Monday, January 31, 2011

Still scared – still not back in the water

It’s a good thing I have my piano off in the seldom visited corner of the house. You know: out of sight, out of mind. Attentive (and even not so) readers will have noticed that I have not worked on my piano of late. I purchased everything I think I need to fix it and get it operational, but I have not jumped back in the pool since right around the holidays. The reason is simple: I’m scared. I’m deathly afraid that I will find the piano to be beyond repair, at which point, I will have to face that fact that I am hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars SOL. I know avoidance is not the best policy, but for now, it’s the policy I’ve chosen. Two weekends ago, I promised Mrs. S I would work on the thing this past weekend, but this past weekend, the temperatures hit darn close to 70 degrees, so I worked outside trimming all our crepe myrtles and all of Mrs. S roses instead, needing two and a half hours on Saturday and one and a half hours on Sunday to do it. So, here’s hoping it is cold and miserable next weekend to put me in the mood to work on the piano once again. Maybe I can at least finish it before I’ve owned the thing one year (Memorial Day-ish).

I’ve been occupying my other free time with practicing my melodic minor scales, searching high and low for a good trumpet, searching preliminarily for a violin, and seeking out and buying the last few CD’s I need to complete the entire 188 disc “core collection”. So let me write about those things instead.

For buying the trumpet, I enlisted the help of a classmate at school, and I did a ton of reading online. Since the trumpet will basically be just a decoration in our music room, the number one priority was to buy something that looked nice, but it also had to be playable, since I intend to mess around with it some. (That rules out “brand new student trumpets”, especially anything made in China.) Having only played the trumpet all of one summer when I was ten or eleven, I had to study some to not get too badly burned in the market. But since I wasn’t completely without experience. I was up to speed pretty quickly. Anyway, if you go to ebay and search trumpets, you will find about 135 pages with 50 items to a page, or roughly 7000 trumpets, mouthpieces, stands, pipes, valves, care kits, etc. It is no small task weeding out the wheat from the chaff. And after letting a really nice, rare trumpet slip away last week, I paid close attention this weekend and picked up a 1941 vintage Conn trumpet for right at $350. It is two-toned, engraved, and very classic looking. I’m excited to see it in person. Here’s a picture from the auction:
The 1941 Conn "New York" Trumpet
So after that, Mrs. S said, see if you can spend the same energy and effort to find a violin. Well, if you go to ebay and search violins, (wait for it) you will find about 885 pages with 50 items, or roughly 45,000 violins or violin items. Of those, roughly  44,273 of them are made in China. (Mrs. S said, “No ‘Made in China’, no matter how good it looks or how cheap it is.”) Despite the long odds, I still found a couple of nice ones, but the closest we could come to buying one, was finishing second in a reserve auction that the first place bidder did not win because not even he bid enough. Unlike the trumpet, it is unlikely that Mrs. S or I will play the violin, other than taking a few token strokes over it with the bow, so we’re primarily looking for something that looks nice and which we will be able to resell for what we pay for it. That means we’re going to have to spend a couple hundred on it, too.  And, we have to keep looking and wading through the plethora of Du-shi and Xiang Ho and Ming Mang Mong instruments.

Who knew having a music room to display an antique piano in could be so difficult and expensive?

I’ll write about the CD collection in a separate entry.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A(nother) Night with Joshua Bell

For the third time in eleven months, the virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell made his way to Alabama, and so, for the second time in about eight months, we made the trip to Birmingham to see him and hear him play. I think if Mrs. S could have written a script of how the night would go, it would have gone pretty much like last night did. Here’s the rundown.

The drive from Madison to Birmingham was uneventful. So much so, we had time to scout out the dinner location prior to the beginning of the cocktail party, which started one hour prior to the concert itself. Even with all that, we were still the first to arrive for drinks. So, we had some. They had some good finger foods there, too, (smoked turkey pita pockets, anyone?) and though we were reluctant to fill up on them prior to the concert and post concert dinner, we ended up eating our fair share of them (which turned out to be a good thing, for reasons which I will soon divulge).

The concert (I thought) was average. I just didn’t think the songs were that exciting. Of course, Mr. Bell’s performance was top notch, as was that of his accompanist, Sam Haywood. I suppose the only notable event at the concert was the mad rush to the stage to try to find the horsehair that fell from Josh’s bow during the final suite of songs. (Nobody could find it.) We stood in line to get an autograph before heading to the post concert dinner.

The dinner was held at an old house at Birmingham that had been converted to an arts studio, with music studios, dance room, poetry room, the works. It was a lovely old house and held the fifty or so dinner guests comfortably. We mingled with the guests while sipping California wine and toured the building on our own. We met lots of interesting, influential Birminghammers. When Mr. Bell arrived, the remainder of the party obviously revolved around him. Mrs. S. wanted to take a bunch of pictures and get her picture taken with him, so while most of the rest of the folks headed off to the buffet, we stood around drinking and watching other people chat with JB. Eventually, we got our chance to chat and take photos before he himself headed off to the buffet.

Mrs. S and Joshua Bell
All that standing around translated into us being the last to hit the buffet. By the time we were ready to sit down and eat, several people had already moved into the living room, as most of the seats in the two dining areas were taken. But there were, in fact, two seats available at one of the tables, right next to Mr. Bell. And we were welcomed to sit, so Mrs. S plopped right down next to her idol. It was a fast and fascinating dinner. Mrs. S couldn’t take but a few bites of her meal, partly because it wasn’t very good, but also because she was so excited to sit next to Mr. Bell. JB, for his part, is an amiable, charming personality, and he obviously knows a lot, has many interesting stories, and is very indulgent of his fans. I would guess we spent a good seven or eight minutes, just chatting with him. He signed a personalized autograph for Mrs. S. and answered questions about whether he would so some more jazz projects (maybe) and why he comes to Alabama so often (“Because they keep asking me”). He left after the hostess’s birthday cake came out. We drank champagne and ate cake before hitting the road. At 11:00 at night, on a frigid mid-week evening in mid-January, I was able to lock the cruise control at 75 and we made it home at exactly one minute before midnight.

Honestly, I was a little amazed at how much fun I had. We became patrons of the arts in Birmingham Alabama for one night, and it was exhilarating. Like I told the hostess, who said it must be rough to drive down from Huntsville to Birmingham and back for the event, “If I could do this every week, I would.”

Monday, January 17, 2011

Something else that is nearing completion

At the end of last year, I tallied up the number of CD’s I have from the Penguin Core Collection (Eighth edition) and found I had reached about 75% completion of the 188 or so CD’s. And as I have said in the past, all or nearly all of the ones that I have are “low hanging fruit”: easily purchased from amazon or ebay for a few, or sometimes maybe twenty, dollars. Now, I’ve got around 40 to go to complete the collection, and I’ve begun pushing it. In fact, I was lucky to find some of the missing ones for as low as $5 here and there, usually on ebay. Some of the others are semi-low hanging fruit, in that they require some surfing around and they are often expensive (more than $20, sometimes $50 and up), but at least they are out there and available. That can’t be said for all of the remainder. Some are as rare as a unicorn and cannot be had for love, money, or anything else.

A good example of the latter is the Art Ensemble of Chicago 1967-68 CD. I’ve only ever seen two. The first was on ebay for “$125 or best offer”. I offered $77 but it ended up selling for $100. The other was listed for $200 and it sold in a day. I haven’t seen one since. Another one I’ve never seen is Humphrey Lyttelton’s Parlophones, volumes 1-4. I’ve only ever seen volume 1, and they were asking $100. That would push the price of the set up to $400, (if you could find the other three in the first place). That’s just not worth it. I suppose if I get all the others and  it comes down to it, I might spend that much to complete the collection. (After all, if they are selling for that much, they can probably be resold for that much, or possibly even more, at some point in the future.) Personally, I just want to see the collection laid out on the floor to see what it looks like. I think it will make an awesome picture. (I plan to sit down in the middle of it.

I briefly toyed with the idea of downloading MP3 for some of the ones missing from my collection. I nixed that idea because usually, the recordings are esoteric enough that the MP3 isn’t available either, but I also felt that downloading MP3’s constituted a bit of cheating or forgery. Having collected stamps for forty years now, I would never stoop to making a color copy of a stamp just to fill a space in my album. That just doesn’t make sense. I considered an MP3 file that same thing: it’s a color copy of an original, and just not the same.

Although I have nothing against Martin Luther King Day, with so many CD’s in transit, I’m aggravated that there won’t be any mail delivery today. I’m itching to size up my current purchasing activities, narrow down my focus, and do what has to be done to complete the collection. Not getting mail or package deliveries slows down my efforts. I did, however, get my oversized tuning pins and shims on Saturday, so I have plenty of other things I could be doing, if I felt up to it. I’m saving that for Saturday though. Honestly, it just feels good to write about something other than my goofed up piano.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Day 76 – Sunday, January 9 – More things to swear about

Goals: Shim loose pins and continue rough tuning piano.

Music: Louis Armstrong’s “Complete RCA Victor Recordings” discs 3 and 4.

With my shims ready to go, it was time to test them out. I checked the tuning of the middle ‘A’ that I had done the day before, and I found it had disconcertingly slipped. I retuned it and it seemed like it would stick, at least for another day. I moved to the G# below it, where I had already removed one pin and wire. I inserted a shim, made it stick, put the pin in and turned it down. It sort of stuck. Sort of. I put the wire on and tried to tighten it, but alas, it would not hold.

Where one wouldn’t work, maybe two would. So, I put another shim in opposite the first one and tightened the pin. Again, this seemed to work, but it occurred to me that maybe I wanted more wood surface on the pin and less sandpaper and varnish, so stacking the shims might be a better idea. So I removed the pin and found the shims essentially shredding themselves to pieces against the pin.

Not good.

So I stacked a new shim on one of the old ones, inserted and turned the pin, and it held. It took about 25 minutes start to finish, mainly due to having to get the shims positioned correctly, but also wrestling with the existing wire. I did one more in the B-flat range, and that one actually worked. All-in-all, the sandpaper seems like an acceptable solution, but not if I hope to sell the thing someday. I made up my mind to go ahead and buy proper shim material, including some of the collared bushings, just to see if they work any better or worse than the metal shim option, but also to check out their appearance. As I said in my last entry, I’m at the point where I’m just trying to avoid having to redo everything. Hopefully, the “designed as shim material” shim material will be the solution.

Come to think of it, I didn’t swear hardly at all during this session. I was concentrating and checking results and thinking too hard to cuss out my piano. Or it might have been the rum I was drinking… 

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Day 75 – Saturday, January 8 – Again

Goals: Replace untuneable pins with larger pins and rough tune first set of wires.

Music: Louis Armstrong’s “Complete RCA Victor Recordings”, discs 1 and 2.

I thought that at last, this would be a simple job, but I was wrong.

I found the strings that equate to middle ‘A’, on which one of the pins would not hold tune. I replaced it with one of the larger pins that arrived this week, and that worked fine. I rough tuned to the string to 440 Hz, plucking it with a credit card. So happened the next string over also had one pin that would not hold tune. Took it out, inserted a larger pin, and,

Still untuneable.

Cover your ears because here it comes:


I literally stood there and thought for the next fifteen minutes. Just standing, staring at the piano, sagging my head, thinking: Start over? Gut it? Buy another set of even larger pins? Try some bushings? Try some shims? Start over? Gut it? Shims? Bushings? Start over? Gut?

I went online to investigate more about bushings and shims. I stumbled across a do-it-yourself shim method using sandpaper and varnish, which I happened to have on hand. I have nothing to lose by trying it at this point. So I spent the rest of the work session prepping the sandpaper, which involves varnishing the back of it to stiffen it. We’re going to cut tapered strips that are 3/8” at the top and ¼” at the bottom, insert those sandpaper side to the pin block, push it so it holds itself in place, then set the pin in and turn it until it seats. If this doesn’t work, I’ll have to splurge for actual bushing material, which is only a couple of bucks, although, I don’t see why the sandpaper shouldn’t work. Here’s the varnished sandpaper before and after cutting:

Keeping fingers firmly crossed.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Days 73 and 74 – Friday and Saturday, December 30 and 31 – A Smattering Modicum of Advancement

Goals: Finish the metal wire “stringing”; order parts to move on to the final stages.

Music: Paul Bley’s “Time Will Tell”; Charles Gayle’s “Touchin’ on Trane”; Dave Douglas’s “Convergence”; Michel Petrucciani’s “Solo Live”.

The hardest thing I have had to deal with in this late stage of the piano restoration is figuring out how to make the wires the correct length so that they wrap neatly around the tuning pins and yet still hold the wire at or near the correct tension. I suppose one is supposed to not cut the wire, but rather, string it on one pin, pull it down to the holding pin, pull it back to the second pin, then cut the correct length at that point. Unfortunately, on a square grand, several of the wires have to pass under a frame brace or a damper arm support, and several more have the back pin under the actual frame of the piano. Needless to say, it is not possible to pass a coil of wire through these narrow spaces. That leaves only the option of cutting the wire to length. This is tricky, due to the bends the wire has to take around the pin blocks and due to the unsure wrapping requirement, which depends so much on the pin tension, which depends so much on the condition of your 130-year old piece of pine wood pin block. It’s a process and a guessing game and a lottery, all rolled into one. I finally figured out that I could just measure the longest string for the given wire gauge, then shorten it once I had it partially strung. If that string seemed too short before I’d got to the end of that gauge wire, I could make the next one a few inches longer, and that would limit the amount of wasted wire that ended up being too short to reach the tuning pins.

(Too late, this led to another realization: I could have done short and long wires of different gauges at different stages of the restringing to hold the felt pieces in the correct positions, instead of adjusting the felt as I went. Although I did not end up with an especially unattractive felt pad, its hole alignment also is not perfect. Again, hindsight is 20-20, and I make this note here not only to admit my inexperience, but also to hopefully help someone else avoid this problem. Note also: I’m not sure how much harder – or easier – the actual stringing would have gone with this strategy, as the stringing was hard enough without having to do it in between two sets of strings. Maybe I’ll try it in a limited context on my next piano refurbishing project.)

When all was said and done, after a two day push, the second day of which really was a push until late into the evening (even after an early start), all the double-strung wire strings (52 of them) are complete. To celebrate, I drank some Cajun-spiced rum that we bought in New Orleans, and I ordered a set of larger pins and a socket adapter for touching up the wire strings and finishing the 33 wound strings. (I’m expecting many more of the holes in the lower end to be unable to hold tune with the narrow pins, due to the fact that I reamed those first and did a much more thorough job than on the higher register ones, and the increased tension of the larger strings.

Anyway, here’s a shot of the stringing so far, pre-pin adjustment/re-installation/rough tuning.