Monday, December 27, 2010

Days 71 and 72 –Saturday and Sunday, December 25 and 26 – Why piano wire makes a good murder weapon

Goals: Blow up the piano (nah, I’m kidding – just keep restringing)

Music: Art Pepper’s “Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section”; Joe Pass’s “Virtuoso”; Freddie Hubbard’s “Open Sesame”; George Lewis’s “Jazz in the Classic New Orleans Tradition”.

I continue to work hard at the restringing. It takes about an hour to do four or five strings, depending. Sometimes it goes a little faster, but rarely. As the strings have gotten longer, I’ve been having a hell of time getting the wire the correct length, because it is not possible to use the whole coil while doing the stringing, due to the proximity of the strings, and all the stuff that is in the way. One wire, I swear to God, I measured four times, cut it two inches longer than I thought I needed, and it was too short, so I measured again, got the same number, cut it four inches longer than I thought I needed, and that was too short. I decided to use string to measure actual lengths between pins, around string supports, etc, but there wasn’t a piece of string in the house long enough to do that. Mrs. S. has since supplied me with ribbon, which I used to measure the last of the five strings. I’ve decided to cut all five to that extra length and trim them down, because I really will blow up the piano in frustration if I keep getting short strings.

I really want the spare parts I found on ebay from a seller in Canada to arrive so I can work on something other than the strings. And anyway, I have to get some larger diameter pins, as I continue to have problems with untunable pins (probably five or six of them by now, and more to be expected). Since there are two layers of strings, I have to get the first layer complete before I can move on to the second layer.

Much to consider. I just want this project to be over. 

And why does piano wire make a good murder weapon? I don't know. Maybe because you can still use it in your piano after you pull some guy's head off with it...

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Time out for work

I worked a lot on my piano yesterday, but ran into a few more roadblocks. I’ll be happy to tell everyone about those tomorrow, but today I’m going to take time out to review some software I had the opportunity to download for free – in exchange for this review.

The software is a registry cleaner from Now, if you’re like me, when you hear “registry cleaner”, you start thinking Russian hackers, Trojans, worms, and a whole lot of bad stuff. My computer, however, has been running bad enough of late that it was worth a shot, figuring if anything really untoward happened, I could always do a system restore and get back on my feet.

I’m happy to report, digeus did nothing bad to my computer, and probably did some good. The software downloaded quickly and easily, and I had no problem running it. The initial scan said it found over 1600 registry errors, and it fixed them all (I guess) in less than a minute. I wouldn’t say that my computer is noticeably faster or anything like that, but it does seem to not freeze as much when surfing the Internet, and email seems a little faster, too.

All in all, I think digeus’s registry cleaner is a good product and worth giving a try. And it’s free if you click here. (Note that I am not endorsing this product and will not accept any responsibility for anything bad that happens to your computer because you use this software. Not saying anything will, just a disclaimer.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Days 69 and 70 –Saturday and Sunday, December 18 and 19 – Trouble

Goals: Pain and torture (seems like)

Music: Joe Henderson’s “The State of the Tenor” (both discs)

Things have, well, not been going, um, well.

On Saturday, I felt quite happy with the appearance of the inlay board, so I was ready to give it a clear top coat to seal in all my work and call it complete. With three possible options – spar varnish, water-based poly urethane, and oil based acrylic – I thought a little experimentation was called for. So on the reverse side of the board, I carved out an “E” (for “experiment” or “Eric”) and filled it with the colored wood filler that I used on the front. When that dried, I coated over it with the three stripes of the coatings in close proximity and allowed them to dry. Here's the before and after of that:

Before - no coatings
After - poly urethane, oil poly, varnish (top to bottom)
Both the oil based products looked a little too shiny for me, and one of them (the varnish) was still a bit tacky even after two hours or so. I also had some concern that the oil-based products would be too strong and would probably take off some of the lighter touches of ‘art’ that I had done on the board. It seemed that the water-based poly urethane was the way to go.

So I put the board on some newspapers and coated it. The result was 80% of the artwork that I had done on the mother-of-pearl pieces came off in the process. Since I don’t have a means to spray coat the thing, that was always going to be the result, in hindsight. Still I was amazed at how easily things like lines drawn by a Sharpie, charcoal pencil ground into the crevices, and make up powder, just came right off. That’s the bad news. The good news is, the dullness of the finish improved the overall appearance enough that the loss of detail is not that significant.

I’m still considering my option of replacing that board entirely and using the brass letters to do an inlay on the piano that will make up for the loss of the mother-of-pearl work. We’ll see.

On Sunday, it was back to stringing. I wouldn’t say that it didn’t go well, but the issue is I’m having more and more pins end up being loose and untunable, and it has been a struggle to get the length of the longer wires correct. I’ve resorted to laying out a tape measure on the floor and making all the wires two inches longer than I calculate, and even at that I’ve had one come up short somehow. As for the untunable pins, I still haven’t decided what to do and none of my consultants have dropped me a line, so I’ll have to call one today to get the low down. I think I’m just going to get two dozen larger pins and if that doesn’t work, do some shims.

Bottom line: the piano will not be finished by Christmas, and I will have to continue to listen to Mrs. S complain about the lack of a dining room/music room every time I point out I have nowhere to store my burgeoning CD collection.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Recent New Orleans trip schedule = Beginner's guide to the "Big Easy"

Oddly enough, it took me five trips to New Orleans before I finally got around to doing all the things that tourists are supposed to do when they visit there. So my most recent NOLA travelogue is really a list of stuff that you should do if you’re visiting “the Big Easy” for the first time:

See the inside of St. Louis Cathedral – It is the oldest continually operating Catholic church in the United States, and the inside is far nicer and just as photo-worthy as the often depicted outside. Mrs. S and I went inside to hear Ellis Marsalis play a free Christmas concert, accompanied by the rest of his quartet including his drummer son, Jason. The chords that Mr. Marsalis played when he tackled “Oh Tannenbaum” were spine tingling. During the concert, filming and photography were not allowed, so we came back the next day to take photos. Don’t miss it. (Keep your distance from the guys on the bench outside with the 16-ounce malt liquor cans in paper bags.)

Have beignets and coffee at Café Du Monde – This is probably the staple of the New Orleans tourist experience, and again, we had never done it. The beignets were tasty and a plate of three with two large coffees was just the right amount of food and drink for Mrs. S and I to go away satisfied, yet craving more. We went back on our second morning of the trip as well. Bring cash. It helps if you speak Thai (but since you can only order one thing to eat and maybe five to drink, communication is not an issue).

Eat a meal at the Acme Oyster House – This we had actually done before, but not in a while. We went on our first full day for lunch. We had some char-grilled Gulf oysters that were phenomenal, along with two different Po-boys and a glass of local beer. We enjoyed it so much, we decided to do it again the next day, doubled up on the oyster order, and got two different Po-boys and another local beer to wash everything down. Highly likely that in future trips to NOLA, we will eat all our lunches here.

Tour a rum distillery – Yes, there is a rum distillery in New Orleans. It’s not much of one, but it is a rum distillery. (Okay, it’s a shabby warehouse with some tanks that can be used to make booze.) They do three tours daily (call ahead) and they are a little out of the way in a seedy neighborhood by a cement factory, but the rum is tasty, they serve samples, and although the tour is pricy at $10, you get $5 off a bottle of rum if you buy one (and you will). Definitely something different to  do, especially if you are newly devoted to spirits, as I am. Which leads to our next tourist “must-do”:

Have a cocktail at the carousel bar at The Monteleone – If you are not up on your cocktails, you can order the signature drink, The Monteleone, which is a variation on a martini (I think). That’s what Mrs. S had. Made her drunk enough to lose her scarf. I had a Sazerac, another New Orleans cocktail. It takes about 15 minutes for the bar to go around once, so drink slowly or have two.
Me and my Sazerac (photo © Mrs. S)

Listen to jazz at Snug Harbor – There’s nothing like real live jazz, and all I can say is, you may want to do Preservation Hall for the tourist’s touristy jazz, but I would recommend Snug for the “in-the-know” tourist’s jazz. We heard Delfeayo Marsalis lead the Uptown Jazz Ensemble, a 17-piece band that played on a stage that wasn’t more than 15 by 20 feet in a room that couldn’t have been more than 50 x 20 total. An awesome experience and only an $8 cab ride to and from just about anywhere in the French Quarter. You can keep your costs down by not ordering too many $8 drinks.

Dinner at Stella – I’m pretty sure this is the best restaurant in New Orleans. If you buy the cheapest wine on the list, two appetizers, two entrees and two desserts, you won’t get away for much less than $250 – 300. The tasting menu is something like $125, plus another $95 for the flight of paired wines. If you’ve hit the lottery, you can try one of their $150 vodkas or the $3000/ounce caviar.  With the Acme Oyster House, this is the only other thing on the list we did not do for the first time (and hopefully not for the last, either).

That’s it. Two and a half days, three nights. Really, the perfect trip. Geaux, geaux, geaux to New Orleans! (Author is not provided with compensation by any party affiliated with the city of New Orleans.)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Day 68 –Tuesday, December 14 – Now, I’m an artiste:

Goals: Try out my paint pen on the inlay board

Music: Percy Faith’s “Music of Christmas”.

My Sharpie extra-fine point gold paint marker arrived, so I couldn’t wait to try it out on the inlay board. I was hoping and praying that the gold was opaque and non-metallic so that it would match what was on the board already, and I was praying that the point was fine enough to get the detailing to look right. Imagine my surprise and delight when it succeeded on both counts. I spent about one hour doing the detailing, entirely by free hand, and entirely with my mind’s eye – no stencils, overlays, copying of something similar, or anything like that. Mrs. S was not impressed, but I’m quite happy with the result. Here’s a sample:
After (sorry, slightly out of focus)

The only thing I have to do now is “age” some of the new mother-of-pearl pieces and then seal the board with urethane or some other clear coating. The sealing part is going to have to be trial and error, but since I just need something to get me to a uniform appearance, I think urethane is the way to go, but I may try lacquer as well. I think lacquer may give it more of an antique look with its slight yellow tint. Well have to see when I do the test piece.

I haven’t had any response to my inquiries about the untunable pin, but it doesn’t matter because I’m unlikely to have time to work on the piano tonight or tomorrow or Friday, due to having to work late, my piano lesson, and working as a casino dealer at a Christmas party, respectively. I will have the weekend, though, so hopefully my consultants will weigh in with their opinion pretty soon.

The big development today was that I found some replacement parts that I need on e-bay, so I snapped them up and sent an inquiry if he has any more of the parts that I need. I’m hoping he does and he sells them to me at a reasonable price. We’ll see.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Day 67 –Monday, December 13 – Slipping...slipping...and slipping again:

Goals: Continue restringing

Music: Andrew Hill’s “Point of Departure”.

Did a couple more strings – not bad for a working week night It’s getting hard(er) now because the strings are stretching to up to six or seven feet in total length. It takes serious concentration and focus to keep a handle on the wire ends, especially when cutting. I also have some concern about there being enough wire to complete the project. Individual notes eat up a lot more wire when you’ve got to run seven foot lengths instead of ten or fifteen inches.

Now that I’m about halfway through, I started to wonder: will the piano be tunable? I tried to pluck the strings to at least see if they continue to go up in tone as you pluck them from left to right. As I did so, I found that most were doing fine as far as a semblance of accurate tonal direction, except for one. So I tightened and plucked and no change. So I tightened again and noticed that as soon as I pulled the tuning wrench off, it slipped back. There it was: my first un-tunable string. As I understand it, my options for making this string tunable are many:
1) Use a bushing
2) Use a chemical that expands the wood
3) Use a larger pin
I have just a little leeway at this point, so I plan to start by seeing if I can drive the pin deeper and get it to catch before it pulls the string too low. I figure this is a good gamble to make, since it’s not working right now as is. I might just save myself having to install a bushing or messing with chemicals.

I made some inquiries to my group of “consultants” as to what they recommend. Fortunately, because it is only one string, it shouldn’t hold me up too much. (In fact, I plan to do some more work on the piano tonight.)

Again, wish me luck.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Day 66 –Sunday, December 12 – Getting strung out:

Goals: Install the lock, continue restringing

Music: Roy Hargrove’s Quintet’s “Earfood”; Coleman Hawkins’ “The Stanley Dance Sessions”; Barry Harris Trio’s “Magnificent”.

If you did not read yesterday’s entry – and even if you did – let me start off by reiterating: stringing a piano is hard, hard work. Stringing a finicky square grand piano for the first time ever, with five different types of wire and an assortment of harp frame obstacles, not to mention 130-year old parts, is even harder than that. So, although you may not be impressed when I say I’m about at the halfway point of the restringing, I assure you, you should be. That represents a vast amount of tough physical labor, mental gymnastics, and eye strain.

I broke up stages in the restringing by installing the lock, which required custom fitting, and a touchy wood filler job. The escutcheon is still not quite right, and that will require precision gluing and refitting. There will be much surface refinishing in the area as well.

I ordered some more things for finishing up the piano, and with school out and TV still boring as hell, I’m planning to spend some evenings working on the piano. And yes, I’ve said that before and nothing became of it, but if I’m going to finish that sucker this year, I’m going to have to be serious about working on it in the evenings as well between now and Christmas. The finished product would make a great present to give myself on my 47th birthday, just eleven days from now.

Here’s a photo of where I’m at with the restringing now.
Halfway there
Here's a “guts pose” that came out of me unexpectedly. 
Just glad I still have both my eyes and no new scars...
I shall see you all back here again tomorrow. Still got a New Orleans’ travelogue to share, you know.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Day 65 –Saturday, December 11 – Dealing with antiques:

Goals: Install the soft board, re-start the restringing

Music: Grant Green’s “The Complete Quartets with Sonny Clark” (both discs); Vince Guaraldi’s “Greatest Hits”; Herbie Hancock’s “Head Hunters” and “Maiden Voyage”; Roy Hargrove’s Big Band’s “Emergence”.

I had an opportunity while in New Orleans this past week to actually learn a little about antiques. Mrs. S likes to visit all the places we can only dream of ever buying something from, and so, we tour those places just like a tourist would: with our eyes and mouths wide open. But usually, the shop owners are friendly and helpful, and you can talk to them about the pieces and the Saints and shrimp po-boys, and antiques in general, and they will indulge you.

So at one of the places, I’m noticing how furniture that is as old as my piano looks shiny and new. I asked the guy what they used on their furniture to make the finish look so bright and lustrous, and he gives me some BS line about “special wax imported from Wales – we use it on all our pieces”. I asked him about some of the things I’ve been using on my piano, mainly lemon and orange oil, and he explained those products cause the wood to soak it up, but eventually it evaporates and you’re left with the same old dried wood. As we’re walking around the store as we’re talking, there are three cans of what turns out to be this "wax imported from Wales", sitting on a table, with a price tag of $35 (each) on them. Is this it? I ask. Oh yes, he says. (Why he didn’t grab one up and try to sell it to me right away, I have no idea.) So anyway, the best thing to come out of our recent trip to New Orleans for me is an antique preservative product to try on my piano and a couple of blog entries that I will write later this week.

One more thing about the antiques store guy: we were commenting on a less than well kept piece and how it looked a little rough, and he says, "Well, it’s old." That’s the bottom line with my piano. Things that are 130 years old don’t look new, and that’s that. Yes, I’ve made some mistakes, and yes, the veneer on the back is a bit bubbly, but overall, the piece is in much better shape for all the work I’ve put in, and if anyone is expecting something different, well that will be their tough luck.

Yesterday, I set out to install the soft board, having bought the screws necessary for the job right before leaving for NOLA. Right away, I put one screw in, and it split the wood. I had to glue it, wait for it to dry, and while that was going on, I cleaned the hammer assembly and shanks and heads, cleaned the support frame, pulled off the old felt and washed it, cleaned off the old glue, and cleaned the wood of both of the support pieces. During those processes, one of the stop buttons split, so I had to repair that too.

After all that, I put a support screw in the soft board where it split, cleaned and polished the swivel support (you can see what 130 years’ worth of patina/dirt looks like in the before and after photos, below), and put the board in. Of course, the screws I bought were just a little different than the ones that came out, and they extended through and were scratching the soundboard, not to mention not allowing the soft arm to move freely, so I took the screws out and cut them. I also put some felt pads under the soft board for better support.
Swivel tab - before

Swivel tab - after
By this time, the felt that I removed from the hammer support frame was washed and dried, so I used my contact cement to stick it to the bottom of my sock when I stepped on it accidentally while trying out the lock in the lock slot. After I got the felt off my sock, I put it back on the support frame to avoid any further problems with it. I filled the lock slot with acrylic filler because (of course) the lock I purchased doesn’t fit quite right. I used bamboo to fill the extra wide hole to fit the new escutcheon, and then I had to wait for all that to dry.

It was time to do some stringing, again.

It took me a long time to get to actual stringing. I had to count how many spaces were left, which string widths went where, and because I didn’t know quite what I was doing back when I was taking off the strings, the numbers weren’t working out quite right. All I really knew was that I had 33 custom strings for the low end, and five different widths for the high, and that was it. Try as I might, I couldn’t make the numbers come out, but, I had one note that I wrote down that made it come together. It said “0.8 mm that side of frame, 0.86 this side of frame”. By using the numbers I had for the four string widths on this side of the frame, I was able to find the correct positions for all the width ranges.

Now I really was ready to string.

I could only do two more strings over the next 45 minutes, because the pins were all under the support arm and I have 47 year old eyes. I had to shine a flashlight, take my glasses off, put them back on, check the wire position, remove my glasses, recheck, replace, put my glasses back on, move the light, hold the wire, insert it in the pin, remove my glasses, check the wire position, move the light, replace my glasses, ... like that. Did I mention I was working with 0.86mm wire? You know, where if you let go of it, or it slips, it springs and snaps backs, and if you’re holding you head right over it with your glasses off, it’s really dangerous? I did mention that? You get the idea. Here's what it looks like now:

Seriously: Stringing antique square pianos is not for the timid.

But I finished the two really hard ones yesterday, so now I’m set to keep stringing all day tomorrow. Wish me luck. I'm going to do that while baking a chocolate Cajun-spiced rum cake to keep the house (and me and Mrs. S) warm.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Day 64 –Sunday, November 28 – Bad planning

Goals: Work on the keys

Music: Chris Connor’s “Chris Connor”; Ben Webster’s “Music for Loving” (both discs); Earl Hines’ “Plays Ellington Vol. 2”.

I had a notion that if I focused, worked hard, and was careful, I would be able to finish the key assembly on Sunday. Unlike the day before, however, I felt I would need a little more time, so I started moving things into the sunroom just before lunch. The first thing I did was put the keys back onto the key rack. Some of them were pretty sticky, mainly on the front end where the lateral slide pads had expanded or slipped out and were sticking on the alignment pins. Some of them I just took out the pad on one side, some of them I widened by shoving a screwdriver in between them. Out of 85 keys, only one needed to be height adjusted, and that was a lowering that was easy to do by removing one punching. No problems there.

I cut five pieces of felt to replace missing backcheck felt, and I trimmed 85 leather strips which I had cut out some months ago. I used my trusty contact cement to attached the felt and leather strips to the backchecks, not very concerned with appearance, though they turn out okay, anyway. (See below.)
While working on the keys, many of the felt pieces that I had attached with double-sided adhesive tape were coming loose, due to the tape sticking to fibers but pulling the fibers away from the actual felt pieces. Double-sided tape was a quick, easy solution, but ultimately ineffective, I decided. Bad planning part one. So, I took them all up and re-glued them. That took about two hours, which is the max drying time on the contact cement, so I brought that in just under the time limit. Then I realized, I was going to have a hard time getting the assembly out of the sunroom and into the dining room, due to the arrangement of doors and temporary walls to contain our ill cat. Bad planning part two. With Mrs. S’s help, I was able to navigate the doors and put the assembly back into the dining room on the work table I have set up in there. Everything looks pretty good:

In the middle of the night last night, I woke up and started thinking about things – as I often due on nights before work after extended periods of time off – and I suddenly realized that in order to attach the hammers properly, the keys have to be slid in under the hammers (I think). That means I’m going to have to take them all off the assembly again anyway. (I might be wrong about the reassembly order. I hope so.) Bad planning part three.

I have to say, however, I feel good about the progress made this past weekend. I’m getting close to major steps in the piano’s reassembly, not the least of which is reattaching the soft arm, which will allow me to finish restringing the piano. (Have to buy some new screws for the arm before I can do that.) I’m hoping, therefore, that the majority of the bad planning issues are out of my system and the remainder of the work will go quickly and smoothly. Time will tell.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Days 62 and 63 – Friday and Saturday, November 26 and 27 – Anybody have the phone number for China?

Goals: Just get back to working on the piano, damn it!

Music: Mary Lou Williams’ “Free Spirits”; Eddie Condon’s “1927 - 1943”; Benny Carter’s “Further Definitions”; Clark Terry’s “Memories of Duke”; fight songs of Alabama and Auburn University. (Yes, I worked while watching football. And no, I didn’t skip a bunch of CD’s when I was working my way through the C’s in my collection; I got some new recordings and that’s what I listened to.)

Well, finally, I stopped making excuses or not making excuses and I just got back to work. On Friday, I worked on cutting little pieces of felt and leather to the right size to make the soft tabs for the soft board. I was a little dismayed at how hard it was to get my eyes to focus at a distance and then focus back up close while watching the football, and that made it go a little slower. By the time I had finished four tabs (eighty one more to go!), I was starting to think what a good idea outsourcing really is. I was not looking forward to Saturday at all.

And of course, on Saturday, Mrs. S’s first question to me was, are you going to work on that piano or not? (She said it a little differently.) So, I moved everything into the sunroom to take advantage of the better light, and I got down to it. I measured off and cut the felt and leather in three stages. As I cut each piece of felt, I also had to trim it to attach to the leather. Then, I cut the leather in matching sections, the same way I had removed the original ones from the soft board. When I had twenty or thirty ready to go, I brushed contact cement on the felt and then on the leather, then after attaching them, brushed the other end of the leather tab and then the marked spots on the soft board and attached them, going by the approximate number of the tabs that I matched the sizes to and compensating for slightly smaller or slightly larger ones by moving them a spot or two left or right. After two batches, I just had two sections not yet covered and I had original tabs from both the short and long ends of those sections, so I scaled my cuttings to match, repeated the gluing process, and four hours later, I forgot all about sending my piano to China. Here’s the end result:

Today, I’m going to do some heavy lifting, including felt and leather on the keys, reassembling the action, and moving the lid panels into the dining room to get them out of the bedroom before we have the carpet in there cleaned. Got to order some hinges for the panels, too.

I may have found a source for some of the parts I’m missing, too. I’ve started an email exchange and I’ll let you know how it goes...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

No, not Thanksgiving either.

Okay. Here’s the deal.  No excuses. I didn’t work on the piano this past weekend because I didn’t feel like it. Instead, I worked out in the yard trimming the front bushes, crepe myrtles, and roses on Saturday, and putting up Christmas lights on Sunday. That was a lot of work. That came after working until 1:30 in the morning Friday night/Saturday morning on a server upgrade at work. (Let’s face it, I was not going to get anything constructive done in the tired state I was in on Saturday.) Sunday, I actually had a bit of spare time and thought I might get to the piano, but I practiced my minor modes of the scales for two hours instead. Monday, I had to go in to work at 5AM, so I was in bed by 9:15 anyway. That’s the bad news for the piano.

The good news is that I’m off today through Sunday, so I plan to crank up the music and get back to work in a big way. I’m going to start by cutting pieces of felt and leather for the soft arm so I can get back to restringing. I have to buy some hinges, and then we should be ready to put everything back together. I should be able to play some Christmas carols on my piano, no matter what.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The way things go, sometimes

It was another lost weekend for me. I got started cleaning and organizing my room and just really never got out of it. I spent a good amount of time practicing my modes of the melodic minor scales and a tune or two, and, well, that was it. We’re still dealing with a sick cat and after the late night coming back from the jazz concert in Birmingham on Friday, I wasn’t very energetic. I pulled out some Christmas lights and started planning this year’s display, messed around on Facebook some, and never worked on my piano for even a minute. I’m thinking that if I don’t finish it around Thanksgiving break, it will be Christmas before I do finish it. It rained Sunday, I drank absinthe for the first time, and there are no other excuses. The weekend just slowly passed me by.

Speaking of the concert, Poncho Sanchez and His Latin Jazz Orchestra was Friday night, and honestly, it sucked. Their music was uninspired, their set short, and they kept exhorting the crowd to dance by playing an endless series of nameless salsa tunes. They didn’t do any really big hits, they did only one encore and yeah, some of the rhythm riffs they did with some unusual instruments were mildly interesting, and the horn section was tight, but I couldn’t shake the feeling they were more or less sleepwalking through the evening. They just showed up, played a few tunes, and left. It was disappointing.

Going into the “season” of concerts in Birmingham, I was most excited about Poncho, somewhat enthused about Bill Frisell, and basically unenthusiastic for Pat Metheny. But when the concerts were all over, I liked Pat Metheny the best, Bill Frisell second, and Poncho finished dead last. Funny how that happened.

Lost weekend = boring blog entry. Sorry about that, but that’s the way things go, sometimes.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Bill Frisell Review

Last Friday Mrs. S and I drove down to Birmingham to hear Bill Frisell and his “Beautiful Dreamers” trio. With Frisell, one never really knows what to expect. Some of his work is way out there, and some isn’t. And while I consider myself a fan, I’m not what one would call a “big fan”, more of a casual fan. But I have to say, the Beautiful Dreamers music and trio (guitar, drums and viola) is very approachable. The songs are recognizable, the execution is original and exhilarating, and the musicianship on display is unsurpassed. Tea for Two was a knockout and for my money, Goin’ Out of My Head was just stunning. There were a couple of songs where Bill put a music box thingy against the strings of his guitar, getting some confusing but stimulating feedback and interference loop noise going, which they then proceeded to work into the foundation of whatever song they were playing next. In addition to working extensively with feedback and reverb from the guitar, viola and their various pedals and amplifiers, Bill also did a good job of playing bass and rhythm parts when support was needed for the viola. Another trademark of Frisell’s group was their use of repeated patterns – patterns that once they are set up, can be returned to or not, varied or not, transposed or not, soloed over or not, and then, you can go right back to it and it all sounds fine. I was actually more intrigued by that than anything else. (Let’s face it: holding a music box on the strings of a guitar just isn’t all that exciting for someone who’s only recently seen Pat Metheny’s Orchestrion concert.)

As far as I can tell, they played all or almost all of the songs off the Beautiful Dreamers CD, which kept the session short and sweet and got us home at a reasonable hour thanks to the 7:30 start time. There were big chunks of seats in the middle of the theater that were unused, so we got to move over and have a little better view too. (It was an intimate setting to begin with – just 300 seats – and very comfortable.)
Tonight is going to be a bit more dynamic and a lot later night, with Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Orchestra playing in the big hall and starting a half hour later than Frisell’s trio did. But I plan to absorb all the energy I can. You might not recognize me come Saturday.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Day 61 –Sunday, November 7 – Close call:

Goals: Continue restringing; get some felt work done..

Music: Dexter Gordon’s “Our Man In Paris” and “Go!”; John McLaughlin’s “Extrapolation”; theme and background music from Iron Man II.

On Saturday, I elected to take advantage of the weather to get some yard work done, and that pretty much kept me away from the piano. I was not, however, willing to let the work slide for a second weekend in a row, so on Sunday, I set myself to continue with the restringing. When I finished with the first size wire, I decided I had better make sure I had a clear delineation of the remaining wires so that if I had made a mistake in the first phase, it wouldn’t affect any of the later stages. I counted the wire gauges and quantities, counted the holes, lined everything up, and amazingly, everything matched. I was ready to continue with the stringing, and all I had to do was check one picture to see exactly where the strings run to on harp support frame.

It’s a good thing I decided to check the pictures, because not only did I notice I forgot to put in one piece of felt (which I corrected by loosening the wires and pushing the felt underneath), I also noticed that the “soft” board goes under the strings, and guess what? When I tried to fit it in, it doesn’t fit. I’m thinking it might be possible to run it below the strings through the hole where the hammers project, but that will be a pain and I’m not entirely sure it is even possible. So, that put an end to the restringing project until I can at least put the soft board in place.

Man, I shudder to think how crushed I would have been to finish the restringing only to find I left out the soft board and there was no way to insert. I’m sure I would have cried. (For real.)

No longer able to continue the stringing, I cut some felt pieces, punched some holes in one and finished reattaching felt to the key except for the backchecks. I’ve got a lot of the leather for the back checks cut, so I just have to replace a few pieces of felt and then glue the leather over them. It shouldn’t take long, and this week, I really am going to work on that when I watch TV during the evenings. I also have to cut the leather and felt for the soft board so I can put that back in and start stringing again.

I will say this: if I ever get depressed about my lack of progress on the piano or how not all the repair jobs are living up to my expectations, all I have to do is look at pictures of the piano from before I brought it home and as I started working on it. Seriously, it doesn’t even look like the same piano. When I finish, I’m going to post a bunch of before and after shots. Those will be one of the best sales tools for when I’m ready to part with the piano.

Next entry will be about the Bill Frisell concert last Friday. I’m not going to write an awful lot about the felt work…

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Zombies Attack My Piano

After getting all psyched up and bragging about how I would work on my piano during some weeknights, not only did I not do any work during the week, but I skipped working on the piano this past weekend as well. My only two excuses were, my back was still sore from the stringing job the week before, and, I didn’t feel like it. I did, however, practice a good bit, as long as my back would let me sit on a piano bench, but the minor ii-V-I cadences are doing me in, so I didn’t practice nearly as much as I should have.

Then this morning, after a rugged night of passing out candy, and not enough sleep due to staying up to watch “The Walking Dead” and waking up early with a stomach ache because of too much licorice, my back is a throbbing ball of pain, and now I’m in worse shape than ever. So, I’m going to keep it simple this week:
·         Eat less (we passed out all the candy to the 98 trick-or-treaters we had, so that one’s easy)
·         Exercise every morning (expecting good temperatures for this as well)
·         Enjoy dinner and the Bill Frisell concert on Friday night
·         Work hard on my piano over the weekend, and
·         Practice

I’m targeting the Sunday after Thanksgiving to finish the piano. It must happen.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Days 59 and 60 – Saturday and Sunday, October 23 and 24 – Time to get a move on:

Goals: Fill gaps in mother-of-pearl inlay; start restringing.

Music: Terry Gibbs Dream Band’s “Flying Home”; Jimmy Giuffre’s “Free Fall”; Benny Goodman’s “1938 Carnegie Concert”. (I’m skipping Dizzy Gillespie and one of my Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band CD’s, because we have them in regular rotation on our “get ready to go to work in the morning” play set. I hear them a lot lately.)

When I took a look at the mother of pearl inlay, I had my doubts I would ever be able to get it to look like much of anything. I decided that since I still had some bare spots and still had some nice blanks, I could do with putting in a few more pieces, so that was what I did. Actually, I’ve gotten pretty good at it. You can almost tell which pieces I did first and which I did later just by looking at the quality of the work.

After putting in all the pieces I was going to put in, I grabbed my black inlay filler, and had at that. It was a mess going on, but after everything was dry, I was able to take a wet cloth and clean up the board quite nicely. When I took it out of the sun, it looked pretty good. Since I was on a bit of a roll, I decided to go ahead with the gold painting.

Fortunately for me, Mrs. S has been into oil painting lately, so she had a couple of very fine brushes that would work for the gold paint application. Unfortunately, the lines are so fine and require such a deft touch that I could hardly put any paint on the brush. Working outside in the sun, by the time I got the brush to the board, the paint had literally dried right on the brush. Putting enough paint on the brush to keep it wet long enough to get it to the board left a line that was too thick and clumsy looking. I had to give up on the painting. I’m going to have to come up with some other solution. (Gold marking pen, maybe?)

I spent the better part of the afternoon on Sunday working on the strings. My new, longer tuning pins arrived Saturday, along with some rubber baby buggy bumpers for the lid and a replacement lock also for the lid, so I didn’t have any excuse to put off that hard work any longer.

I tried a new method of stringing: I measure the two runs from pin to hole center, add four inches for winding around the pins, and cut the wire to length. Then I string the wire through one of the pins and drive it in. Then I do the other. Once I line up the wire and the felt, I tighten the outside pin until it has at least one coil of wire. Then I do the other pin. Check alignment, tighten, check alignment, tighten, and repeat until the wire is tight. Then I tap each wire and rough tune until they at least have the same tonality. This method turned out to be remarkably effective, as I have yet to end up with too much or too little wire. It still is brutally hard work, requiring concentration, strength, good eyes, patience, intuition, luck, and lots of bending. No wonder my back and neck are really feeling it today (especially my back – where’s my methocarbamol?)!

I’m finding out that in a lot of ways, pianos are designed to deter beginners from messing with them. For example, you have to start stringing from the toughest strings: the short, stiff, tinny sounding upper note wires. This is not to say that the bass strings are going to be any easier, but working with those short lengths of wire is tough. Now that I’ve got the majority of the high notes strung (something like an octave and three notes) I’m interested in seeing how the tuning pins and wires fare over time. Plus I can’t shake the feeling that I’m going something out of order and may have to start stringing all over again. (I just … don’t … know …)

Finally, I’m going to have to work on this sucker some evenings starting this week. This is dragging out too long and I’m afraid I won’t remember how to put everything back together. If I let it drag out much longer, I really will forget where everything goes and how to position it, and what not. Besides, I definitely need the keys back in to hear what the strings sound like.

It’s time to make a big push.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The learning process

Prior to jazz improv class on Monday night, I had a good look at the piano (Yamaha concert grand) and noticed how cleanly and how neatly the strings are wound around the tuning pins. They are even, precise and consistent, nothing at all like the eight pins I did on my piano. I also discovered that mine aren’t even wound in the right direction. (My wound coils are above the insertion point of the wire, not below it, like they are on the grand.) The only reason I strung the coils above the insertion point is because there didn’t seem to be enough room to do them below the wire. Then, all of a sudden, I remembered that we purchased a set of pins that was a quarter inch shorter than the pins that came out of the piano, and that when I drive the new pins in, it doesn’t leave enough room before the wire insertion hole to make two windings of wire without touching the harp and pressing down too hard on the bridges.

Damn. Here’s a shot of my predicament and my shoddy wire windings:

So, I’m going to have to buy the correct length pins. That gives me an opportunity, however, to get the plated ones that look fancier, which is what I really wanted in the first place, even though it leaves me out of pocket for the $68 I spent on the set of pins I’m not going to use (unless I undertake another piano renovation soon – and that’s not happening).

This has me thinking that the best way to complete the finishing work on the piano is just like I did this weekend: finish a small portion of the job as best I can, then check online, check my piano refurbishing book, and look around and think about it, then decide if that is the right way or not. Then I can undo the small portion of completed work rather easily and quickly if it is wrong, or, I can keep going with no progress lost in the meantime if I happen to guess right the first time around.

This has definitely been a learning process, but the piano is getting closer and closer to being finished. My realization of the wire situation even is likely to get me to work on the piano on a weeknight for the first time in a while.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Days 57 and 58 – Saturday and Sunday, October 16 and 17 – Back on the Job:

Goals: Work on the mother-of-pearl inlay; start restringing.

Music: Stan Getz’s “Focus”; Terry Gibbs’ “Dream Band”. (Focus is probably Stan Getz’s best work ever. It features him backed by a full orchestra, but due to the sudden death of his mother, the orchestra recording session went on without him. He recorded his tracks later and when his and the orchestra’s tracks were put together, magic!)

On both Saturday and Sunday, I worked on the inlay for about an hour and a half each day, without music, so I could concentrate on what I was doing. The result was quite good, but, I’ve decided I’m done inlaying. I’m going to paint the remaining gaps black and accent them with gold paint. Or, since I still have some blanks, maybe I’ll put just a few more pieces in, just to brighten it up a little bit. (I’m getting pretty good at it, but man, it is tedious work.)

Speaking of tedious work, after touching up the stain on the inside of the piano around the harp trim, I decided to start restringing. Holy crap, is that hard! I spent an hour and a half and finished four double strings. It is incredibly difficult to get the lengths of wire right and it is basically impossible to get clean spools of wire on the pins. The end result is it doesn’t look like much, but the strings are on and they make a semblance of tonal sound when struck. I’m not sure, but I’m thinking about redoing them. Probably I will just keep going, but if I reach the point where I can actually make the pins and strings look good, I will likely go back and make the first few crappy ones look more like the rest. That assumes of course that I will get some skill and actually become halfway talented at putting strings and tuning pins in, at some point, and hopefully before I get to the irreplaceable wound strings. (It would totally suck to break one of them like I broke the one that I tried to do slightly different to make a nice looking spiral. Enough about that, though.)

So, there is no way I’m going to finish the piano this month. There is just too much slow, hard work left. Thanksgiving is a realistic goal, but Christmas seems more likely. I definitely bit off more than I can chew with this project, but now there’s nothing to do but to keep eating until I finish the meal or start puking.