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.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Piano renovation stops for actual practice (sorry - had to happen sooner or later)

There are no days to add to the piano work. My mid-term exam in jazz improv was Monday night (more on that later), and I had to study. “Study” in this case means “practice”, as we had to be able to play three different musical patterns in any of six modes in any of 12 keys. (Yep, that’s 216 different combinations, for those of you keeping track.) We also had to be able to play a ii-V-I cadence in all twelve keys, plus we had to be able to play and solo over two tunes (Miles Davis’ “Tune Up” and Joe Henderson’s “Recorda-Me”). So, I didn’t have any time for working on the piano.

I had to be playing.

During the week, I pretty much had the tunes and 2-5-1 cadences worked out. What was killing me was the modes and keys and patterns. I developed an Excel worksheet with a random number generator so that I would be forced to work through the different patterns and modes and keys in an unpredictable sequence, which would hopefully help my retention and force me to think things through. Here’s the sheet:

Then I figured if I played through a completely randomized sheet two or three times, I’d have it pretty much covered. In working on the cadences and tunes and solos, however, I found myself lacking enough time to work through all the modes and patterns. In fact, working out solos in the correct keys for the tunes took up a lot of time, as did practicing them to the point of confidence. But working on the modes and patterns was also very difficult. Most of my problem had to do with my weak grasp of the major keys in general. A lot had to do with trying to play rootless voicing chords in the mix, which sometimes confused me, and some of it had to do with because I don’t know the key well, I had to work on the patterns repeatedly and slowly, taking way too much time. I mean, if one pattern took just one minute, I could be done in, what, 216 minutes. That’s three-and-a-half hours. True, some took just one minute, but some took two or three, some five (occasionally). In short, I only made it about three-quarters of that way through them all, and only once.

Not good. (It’s going to be even tougher during the rest of the semester, as we move to the minor keys right after our exam.)

I’m not worried about my mid-term, though. First of all, I did practice, hard, until my butt was sore. Second, it’s just music. Third, with only three students, I don’t have much to prove or much “competition”, so to speak. Even if I’m worst, I’m like the US field hockey team in 1932 – I’ll get the bronze medal because there’s only three contestants.

So, my piano project drags on as my jazz immersion goes slowly forward. It’s a trade I was forced to make, but I think I can make up for some of that by working weeknights this week. (Columbus Day screws up my movie schedule with Netflix.)

Post class update: Unbelievably, and tragically, my instructor’s father passed away last night. Class was cancelled. No mid-term test for at least another week. It is as likely as not that I will lose a good portion of next weekend to my second round of last minute practicing. Sometimes, life sucks, but never as much as death.

Final comment: I really, really want the piano to be finished. I promise. It’s going to get done and soon, one way or another.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Pat Metheny Concert: A Review

Last Friday, Mrs. S. and I traveled to Birmingham AL to sit in the front row of the Alys Stephens Center and see Pat Metheny live. Careful readers of this blog will know that I’m not a big fan of jazz guitar and I’ve never been a big fan of Pat Metheny, as I just never found his music that interesting or stimulating to me. So why would I go to see him live? Well, because he is probably the single-most famous living jazz guitarist, he has won 17 Grammies, and because you never know: the live experience might just turn it around for you. Metheny was to perform alone with his “Orchestrion”:

The original orchestrions were player pianos that manufacturer’s starting adding instruments to in order to try and stop radio from eroding their market share. They added violins, guitars, anything they could get to work with a piano roll and the piano roll motor. 

Metheny’s Orchestrion is a stage covering monstrosity. It includes two full-size Yamaha grand piano disclaviers, an accordion, a bass guitar, a rhythm guitar, a marimba, a xylophone, a vibraphone, two set of glass jugs, castanets, a full drum set, congas, sleigh bells, and more. All of these devices were rigged with solenoids of one type or another, and all were controlled from a specially built guitar hooked to bank of switches and foot pedals. With the guitar and pedals, he could tell each instrument or group of instruments what rhythm to play, what tones to play, and in what sequence to play them in. 

But before he got to that…

He started off with a solo number on a regular guitar. Then he did another solo number on a different guitar. During the second song, I had something happen to me that never happened before: I was listening so intently to the music and so engrossed in the moment, I completely forgot where I was. Essentially, I lost consciousness. When I came out of it, I felt dizzy and couldn’t remember where I was. I felt as though I needed to wake up from a dream. I’ve never had a piece of music move me like that, ever. It was downright scary. Then he brought out his 42 string pikasso guitar. 

That should’ve been the song I got lost in, but I was too enthralled in just watching him play that instrument. After that, he got to work with the orchestrion.

He played for almost two and a half hours. And although I can’t say I feel any differently about Metheny’s music in specific or jazz guitar in general, I have to say, I certainly respect Mr. Metheny as a musician and musical innovator and I’ll damn sure go and see him in concert anytime he gets within 150 miles of me. It was simply an amazing concert.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Day 56 – Sunday, October 3 – Feels Like Progress:

Goals: Re-install the harp.

Music: Gil Evans’s “Out of the Cool”; Bill Frisell’s “Unspeakable”; Stan Getz’s “Big Band Bossa Nova”. (I elected to skip Ella Fitzgerald, because I have nineteen discs of her music, having succumbed to temptation and purchased the complete songbooks with the complete Louis Armstrong. At this point, I’m more interested in experiencing the breadth of my jazz music collection, rather than the depth of it.)

I re-installed the harp.

Because I could.

Here's the last shot of the harp and piano separated from each other:

I scraped the inside of the piano a little and chipped some of the varnish on the soundboard, but I got the harp in without any major problems and no injuries to myself. I even had the right number and sizes of screws (which I bought a complete set brand new, except for the irreplaceable 8-inch long one). I added new trim around the edges. Everything went smooth and I’m glad to have a bunch more tools back in the toolbox and parts off the floor and back in the piano. Here's me at work on the trim:

After I touch up the inside, I may try my hand a restringing, even though I still have a lot of work to go on the keyboard and decorative trim. I’m anxious to fill back in all the holes before I completely forget what all goes where.

That’s all the work I did on the piano, because our jazz improvisation mid-term exam is next week and I’ve been practicing for that. (I simply can’t put that off any longer.)

In my next entry, I’ll be writing about the Pat Metheny concert I attended last Friday. You don’t want to miss that one; it was a hell of a show.