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OPP: Other People’s Pianos

Piano practice has always been the back bone of my life structure. It is foundational and usually comes before all other types of practice, and sometimes before breakfast. But of late, with my living situation in continual flux, my practice has shifted from luxurious focused solitude with the instrument to:

Where can I find a piano, and for how long?

In April I moved out of my studio in the SE industrial district of Portland, an idyllic situation where I shared zero walls with neighbors, where I could more or less play whenever I felt like it. That building used to house La Luna, a venue of the Portland of old, where I saw Fiona Apple (among others) play in the 90s. The building has that sort of spooky, Old Portland energy, despite the increasing presence of condos and New Portland everywhere. (A few years back the space was included in a piece on Portland practice spaces in 1859 magazine).

But the really amazing thing about that studio was that I was able to fit my 7′ grand piano in there. If you have visited my blog before you may recall that a while back I was fortunate enough to acquire a totally killer 100+ year old Baldwin vintage grand piano. I went into mighty debt to obtain it (recently paid that off and it felt great). That piano really has my heart–like instant, love-at-first-sound, magic-of-music, to-be-wed-forever, heart. The Baldwin was part of many house shows and piano-focused soirees. Two piano technicians sang its praises as one of their top 10 pianos–EVER.

Having a high quality instrument you really, really love is like having a therapeutic biofeedback machine in your living room; you input your thoughts and emotions and experiences into sound shapes, and they get fed back to you as highly-refined musical energy. It’s like taking high quality vitamins. Or getting lots of hugs.

And now I am living without.

I literally spent an entire 60-minute therapy session processing and crying about living without that piano.

A wonderful old clunker at my friends' Bear and Anthony's in the Columbia River Gorge. This is the piano Anthony's grandmother taught lessons on.
A wonderful old clunker at my friends’ Bear and Anthony’s in the Columbia River Gorge. This is the piano Anthony’s grandmother taught lessons on for many decades.

After leaving the studio I moved through various temporary arrangements, one for a month, one for a week, and the current one for four months, with the final goal of moving to NYC at the end of the summer.

During my last slow goodbye to Portland, friends have been generous with their pianos. I’ve played an old upright out in the Gorge at the Hobbit House, and friends at the Pink Palace shared their tired old gal donated by Piano Push Play. My new routine has helped me realize that while it is good to create a private, focused environment for music practice, there is also something good about learning to adapt, musically and otherwise, to different situations. Like a band tracking drum parts downstairs; a toddler running back and forth and seeming to stomp very deliberately directly above me from the upstairs apartment; an electric bassist practicing in another room while I make do with a piano with no music desk and a broken key cover; and an alarmed cat staring directly at me from another room for the entire two hours that I was playing. (It was highly distracting).

All of this auditory distraction is especially important to learn to deal with considering that I’m moving to NYC!

As much as any technical skill, adaptability is paramount as a pianist. When you’re locked away in your apartment with a dream piano all the time, your playing is more easily thrown off by a nice-but-quirky piano at a venue or rehearsal (and pretty much every piano at any venue is nice-but-quirky). As my classical pianist aunt Julie always says, regularly playing different pianos is “part of the tradition.” As an example of extreme adaptability, my friend Thollem McDonas does not “live” anywhere, as he’s literally always on the road, and he maintains a regular piano practice nonetheless. “Everywhere becomes home,” he said, and every piano is just part of adapting your overall self to each situation. The mobile Zen pianist.

For me, the borrow-a-piano routine is a bit too irregular for getting much real work done, so the type of practice I’ve been doing on Other People’s Pianos is more maintenance mode–just keeping alive what I have already written, and making sure to fit in some sight-reading. On a day when I have extra time, I do some improvising, and maybe gather some ideas for composing.

Also, when you have to go without, you make do with alternatives. When I was such a junkie for the loud, emotionally intense feedback of my acoustic piano, I didn’t have much reason to spend time with my Nord 73. But over the past few months I’ve come to appreciate all the fun things I can do with pedals and effects; I went in a new direction with a song I would have otherwise recorded as an acoustic piano tune, because the keyboard was the only thing available to me.

At the Pink Palace in NE Portland, a baby grand donated by Piano. Push. Play.
At the Pink Palace in NE Portland, a baby grand donated by Piano. Push. Play.

I don’t know what the future holds for my Baldwin piano. Space is of course ridiculously limited in New York City, and a 7’x5′ grand definitely won’t be fitting in the one bedroom apartment I’ll be sharing with another musician.

But there is a chance that through a piano technician friend I can luck out on a cheap shipping deal. If I do, I’m hoping to find a school, venue, church, or private residence where a piano would be welcome, and where I could also come practice. A mutually-beneficial piano-sharing scenario. Better that than having it wrapped in blankets and going unused in a warehouse.

But for now, I’ve got a keyboard, and Other People’s Pianos, to keep me going.

If you have any leads on available pianos in the NYC area, please message me in the comments or through the contact form!

Piano Nerd-Out Time: The Journey of Refurbishing & Regulating a Vintage Piano

In my life I have loved many a piano. But none so much as the vintage Baldwin grand I met and became betrothed to about six years ago. And like shorter term relationships that “prepare” you for a more significant investment, there were many educational pianos along the way before I found her.

There were the pianos I grew up playing; a Baldwin spinet with a squeaky, orange velvet-covered bench, and later, a Krakauer baby grand that my mom inherited after my grandfather passed away. It was the piano my mom and her sister grew up playing, and after being shipped across the country, the movers had to haul the piano–legs removed, kidney-shaped body wrapped in quilted blankets–all the way up the sharp incline of our driveway, an ordeal that took an entire afternoon. Once it was inside I couldn’t stop playing it.

The roommate who came with me to each new apartment, along with my cat.
The roommate who came with me to each new apartment, along with my cat.

Then there was my first piano of my very own, an old grand upright with ornately carved legs, rose vines hand-painted on the interior soundboard, and enough chips in its surface you could see decades of past paint colors. (Honeydew green was the most interesting shade that peeked out; I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to have a melon green piano in the living room with me).

After that, I had a Wurlitzer spinet around for a while, with a sound as loud and metallic as a brass band. (I sold that one to a piano student). Then, I replaced it with an electric piano with settings for historical tunings (interesting and useful for a time because I’m drawn to microtonality, but that board, too, was ultimately also sold to yet another student). Thus I was back to my upright, which was showing its years with each move into every humidity-variable room or basement apartment I asked it to survive in.

In the backdrop of all these temporary fixes, I had other fleeting loves. On the second floor of the piano store where I used to teach lessons, I would take advantage of breaks between students to get away from the studio keyboard and practice on the three rooms of used for sale pianos. It was vintage pianos wall to wall, row after row, like aging maidens waiting to be asked to dance. There were the many Steinway uprights, which almost always had a red SOLD tag on them, and notes about the final work to be completed before they were to be shipped to their new owner. And the regal, crystalline tone of the Chickering grands, or the perfectly even action and balanced sound of the Yamahas.

My studio where I taught piano lessons and practiced and composed, with the Chickering console.
My studio where I taught piano lessons and practiced and composed, with the Chickering console.

These were all out of my price range, so for my home studio piano, I found a black Chickering console with unusually high pedals, which I always had to wear heels to play; it made me feel like Tori Amos. But like my previous spinets and consoles, I needed something better for regular practice and composing.

For a few years I regularly visited every piano shop that I knew of with a good used piano selection. I routinely scoured Craigslist: “Pianos>Used>Any.” And then finally, after a long, desperate, demoralizing search, after only ever seeming to be feel an attraction to pianos that were way to expensive for me, finally, I found her:

A 1912 Baldwin 7′ grand piano. An oldie but goodie. The first few decades of the 20th century was the best era for the Baldwin piano company, with a sound like nothing else I had played; a symphony in a case. The first day I found her, in a shop called the Piano Technology School for the Blind, in Vancouver, Washington, I just sat there, smitten.

Sure, she had some prominent scratches and nicks on her case, including many tiny, weird etchings into the wood above the keys. I imagined a Liberace type with fistfuls of ruby- and emerald-encrusted gold rings, scratching away at the wood on the key cover over the years. But for me, the point wasn’t to have a perfectly smooth, glossy case; it’ was the sound.

I was so mesmerized by the sound, in fact, that I didn’t pause long enough notice the Baldwin’s considerable quirks. She had suffered a hard couple of decades in her century of longevity: partial refurbishings, objects being dropped or slammed on the keys, parts warping, and the general malaise of never being in any one technicians’ care for long enough to get a full refurbishing. But I was swept away by her sound. I sat there on the bench, in a Glenn Gould hunch, face close to the keys, playing one at a time, mesmerized by the gradually, softly decaying overtones.

For a while I was content to get lost in the Baldwin’s endless chambers of resonance and overtones. I wrote all the songs on my first record on her, including “Theory of Survival,” for which I used prepared piano techniques to create sonic layers:

But the Baldwin’s actual playability was another matter. For a while, I couldn’t practice for more than twenty minutes without my arms getting sore. I was also worried about the impact on my technique because the piano had such limited aftertouch and heavy key weight.

Even finding a piano technician who was willing to work on this old gal was a process; in fact, one practically hang up on me when I told her I had a partially-refurbished grand piano on my hands.

“I don’t touch a grand piano that’s had unknown hands working on it,” she said flatly.

Piano action. Grand pianos have between 15,000 and 20,000 moving parts.
Piano action. Grand pianos have between 15,000 and 20,000 moving parts.

Finally, I found master piano technician John Rhodes. He was passionate about pianists having good instruments to play, and keeping the tradition of quality, acoustic pianos alive–he felt so strongly, in fact, that he was willing to donate his time to come by and do an assessment to figure out exactly what was wrong.

He came over to my house and we ate cupcakes and talked about cats and pianos and pianists all afternoon. John said he would take on the project–pro bono, all I would have to pay for was parts–but it would mean the piano would need to be in his shop for a while, and he wouldn’t be able to promise a completion date.

During a nearly year-long field trip away from home, the Baldwin’s action was lovingly, meticulously reworked. John kept extensive records on each stage of the entire process.

Upon returning home the Baldwin was definitely in a much-improved state, but even with all that work, there remained the final leg of the restoration: regulation. I had to wait yet again until it was in the budget, and in the stars, to have it done. Then, on a soggy Portland night in October 2013, after a Piano. Push. Play. event, under the eaves of the smoky outdoor patio at Roadside Attraction on SE 12th St., I met piano technician Alvin Alghrim. After hearing about my piano Alvin said he had to come “meet” it, and after playing it once, he, like most people, fell in love with it too and proclaimed it one of his favorite pianos. He said he wanted to work on it.

Le grande dame of my living room.
Le grande dame of my living room.

Before launching into the project, Alvin did intensive research over the next few months going over John’s extensive notes, absorbing John’s process up to that point, and factoring in how that would influence his approach to the regulation. Once Alvin decided he had everything he needed to figure out how to approach the regulation, and he whipped it together in two afternoons. The result:

I’M IN PIANO HEAVEN. I didn’t realize that one of the bonuses of a regulation job is that it actually improves the sound, too. (As if the old girl’s sound could get any better).

xoxoxoxo
xoxoxoxo

At times I am a little bewildered to have such a special instrument, just sitting there waiting to be played, in my daily life. Lest I forget how lucky I am after this long journey, I am reminded by each pianist who comes over and gets to share in this special little slice of acoustical heaven, as they sit down and play and gaze off into dreamland.

I remember an opera singer friend once told me that every singer has to go through some type of profound illness that prevents them from singing for a while; it’s part of the spiritual journey of opening up your voice. Maybe instrumentalists go through a similar thing, that manifests in our instruments?

At any rate, the journey of getting to know and rework an old instrument yields just as much as the attainment of the improved working instrument itself, as through that process we develop an appreciation for sound, how it works, and come to better understand how we respond to it. The oldie-but-goodie instruments might be a bit work, but they are most definitely worth the trouble.

 

Spring Things

Summer display of Diascia, Celosia, Coleus, and ornamental millet.
Summer display of Diascia, Celosia, Coleus, and ornamental millet.

Last year I decided I was finally going to learn how to grow a proper vegetable garden. I’m not new to either vegetables or to gardening—in fact, in my daily life I could be mistaken as somewhat of a “plant expert” where I work, as a visual merchandiser at a garden center. With a few plant ID classes and a lot of time around nurseries under my belt, I can answer questions about plant illnesses and rattle off botanical names with the best of the plant nerds—but behind this image of horticultural prowess lurks a shameful secret: I can’t grow a decent tomato to save my life.

One year when my finances were especially lean, my dad suggested I garden to supplement my food budget.

“Can’t you grow some vegetables and reduce your grocery bill that way? Any little bit helps,” he reminded me. I hesitated.

The truth is, each year I do put a tomato plant or two in the ground, along with a casual sprinkling of fertilizer in May or June (or sometimes, as late as a relaxed early July). After watering a few times I then completely abandon them; from this routine I consistently earn a small handful of desperate tiny cherry tomatoes that arrive sporadically throughout August and September—even if their variety was supposed to be a “Roma” or “Slicer” type of tomato, all tomatoes are rendered equally forsaken and puny in my garden. Any basil planted goes straight to the bugs, while the rosemary and thyme never realize their culinary ambitions and remain purely ornamental. I will, however, get to eat a strawberry here and there—should the plants manage to produce a crop on the outskirts of the veggie bed, where it honestly gets dry as a desert precipice by July, and should I remember to get to them before the slugs.

“I don’t think I can grow enough produce at my place to really make a dent in the grocery bill,” I responded to my dad vaguely. You see, he grew up on a farm in Ohio and is an organic and non-GMO food advocate. Growing produce is a family tradition—and profession, as my great-grandfather was an agricultural scientist who contributed to the development of modern hydroponic gardening and even wrote a book called The Vegetable Encyclopedia and Gardener’s Guide. Under this weighty mantle of familial inheritance, it’s always been hard for me to admit to my dad that I’m such a slacker when it comes to veggies.

‘Natura Morta’ by Walter Marcetti, installation at Yale Union.

This lack of agricultural prowess makes me not only a black sheep in the family but also an exception amongst the neo-homesteading culture that is especially prevalent—and political—in Portland, Oregon. Come Spring each year the air is thick with aspirations towards a sustainable and virtuous Mason jar and apple crate-decorated lifestyle. Everyone here seems to keep chickens for eggs and bees for honey, plus runs their own home canning operation and maintains at least a few raised beds and fruit trees—everyone except me, that is.

One year my friend Kirsten asked me about my plans for the garden at my then-home. Kirsten then lived on a yurt at a Community Supported Agriculture farm with her husband, Shaun. Far more economical and resourceful with nature’s offerings than most people would ever aspire to be, when Kirsten and Shaun see roadkill they are often known to pull over to pick up the carcass and render hides for fashioning new boots or hats.

“What kind of crops are you going to plant this year?” Kirsten asked—not whether I would plant them, but which kind.

“Well, I’ll do a few veggies in the bed by the patio,” again skirting the issue of discussing the ill-fated tomato bed in much depth, “but most of the yard is for all the other stuff.”

“What ‘other stuff’?” Kirsten asked, perplexed.

As much as she couldn’t fathom what else a person would dig in the dirt for, I didn’t even know where to begin. I grow plants for their beauty, not for any practical purpose that would serve me or other humans. Actually, simply being in nature is proven to improve health and quality of life, of course. Beyond that, appreciation of nature and the perception of beauty helps us stay connected with the rhythm of life and the universe. I wouldn’t dare take this on as a platform against a sustainability advocate (especially not one from Portland, or my dad for that matter), but I have always enjoyed the quiet ethos of growing plants to feed my soul—rather than my gut.

There’s the shade bed along the perimeter of the back garden where grows a Hosta that’s now nearly as big as I am; the bamboo-filled containers, potted heliotrope and geraniums on the patio; the hot sunny bed along the side of the house with New Zealand and Mediterranean plants, and then the front North-facing bed where fuchsias, conifers, and Cyclamen battle some tremendously tough and fertile weeds that I spend much of each summer making futile (but at least, poison-free) efforts to eradicate.

Evidence that I can, in fact, make some green things grow.
Evidence that I can, in fact, make some green things grow.

To be fair, my plants are not grown solely for pleasure; they also serve as green (or mottled or purple or striped) markers of my life and reminders of the people in it. I look at the hydrangea and hope my friend José comes to town while it’s flowering this year, because it’s his favorite shrub and he always likes to take a bouquet to his mother on his visits from New Orleans. I keep an eye on the soil beneath the mimosa tree, looking for signs of the flower seeds I scattered last year as a memorial to commemorate Nonnie, my maternal grandmother, and her love of flower gardening. A few of the plants in my yard were planted by former roommates, or by the squirrels and birds who like to rearrange things a bit each year. Others came from cuttings of the many species I planted at my mom’s house before I had a place of my own—most of which originally came from the free pile at the nursery where I worked back then. Much of the rest of the garden came from friends whose homes foreclosed in the dark years between 2009 and 2011; more than once I attended a work party at friends’ foreclosed homes, and like horticultural rescue teams, with shovels and buckets and nursery pots, we furtively dug up long-established plants as carefully and quickly as possible.

“I can walk away from the house and the man just fine,” my friend Jillian lamented, “but the Hellebores! I can’t leave my Hellebores!” Her only comfort was that at least her beloved plant friends would grow on in the gardens of people whose homes she visited often. And each year, her purple hellebore comes into bloom in my shade bed, a symbol of survival and new beginnings.

So you can see why my gardening energy is drawn towards these sentimental and aesthetically appealing plants that come back reliably year after year, instead of dealing with some scraggly squash plant gasping for life over in the “Edible Bed.”

It will only be there a couple more months anyway,” I often find myself thinking, passing over the desperate vine with a brief hose sprinkling. That’s the other tough thing about edible gardening: it’s so much effort that all goes into annual plants that are only with you for a season. At the end of the summer, you take everything they have to offer, all of their efforts towards their own biological reproduction, and summarily rip them out. This reminds me of Nonnie’s argument against the logic of vegetarianism:

“Anything that’s living has to be killed for us to eat it; when you pull a carrot out of the ground, you’re ending its life,” she would say pragmatically. “Is a carrot any less worthy of life than a cow?”

What we innocently call “vegetable gardening,” then, is only ritual plant murder. I wouldn’t tell that to a permaculture activist, but maybe that is part of my block around nurturing my peppers and squash along to term—because I know I’ll only have to kill them. Like many a city kid, somewhere in my psyche there probably lurks a Pollyanna version of nature, where humans and plants and animals all live alongside one another in a nonviolent, picturesque tableau.

Still, I admire the knowledge and economic efficiency of the neo-homesteaders. And it stands to reason that if I can maintain an entire landscape of perennial and hardy plants, I should be able to grow at least some of my own food, right? That’s why I don’t want to give up yet, even though my track record is poor.

IMG_2054My last hope, it seems, to address this gardening handicap is to hop on the “edibles are beautiful” trend that is hot in the gardening magazines lately. This is a gardening trend that I could really get behind. If the aesthete in me can be retrained to experience the scratchy leaves of tomatoes and the crowded faces of marigolds as “beautiful,” perhaps I can be lured to tend them more consistently. I’ll have to keep the end-of-season killing time, aka “the harvest,” out of mind.

To experiment with this new approach, instead of torturing anew that same 4’ x 6’ plot of land, last year at the garden center I had the idea to build an employee community vegetable garden. The idea was the garden would provide food for the staff while demonstrating that edible gardening can be done in a small amount of space, and that is can be just as visually appealing as an ornamental bed. For the sake of my gardening self-image, and for the IMG_2055survival of the plants going into these beds, I really hoped this would all be proven true–and the fact that the beds were to be a shared responsibility boded well for our collective success. But what ended up happening was the clearing out of the area where the beds were going to be kept took way longer than anticipated, and the beds were never in fact built. I scaled back my ambitions to simply two small raised beds built onto a pallet, which could be moved around as needed throughout the season. And move them around we did–or rather, out of the way–as by late August there was only a scraggly, desperate-looking bunch of onions outcompeted by an aggressive mint-like thing. And that was that.

This year–every spring is a new beginning, a second chance, right?–I have scaled back my ambitions even further, and my only nod to the idea of urban farming is one medium-sized focal point display situated between the fruits. Provided the plants are watered regularly, this approach should be pretty bulletproof, as none of the plants are actually planted, they’re just in containers–which could be sold and taken home to a loving family at any time–and the entire set-up is entirely temporary. I admit to nursing dreams of living on a farm someday, and having the know-how to participate in it like a true earth mother. But for now, I will stick to making things look pretty and buying my produce on sale.

When I Opened For MADELEINE PEYROUX at the Aladdin Theater

It was definitely one of the highlights of my year,

The set list I scribbled on my arm before the show so I'd remember my set!
The set list I scribbled on my arm before the show so I’d remember my set!

or actually my performing life thus far, when I got to open for international singer Madeleine Peyroux at Portland’s Aladdin Theater. I found out about the show rather last minute (like, the day before).

I was having an altogether uneventful afternoon. Incidentally, I actually happened to be feeling a bit glum about how little time I had been finding for music in my life lately. I had just seen an amazing Y La Bamba show earlier that week, where Luz Elena’s performance was especially powerful. (A week later I found out that was actually their last show for a hiatus of a few years, and I’m so glad they’re back now!) Anyway, the show left me feeling inspired by music in general, but bummed about being rather musically inactive at that moment. It was a busy summer where I was commuting almost an hour to day job work and back each day, and physically and mentally exhausted. Though I found moments here and there to write songs and practice, it was tough to stay in the routine.

It was also suffocatingly humid that week, and I was sick with an annoying summer cold (the kind that is mild enough where you don’t need to stay in bed, but you feel consistently crappy no matter what you do). Everything–the weather, my life–felt like it was moving slow as molasses.

As I sat there in my car, getting ready to embark on a series of rathe tedious to-do’s that included car maintenance followed by pulling some gnarly weeds that were going to seed and threatening to take over the yard, my sickness and crankiness and the general malaise of feeling misaligned with my musical energy and the heat all got to me: I broke out in tears and just sat there in the stuffy car, crying and sniffling.

Then suddenly a text appeared. It was from Emily Overstreet of Great Wilderness and the Aladdin Theater:

“Can you open for Madeleine Peyroux tomorrow night?”

I re-swiped my tear-smudged phone, thinking I had misread the text. And then another text came through:

“($$).”

Umm….YES!

“I don’t know for sure yet, just need to see if we can find someone. Will let you know soon,” Emily wrote back. And then, “I feel that it will happen.” I sat there for the next few minutes, wiping my tears away, feeling gratitude, even though I didn’t know for sure if I had it. Just the possibility of having it was enough to turn my day around. A few seconds later the text confirmation came through. Screw pulling weeds and fixing the car!

I went home and figured out what I needed to do. First I called my drummer to see if he could join me, and he said honestly didn’t feel we were ready; we hadn’t been playing really at all lately, of course. But then I talked to the stage manager, who said a drummer wouldn’t be possible with the stage plot anyway:

“Her crew was very clear it needs to be a solo performer.”

So it was play alone, marginally prepared, or don’t play at all.

“Will that work for you?” he asked. I didn’t hesitate.

“YES!” What else do you say? You say yes and do it! (Too, pulling a show together solo without much rehearsal time is much easier than with a band).

I spent the rest of the day practicing; one of my long-neglected guitar strings broke (of COURSE), so I had to walk to the store to get strings. Luckily, my boss gave me half the day off–in fact, a big music fan, she told me she and another work friend would actually be there for the show that night because they already happened to have tickets.

I got to the theatre for sound check and saw why the crew wanted a solo performer; the stage was crammed with a grand piano, a drumkit, an upright bass, Madeleine’s vocal mic and guitar, and an elevated stage rise for five members of the Oregon Symphony who would be joining her.

Madeleine Peyroux.
Madeleine Peyroux.

Backstage, as the house was filling up, I felt weirdly calm but energized, that wakeful, alert type of nervous. That’s how you want to feel before a performance; not overwhelmed with nerves, but not like you’re chilling out on a Netflix binge, either. The set went well and I was told I did a great job and had a good stage presence. Who says you need to be prepared?

I mean sure, the Universe doesn’t always answer our wishes quite so promptly:

“I’m bummed because I haven’t played music enough lately.”

“Well, here’s an amazing gig out of the blue!”

But it is definitely magical when it happens.