piano, I have found that I simply MUST sit up straight, otherwise my play is really awful. So I noticed the other day, when I had reached the 30 minute mark of sustained, uninterrupted practice, that I had to rest. My mind was still sharp. I had no wrist or arm pain. Most of me wanted to continue. But my Rhomboids couldn't take any more. They needed rest. I hope they get in shape.

I am working on:

  • Scarborough Fair - This is basically done. I work on it when the other pieces annoy me. I like it. If anything, it could become more musical, and smooth, especially in terms of pedaling, but I am basically done with it.
  • Raisins and Almonds - There is one little measure that trips me up about halfway through (at the lyric "And the sweet years to be..."). If I used my thumb on the black keys, (you know, like I am supposed to), I'd probably be fine. But I still have some trouble, and will keep working on it until I don't.
  • He's Got the Whole World in His Hands - This piece is actually a little annoying. It's the same (very simple) song, done three times, in three different keys. Still learning this one, but I am able to struggle through it.
Not nearly as well as PianoNoobAlexMan, however:

The first time I went through He's Got the Whole World..., an extraordinary thing happened. They key signature for the first verse requires a single F-sharp. The first left hand chord is a simple triad of naturals (sorry, I haven't been doing my technique exercises, so I don't know the name for the chord off the top of my head, but it's G-B-D, as I recall, with the B and D being the keys on either side of middle C). Then the key change came, progressing to F#-C-D (I think). The extraordinary thing was that, although I knew F-sharp was part of the signature, my brain did not register that F-# was supposed to be played there. I'm not so good at reading my bass-clef notes, you see. And when I am playing, I am not reciting note names to myself, but rather the intervals from a known starting point. And yet... AND YET... my left pinky went straight to F-sharp anyway. Without my brain telling it to go there. It simply knew.

It took about ten seconds before I realized this had happened. I was stupefied. My hands (my left hand, even) responded to a musical requirement that my brain had neither registered nor communicated. Not consciously, that is. I stood up at the piano bench, and raised my arms in triumph. The dog had been looking out the front window, and looked at me like I was possessed. He was the only one to share in my glorious moment. He didn't seem that thrilled.

Because I can sort of make it through He's Got the Whole World..., I have dared to take a look at the next page, The Entertainer. I am tinkering with the preparation exercise, which purports to teach me everything (new) I need to know for The Entertainer. The early verdict: there is no way on God's Green Earth I am EVER going to be able to play this.

Which is poppycock, of course, but that's how it feels going through this intro exercise.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Friday night piano blogging

Boy, there are four words that have probably never been put together before. The kids are in bed, getting some rest before their first-ever swim meet tomorrow morning. Early tomorrow morning. WAY TOO EARLY tomorrow morning. If I had a digital, I'd be practicing on it right now, but since I don't, I look at eBay listings of digitals. Which is only fun for like three minutes, at which point it becomes time to move onto something more meaningful.

This evening, I got in about 30 minutes' worth of practice on Raisins and Almonds. About the fourth or fifth time through, I heard polite applause from another room in the house, signifying (I think) that I was making progress. Then an observation followed the applause: "That sounds like a really sad song." Well, I must have been doing something right, because, wow, is it a sad song. Lyrics, please:

When I was a tiny sleepyhead
Mama gently would tuck me into bed,
And sing of raisins and almonds,
And the sweet years to be,
Sweet as raising and almonds,
Oh, that dear memory!
Oh, that dear memory!

And supposedly it's even sadder in the original Yiddish. I'll defer to the experts on that. Anyway, I have progressed on this piece to where it sounds like recognizable music. I am almost at tempo, but there are just a couple of trip-me-up parts to get ironed out. I'm not done with it, but it's good enough to move onto the next piece, He's Got the Whole World in His Hands.

Final tidbit: the ice cream truck drove by the other day, playing The Entertainer. Jillian said she wanted to learn it. Strangely enough, that would be the next piece, after He's Got the Whole World in His Hands. Maybe we'll work on it together.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

What role does "talent" play?

Sorry if this gets a little preachy. But, as you know, I just last week drove from Chicago to Atlanta and back. I'm often surprised where the mind can wander when given hours of nothing to do. Why aren't truck drivers the deepest people out there?

Jillian's teacher always seemed surprised, even entertained by how quickly she (Jillian, that is, not the teacher) picked up new pieces. Sue and I were talking about that one day, which was fun. It became less fun, though, when she turned on me. "How about you? Can you just jump into a new song, or does it take some work?"

I am sure my answer was much longer than necessary. I bet I went into mind-numbing detail about the process of first getting a new piece together hands-separate, then starting all over again hands-together, then trying to make the resulting cacophony sound musical. She very patiently allowed me to wander down this path to its completion, as she often does. Then, as she often does, she cut to the heart of the question: "So you're not a natural, then?"


"No, I don't think I am."

I shared the mindset, and it stung to admit to it. That is, I have always held the belief that there was something called "musical talent", and those who played an instrument well had it, and the rest of us didn't. That it took me three weeks to learn Little Brown Jug clearly demonstrates that whatever that talent was, I lacked it. The conclusion of this line of thinking: I still had the potential to be a reasonable piano player, but there was a ceiling that was going to keep me from becoming as good as those folks who had real talent.

But I've been giving this a lot of thought. After hearing the various submissions from the most recent recital (next time! I'm in next time, I promise!), after thinking about musicians I've known over the years, my thinking on this question has actually flip-flopped. I still believe there is such thing as "musical talent", but I now think that it is much, MUCH rarer than I previously supposed. The geniuses have it... Mozart, Paganini, Liszt, Chopin, Horowitz, Van Cliburn, Phil Keaggy, Neil Peart (wow, could his website be more pretentious?)... but, in my new line of thinking, the vast majority of accomplished musicians I have known, or known of, lack this level of genius. So how did they become accomplished musicians?

I have never run a marathon. I despise running long distances. And yet, from what runners tell me, there is no athletic talent required to finish a marathon. If anything, some athletic ability could be a hindrance, because it could cause the runner to rely on this talent, rather than nurture the real factor required to finish a marathon. That factor is discipline. In order to finish a marathon, you need to begin months in advance, and train in a disciplined, purposeful manner. Talent is the difference between simply finishing a marathon, and finishing a marathon in 2 hours 20 minutes. Intelligent and disciplined training and preparation are necessary either way.

I am not, nor will ever be, Vladimir Horowitz. But I believe I can be every bit as good as the lady who plays so beautifully for my church's services, or the guy who played in Sue's friend's wedding six months ago (wow, six months already?). These are people whose ability I very much admire. At one point, I thought I could never be like them. But the more I think about it, the more I have convinced myself that the difference between them and me isn't an inherent one, but simply a matter of training and experience. It does them a disservice to simply say "Oh, you are such a good piano player because you have talent." They worked hard to earn what they have.

I can too.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Jillian is done with lessons for now

Yesterday was Jillian's last piano lesson at the Wood Dale Park District. She didn't quite finish the Schaum Red Book; I'd guess she's about two-thirds of the way through it. Her teacher assigned her a couple of more pieces in it, but after that, she is on her own. Or, more accurately, we're on our own.

I'll leave this very much to her. Maybe she's want to keep playing familiar pieces from her books. Maybe she'll want to play new things from her books. Maybe she'll want to try out some Alfred's pieces. Or maybe she'll shelve it entirely for the summer, since, after all, she is a kid, just learned how to ride a two-wheeled bike, and is doing swim team for the first time. All these competing demands on a child's time... I wonder if Mozart would have become Mozart if there were Webkinz back in his time?

One thing she did say to me on the way to school yesterday: "Daddy, can we go to a piano concert some time?" So we've got that on our summer docket, too.

Monday, June 2, 2008

I'm back!

As you might recall, I was in Atlanta last week playing in the US Open National Championships (volleyball, that is). We finished 15th overall, a bit of a disappointment for us. Pictures available on request. Hopefully you didn't miss me too much.

Not much piano-related activity in Atlanta, as you might suspect. While I was there, I stayed with an old college buddy, who has an old Wurlitzer spinet player piano. It's in simply awful shape. If I had to spin its condition in an honest, yet positive statement, it would be something like "Many keys work." I tried to sit down at it and play some of my recent pieces, but simply couldn't bring myself to spend more than 5 minutes at it. Ole Bessie seems like a finely regulated concert grand in comparison.

And yet... AND YET... When I sat down at our piano yesterday, ostensibly to try to recapture some of my lost ground, I found that no such regression had taken place. I picked up EXACTLY where I left off, perhaps even a day or two ahead. Scarborough Fair is done, and I am ready to tackle Raisins and Almonds.