Saturday, January 30, 2010


I've written a little about my experiences with musical instruments, but I haven't described how I ended up with my current piano. It's a tale that combines money, real estate, and a bit of music.

Pianos, so familiar to most people, are complex combinations of machine and furniture, stringed instrument and percussion. I never knew much about them or thought much about them. The piano I first remember playing was a small baby grand that my parents bought at an auction house in DC when I was around 4 years old. They had seen it in the window, and asked a friend of theirs to bid on it for them; they paid around $200. It was a "Kimmel,"* one of the many off-brands that used to be produced in the United States, back when every middle-class family had, or aspired to have, a piano in the house. I always thought it was fine, though it probably was not; I rarely played any other pianos except for my teacher's studio upright (she had a grand upstairs in her house, but in the many years I took lessons from her I never went up there, so never saw it, just heard about it).

We had a lot of trouble keeping the Kimmel in tune. Our house had central forced-air heating, so it was dry in the winter and humid in the summer. The pin block was probably shot; the pins were apparently loose. I remember one tuner advising us to keep a bowl of water inside the lid, on the plate, to keep the block more humidified so the pins wouldn't slip so much. It didn't work.

I eventually inherited that piano and moved it into an apartment I had in Baltimore the year after I finished working on my doctorate and was working as a court reporter. It was in a rather luxurious older high-rise building with a doorman and garage parking, and my apartment was a spacious one-bedroom on the 11th floor. I was renting from the owner, who had bought another apartment in the building. The piano looked great in the large living room. I bought a tuning hammer so I could bring it into something approaching correct pitch, which I had to do every time I played it.

I didn't have the usual apartment problems with noisy neighbors or complaints about my practicing. The walls were thick and the place was generally quiet, except that my two windows faced on St. Paul Street, and the sound of traffic (including some very loud sirens heading to Mercy Hospital just down the street) was a constant in the apartment.

But the apartment wasn't entirely satisfactory, either. There weren't any decent grocery stores nearby, so I had to drive to the suburbs to do my shopping. Also, although the area was bustling during the day, it was almost deserted at night, and I was reluctant to go out unless I took my car, so I ended up staying home watching TV a lot. There was a real-estate lull going on at the time, and interest rates were lower. When I started thinking about maybe finding a different place to live, I got the real-estate itch after I realized that it was possible to buy something appropriate for the same cost as renting.

So that spring, I started looking at condos, and then at houses. In the midst of this, I received a flier in the mail for one of those "university piano sales": A piano store advertises a huge sale at such-and-such a location where they will be selling pianos used by a school or concert hall or theater at a deep discount and, oh yeah, some new pianos. I didn't know then that this is a come-on to get suckers customers in the door. They usually have a few beat-up pianos available, but then the salesperson steers you to the new ones so he or she can make a bigger commission.

I ended up in the hands of a slick-talking piano salesman who sold me a new Baldwin Hamilton studio piano. Whether the price was fair or not, I have no way of knowing. Because I still hadn't bought a new place to live, although I bought the piano in April, I didn't take delivery until June (much to the salesman's dismay -- but there was nothing he could do about it).

After much searching, I decided to buy a house in the DC suburbs. It was a little Cape Cod at the end of a dead-end street. It was very quiet and peaceful, and I felt safe there. The price, in retrospect, seems ridiculously low.

Before I moved, I put a note on my apartment bulletin board, advertising the Kimmel. The only person who called was my landlord! He didn't play the piano but liked the way it looked. We worked out a deal of slightly reduced rent for a few months, and in exchange, I left the piano in the apartment.

The living room of my new house, though small, had a good spot for my new piano. I thought it sounded wonderful, and I played on it happily, though I didn't play as much as I'd imagined I would. Some pianist friends who came over were not that impressed with the piano, though they tried to be polite.

When my husband and I bought the house we have now, one of the attractions was that it has a living room large enough for a piano. But after we moved in, I found that it was difficult to practice here because the piano was right in the center of the house. Also, it sounded brash and bright, with the sound echoing around in that big space. What with one thing and another, I gave  up and stopped playing the piano entirely.

Two events got me back into it. The first was that we did a remodeling project, turning the back part of our huge tandem garage into a room for me to use for practicing (at the time, I was deeply into the viola). The room turned out well. It has windows facing south and west, so it's generally sunny during the day. I painted it a soft yellow, and we had cork flooring installed and bought a deep red Persian-style rug for the floor. The second impetus for my return to the piano was when some friends offered me their old family piano. I thought it might be nice to have a piano down there just to mess around on, so I took it. It was another Baldwin, a 1920s 5-foot baby grand. Here's what it looked like in situ:

Having the piano there enabled me to play it any time I wanted to, and I found myself starting to practice again. It sounded horrible, though, and the action was rough. So I started prowling the Internet, searching for information about pianos, and as many before me have done, stumbled on Piano World.

My first thought was of having the Baldwin worked on -- new strings, hammers, and all the rest -- but the fact is that it was never a fine piano. Though my friends had always imagined it was a good instrument (it had been purchased new by their grandmother), in reality the small size is simply not compatible with a great tone, and as a practical matter, laying out the money necessary to fix up such a piano, probably around $4,000, is generally not a good investment. The thing is, you can't tell what it's going to sound like until it's done, but it's most likely going to be disappointing when you're starting with a nonprime piano like this one. Also, the poor thing had not been treated well before it came to our house. It had been kept in a room with no humidity control for many years, and there were some cracks in the soundboard that may or may not have been fatal. The more I studied the rebuilding option, the less worthwhile it seemed.

Then, also as many others do, I looked for a used piano that would satisfy me, a Yamaha or Kawai or something similar. I made the rounds of all the local stores, playing new and used, expensive and not. I visited Piano Row in New York and checked out all kinds of pianos. I kept coming back to the thought that although it was possible to buy an okay used piano for, say, $10,000, that is still a lot of money for something that wasn't really what I wanted. Just as I had done the calculations and decided it was a better investment to buy a house than a condo, I decided it was better to buy the nicest piano I could find that I could afford rather than the cheapest. (To read about how I could afford to buy a better piano, see this post.)

It was on Piano World that I read some of the buzz about Estonia pianos. Estonia, a small Baltic country, had a piano factory that was founded in 1893 and produced nice pianos. When the Soviets took over the government, they took over the piano factory as well, and quality declined. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Estonia regained its independence, and the factory workers privatized Estonia Piano in 1993. A young Estonian pianist named Indrek Laul, a Juilliard graduate, started buying out the business in 1994 with the aim of creating a world-class piano. Within 10 years, there began to be much discussion in piano circles and even elsewhere about these surprisingly good pianos. For example, in 2003, an article was published in Forbes magazine:

A Fine Way to Treat . . . an Estonia

I was intrigued. When I finally was able to try an Estonia, I was impressed. The touch was especially good, and the quality of sound was almost as good as the best Steinway B I had played (~$70,000 -- no way!). There were other pianos that I liked, but they were much more expensive and only marginally better, or perhaps just different. I made a deal with a local dealer, and in July of 2006, my Estonia 190** was delivered.

I've been spoiled, practicing on this piano. It responds so well. I wish I had a bigger room for it, but the current setup more than meets my needs. I've had people come over, say they've never heard of Estonia, rattle off a few chords, pronounce it "bright," and leave obviously thinking I bought some odd piece of junk. But I'm the one who plays it every day, so it's my opinion that counts. My playing has improved tremendously since I acquired this piano; I'm able to produce many more nuances of tone and dynamics than on either of the Baldwins, and it's simply more pleasant to play on.

The fate of the old pianos? The Hamilton is still in the living room. I have it tuned once a year or so and play it once in a while. It's not a bad piano. It's among the last pianos that Baldwin made as a company in the United States before they were bought out; the new owners just slap the Baldwin name onto pianos made in Asia, and I don't know what they are like. It was designed to be a basic, sturdy workhorse (this is the model that used to be ubiquitous in practice rooms all over the country), and the craftsmanship with which it was made is high.

The touch and tone that I once thought were fine now feel loose and a bit clangy, but I've found that is characteristic of every Baldwin I've played. I've thought of selling it, but the few thousand dollars I'd make would not change my life, and it's kind of nice having a piano with such a different touch available -- I can try out pieces on it to see how secure they are without the support of the Estonia, and it's interesting.

As for the baby grand, I tried to give it away, but I couldn't find a suitable recipient. Our friends didn't want it back. I advertised on Freecycle and our neighborhood listserv. I was perhaps too honest about its problems, or maybe people just don't want to be bothered with such a thing these days. In any case, in the end I had it taken away by the movers who brought the Estonia, and I don't know what happened to it after that. Perhaps it was taken to a junkyard, perhaps it was dismantled for parts, perhaps it was turned into a minibar, or perhaps someone took it home and is playing on it right now.

*I wouldn't bother Googling this; there probably is nothing about it anywhere, and I've never seen another one. Maybe ours was the only one!

**190 refers to the length of the piano in centimeters, equal to 6' 3" in U.S. measurements. This is considered a "parlor grand" -- I guess referring to the days when people had parlors that were bigger than today's living rooms. Concert grands are generally either 9 or 12 feet long.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Yer Blues, or a little navel gazing

I don't know if other people experience this -- though I'd guess they do -- but the slump I feel after a performance is in direct inverse proportion to the importance of the performance.  For me, this last concert was high profile. It was in front of a fairly large (at least 100 people), at least partly paying (either subscribers or individual ticket buyers at $15 to $20 each), audience with some expectations of me (e.g., one person called out to me afterward something like, "Up to your usual high standards!"). Some were friends and acquaintances who had never heard me before, including one of the managers from work. I also put really a lot of work into preparing, as you may have noticed if you've been reading my posts here.

That it went well has left me with a peculiarly deflated feeling that I've been trying to pin down. It is perhaps composed somewhat of the awareness that this was a little taste of what I spent so many years preparing for and the realization that yes, if I work hard enough I can still play pretty well under pressure. Playing well in front of an audience provides a bit of a high, from the adrenaline and the creative energy. There's perhaps a little niggling feeling that maybe that is what I should be doing rather than sitting in an office all day peering at manuscripts and page proofs.

If I were to play the piece again, particularly in the near future, it would perhaps go even better. But I will probably never play it again -- or at least not with an orchestra. There's some sadness in this.

And then, I have now turned to the problem of preparing a short Brahms piano piece for a master class in about a week and a half, and this is showing me how my piano playing has such a very long way to go. My struggles make me wonder what on earth I was thinking even signing up for this. And the fact that I know the teacher from way back when we were both much younger (and when I was rather supremely dorky) introduces a certain social anxiety to the situation.

Adding an extra little something to all this was a comment made about me during what I thought was an innocent discussion on Piano World the other day. I posted a question, asking about editions of the Beethoven piano sonatas, and people offered lots of interesting comments and recommendations. I thought it was a nice thread with useful information. But then one person decided to get snotty about it. He (or she, but I think it's a he) seemed to have gotten his/her panties in a twist about the cost of some of the better editions -- who knows why? Money troubles? Reverse snobbery?

I need to explain that I currently have a silly signature line that looks like this:

Recovering cellist, amateur pianist.

So someone with the screen name "Entheo" said:
ah, if only spending the extra money would allow us 'recovering cellists' and 'amateur pianists' to perform beethoven in the brendelian manner, then my credit card would be at the ready.

. . .  i must say i think this thread became a bit of a runaway train wrt setting expectations of what editions are appropriate and which ones are not for those of us who are simply trying to scale these mountains, not necessarily with the panache befitting these monuments. but if owning a lamborghini that you are only capable of driving 50 mph is your thing, more power to you.
Well, gosh. And no one really came to my defense, either. Well, what can you expect from a bunch of pixels? I'll just tootle off in my overpriced edition of the Beethoven sonatas (which should arrive in the mail next week) and leave them to insult each other if that's what turns them on.

That's my ramble on my state of mind this week, for what it's worth.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What I'm playing this week

On the piano:

Bach Prelude and Fugue, WTCII/2: I'm still working on memorizing the fugue. I know I keep practicing it too fast; I think going through it slowly a number of times will settle it down a lot. But it's close to being learned, after two months. This is the shortest one I've tried, though -- each piece is only a page long, so there's a lot less to learn than the C sharp major from WTCI, for example.

Brahms Op. 118: I've been concentrating on Nos. 1 and 2 this week. No. 1 is still eluding me, and I don't know why. I think it's because I don't understand it.

No. 2, though it's played by kids the world over, is also eluding me. Brahms is just so thick, and when I really try to play every note cleanly, I have trouble with voicing. Memorizing is tricky because there are changes in each repetition of a theme. In this particular piece, the structure is ABA; within the first A, there are two sections. In the second A, the first section of the first A is a variation rather than a repeat, but then the second section is an exact repeat of the parallel section in the first A. The B section also comprises an ABA structure, with the second A a variation on the first.

Gershwin Preludes: I've been feeling very crabby about these pieces. I cannot seem to make them clean. Perhaps I am coming up to the limits of my knowledge of piano technique, and this is the time I should start looking for a teacher.

Chopin Op. 55 No. 1 Nocturne: This is coming back fairly quickly. It feels much less difficult than it did the first time around.


Vacation time! I haven't touched it since Sunday.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


The concert is over!

I'm overall satisfied with how I did. My criticisms:
  • I didn't quite make a couple of the shifts (i.e., the shifted-to note wasn't in tune).
  • There is an obvious struggle between the tempo I wanted and the tempo the conductor wanted (mine was faster). This was something I had no control over. I decided I was just going to keep going and let the chips fall where they would. Some of the chips were probably related to my first criticism.
  • My interpretation was pretty basic. There is much more one could evoke from this music.

The good things:
  • My tone was good.
  • Bowing was clean and not wobbly.
  • I felt a connection with the music.
  • The audience seemed to respond well.
  • I was not paralyzingly nervous! It actually was almost fun once I got out there in front of the audience.
So without further ado:

Silent Woods, live in DC

I'd be happy to read any comments. I'd probably be happier to read good ones than bad ones, but constructive criticism is welcome.

The hazards of practicing

Yesterday, the skin on the tip of my left-hand middle finger and right-hand thumb cracked at the nail.  It's been cold and dry here, and I've been putting lotion on my hands, but it wasn't enough to prevent this. This has happened to me before, but never right before a concert when I was playing a solo like this.

When the skin cracks at crucial points of contact like that, the pain is bad. When you press down on a string with a cracked fingertip, it feels like someone is sticking a needle into your finger.

I put some New-Skin® on both places (basically similar to clear nail polish with a few purifying ingredients in it), which helped, but it still hurt. I woke up this morning feeling like pressing my finger down on a metal wire was the last thing in the world I wanted to do.

So I just spent a half hour working on my hands. I cleaned all the New Skin off with nail polish remover, soaked my hands in hot water (really helped remove the soreness), and reapplied some fresh New-Skin -- one coat, let that dry, then another coat. Then lotion.

The concert will take place in about four hours. I'm hoping it won't be too much like getting a tooth drilled without anesthesia.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Off-topic thought for the week

We've all been hearing about the terrible loss of life and destruction in Haiti this week. As a pampered Baby Boomer American, I can only imagine what it must be like there.

My petty concerns about whether five minutes' worth of music is going to tweak my vanity sufficiently seem particularly -- well, petty. I am grateful to have a solid roof over my head, as much food and water as I want, and top-level medical care at hand if I happen to need it. I live in a society that values civil order and that is set up to protect the public's peace and security. On top of that, I have the freedom and means to pursue my esoteric interests as much as I care to do so.

It so happens that even when there's no disaster calling attention to it, I actually think about these things every time I take a shower or shop at a grocery store. We are all very privileged here in the affluent parts of the world and should not lose sight of that.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

What's so frustrating about this

I can hear how bad that recording from last weekend sounds, and I know that no matter what I do, I can't make the horns play the right notes, I can't keep the winds from playing sharp, and I can't do anything about a bass player coming in on a rest. I can ask the conductor to take my tempo, but he may or may not do so. It may sound better at the concert -- I hope so! -- but it may not. If I was playing this with the Boston Symphony with Seiji Ozawa conducting, even if I were not Yo Yo Ma, it would surely sound better.

I also can hear that I am not perfect, either, but the effect is synergistic. The piece starts too slow, so I can't control the bow as well. The winds blow a bunch of clams, so I lose my sense of the right pitch. And in the five minutes it takes to play it, by the time those things happen the piece is over.

This, in a nutshell, explains why I'm finding playing the piano more satisfying these days. One cello versus a whole orchestra is not a fair fight. Even though I'm not as good a pianist as I am a cellist, I have complete control over the results. The results may not be better, but that's another set of problems.

A friend of mine used to play in an amateur orchestra that regularly hired fairly big-name talent to solo with them. He said these people would come to the rehearsal and get this look on their faces: "Uh-oh, I practiced too much."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What I'm playing this week

On the cello:

I'm trying to keep going with the Dvorak. The concert is now four days away, and I'm so looking forward to getting this off my plate. I hope I enjoy it at least a little bit. I'm uncomfortably indecisive about whether I'll play with the music or not. When I played it with the orchestra the last time (the recording I posted this past weekend), I played from memory. The question is whether the music would be better if I am reading or if I am playing from memory, and I'm not sure. (The fact that I'm not sure leads me to believe I should use music . . .)

The rest of the music for the concert isn't taking much preparation. I have decided that I won't play the overture, so I don't have to practice that. My solo is second on the program, and it would cause a lot of kerfuffle for me to squeeze off the "stage"  (actually just the space between the first pew and the altar) after the overture and then back on. The physical space there is going to be a mess; the church is not willing to let us remove the first row of pews, so we're going to have to squash a Brahms-sized orchestra into a space that's never even big enough for a Mozart-sized one.

My cello is sounding a little sick. I think it's this horribly cold weather we've been having, and carrying it outside and in the car, that have perhaps caused the soundpost to shift a bit. I'm going to see if I can take it into the shop on Friday to have some adjustments made.

On the piano:

I signed up for a master class that will happen in February. I had intended to play Chopin Op. 55 No. 1, the F minor nocturne, but someone else already had dibs on that. Not wanting to play the same piece (really boring for everyone involved), I said I would play Brahms Op. 118 No. 1 instead. I don't know if this is the best choice. It's an odd piece: only two pages long, probably less than two minutes, it's full of swirling arpeggios and shifting key centers. It starts with a C7 arpeggio and ends in A major. It is more like a prelude than a full-blown stand-alone piece. But given my plan to learn the entire Op. 118, and given my difficulties with Brahms, I thought it might be helpful to work it up for this and to get some advice.

The teacher, Brian Ganz, is a pianist I met many years ago when I was a student at the University of Maryland. He had begun a performing career as a teenager, but at the time I knew him was taking some time off, accompanying student recitals while figuring out what he really wanted to do. His confusion was our gain -- he was a great accompanist and great to work with. He played on several of my recitals.

He now has a busy schedule of performing, teaching, and recording. The class I'm participating in is an activity of the Adult Music Student Forum, with which Brian has been involved in some advisory role for a while now.

Anyway, it will be a little strange to play for him as a pianist rather than as a cellist!

Just in case we somehow talk about how Op. 118 No. 1 leads into No. 2, I've also been looking at No. 2, the famous Intermezzo in A major.

I've also been touching on the current Bach prelude and fugue (WTCII in C minor), Gershwin prelude No. 1, and Chopin Op. 55 No. 1 as well as Beethoven Op. 2 No. 3.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Sausage making?

FWIW, here's a recording of today's reading of the Dvorak.

A few caveats:
  • The recording device was next to the cello section; I was next to the first violins on the other side of the conductor. The mics were pointing away from where I was sitting. 
  • I didn't do anything to this recording other than cut off the tuning and chit-chat at the beginning and the end.
  • It was cold, it was the end of a 2 1/2 hour rehearsal, and I was hungry!

Silent Woods test run

I'll add only that the orchestra needs a bit more practice . . .

Avoidance or exhaustion?

I often find that as the time before a concert gets shorter, my tolerance for practicing for it gets shorter, too. This doesn't seem logical: why don't I want to practice more? In any case, I came home from work last night around 8:00, completely exhausted.

As my husband pointed out, I've been working really hard all week, going to work and then coming home and practicing until midnight or later. Even if this were purely for enjoyment it would still be tiring. Of course, if it's not for enjoyment, why am I doing it? As any dedicated musician knows, every moment of the process is not going to be enjoyable, and in fact many will be drudgery. But we have to press on. The times when I just threw up my hands and said the heck with this, I'm not going to practice, I've been sorry (mostly).

In any case, last night, I threw together some dinner (my husband was out with friends), read a magazine while lying flat on my back, and then dragged myself to my practice room. But then I just couldn't get the cello out. I finally sat down at the piano and practiced Brahms, Gerswhin, and Bach for about a half hour and then called it a night. I was in bed and asleep by 11:00.

I woke up this morning feeling much better. Now off to orchestra rehearsal.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What I'm playing this week

On the cello:

Dvorak, "Silent Woods": continuing to work on this on all aspects:
  • security (intonation, shifts, fingerings, bowings)
  • tempo and rhythm
  • sound
  • mood
Bach, cello part to Concerto for Three Violins. It turns out that I will have to play some sections solo, as part of the continuo (i.e., the rhythm section for Baroque music, which consists of a keyboard or other chordal instrument and a bass melody instrument, which supports the solo line or lines), so I will need to practice these.

Brahms Symphony No. 2: This actually sounded fairly decent at the rehearsal. The conductor was able to find some additional strings, so there should be 10 firsts, 8 seconds, 10 violas, 7 cellos, and I think 3 basses. The big problem will be fitting into the space at the church. We have not yet been able to get permission to remove the first row or two of pews (not usually an issue because they are only bolted down and can easily be taken out and put back in, but the powers that be are not willing to let us move them).

On the piano:

Chopin Nocturne Op. 55 No. 1: I have the go-ahead to submit a recording of this for the ABF e-cital on March 1 in honor of Chopin's 200th birthday. The idea for this recital was to include works other than the preludes, nocturnes, mazurkas, and waltzes; however, a few of the preludes and nocturnes did not make it onto previous recitals, so the people putting this together said it would be okay if I played this one. I learned it three years ago and made a decent recording, but I'm going to relearn and rerecord it. I'm curious to find out how this will go, and if I can do a better job this time.

Recording from 2007:

Chopin Nocturne Op. 55 No. 1

Bach, Prelude and Fugue in C minor, WTCII: This is improving every week. A friend came over for dinner this past weekend, and she arrived while I was practicing so my husband brought her downstairs to show her the piano. Since she was already in the room, I played the prelude for her, and it went very well (used the music, though).

Gershwin preludes: slowly improving.

Beethoven Sonata Op. 2 No. 3: I decided to try to learn this for yet another online recital scheduled for December 2010 in honor of Beethoven's 240th birthday. The reason I chose this piece is because I started learning it when I took lessons for a short time from my first teacher's teacher when I was a freshman in college. I always felt like it was unfinished business. It's not so terribly difficult, yet it is interesting musically, particularly for the way Beethoven tweaked the sonata form, and I thought it would be a good exercise in learning something longer (four rather long movements). So we'll see how this one goes.

Brahms Op. 118: I have done very little with this in the past week; will try to at least touch on it in the coming week.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

First Dvorak rehearsal

I finally played through the Dvorak with the orchestra today, and it went well. All my practicing seems to have paid off. If I do a reasonable amount between now and the concert in two weeks I should be okay. I was going to record it but forgot to pack up the recording device before it was time to leave the house so it will probably have to wait until next week (the rehearsal tomorrow is strings only).

As usual, now that the first hurdle is done, I'm already forgetting the pain of preparation. Is there any way to avoid this angst, or does it have to be part of the experience? It seems the only musicians who don't go through this are those who are blissfully ignorant of how they really sound. Self-criticism goes hand in hand with improvement. The difficulty is not criticizing all the joy out of playing.