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Cato, his Killer Keyboard, and a round of piano lessons!

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.

8 thoughts on “Cato, his Killer Keyboard, and a round of piano lessons!”

  1. I bought my digital piano at the Fresno Guitar Center before I started lessons with the idea of teaching myself with a well know adult method. I ended up getting a Casio PX-800 console mostly due to the sale price ($699 on sale, list at $1100ish I think) and that it would look good in the house. I can relate to sensory overload as there were many others trying out various instruments and I had no idea what I was doing. I do think I made out ok and the Casio fits my needs. I had no idea how good I had it in the Fresno GC until I stopped into the Sacramento GC while looking for a stage piano that I could take to work for practice. Wow the noise level was astounding and people would just bang away at a synth or guitar with no regard to others in the area. I did manage to scope out a Korg SV-1 73 key piano that I really like (I still think the C below middle C has some issues with velocity dynamics but others can’t hear it) and use when work is slow.

    So yes digital pianos are taking over but on the flip side, I would never have bought an acoustic piano nor started lessons. One year and a bit later I’m loving my lessons and trying to figure out if I can fit a grand piano in my upstairs living room, space not being an issue but a switchback staircase and a redwood tree blocking my balcony are issues I need resolve. I have yet to even play on the most humble of upright acoustic pianos but my digital’s have me looking at my checking account and craigslist for my own “dream” piano. I’m probably unrealistic in hoping that my first acoustic will be my “dream” but hey that is what dreams are made of right?

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    1. Thanks for sharing. I think the universe of digitals has its own attraction. I have friends who are very fine pianists, who play Yamaha model digitals, including the Clavinova. They aren’t thinking twice about purchasing an acoustic piano. One of these people invested in the 10K range without batting an eye lash. She likes the upgrades. She might have the dancing notes on a screen. It can get hypnotic. I was starting to zone out at Fresno Piano yesterday from all the technology. Today a big extended family was over there and they just breezed by the acoustics, and were fixated on a Clavinova. Strange that I walked the family into the Steinway parlor and showcased a truly magnificent B.. They enjoyed the concert, but somehow didn’t make the comparison between what they were being sold, and what they had just heard.
      So I’m sure a sale was made. I’m glad you area enjoying music regardless of the medium. When it comes right down to it, the music reigns and instrument is the vehicle. Shirley K

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      1. I’ve never tried one of the high end digital pianos that you saw in the store so I don’t know how it would compare to $10k spent in the acoustic piano arena. Can $10k be spent on a new acoustic piano that would perform like the digitals, I would assume so since many nice uprights are priced below that. Then why go for the digital? Features I suppose, it can play for you, it shows the notes in the one you mentioned, it has many voices. Having two digital pianos for the last year has shown me that 99% of the time I’m using the acoustic piano sound banks and only venture into the others for a break in the routine so many of the features go wanting.

        I’m hoping that once I get my hands onto an acoustic piano that I feel the different connection that so many people write about. Vibrations, tone, dynamics, color etc.. all these things are mysterious to me at the moment but I’m willing to go out and see what speaks to me. You frequently mention Fresno as perhaps not the most desirable location for piano discovery but try living in Grover Beach (near Pismo Beach fyi) where there is only one piano store within 100 miles and it carries lower tier brands than what I sort of have in mind to buy. Where am I going to find a Mason and Hamlin A or B, Shimmel, Estonia, etc? A road trip to the Bay Area would be the answer I guess but it would be nice not to have to drive 3 hours one way to piano shop.

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  2. You will definitely discover the difference between your digitals and an acoustic piano. I think for 10K you can acquire a very lovely piano. I tend to go private party, used piano market, where I have been lucky to have located some amazing instruments for myself and others, including my students. I include the Aeolian table style piano that vcost $1300, my Steinway 1098 studio upright that I landed for 7k along with a host of other pianos that were well under 10k. Forgot to include my Kawai GE 20 grand that was brand new, and under 10K.. I got a good deal at DC Pianos in Berkeley. Some other students acquired Baldwin Acrosonics in $300 to $400 range, and a very resonant P22 Yamaha upright for about $1300. Another student bought a GE-1 Kawai for $3700, a steal price, and I think it dated to 1996 or so–this was a private party Central Valley sale. I think your location would bode well for finding some treasures in the used piano marketplace.

    Shirley K

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  3. True, true there are many excellent pianos in the used market but my price range tends to be a bit higher then what you find in the San Luis Obispo Craigslist. I want to buy a top quality piano and then play it for the rest of my life and with that goal in mind I have the stirrings of a budget in the $25-30K arena. That is a big stretch for me and more than I payed for my car but it can be done and that means road trips. It would be nice to have a store close by that had pianos like Steinway (although new Steinway pianos are far above my ability to own) so I could sample top quality instruments and get a sense of what I may find pleasing in sound and touch. My thinking is I’ll go searching for a professional rebuilt piano in the SF bay or LA area, this of course after figuring out how to get it into the living room before I buy it.

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    1. There’s an incredible Steinway rebuilder in Modesto who has his own shop, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend him. He did one amazing job on my Steinway M, and is respected, frankly, all over the country. Check out Dale Erwin on the Internet. I think it’s Erwinspianos as per the website.

      It would be worth your while to make a trip to Modesto to try his pianos out, and just see this man’s whole set up. He voices pianos with a profound conscientiousness of the singing tone. And his technical work is stupendous.

      Shirley

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