Ralph Cato had been scheduled to come for his first piano lesson soon after we had a chance meeting at the Guitar Center in Fresno a few years ago. At the time, he was combing the store in search of a “killer” digital keyboard, as he described it, for his 10 year old daughter. Christmas was just around the corner so I happened to breeze in to check the inventory of electronic instruments. (I always had parents interested in purchasing these for their children)
Gliding my fingers over a Casio PX110, a portable with an unusually resonant, simulated “Grand Piano” tone center, I was distracted by a salesperson trying to sell a customer a pricey competitor. As the store employee demonstrated an expensive Yamaha keyboard that had a fancy computer screen and a million buttons, he couldn’t drown out the soaring, resonance of the Casio I was playing.
So many digitals lining store shelves and sitting on display stands had huge tone banks and complex gadgetry. A good amount had blinking lights and other fancy visual enticements, but they lacked a fundamental sonority in the basic “grand piano” area of tone production. For the most part they produced a metallic, generic sound that clearly separated them from acoustic pianos and made performing on them a synthesized experience. As a performing pianist, I preferred a digital keyboard to have a reasonable tonal relationship to my Steinway grand, so I could prep on fingering and phrasing and record/playback before leaping into the standard repertoire on my bigger piano. Because I had a neighbor to the right who had been complaining about my nocturnal practicing, I had to acquire a keyboard in short order, and put on my earphones at the strike of 10 p.m.
Ralph had been captivated by what he heard coming from my Casio. “Ya know, I’m really confused by all the keyboards around here,” he said, and I’m not sure which one to choose for my daughter.” He was a tall, broad shouldered African American dressed in casual, designer clothes. He wore a colorful sports shirt, khaki shorts and tasseled loafers.
“You play very well,” he added. “Do you mind me asking what you think of this keyboard that I’m about to buy?”
“Just focus for a moment on this Casio model’s ‘grand piano sound,’ I replied, “and compare it with what you have in front of you.”
He listened attentively to my musical sample, and then tapped his fingers on the Yamaha keyboard. Meanwhile the salesperson, who had given him undivided attention, had drifted off to assist another customer. It was like Kinko’s floating personnel. Here today and gone tomorrow!
I continued my mini concert on a variety of digitals, making an instrument by instrument comparison. I played Beethoven’s Fur Elise on the Casio and then I switched over to the Yamaha. Finally I provided a sample or two on three other electronic instruments that were sprinkled around a parlor of competitive brands.
Who would ever believe that I would be sitting in front of a weighted electronic keyboard serving up a Classical menu? If Ludwig Van Beethoven were alive he might be enraged by the digitally filtered stream of his music. Or maybe not. When he became deaf, he might have appreciated the vibrations emanating from the Casio.
I had quickly come to realize that I couldn’t be an artifact of the past when the winds of change were sweeping music and media in new directions. I had only to reference the pearly words of the great virtuoso pianist, composer, and conductor, Mikhail Pletnev who shared his musical views in an interview conducted by Michael Church, in Andante, Everything Classical.com (February 28, 2005)
“Me, I am still in a classical frame,” Pletnev said. ”But a new composer must study electronics and the art of synthesizers. Music composed by computer, and arranged with modern acoustic systems, sounds more impressive than music in the concert hall…..New technology opens new doors.”
I could agree with him in part, though I was absolutely not willing to trade in my Steinway grand piano for a high tech digital system any time soon.
Ralph was very focused on my playing, tuned into the many sections of Fur Elise that tested the musical worth of a keyboard. And then I showed him any number of contrasting passages that fleshed out the superiority of the Casio 110 as compared to its high profile rivals. Slowly but surely, he was swayed to my way of thinking.
“I’m definitely sold on the Casio,” he said. “It’s obvious that it resonates and also explodes with sound when you need to pack the punch.” He was no doubt referring to what I drew out of it when I played a prominent interlude in the Beethoven selection that had stormy, fortissimo chords in the left hand. No matter how much I pounded, the Casio sustained the blow well and filtered out the percussive in favor of a melodic line that flowed within a series of triads.
As Ralph and I talked further at Guitar Center, I learned that he had been a boxing trainer for the USA Olympic team, though he had clearly communicated a very sensitive side of himself in the din of an instrument store where intimate exchange was made nearly impossible.
Naturally, I was interested in this side of him because I had a pervasive alter ego tied to athletics. It wasn’t just my tennis exploits, and attempts to sign for Little League baseball when girls were banned from the sport, but my brother actually put boxing gloves on me when I was a kid, and punched me silly in the gut after he landed consecutive jabs to my head. He’d fight dirty, and wallop me below the belt putting me away with a one-two punch. That’s when I’d go crying to my parents. There was never justice. I’d always be blamed for putting on the gloves in the first place.
Meanwhile, my father watched the Gillette “Fight of the Week” and got the momentum going, cussing at the favorite, and wanting the underdog to win. I’d be immersed in the culture, knowing that if I could make it to the ring, I’d be carried off in victory like a “Rocky” hero.
Surprisingly after Ralph purchased the PX110 “killer” keyboard for his daughter, he voiced an interest in taking piano lessons with me, and being that he had an old upright in his home, I figured it might be a workable situation. The only complication was Ralph’s underlying passion for Gospel music that intimidated me. Far too often these musicians pounded the keys so brutally that many church pianos had strings popped from repeated assaults. I shuddered to think what would befall my precious Steinway if this Gospel energy was not held in check.
Cato managed to stay true to form when he arrived in my home studio to try out my big size grand piano. While he approached his Gospel sounding music with rhythmic definition, he greatly over-projected his sound in a room that could barely absorb the shock of his bombastically offensive chords. It was like an earthquake had hit!
“Okay!” I said forcefully, just when I needed to the draw the line.”That’s enough for today, Ralph!” I sounded like his boxing coach toweling him down after a nasty round with his sparring partner, but I needed to be completely honest and forthright with Cato at this juncture or my precious grand might be in grave danger.
“I’m not sure how I can be of any help with this style of music,” I insisted. “Gospel stuff is just not my bag, and frankly, it requires a type of pounding that doesn’t really belong here in my studio.”
Ralph was bit shaken by my comment but he knew how to instantly retreat to avoid confrontation.
“Well,” he said, meekly “I’m at a juncture where maybe I need to get away from this Gospel music and learn something more refined and classical.” Those were the magic words. By sweet talking the music I treasured, he had managed to earn himself a temporary reprieve and an extension of his piano lessons.
Yet, I was uncertain whether I could teach him on a regular basis. He’d been so entrenched in this Gospel stuff since childhood that he might be incapable of altering his aggressive approach to the piano.
“Well, let’s think a bit about where we’re heading with this before we make a permanent commitment to lessons,” I said. “Maybe we should just give it another try and see what happens.”
In the meantime, Ralph tried to ingratiate himself by leading me to the staircase that led to a second floor space in my townhouse and unsolicited, he began coaching me like I was a boxer in training. He nudged me up a few steps and back in a precise way to give my calves a workout, and then suddenly, from nowhere, he threw a shadow punch at me to test my reflexes. I couldn’t believe what I was doing! If I had my camcorder rolling, I would have captured this whole event on video. A piano teacher taking boxing lessons from a student?!
From that point on, I put an end to all the coaching, sparring and other athletic routines, and steered Ralph away from his Gospel exhibitions at my piano. Instead, I told him about a project I was engaged in that involved gathering stories about “dream pianos.” I wanted him to tell me about his first piano and how it influenced his life.
Ralph acquiesced and spun out a story I would never forget.
“When I was 8,” he said, “my parents purchased an upright whose brand name had been painted over white, like the rest of the piano. The instrument was actually given to my younger sister only, so after 8 o’clock each evening when she was finished with her practicing, she would always lock it up. So during the middle of the night, when my parents and siblings were off to bed I would silently sneak into the foyer where the upright was sitting, and I would pick the piano lock with a paper clip, something I had learned at school from a buddy who did the same with a trombone case.
“After I unlocked the piano, I would play on it from sundown to sunset, without ever waking any family members.”
Ralph sat at my piano with nice posture and demonstrated how he originally taught himself a scale composed of single notes, and then he showed me how he learned to create harmony among two notes. Finally, he demonstrated how he formed triads of three notes at a time in sequence. This was right before he had carefully closed up his childhood piano at the peep of dawn, as if it had never been opened the night before.
“It wasn’t long before my mother started to recognize my interest in the piano,” he said, “and one day she became more directly involved in my musical explorations. I remember one afternoon, after she heard me play my chords, she said, ‘Ralph, I think I know a song that sounds just like the one you play.’ And she sang it immediately back and taught it to me.” He demonstrated how each of 8 rising chords had a syllable of verse attached.
“It’s no se-cret what God can do.”
It was the most touching personal account I had heard to that point, and coming from a boxing trainer with a tough exterior, it revealed his soft and sensitive side.
Ralph never did follow through with his piano lessons. He had too many family related matters to deal with, but nevertheless, for the brief time I knew him more intimately through his childhood memories of his first piano, he lit up my studio with the glow of his warmth and tenderness. His special recollections will always linger.