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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!

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:



“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.