Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Playing stride piano and one degree of serendipity

(None of the photos in this blog entry were PhotoShopped. Believe it. Not because I say, "believe it", but because, it is true!)

Last week, I started in earnest to learn how to play stride piano. Since I’m so weak with my left hand, I figured, if I learned to play stride, I could eventually do anything. Stride piano, however, is extremely difficult. Nothing I have ever attempted on the piano before has been as challenging as making my left hand play something that is completely different, both in notes and rhythm, than my right hand. I have many times started to learn stride, only to stop as my progress was too slow, or so small as to be completely discouraging. But then, I had a thought: Once upon a time, I couldn't play a ii-V-I progression. I couldn't play a Miles Davis tune, or a jazz waltz, or, anything. Eventually, I learned. So (I pointed out to myself) stride should be the same. Today I can’t play it. Someday, I will be able to. And sure enough, I started with a simple four bar phrase that changes chords twice per bar, and, tried to play it, and hacked it, and hacked it, and hacked it. I did this for three days, for twenty or thirty minutes each day. (Just ask Mrs. S how she’s liked my playing the last week if you don’t believe me.) Then, about two days ago, I sat down, no music, no metronome, no nothing, and played it straight through four times with no mistakes. Four bars down, 124 (or something) to go.

The first moment of serendipity - not distracted
Really, stride is about distracting yourself. If you can reach the point where your fingers, hand, wrist, and arm move on their own, you can turn off the conscious part of the brain that controls that activity, and focus more intently on the melody in the right hand, or the music overall. It’s sort of the opposite of consciously pursuing something that you experience unconsciously every day.

Like the temperature.

55 degrees is not unusual in February in Alabama. It’s not typical either. I’d sort of had in the back of my mind the last week or so, that with any kind of luck, I could find myself in 55 degrees of heat or cool when my car odometer flipped to the 55555 mile mark. Yesterday, after driving home from work and then around the block a few times, my car odometer was at 55555, but alas, the outside temperature, after peaking around 57 in the afternoon, had dropped to chilly 54 during my ride home. 

One degree short of serendipity - like stride piano on the second day of trying it: just not coming together
I parked the car, closed the garage door, and turned on a bunch of portable floodlights. I checked the car every half hour or so. It never budged above 54. I was one measly, but stubborn, degree Fahrenheit from serendipity. But I can do nothing about the weather, so, I gave up and went to bed.

With the temperature dipping into the forties overnight, I’m not sure how my garage got up to 59 degrees – a question for my HVAC guy I guess – but that was the temperature of the car when I got in it this morning. I pulled out of the garage and into the driveway and waited for serendipity, Like a semi-miraculous play-through of a four bar stride pattern, it all came together: nothing but 5’s on my dashboard. (First picture, top.) Eleven miles and eleven degrees later, as I pulled into a gas station to gas up, it came apart in tandem. Together again. Weird.

Day four of playing stride piano: stuff comes together without thinking about it (Notice the gas gauge ever so slightly - eleven miles' worth - lower. I repeat: NOT PhotoShopped!)
Stride piano, my odometer, the temperature in February, and my consciousness, all in a state of serendipity. Just keep going, and stuff comes together.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Why I Still Don’t Own an Acoustic Piano, Part Four

Or, Wading Through the Piano Ad Jargon, Part Two

See yesterday’s post for a brief explanation of today’s post.

Seller says = Actual meaning

Highly desirable model = it’s not as irritating as measles

Rare = I've been to every storage unit auction in the tri-county area and I've never seen one of these

This piano just needs a good home = it needs to be somewhere other than this house

Very well cared for = we've never set it on fire and we cleaned most of the rat droppings out of it

Reconditioned = it was broke, but we kind of fixed it

Refurbished = it was broke, but we paid some guy to kind of fix it

Restored = it was broke, but we paid some guy to cobble together some piano parts and make it look like it was fixed

All original = we were too lazy to recondition, refurbish, or restore it

Real ivory keys = I wouldn't know ivory if I got stabbed by an elephant tusk

Original ivory keys = you can see the wood on some of the keys because the plastic stuff peeled off

Not ivory (although, these have broken off in the fashion of real ivory, so, maybe...)
The piano plays perfect = some of the keys move and when they do, there’s noise

Comes with a bench = we've got to get rid of that hunk a junk, too

Inspected by an expert and appraised for (some ridiculous number) = Uncle Bernie saw something resembling a piano on the Internet once selling for (some ridiculous number)

Sacrifice for (some equally ridiculous number) = I need (some equally ridiculous number) to buy a new ATV and some socks

Serious inquiries only = Okay, I'll take $5000 less than (some equally ridiculous number)

Like I said yesterday, it took me a long time to figure out a lot of this jargon, and that’s why I still don’t own an acoustic piano. (End part four)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Why I Still Don’t Own an Acoustic Piano, Part Three

Or, Wading Through the Piano Ad Jargon, Part One

Piano sellers, God bless them, are a unique lot. There are a handful of realists out there, but for some reason, 95% percent of the people trying to sell a piano on e-bay or Craigslist see a gold mine and not a money pit. They aren't going to admit that there are a plethora of nicer, and correctly priced, pianos out there because for whatever reason, they think their piano is better or “special”. For this reason, it’s safe to say their viewpoint is not going to improve and they will continue to embellish the descriptions of their marginal (or worse) pianos. So, for those who are new to the piano buying game, I thought I would put my three years of experience and acquired knowledge to good use and compose this “Piano Buyer’s Guide to Piano Seller’s Jargon”, just to help out. It’s not all inclusive, but you should get the idea by reading through the short list below:

Seller says = Actual meaning

Brand new = a couple years old

Close to brand new = it’s pretty new, but something on it's broke

Like new = it was new, once, a couple years, okay decades, ago

Vintage = really old, which is why it doesn't work but I’m still trying to sell it

Antique = my grandma got it from her grandma and it’s been in our family ever since and we didn't know what to do with it aside from putting framed pictures and doilies on top of it

Requires TLC = broken

What the seller sees
Just needs tuning = just needs new pins, thirty or forty strings replaced, a dehumidifier or humidifier, and two tunings by a professional, at least two weeks apart

Not all the keys work but can easily be fixed = will only cost a couple thousand to get in working order

Needs minor repair = we couldn't get it to work

A few nicks and scratches = one of the legs still has some paint on it

Great for a beginner = if you've never touched a piano before, you might even believe for a couple of minutes that this is a musical instrument

Nobody in our family plays = See “antique”

Our daughter only played it a few hours a week when she was little = the chocolate milk stain is quite faded and most of the snot has flaked off by now

What the buyer sees
Can’t bear to see this piano not being used = we have enough firewood

Sounds as good as the day we brought it home = I’m still as tone deaf as a rock under water

Seriously, it took me a long time to figure out a lot of this jargon, and that’s why I still don’t own an acoustic piano. (End part three)

Tomorrow: Part Four of Why I Still Don’t Own an Acoustic Piano, which will also be part two of Wading Through the Piano Ad Jargon

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Why I still don’t own an acoustic piano, Part Two

A couple of weeks back, I was reading the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal and they had an article about a woman’s quest to buy a piano. She sounded to be cast much in the same mold as me: not particularly talented, not particularly rich, but sure of her dedication to playing and with a devotion to jazz. Without belaboring the fine points of the article, it ended up that she ran across a second hand Baldwin grand that she and her jazz-oriented instructor liked the sound of, and so she ended up with (I believe) a Baldwin concert grand in her house.

This entry would be too boring without a picture of a piano, so, why not a nice Yamaha?!
Up until reading that article, I’d never considered a Baldwin, much like I’d never considered a Steinway until I ran across a cheap one on Craigslist (this in spite of the fact that the Wall Street Journal had another piece about a woman buying a Steinway a few years back. Now that I think about it, why is it always a woman?) But, if somebody could write a newspaper article about that experience, I felt I owed it to myself to at least consider the piano that was the subject matter.

Since reading that article, I've broadened my search to include Steinways and Baldwins, still without success. You would think with so many pianos to choose from, it would be a simple matter to find one I liked at a good price. I think my point is: buying a piano is pretty much like buying a car. There are sports cars and roadsters and sedans and old ones that work and old ones that need work, and European made and Asian made and USA made, and they call come in different colors with different features, and in the second hand market, some owners have nice ones they just want to get rid of, and some have junk that they just want moved, and some have nice ones they’ll only sell for the right price, and some have middling ones that they are attached to and they end up being overpriced, and some just don’t know what a fair price is and so they are priced wrong from start to finish, and some are worth buying and considering and some are not, and some should be pursued and some should be positively avoided.

And all that availability and information and misinformation and static and noise is why I still don’t own an acoustic piano. (End part two)

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Why I still don’t own an acoustic piano, Part One

For Sale: 1992 Steinway & Sons Model M Grand Piano. Current retail for a new M Grand is $57,900. Piano is EBONY SATIN (the most desired finish) with matching bench. Very well maintained. Kept tuned. More photos available. Moving across the country March 31. Taking no furniture.
Did that get your attention? Yes, it got my attention, too. And when I contacted the seller and learned she would possibly consider a price even lower than what she was asking, and that she was on a tight deadline with an imminent, furnitureless move to California in the works, I felt I owed it to myself to find out if maybe, just possibly, a Steinway might be in my future. Of course, Mrs. S heard “Steinway” and a price that was marginally within the limits of our home equity line of credit and she said, “You should buy it”. I told her to hold on there, and let’s go and look at it and see what it looks like and go from there.

The corner of the cabin filled with a Steinway
So we traveled up to a log house in Cheatham County Tennessee that was built in 1832 and is the second oldest house in Tennessee (or something like that) to see a lady’s piano. There were lots of stories to go with the piano: slight water damage from when an upstairs bath leaked, strings “rusting” and being rusted and being replaced. The piano seems largely to have been purchased as decoration, and as such, the current owner had no cover and, as far as I can tell, stored the piano with both the lid and fallboard open pretty much all the time (I didn't directly ask her if that was the case). I played the piano. It sounded fine, but in all honesty, nothing special. Inside the log home (which the owner kindly showed us around – it was beautiful, original and highly desirable), the corner where the Steinway was stashed was quite dark and unaccommodating. I couldn't see any of the features of the piano, even with the flashlight I brought. The piano was a bit out of tune, but okay for the most part. It hardly sounded “bright” as the owner described, though I would say it sounded brighter than a typical Steinway concert grand. It was, however, a rather dull sounding piano overall. I’m not sure if that could have been because it was dusty and cobwebby, or dried out, or too close to the wall, or it was just never an exciting piano. I was disappointed. I told the owner I’d think about it, but by and large, I’d already given up the idea of owning that piano.

This gives a better idea of how dark and secluded the area around the piano is (photo taken with flash)
Back home with Mrs. S, we discussed the potential. At the price and for that piano, it was desirable, if only we could figure out whether the water damage really was a trivial issue and why a string had broken and two others needed servicing (and how soon would the rest break or need servicing). I was far from buying the piano, and getting farther the more I thought about it and discussed it.

The Monday following, Mrs. S was off work. While I sat at work during lunch time, perusing another unexciting edition of Craigslist, filled with mediocre and undesirable pianos, I started to think the lonely Tennessee Steinway at the decent price point might be the way to go. In the meantime, Mrs. S found a piano buyer’s discussion group where someone had tested that very same piano (serial number match) six years before, and apparently, just before the current owner purchased it. (She’s owned it since 2006.) He said he found a problem with some of the tuning pins being too close together. He also said what I thought: the piano did not impress him.

Still, I think about that piano. If, after I grabbed it up, I sent it to New York for refurbishing, when I got it back I would have a certifiable, refurbished, Steinway grand piano. Hard to go wrong. But, with so many unanswered questions about that piano, I haven’t bought it yet, and that’s why...

I still don't own an acoustic piano. (End part one)