Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Other Side

Some imagine that a life of prosperity,  wealth, and ease is a sign that one has 'made it'.  If this were so then the richest people in the world and the most famous would be the happiest.  We all know better,  but we imagine that if we could only take their place, we'd be the happy ones.

We are not defined by our successes, but rather by our ability to continually overcome adversity. Overcoming assumes there is something to be climbed over. Something that maybe you can't even see over. Sometimes it means getting up just one more time, one more day. Hardships are the black velvet against which our life is viewed.  And real gems show to advantage on black. 

It's like riding a motorcycle on a curve. You must lean towards the curve to stay in balance, although it's somewhat counterintuitive. "Lean into your fears. You bring light with you." I once heard a preacher say.

So next time you get blindsided by a random struggle of life, and it may be sooner rather than later, lean in. Trust the process. And fight for all you're worth to get to the other side. 

There is another side.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Piano Diaries PART II

I met a few more new pianos last week.

First of all I started an accompanying job with a new school. The campus is new and beautiful, the choir room the newest and brightest I’ve seen for a junior high school. The piano I got to play on was a little accommodating studio Pearl River, in a warm wood tone and a touch to match. It had a few tuning issues, but on the whole it did the job. Pearl River is a sort of connected with Yamaha, and makes a lower end piano by the name of Essex for Steinway. I don’t know why, I don’t know how these alliances happen, but they are common in the piano manufacturing world.  I’d played one once before in a music store, and thought about buying it as it was priced modestly.  

I only had one rehearsal with the little Pearl River before our performance the next day at Milpitas High School. My warm-up piano was a blonde studio Wurlitzer with a somewhat loose touch, but it was still plugging away. It had put in serious time from the look of it. It made me feel like it had been a hippie back in the day, and was still attempting teenage music. Then we were whisked off to the performance room, where I played a dark wood grained Kimball. A decent little studio but with a rather muffled tone. I had no chance even touching a key before launching into Dona Nobis Pacem. Softer keys wouldn’t play every now and then. This piano worked better for loud songs; it dared me to attempt piano. It could more aptly have been nicknamed Forte. Fortunately for everyone, the next two songs were loud. The piano won in the end.

After that the fun began. Hubby and I decided to do some research on pianos, since we’re in the market. We googled piano stores. Have you ANY idea how many piano stores (and pianos, for that matter) are in the bay area?? And why?? One salesperson’s reason was, “Well, we are in Silicon Valley.” As if that would explain it. I nodded. Best not to let all your ignorance out of the bag at once. I had already run out of samples to play, while my husband’s fingers poured out music as if it was the Trevi fountain at Mardi Gras.

We stopped in at one place near the Winchester Mansion and discovered the 6ft 1 inch Shigeru Kawai grand.  Pause here for effect. Let me just say that this piano has the most beautiful tone and touch I’ve ever experienced. My husband is still talking about it in language that sounds like he’s in love. Sorry Yamaha. Sorry Steinway. Sorry Bosendorfer. You are stellar pianos, all.
Please try one of these new pianos before passing judgement. More on this later.

A bit of a diversion. Thanks to an extremely knowledgeable guy named Jeff, in the middle of this piano playing fantasia, we learned a few things about refurbished pianos. We had called his number because we stopped in at a place that had discount in the name (I know, but pianos are expensive!). We played the only decent choices in the store, two Yamaha grands that looked as if they were shined like the top of the Chrsyler building, as the notorious line from Annie goes.  Looking back I guess they may have had a bit of the Rooster-shyster who almost out-Hanniganed Hannigan. After nearly strapping a six foot Yamaha C3 to the top of our compact car, we got a call from some random guy who was selling a piano for a friend. We weren’t interested in that particular piano, but in conversation with him we learned about the piano gray market. Yep. It is as bad as it sounds. Short story? Pianos built for humid climates (Asia) should not be sent to dry climates (North America). But sometimes they are, and usually these pianos are cheaper. Buyer beware. Check your serial number. They’re all documented.

So, we moved on to the store with the Bosendorfer, the Emperor of Pianos. The oldest piano maker of the modern variety made in Europe and played by the masters, Chopin, Liszt, etc. this piano will be an heirloom, a legacy for your great-grandchildren. That is, if you can afford one. No question it’s a beauty in form and sound. (Some larger ones have more than the standard 88 keys, which is good if you really think more keys will help you play better) Until now, I’d never seen one in person, at least that I was allowed to play. I feel as if the name itself was so intimidating that I didn’t totally get the sample of sound and experience I needed. And, in Bosendorfer’s defense, at this point in the day I had played dozens of pianos and was starting to feel like Lucille Ball working on the chocolate conveyor belt, chocolate stuffed in her mouth and every other available pocket, just to keep up with the constant flow.

Stay tuned for PART III as I need time to digest the rest of the chocolate, er, story, before I go on.

The Piano Diaries PART I

Ever notice that each person is unique? Well, of course. But did you know that every piano is unique as well?

As a pianist of forty plus years, I have played a lot of pianos, from the first crumbly old monster I ever played, that had sticking notes and was missing a few ivories (yes, real ivory), to the big, luscious Steinway nine footer at the Gallo Center for the Arts I got to play a couple years ago. I’m going to attempt here to document some of the pianos I have the opportunity to play. Unless you’re a great name and virtuoso you usually have to play whatever piano is put before you. If variety is the spice of life, then we may need some tums along the way.

Some pianos fight you tooth and nail for every note or chord you attempt, as if to say, "I dare you" like the Kawai studio I played a couple years ago at Disneyland in the outdoor theater near Thunder Mountain. It sounded great, but the touch on the thing was like playing through mud. Every note I played was hard won. I felt like a victor when I had finished. This spring at Disneyland I played a white Yamaha that was quite a bit friendlier. And it was white. The only other piano I’ve ever played that was white was my youth leader’s piano when I was about 15. It was covered in white leather with brass tacks. I know. Tacky. Can’t remember how it sounded.

Now I must digress to electric keyboards, even though the purist in me says they aren't to be compared to acoustic pianos. I play a keyboard every day. Two different ones, in fact. One, I teach on. It is a twenty-something old Technics that has never failed to produce beautiful sound, even if it is digital. Of course there was that time that someone spilled orange juice on it, and we had to send it away for repair. The other is a Roland. Brand spankin' new and brought in to my place of work by the choir director I work for as a kind of Christmas present. It's sparkling sound and crisp touch makes me sound better than I am. It replaced the old keyboard that had a creeping unattached pedal, which replaced the even older Roland keyboard that ever so randomly blasted out middle "G" as if it was a trumpet.

But back to the acoustic. A good piano (and I mean good in the solid, fully classical sense of the word, not just good as compared to better) will work for you. Let me explain.
In the past week I have played on a dozen or so different pianos, and so far the Steinway wins. Well, there were actually three of them. One was at Johanson High School on the stage where I played for Ceres High School's CMEA competition. That piano seemed to anticipate every note before I played it and assist me in doing it. It was an oldie but still in pretty good shape. (I had this same experience with the Steinway at the Gallo Center by the way.) There were a few less responsive notes in the higher register, however. It wasn't exactly on tiptop shape on the outside but its guts were wonderful. I had rehearsed the same music at Ceres High Choir room on a Kawai studio which had a very bright forward quality. The soft pedal was missing and the piano seemed to know it by playing perpetually loud. Back to the Steinways. The other one was at Modesto High in the choir room, which I used to play regularly when I was the accompanist there.  This poor old nine footer looks like she's gotten in the way of a football scrimage, but she plays like a queen. An old queen, but a queen nonetheless. She was half covered with a piano cover and half covered in sheet music. “If you won’t appreciate my sound,” she seemed to say, “then I will hold your music for you.” Can Pixar please make a movie about the life of a school piano?

The third piano (the name was not visible anywhere, but it sure played like a Steinway) was in a music room (not the choir or band room) at Beyer High School. I wandered in and there was a large grand piano looking like the elephant in the room, and taking up about as much room as an elephant would.  I must explain for Beyer High School choir that I normally play a Baldwin studio that is cheerfully doing its job as a rehearsal piano. Its pedals were bent down like broken legs when I first came in to play. It is mildly battered piano with five inches of music stacked on top and assorted trophies perched on top of the music, and whatever doodads the students leave behind  such as ipods, headphones, drink caps, etc. My husband, who may possibly have missed his calling as a mechanical engineer, fixed the broken sustaining pedal for us one day when he had some time off. Back to the third piano. I’ve never played this piano, but when I accidentally discovered it, I fell in love with it. Can you have a crush on a piano? It has very beautiful carvings on the music backboard and the legs. Apparently it cannot be moved into the choir room (I begged) and it has a storied past, which my director friend hinted at. So my goal is to find out more about it, and of course, to play it more often. I may have to sneak into the room and spend the night in the school to do it. Stranger things have happened.

The other piano I played recently is a five foot something Kawai grand that I’d like to buy. It’s sitting at Langlois music. This piano is like that beautiful boy in high school that didn’t know I existed.  In the meantime, my field research continues. It’s a mixed bag. Playing pianos is not as black and white as you might think.