Sunday, November 29, 2009

How to sell a cello

Short answer: With great difficulty.

Long answer:

I had owned my Italian cello for about 25 years by the time I went about trying to sell it. People had always expressed admiration for this instrument, and even some envy. I had it appraised every few years for insurance purposes, and the value went up every time. My parents paid around $8,000 for it in 1979; the last appraisal was for $35,000.

I was surprised, then, when sometime in the 1990s, I took it to one dealer who flatly refused to sell it for me. He seemed suspicious but didn't give me any concrete reasons for his suspicions -- at the time, I thought it had something to do with the condition of the instrument -- and I didn't pursue it. I hadn't entirely made up my mind to sell it at that point, so I put the idea back on the shelf for a few more years.

In 2004, I contacted an online auction company that had been holding some well-publicized successful auctions of large numbers of stringed instruments, getting good prices. Selling an instrument like this on consignment from a shop usually takes many months, or even years, whereas an auction is a way for many people to see the instrument in a short time. The auction company physically collects the instruments and puts them on display for a week in a rented showroom; they also issue an online catalog. People can come and play the instruments and then, when the auction begins, bid online.

After I contacted them and explained what I had, one of their people arranged to stop by my office downtown and look at the cello. He was impressed, and went back to his office in New York and wrote up a contract. In it, he described the cello as "Italian," and suggested a value of between $30,000 and $50,000. A month or so later, he came by my house to pick up the cello.

The week before the auction arrived. I looked up the catalog, and my cello wasn't in it. I had not heard anything from them, so I called to find out what was going on.

The same person who had met with me twice and who had written up the contract very calmly told me that their experts had been unable to authenticate the cello, so they had decided not to sell it. I was shocked -- both at this pronouncement and at the fact that they hadn't seen fit to even drop me an email to let me know. If I hadn't called them, what would have happened?

Apparently, the cello was decidedly not characteristic of the maker whose name was on the label. Several of the experts doubted that it was even Italian. I did a little research and found that a member of the labeled maker's family was still in the luthier business in Italy, so I emailed him some photos of the cello. He agreed that it was probably not made by the person named on the label, and that it was possibly German.

Now, this does not have the same implications as, for example, a cello labeled a Stradivarius  being exposed as a fake. The maker on the label of my cello was considered fine but not at the highest levels of the art. It's like someone who always thought they were John Smith finding out that Mr. Smith wasn't his father and that his father might possibly be Mr. Jones instead. John Smith still has all the same talents and attributes, just another name -- and oh, yeah, he won't inherit Mr. Smith's estate after all. So my cello wasn't a Smith but possibly a Jones, and wasn't worth $35,000 but maybe $15,000.

The dealer who originally sold the cello to us had died a number of years before, but his son had maintained the business and happened to be at the auction checking out the instruments. Because his shop's name was on many of the appraisals, they had consulted with him, and the upshot was that he volunteered to bring the cello back from New York. I eventually talked to him on the phone. His only explanation for the poor ID on the cello was that it was a long time ago and they didn't have the resources available now to check things out. Um, yeah, okay.

He obviously felt some responsibility, because he said he would fix the cello up for me (clean it up, put new strings on it, etc.) and would sell it for me without charging a commission. He did say, though, that it was a really fine cello and that he thought I should just keep it. I decided to bring it home and see how I felt about it.

Fate seemed to be checking to make sure I really wanted to go through with this. There I was, with the two cellos side by side. I didn't even have the incentive of making a big profit on selling it -- and in fact, wasn't even sure I wasn't being scammed about this whole thing. In the end, though, I still liked my new cello better than the old one, and still didn't like playing the old cello anymore. I had moved on.

I eventually took it back to the shop, and six months later, someone bought it. I used the money to pay for most of the cost of my new piano. I still consider it more than a fair exchange.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


I've always loved musical instruments, that you could hold or touch this finely made object and use it to make nice sounds. Maybe because I was always so shy and quiet, speaking through an instrument was compelling.
Pianos didn't seem like instruments to me when I was a child -- they were more like furniture. I didn't exactly relate pressing the keys with the idea of a hammer striking the strings to make sound.

Fourth grade was when, in the DC public school system, kids could start learning a musical instruments. I knew I wanted to play the clarinet. But at the last minute, we were told they'd canceled the program. We did get classes on the tonette, a little plastic thing that was a cross between a recorder and a pitch pipe, but sad to say, I didn't become a tonette virtuoso.

We didn't have another chance to choose an instrument until seventh grade -- junior high. This time around,  I picked the cello. At first I borrowed one from the school; then my parents rented a three-quarter-sized cello from a Music and Arts Center. All I remember about it was that it was shiny. After about a year, I had grown enough to need a full-sized cello, so my mother and I went to Chuck Levin's to pick one out.

The store sold mostly guitars and band instruments, but they had a small selection of strings for students. My mother was pushing for the cheapest one, a plywood Kay.  It looked like this:

though of course it had a tailpiece, bridge, and strings; the name was emblazoned in chrome script on it:

I somehow knew that a real wood cello that was a copy of a Stradivarius would be significantly better. I think it was about $10 more than the Kay, so we bought that.

Other instruments acquired during this time:
  • A metal clarinet that had been used in a marching band by some relative of my piano teacher; I futzed around with this instrument for a while but couldn't get more than a squawk from it.
  • A nylon-string guitar from  Sears that I had a lot of fun with, playing chords and singing along.
  • A soprano recorder that I taught myself to play.
During my second year of junior high, I became interested in the flute and borrowed one from the school. Again, I taught myself to play it from a beginner's book and even played in the all-city band one year (last chair). I really, really wanted a flute, but my parents said they'd already bought me the cello, and that was enough. I kept looking at flutes for some years but eventually lost interest.

I kept that first cello until I graduated from high school. There was another cellist in the youth orchestra who also studied with my teacher and who was the same age as I. She was his most serious student and wanted a career as a cellist. He had picked out a cello for her when she was about 15 years old, a German-made solid instrument by W. Fuchs, with a dark, rather ugly reddish varnish. She hated it, and I think she must have pitched a number of fits until her mother bought her a better cello. The Fuchs was then passed around for trial among the teacher's other students and eventually ended up with me. I hadn't even thought about getting another cello, but for some reason my parents decided to buy it for me.

I don't remember thinking much one way or the other about the quality of this cello. It was a sturdy thing with a strong sound but not a lot of complexity or refinement, much like my playing at the time, so it was a good match. I kept the Fuchs for about five years, until my second year as a music major, when I started shopping for another cello. At that time, before the availability of inexpensive, well-made instruments from China, it was difficult to find anything decent at the price we were thinking of paying. I eventually tried a cello in a local shop that had an Italian label; It had a light gold varnish and a sweet tone, like a high operatic tenor. My teacher liked it right away; we even took it to another dealer to have it evaluated (though I suspect he wasn't likely to say anything bad about it because his shop was in the same building as the seller's). So my parents bought it for me. My teacher said this cello would last me through any career I would have -- and so it did.

I toted that cello around to every venue and location -- North Dakota in the dead of winter, Texas in the height of summer, playing indoors and out, in Carnegie Hall, on the street, on a boat, in nightclubs. It survived all that well. I always got compliments on its sound, and in fact, it was a bit of a joke to me, and sometimes irritating, how often people would say, "Your cello sounds really good!" (as if it played itself).

I had thought I'd never sell it. Italian cellos are not that easy to come by and are expensive; I knew I'd never be able to afford another one. Even though after I finished graduate school I was playing less and less, I kept thinking, what if I was asked to play someplace where it mattered? What if I had to play a concerto with an orchestra or a solo recital? None of these theoretically important events materialized, however, and for some complicated reasons I developed an antipathy to my cello. I could barely stand to play it at all.

At this point, I came up with the idea of buying a cheap cello to see if it would be adequate for my needs and then selling the Italian cello. I started haunting Ebay and various Internet discussion boards. I even considered, out of some twisted nostalgia, buying a Kay. During this time I thought more about cello construction, tone, and aesthetics than I ever had before.

This was also the time when I was taking viola lessons. I'd made a few forays into Internet buying, ending up with a Gliga viola (made in Romania; not at all bad, but nothing special). I finally gathered up my nerve and made a trip to a string shop to try their lowest priced cellos. Why did it take nerve? I suppose because the string world is small and gossipy, and I knew it might become "known" that I was downgrading, or something like that, but at that point, I didn't much care anymore. But the way I explained it to the salesperson was that I was looking for a second cello.

I tried all of the cellos they had that cost less than $10,000 (which, for those who may not know this, is considered a small sum to pay for a stringed instrument; it's what an okay cello for a young student might cost). There were several possible candidates, but then I saw one more sitting in a corner. It was a larger model, with a warm brown varnish and a smooth, deep, clear sound. I couldn't believe it, but it was actually perfect! I took it for a week's trial, but I knew this was the one.

The shop had put its own label in it, but someone had written "Snow Violins, Brooklyn, NY" on the edge of the label. Turns out that Snow is a Chinese luthier who makes a line of high-quality student and professional level stringed instruments: Snow Violin

One of these days, I want to take the cello up there and ask them which model it is (I'm sure it is one of their basic ones) and what it was doing in the shop here. My impression was that the local shop was having a hard time selling the cello because it was so large that young students and amateur players were not interested in it. They sold it to me for a very modest price and gave me a big discount on the extra-large case I had to get for it.

Next step: Selling the Italian cello. To be continued . . .

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What I'm playing this week

On the piano:

I started working on the Bach c minor prelude and fugue from WTC II. I have to admit, these aren't as interesting as some of the others, but I'd still like to learn them. I'm hoping this set doesn't take me eight months! The other day I listened to the entire Book II on my Ipod while I was at work -- so many beautiful pieces there.

Gershwin preludes: getting a bit better. I still have a few crash-and-burn moments when I try to run through the first prelude.  This probably means I need more slow practice. (That's usually the answer.)

Brahms Op. 118: I'm kind of jumping around in these, working on the most difficult spots. For some reason, the first one is giving me tremendous trouble, even though I had memorized it earlier this year. So frustrating.

Chopin preludes: The other night, I played through the first seven. They are still pretty solidly memorized, though the faster ones aren't as good (3 and 5). I still can only play No. 8 very slowly.

This evening, I worked for a while on the piano part for Waldesruhe. It's humbling to think of all the pianists who accompany people; their parts are always much harder than those of the instrument they're accompanying, but they usually don't get many kudos for doing a nice job. I feel embarrassed about how I took the efforts of so many pianists for granted all those years.

I had a little taste of this last year two years ago (how time flies! I didn't realize it was so long ago until I looked at the dates on the recordings I posted). I expressed interest to the person who organizes those chamber music concerts (one of which I just bailed out on -- see yesterday's post) in reading through the Mozart trio for clarinet, viola, and piano. I practiced it quite a bit for several weeks -- not long enough, but that's all the time I had between when we set it up and when we got together. Considering that I've never played any chamber music on the piano (I think I can safely discount my teenaged Mendelssohn disaster), I didn't do too badly, though I had a tendency to rush. I know because I recorded it. I even fixed up the recording enough so it was audible (I had to put the recording device some distance from where we were sitting, so the levels needed adjusting, and I had to do things like cut out talking, etc.), posted it online, and emailed the other players about it. Response? Complete silence. No followup about actually performing it. Sniff. Oh well.*

On the cello:

Popper and Duport etudes: I'm still practicing some of these to see if they will help with playing in a not-comfortable key. I can't tell if it's working.

Dvorak: Still working on this, not sure if it sounds good or not. I'm wondering if I should go to someone for a lesson. (I haven't had a cello lesson since the early 1990s.)

Brahms 2nd symphony: Trying to figure out how to advise the other cellists on this when we get together on Sunday. It's really pretty difficult.

*Recordings here, FWIW:

Mozart 1st movement
Mozart 2nd movement
Mozart 3rd movement

Monday, November 23, 2009

Something I've never done before

Last night, I canceled on the Spohr concert. I feel so guilty, but also relieved.

Every other time something like this has come up, I've just gritted my teeth and stuck with it, but you know, life is short. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome. In similar situations, the different outcome I was hoping for was the experience turning out to be enjoyable in some way that I couldn't predict on the basis of the initial impression. And you never know -- maybe this would have had such an outcome. But thinking about going through four months of rehearsals for this was like wearing a lead hat.
A few years ago, this same person organized a concert at Strathmore mansion that was supposed to include the Beethoven septet. This is a piece so popular during Beethoven's lifetime that he arranged it for several other combinations of instruments. It's possibly one of the most beloved chamber works of all time. The violinist was a young medical researcher who was frantically practicing to learn the piece. He was pretty good, for an amateur, but it almost seemed to get worse from week to week. We started discussing which movements to cut, but nothing made sense. I finally said, "Why don't we just play the first movement and do it well?" The violinist was stricken, but the bass player (who was a music teacher) backed me up. (Even the first movement was a squeaker, but at least it didn't last long enough to be an ordeal for the audience.)
On that occasion, at least the music was worth suffering for, at least a bit. But Spohr -- when I could so much more profitably spend my time at home practicing Chopin, Brahms, and Bach (or even cooking some good meals to share with my husband) -- not so much.
The other benefit of doing these things is social. It's good to be in contact with people who share one's interests. I tend to get isolated, especially with regard to communicating with other people who are interested in music the way I am. But you know how it's not a good idea to keep dating someone you're not interested in? Both of you could be out finding your soul mates instead of wasting time on an unsatisfying connection.

I've spent too much time on these chamber music dates that lead nowhere. Maybe it's a case of, "I'm just not that into them."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sublime to ridiculous

Here's a compare and contrast:

1. Last night, my husband and I went to hear Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. We decided only yesterday afternoon to do this because a friend found out some good seats had opened up and were being sold at bargain prices.

This was an especially interesting show because Howard Levy, the virtuoso harmonica player who was in the band originally, was going to be playing with them instead of the saxophone player who has been in the band since Levy left.

I have to admit that during the first half hour or so, I nodded off a few times, but then the music got more interesting. The playing was on a very high level. Probably the highlight was an extended harmonica solo -- about 10 minutes of some amazing stuff. They also did some good bebop style numbers, and even the Beatles' "Michelle."

The concert was at Strathmore Hall, which is a beautiful place acoustically and aesthetically. Almost every seat in the place was filled.

Anyway, it was rather inspiring. When we got home at 11:30, I practiced Brahms for an hour.

2. Tonight, the group that is planning to play the Spohr Nonet got together. This is the flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, and bass group I mentioned. It's been a while since I've done something like this, and it was something of a shock.

The violist couldn't find a babysitter, so she brought her 2-year-old daughter, who is very cute but spent most of the rehearsal rolling around on the floor at her mother's feet, knocking the music off her stand and shrieking, "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!" This was happening directly to my right.

On my left was the bass, with the f-holes pointing right into my ear, so it sounded way too loud to me, but probably was not. Between that and the screaming kid on the other side, I could barely hear anyone else. What I could hear was out of tune and not together.

The piece is kind of pleasant, but it's certainly not deep. The slow movement is disappointing and boring. The cello part is completely uninteresting, but it has several very hard licks in it that I will have to practice a lot. It's also mostly doubling with the bass, and tonight, at least, we were extremely out of tune with each other.

So I came home frustrated and wondering if I should do this concert at all. I've gone through this before, and each time, I'm torn between wanting to fulfill what I've promised to do and not wanting to suffer unduly. In the meantime, I act grumpy and the other players probably think I'm some old grouch (well, maybe I am, but still), and my husband gets annoyed about my complaining.

It's nothing against any of these players -- they are all doing their best, and they are way, way better than the average amateurs. It's more a question of what is the best way to spend my time.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What I'm playing this week

On the piano:

Bach WTC: I chose a new prelude and fugue to work on: #2 from WTC II (C minor). These are both short -- just a page each -- but dense and highly chromatic. This should be fun.

Gershwin preludes: #1 is improving a lot; #2 and #3 are coming along, though they're not memorized.

Brahms Op. 118: still grazing on these pieces.

Chopin Prelude No. 8: this is actually improving slightly. It doesn't seem quite as impossible as it did.

On the cello: To prepare for playing "Silent Wood," I'm still exploring ways to develop my tone in a key that's not terribly sympathetic to the instrument. I had thought a Popper etude might help, but although his etudes are good studies for the left hand, they do not do too much for the right. I just don't want to spend the time it would take to make one of these sound good.

Last night, I played some Duport etudes, and these are a bit better, but not much. The musical part of them is so bad that again, they don't seem worth putting that much of my limited time into them.

Maybe I'll try practicing short sections of some of these etudes in detail instead of slogging through a whole one. That might get equal or even better results.

As for the piece, I think it's improving. One thing that's difficult about it is that it's marked mostly pianissimo, but a true pianissimo is not going to be heard above the orchestra, especially in the lower registers, so I will need to play with more sound but with the feeling of pianissimo.

It's always a struggle to get to practicing. It's not that I don't want to, but more that I have too many other tasks hanging in the background. Even when I have a whole day free, such as on a weekend, there are always a lot of other things I need to get done, and I don't feel entirely comfortable shutting myself into the practice room until I do at least some of them.

So that's why I usually don't practice more than about two hours a day, on a good day. Last week, when I had a holiday in the middle of the week, was unusual in that I was able to spend most of the day on my recording project (resolutely ignoring thoughts of laundry and dust bunnies).

It's easy to think that one day's practicing isn't important and that it would be better to do _________ instead. If there are too many of those days, though, months and even years go by and you haven't learned any more music, but those hours spent doing _________ are gone. Sometimes _________ turns out to have been really worthwhile, but more often than not, it does not.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

ABF recital

The Adult Beginners Forum (ABF) at Piano World is loosely aimed at any adults who are not professional pianists. Most are not exactly beginners (and when does "beginner" status end, anyway?). There have been discussions over the years about changing the name, but the upshot has been that most people like ABF, inaccurate as it may be.

Four years ago, someone came up with the idea of having an online recital, with people submitting recordings of their playing that would then all be posted together on the same day. It was such a success that after much discussion, the group decided on a frequency of four times a year. It's gotten more sophisticated technically -- there is now a website someone set up that enables people to upload their files directly and provides streaming audio. The field also has become more crowded. There are 66 entries this time, at all levels from true beginners to advanced players, and with music ranging from classical to pop to improvised.

Another aspect is that a thread is set up for people to give comments. Most are reluctant to criticize, which is probably a good thing. This forum is an oasis of civility in the wilds of the Internet.

I've participated in some of the recitals, starting with my first primitive recording using the laptop mic, when I wasn't even sure if I sounded like a pianist at all. This time, as I've been writing about here, I submitted my recording of the Bach prelude and fugue. I feel like I've come a long way in these four years.

Recital #16

Thursday, November 12, 2009


On the Tuesday morning after President's Day of this year, I woke up with the feeling that my right ear was badly clogged up. I'd had problems before with earwax, so I put some drops in, but I was still so uncomfortable that I called my doctor and went in that morning. There were a bunch of people waiting, and I felt a little foolish about rushing to the doctor over something like this, so I ended up making an appointment for Thursday and left.

Wednesday evening I was standing at the stove cooking when I felt a wave of dizziness and next thing I knew, I was on the floor. What? But the dizziness passed, and I felt okay, really.

On Thursday morning when I went in for my appointment, the doctor cleaned out my ears, but I didn't feel any better. He suggested that it might be allergies (allergies? in February?) and gave me a sample pack of an antihistamine. I had a rehearsal that night, and didn't have any trouble, so I started thinking maybe the antihistamine was helping.

But on Friday, I felt worse as the day progressed. By the evening, I was almost panicking because I felt like I was going to fall. I even called my husband during my walk from the subway to my car, but he was 20 miles away, and what could he do, anyway? So I soldiered on and walked very slowly, making sure there was a street sign or lamppost or something to grab.

By Saturday afternoon, I was feeling so dizzy and sick that I couldn't eat and could barely get out of bed. On Sunday, my husband called the doctor again, who called in a prescription for dramamine. We also posted a note on the neighborhood listserv asking for ENT recommendations, and by Sunday afternoon had made contact with an ear specialist who told me to come in first thing Monday morning.

By then, I'd lost almost all the hearing in my right ear.

The diagnosis was sudden sensorineural hearing loss: basically, sudden hearing loss that can't be explained by obvious outward factors. The supposition is that it's caused by an infection of the inner ear, but because the inner ear can't be examined, that's only a supposition. The only medically sanctioned treatment for it is a high dose of prednisone, taken in pill form. A somewhat more experimental treatment is injection of a steroid solution through the ear drum into the inner ear. So I did both. I started taking the oral meds that Monday morning, and went for the injection on Tuesday. A week later, I had a second injection.

I slowly started to feel better, though for about a month, music sounded like it was coming through on one of those tinny little transistor radios. The piano sounded horrible, but I still wanted to play, so I closed the instrument  up completely and swaddled it with quilts, plus I put an earplug into the bad ear. This made it barely tolerable. I canceled all my cello gigs, though I got together with my small folk group a few times during this period (putting in earplugs before we started playing).

At the beginning of this thing, I tried to prepare for the worst (i.e., that this would never heal), so I was pleasantly surprised and relieved that after about six weeks, my hearing was back to normal. Some people do not recover. Others recover without treatment. Perhaps what helped me was getting treatment within a few days. So anyone reading this, take note: If something like this ever happens to you, go straight to an otolaryngologist (ENT specialist).* If that's not available, at least mention to whatever doctor you do see the possibility that this could be what ails you. But in any case, do get medical attention for it as soon as possible.

*Corrected per Mark's comment below.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


I spent my day off working on getting a usable recording of the Bach. After giving it some thought, I decided that one problem with the way I was playing it was I was not getting enough tone out of the strings because I was not getting the key all the way down to the key bed. So I spent several hours this morning practicing really digging into each note, with almost a bounce. I alternated between playing half tempo and full tempo. And darned if it didn't help. The music seemed to wake up and start to sparkle a little bit.

I'm also getting used to the sound of the piano. I have had the whole thing closed up (lid completely closed, two quilts on top, music stand on top of them) for about nine months -- more about why some other time -- but for recording purposes, this didn't allow the sound to reverberate enough in the room. So I opened the lid after the second tuning last week, and it sounded especially loud from the bench. But I don't think the piano sounds harsh on this recording. (My playing may be another matter.)

Bach: Prelude and Fugue in C sharp major, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I

And yes, I know there are a few fumbles here and there. Considering I'm not a world-class virtuoso with a recording studio on hand, it's understandable.

Edit to add:

After I read Russell's comment below, I did a little search on the 'net and found this interesting video of the pianist Eduardus Halim talking about piano tone:

Producing good tone on the piano

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What I'm playing this week

This is getting awfully monotonous to read about, I'm sure, but I'm still trying to get the Bach prelude and fugue into a recordable state. I just don't seem to have the technique to play this complicated music quickly and cleanly. I had a really good practice session on it Saturday, but the past two days have not been so productive. I have the day off of work tomorrow, so I'll try to hone in on this somehow. This has possibly been the most discouraging thing I've worked on thus far, or maybe it's just that I've developed higher expectations of my piano playing.

My reference recording is the Naxos set by Jenö Jandó, who is a phenomenal pianist. He's recorded a huge number of works --  solo, chamber, orchestral -- and they are all wonderful. Sad to say, I would probably feel more inspired if I heard someone play it who was not so good, though I enjoy listening to this.

I'm nibbling a little at the Brahms Op. 118 pieces, realizing once again how difficult Brahms is to play on the piano.

On the cello, I committed myself to play a chamber music concert in the spring, and I'll be getting together with the group to read through the Louis Spohr Nonet (for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and double bass -- quite a crowd, there!) next week. The TCO will be playing Brahms's Second Symphony on the January concert, and I decided to herd the cello section together for a practice session this month, which means I need to practice the part myself.

And of course, I need to practice the Dvorak Waldesruhe. What I'm finding difficult about this is that the piece simply requires beautiful tone and secure shifting, but because the notes are not that hard, I'm having a hard time pinning it down. That may sound strange, but I've found that when something has a lot of technical hurdles, they make me practice more, and more carefully, than when a piece is easier. I decided to try practicing some etudes in the same key (as it happens, the same key as the Bach I've been sweating over, or it's enharmonic equivalent -- D flat major) to see if that helps me get more grounded in the tones of the piece. So I'll see how that goes.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

You can tune a piano, but you can't tune a fish

The player of a stringed instrument has almost total control over intonation. Each string can be tuned, as well as each note. Even varying bow pressure and speed affect intonation.

One has no direct control over the tuning of a piano unless one is specially trained. A piano has 88 notes; the two lowest octaves usually have two strings each, referred to as bass strings, and all the other notes have three strings each. All of these strings need to be tuned. A further complication is deciding on a tuning system that is the best compromise between exact scientific tuning (which will not sound in tune) and some sort of "well-tempered" system, in which any note can be played with any other note and sound harmonious. This is a vast oversimplification of a hugely complicated topic. One interesting reference is a book by Perri Knize, Grand Obsession, in which she describes her search for a piano, which in turn leads her directly into the tuning topic. The frustrating fact is that how a piano is tuned is intimately connected with how it sounds and ultimately how musical a performance can be, but the performer is dependent on a technician to achieve the desired sound of the instrument.

The main thing a piano owner can do to keep the piano in good shape, besides having it tuned regularly, is to control the humidity in the room where it's stored. Because a piano is made mainly of wood, humidity (and to a lesser degree, temperature) affects everything about it. I keep my piano in a closed room. It is on the basement level of our house, so I run a dehumidifier in there except in the driest weather. I also have a heater bar installed under the belly of the instrument that supposedly keeps the soundboard from becoming damp; it turns on automatically when humidity in that area rises above 50%.

I can hear whether a piano is in tune, up to a certain point, but after that point it becomes a matter of judgment.  Because I am not a very hardware-oriented person, I have always tended to leave this judgment up to the technician. I am realizing, though, that I need to get more involved. This was reinforced by my recent tuning experience (what inspired me to bring up this topic here). After a routine tuning about a month ago, I went to play my piano (eagerly anticipating the fresh tuning rush) and was disappointed to hear it sounding sour, dull, and clangy. I tried to stick with it for a few weeks, but finally called the shop that had sent out the tuner. I bought the piano from them, and I have used only their tuners in the time that I've had it. As I explained to one of the owners, this is the first time I've had a serious complaint. The upshot was that they scheduled the tuner to return and touch up the tuning.

He ended up retuning the piano, spending an hour and a half. It sounds much better. However, I am still unhappy about the brightness of this instrument. "Brightness" refers to the ringing, piercing qualities of a sound; obviously, some brightness is good, but I'm starting to wonder if this piano is just too bright. It's certainly overwhelming in its small room unless I keep the lid closed and muffle it with quilts. Piano techs can do something that's called voicing, in which they tinker with the hammer felt, fluffing it up with needles to soften it and injecting chemicals to harden it, but there's a limit to what that can achieve.

Do I need to shop for a different piano? Or just a different technician? Something to think about. In the meantime, I'll keep the quilts on it and keep practicing.

Friday, November 6, 2009


As a child, I didn't think much about tuning. I knew the piano needed to be tuned, but actually, I barely listened to it. There's a way of playing in which you are listening to what you are doing in a sort of remote way but not truly hearing -- or maybe it's vice versa.

I knew how to tune a guitar, but it wasn't until I started taking cello lessons, after I 'd played the cello mostly on my own for a year, that intonation was brought to my attention. My first cello teacher taught me to check as many notes as possible against open strings, which on the cello would be A, D, G, and C. "Checking" means either playing a double stop (e.g., playing a C on the G string with the fourth finger and playing the open C at the same time) or plucking an open string with a left-hand finger while bowing a covered note (e.g., playing the C above middle C on the A string with the third finger and plucking the open C with the first finger). Slightly more sophisticated was checking other perfect intervals -- fourths and fifths (e.g., F with the fourth finger on the G string in fourth position against open C).

Another little trick was checking a covered note with a harmonic. On a stringed instrument, there are points on the string that are natural harmonics; the string only needs to be touched, not pressed down, to sound the note. So for example, if you're playing the A above middle C on the A string, you can lift your finger and merely touch the note to compare your covered A with the harmonic A.

I supposed I surmised from all this that as long as those notes were in tune, everything else would fall in line and was okay. And I do have a pretty good ear, so that was often more or less the case.

A turning point for me was during my second year of graduate school, when I was working on my master's degree. I was preparing for that year's recital, which included Beethoven's A major sonata, Op. 69. This is a particularly tuneful member of the Beethoven cello/piano lineup. In fact, my first teacher introduced it to all of his students fairly early on, though few of us ever played it with piano (I hadn't, until this time I'm describing here). Because it's in A, many of the "important" notes can be checked in the way I was taught by my first teacher. However, it also features rapid scales and other figurations featuring all the other notes in between, and my teacher really got down to brass tacks on this stuff, showing me many more ways to test intonation than I had ever realized were possible. To test an F sharp, for example, she had me check the G above it and the F below it and then place the F sharp between them. Working this way made me aware of intonation in a new way, and I started hearing more acutely whether something was in tune.

Years later, when I was trying to learn the viola, I was finding it very difficult to hear intonation on the higher notes on the A string. I constantly played them sharp. It was during this time that I acquired my first electronic tuner. These are nifty little devices that can be had for about $20, like this one (which is what I have):

They act sort of like biofeedback: you play a note, and the needle veers left if it's flat and right if it's sharp, and there's also a light that shows red if the note is off at all and green and if it matches the frequency setting of the tuner. This particular one can also be calibrated, so you are not stuck with A 440.

It took me a fair amount of time to learn how to use this thing, but it's invaluable to me now. I keep telling people it's better than most teachers. Between this, a metronome, and my recording gadget, I have no excuses!

Until I try to get a piano in tune . . .

To be continued . . .

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Practicing Bach

This evening was a fairly typical one for me. I stayed at work until around 7:15. I took the subway to my stop (about 15 minutes, during which I wrote in my notebook and then read a book), walked the mile to my car, and drove home, getting here around 8:00. I fed the cats, started some rice cooking, chopped vegetables for a stir-fry. My husband got home around 8:30, changed his clothes, and stir-fried dinner (I always leave the frying for him because he does it a lot better than I do). We ate, chatting about this and that. He cleaned up the kitchen while I went to the computer and tried to write something on this blog. I drank some coffee, ate a piece of cake, and read. When it was almost 11:00 I finally went to my practice room and worked on the Bach I am hoping to record this week, the C sharp major prelude and fugue from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

I've been working on this piece since March of this year. It seems to take me about 6 months to learn and memorize each of these pairs; this one took longer because the key is so puzzling -- I mean, it has B sharp in the key signature! So lots of double sharps when it modulates to other keys.
I really ought to know all the technicalities of fugue construction, but I don't. I basically can follow the theme when it comes in, but that's about it. I know that my appreciation of this music would be enhanced significantly if I would only spend a couple of hours reading about fugues and applying that knowledge to the piece. Now that I've written it down here, maybe I'll finally do it.

This evening, though, I just concentrated on playing it slowly, in short sections, from back to front. When it was feeling fairly secure, I turned on my recording gadget and made my first recording, prelude and fugue in one take. The fugue fell apart in a couple of  places, so I recorded it again. Then I put Bach aside and played some Brahms for about 15 minutes. By this time, it was after midnight. I put the piano to bed for the night, came back to the computer, copied the files over to the hard drive, and listened to them. The prelude, which I had thought went pretty well, sounds stodgy and fumbly in a few places. The second take of the fugue is actually not bad. But a lot of work yet to be done on both of them. Sigh.

As they say, tomorrow is another day.

Monday, November 2, 2009

What I'm playing this week

Bach Prelude and Fugue in C sharp major: I decided I'm going to try to record these for an online recital on the Adult Beginner's Forum at Piano World. I spent most of my practice time on them this weekend. I got the best results from slow practice (of course!) -- I set the metronome to the approximate tempo I want and then played at half of that. I'm trying to make bringing out the theme more natural instead of, "Whoops, forgot to bring out the theme again!" I am happy that I have been able to learn these at all -- this is one of the pieces that I would always skip over when sight-reading -- but I would like to be able to play them with more of a refined interpretation.

Dvorak Silent Wood: I'm learning the piano part along with the cello part. I still haven't explored the options for recording both parts, but I'm sure it can be done.

Brahms Op. 118: I decided to start learning all six of these pieces. I learned No. 1 last year, and have of course played at No. 2 for years. They are all beautiful, and they make a nice group, almost like playing a sonata.

Gershwin Prelude No. 1: Spent some time with this over the past week, and again, slow practice is the most productive.

Chopin, Prelude No. 8: I am determined to get this. It's improved from extremely halting to merely slow, but I have not been able to memorize it yet. Chopin is not hard to memorize, though. I'm not sure why.

Beethoven "Tempest" sonata: I would like to finish learning all three movements. I have the first movement from memory and dusted it off this past week but haven't gotten back to it again.

As usual, too much music, not enough time.

I was asked to play in an orchestra concert next Saturday, for pay. I considered it, but then thought about how tired and stressed out I would be from doing two evening rehearsals downtown during the week, after working all day, plus the evening concert, how I probably wouldn't have the energy to practice at all, and I turned it down. I have an almost superstitious belief that I shouldn't turn down paying gigs, but if it's something I really don't want to do and the money is not going to change my life appreciably, why can't I refuse?