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A Performance I’ll Never Forget!

I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to provide keyboard music at a Fresno art supply store. It happened quite unexpectedly around the time I’d bumped into Ralph Cato, US Olympic Boxing Trainer at the neighboring Guitar Center. (“Cato, His Killer Keyboard and A Round of Piano Lessons”)

Because I liked the establishment’s acoustical environment, I volunteered to serenade customers with Christmas music on my PX110 digital.

The space, located in a busy shopping area right beside Trader Joe had a high, wood beamed ceiling that gave a shimmer to even the worst bell and whistle keyboard, so my more spiffy 88-key, “weighted” one, would surely soar with streams of electronically generated sounds.

With the permission of the owner, a perky, middle aged woman, I plopped myself down with my gear next to a neat row of easels and promptly served up a menu of popular holiday carols along with Handel’s “Messiah” excerpts. It was enough of an audience draw to land me a steady paid gig at the “Second Saturday Art Exhibition,” hosted by this very establishment.

Each month local artists displayed and sold their paintings, while one selected in advance, was given a well publicized teaching table to share techniques with interested customers. The location was conspicuously at the front of the store.

I was to arrive at 10 a.m. to set up my keyboard, stand and other accouterments, and once settled in, I had agreed to play a steady stream of classical music, setting a nice tone for the event.

The owner strategically placed me behind the featured artist, who, on this particular weekend, would display her rock and roll subject era paintings. At first glance, these hardly made an impression, but upon closer examination, I realized that she had produced thought-provoking works. One, titled, “Solitude,” with a Beatles theme, had an instant association to “All the Lonely People,” one of my favorite songs. Its moody grays, pinks–shadows and silhouettes were mesmerizing, and the more I gazed upon it, the more I hungered to acquire this treasure as a trade for doing a few dinner parties at the artist’s house. Maybe she’d consider it. “Give me your business card,” she had said, before things got underway. A few had separated from my wallet and were lying on the floor beside my Casio keyboard, at risk to be trampled, but I had decided to leave everything in place, without a second thought.

The artist, a plump, middle aged woman, with flaming dyed red hair and steel green eyes sat by her table alongside one of her flamboyant keyboard theme murals. Occasionally, she dabbed it with grays and yellows while her husband, who appeared to be in his late 60’s, registered a strong, protective instinct toward her. Intermittently, he chatted with visitors to the gallery and carried on prolonged, audible chats with them.

I had just about set up after having lugged my 27 pound portable from my van along with other accessories–pedals, music rack, double braced stand, and an electrical source, when to my astonishment, the A/C transformer that plugged into my keyboard, got caught in the van’s sliding door, becoming detached from its wire. It was instantly rendered useless! What a great segue way to my second banana appearance at the Second Saturday exhibition!

Luckily, the Fresno Guitar Center was within easy reach, so I raced over to borrow a substitute that was taken from one of the Casio digital floor models. “Guy,” the store Manager had already delivered a keyboard size bench since I’d inadvertently left mine at home.

With a working transformer the music would soon be up and running, but not before the art establishment’s proprietor raced over like clockwork to do a volume check on my keyboard. She’d decided on a half knob sound level because of her concern that “background” music could drown out conversations between the artist and a stream of visitors. While I believed that a 50% volume cut would significantly muffle the music I had selected, I went along with it. In a paid situation like this, aesthetics were often put aside in favor of pleasing an employer. We musicians were used to keeping our place.

Right on the button at 11 a.m. I sent dim electronic impulses into the universe to the accompaniment of nearby conversation that grew intolerably distracting. A group of visitors to the featured art table who leaned right up against me, were comparing plumbing disaster stories and bad home re-modeling adventures. The toilet bowl intrigues were particularly invasive to my concentration, so for tension relief, I found myself mumbling a private wish fulfillment. After the concentration shattering dribble ran its course, another flock of visitors replaced the first, talking at a higher volume level, and through all the dizzying banter not one person noticed Beethoven’s heavenly music trying to squeak out of an electronic box.

As I moved on to play Baroque period Scarlatti Sonatas with their shimmering ornaments and trills, I noticed the registered displeasure of the artist’s husband in his angry demeanor. He was sending an inaudible, though pervasive message, that my music was too loud.

The situation hearkened back to a party at which I was invited to play, located in the Huntington Lake neighborhood. At the time, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to sample a 7 foot Bosendorfer grand that was hand-picked by my dermatologist at the Vienna factory. What an awesome instrument with a resounding bass and lyrical treble. The rehearsal was definitely memorable and should have been savored as a special moment because once I was seated at the piano at the glitzy event, the Bosie quickly dwindled to half its size. Hordes of noisy guests crowded in on me with cocktails in hand and within minutes I could no longer hear what I was playing. It could have been a selection by Bach, Mozart or even Stephen Foster.

***

The circumstance at the art store was comparable. No one had acknowledged the music through 90 minutes of playing and increasingly, I received alienating stares from the protective husband who I’d learned had been a long-time member of the Fresno Philharmonic horn section.

But I persevered and moved on to the Beethoven “Adagio” movement, from the Sonata “Pathetique,” with its doleful melody that instantly brought tears to my eyes.

Within moments of my musical immersion, I was distracted again by the leering husband who looked like he was about to approach the keyboard and turn down the volume himself. Instead, the store owner did it for him. She arrived just as I was playing through the agitated middle section of the Beethoven slow movement and with lightning speed, she threw her arm in front of me, nicked my cheeks, and zapped the volume knob, stopping my performance in its tracks! I felt the whole world crumbling around me, and I wanted to escape the whole nightmare right then and there. It had been the same with composer, Robert Schumann, who in his Neue Gezeitschrift fur Musik (New Journal of Music) wrote about purging the dilettantes from the face of the earth! He depicted the earnest war against them in his “Davidsbundler Tanze,” written at the height of the Romantic period. His self-made “League of David” was a proverbial collective of artists, composers and performers who upheld the intrinsic value of higher art in the face of destructive forces.

With the spirit of Schumann hovering, I gritted my teeth and played his “Arabesque” with its forlorn spindle of themes that reflected my countenance. Almost on cue, the store owner’s associate arrived on the scene. Sarcastically, she said, “Now why don’t you smile, honey, ‘cause you have such a pretty face.”

My tolerance threshold was waning and I realized that if I didn’t pack up my gear sooner than later I would emit a primal scream that might summon an ambulance. I would surely be carried away involuntarily.

Just as I was about to make my gallant departure in defense of higher art, my 83 year old friend, “Ruthie” neutralized everything. She sauntered in and greeted me in her usual chipper way. “Hi, there,” she said, “I’m sorry for being so late, but everything just went wrong today. The worst part of it was that my JC Penney card disappeared so I had to call them and cancel the account.” At that very moment, I looked down at the floor where my wallet was placed to see if it was still there. The business cards nearby had strangely disappeared, so I had reason to panic. My money and ID’s might have been taken as I was immersed in the works of Scarlatti, Schubert and Chopin.

Meanwhile, Ruth roamed around the gallery viewing paintings, and then warmly greeted the displaying artist whom she seemed to know. My senior citizen friend was a talented water colorist who had a small art studio within her home where she painted and taught. We had enjoyed a nice companionship over the years, and in the course of time, she had become the chief screener of my newly released CDs. I would bring the Master to her home, and she made comments about the order of my selections and the sound balance from one to another. She enjoyed the process of quality controlling my disks before their official release.

It was about 12:45 p.m. and I needed a well deserved time out, so I inserted one of my own recorded classical CDs into a Sony boom box that I had brought along. The owner had concerns about it when she saw me carrying the monstrosity into the store along with my keyboard and related gear. “It’s just for the breaks,” I had reassured her, “like for 15 minutes of each hour.” The artist’s husband had a frightening look as my CD resonated through the awesome space with its astonishingly high ceiling. In a matter of time, exploding emotions could cause a face off.

Just then, Ruth chimed in proudly, “Oh my gosh, you’re playing CD #3, one of my favorites.”

I had decided to let the disk run on perpetual “repeat” because I was not looking forward to playing “live” again, with all that was transpiring around me. Just in the nick of time, “Sharon Cooper” walked in with her husband and four year old daughter. She had been enjoying her Wurlitzer console piano that had settled into her Lemoore home. An instrument with wonderful resonance and personality, it had been acquired for all of $500, an irresistible bargain. The piano also had a delicate pecan cabinet that complemented its lovely voice.

Sharon had agreed to come to the art store after my performance so we could both dash over to the Guitar Center to select a keyboard. She needed a supplementary instrument with earphones so she could practice late into the night without disturbing her sleeping daughter. At the same time, I dropped off the transformer and bench that I had borrowed from Guy.

By late afternoon, at least Sharon was happy. She left the Guitar Center with a gem of a keyboard and then Ruth met me at “Whole Foods” for lunch. Another ray of sunshine appeared when one of my piano finder clients had sent me a $20 gift card in appreciation for my having steered her to the resonating PX110 Casio digital piano.

Ruth and I had a nice repast and shared a chocolate chip/oatmeal cookie that someone had left, completely wrapped, on our table. Finally by the very late afternoon, I drove home, crashed on my sofa, and woke up dazed and disoriented in the middle of the night. Ironically, I had dreamed that I was playing in Carnegie Hall to a pin drop silence. Gratefully, I went back to sleep with a pleasing smile on my face.

RELATED:
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/cato-his-killer-keyboard-and-a-round-of-piano-lessons/

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/is-the-piano-a-dying-breed/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QFBqDcVa1JA “Did Somebody Say Fresno?” Video Editor, Aviva Kirsten

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/10/27/the-good-bad-and-ugly-shopping-at-guitar-center-in-el-cerrito/

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DREAM PIANO: Overview and Acknowledgments

My two-year long romp on the piano finding trail with York as my professional companion and consultant had been worth all the time spent in, around and under pianos. How else would I have acquired knowledge about the piano’s harp, or cast iron plate were it not for his having the bravado to dismantle it from the Proskch 1905 grand and haul it out to the College of the Sequoia’s welding department. In the face of technicians and others who mocked him for his efforts, he persevered; soda blasted the ugly looking frame and dragged it home for a second wind. Rebecca McGregor, a victim of her impulsive sight unseen Internet piano purchase and an unprincipled seller, had written me a thought provoking e-mail after she had hovered over the plate on full view in York’s driveway. It was a funereal scene.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/funeral-for-a-cracked-plate-piano-caveat-emptor/

She wrote, “I actually learned something at York’s, and I think you captured the essence of our meeting and the somber mood. Were we paying for his having tried to mend the plate, I would have stopped him, but with York’s willingness to take it on without payment, we’d have been fools not to let him proceed.” (This was before the plate cracked in two other places as York hauled it to his pick-up truck)

Rebecca had linked hands with Terry Barrett and York’s wife in a prayer vigil over the plate and then helped to flip it on its back to survey its underbelly.

The underside of inanimate things always sparked York’s curiosity and it invariably sent him nose diving under pianos to investigate anything from mice, moths and moisture to the storage of $$$ assets in the crannies of a Kawai.

To my educational advantage, he found it necessary to drag me along on his adventures to prove without a doubt that he had the lowdown on each and very piano he tuned, moth proofed and treated for rats.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/24/me-york-and-our-great-piano-adventure/

And I can personally attest that his tattered, age worn diaries were evidence of his meticulous record keeping since 1948. These should someday be enshrined in the Smithsonian or at least in the PTG (Piano Technician’s Guild) Hall of Fame.

While Terry Barrett, RPT (Registered Piano Technician) argued that bridle straps had no importance in the assembly of uprights, and moths were basically harmless to pianos because they would die eating cyanide based hammer felts, York produced incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. He marched valiantly on his truth finding crusade and produced a Kimball made “Whitney” spinet without bridle straps that had a basic action defect, and he plucked a hammer from his pick-up truck that had the most perfect, moth drilled hole I had ever seen! Such was Mother Nature at work.

As an unofficial “apprentice” to the city’s senior piano tuner, I had acquired trade secrets that no piano technology school or correspondence course would ever impart. Would most “registered technicians” anywhere in the universe know to battle moths with a bottle of cloves? York was always far ahead of his time banishing moth balls from his tool box. “They cause cancer,” he said repeatedly when we stumbled upon pianos that were victims of merciless moth attacks. While I hadn’t yet seen examples of chewed up bridle straps from nest seeking rats, York had promised to phone me immediately if he had a scheduled DECON call at a church or elsewhere.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/30/samick-york-tofujie-and-me-on-the-piano-chasing-trail/

The master tuner without his formal “registration” in the Piano Technician’s Guild showed those who had somehow obtained it that he deserved at least the honorary title because of his decades long association with pianos. Thankfully, the local Fresno chapter honored York by giving him a podium to demonstrate piano restringing, and when he turned up at monthly PTG meetings as a devoted “associate member,” his colleagues always greeted him with a hearty slap on the back.

On the day I had shown up to interview “Laroy Edwards” retired Yamaha senior piano technician, and emissary for the company all over the world, York made his presence known by telling his full length account about the cat that had been trapped under a grand piano lid and miraculously, emerged alive and well, though hairless. York fleshed out, colorful new details each time he spun a piano related tale, though he sometimes forgot that he’d told the story one too many times.

Besides being York’s companion through our two year-long piano adventure, my having compiled these stories was a natural outcome of all the trips made to many homes containing used pianos of an infinite variety–some sold in estate sales and auctions.


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/12/the-great-piano-auction/


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/used-pianos-estate-sales-and-mr-york-the-tuner/

And in the course of this learning driven journey, I had hoped that readers would willingly share their own piano memorabilia since a keyboard culture may be dying on the vine if not preserved.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/is-the-piano-a-dying-breed/

The old upright stories should be written down and treasured. The genealogy of older pianos should be a relentless source of research. Piano owners should learn how to discover the age of their pianos by seeking out the serial numbers on the cast iron plate, and by consulting the Pierce Piano Atlas or the Bluebook of Pianos.com. While it’s common for piano owners to throw up their hands and say,”I know virtually nothing about my piano,” it’s time for a new attitude to replace the old. Even “Alice” was exhilarated to know more about her “player piano without a name” when I enlisted her in the fact finding adventure. While the piano had been virtually un-played for 4 years since its purchase from an antique store for $125, she quickly became my “Dr. Watson” beaming a flash light on its cast iron plate; screaming in delight when she discovered the digits that might help date it. In the case of her particular piano, supplementary information acquired from Robert Furst’s Bluebook of Pianos.com led to its more conclusive identity.

Sharing a systemic approach to the whole research undertaking with Alice, I was able to enlist a new partisan in the preservation of old pianos. In fact, she became very reluctant to part with her stately upright once I had breathed life into it as a performing pianist. But at long last, it finally found a worthy owner who had promised to take good care of it and give it a new home.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/15/a-player-piano-without-a-name/

Another piano, a table style Aeolian with three leaves underwent an equally intense identity crisis as its true birth date was pursued. I couldn’t thank Mr. York enough for his A-1 guesstimate and Terry Barrett for pulling the piano’s action and stumbling upon a note with the date “APR 1936” engraved in the wood. What a miraculous discovery!!

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/a-table-style-piano-with-three-leaves-the-whole-story-in-lurid-detail/

DREAM PIANO had been all about the exciting adventure of pursuing and finding pianos, primarily in the private party, used piano market and how these travels of mine had changed the hearts and minds of the many piano owners that I’d encountered. Just making a routine house call to check on a piano up for sale, I’d invited myself into the lives of so my people who possessed the kindness and generosity to share their piano stories. “Ralph Cato,” whom I’d met at the Guitar Center looking for a keyboard to give his daughter for Christmas shared a heart rending story about his first piano and how he stole into the night to pick the lock and play it. Even a US Olympic Team boxing trainer with the exterior of a lion, softened up to share a tender memoir.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/cato-his-killer-keyboard-and-a-round-of-piano-lessons/

“Caroline Scheer” opened her heart to me and finally imparted the reason she wanted to sell her beloved Knight piano. This had been a mystery all along, but when the truth spilled out one day during a taped phone interview, all the puzzle pieces fit together. I had learned that her father never kept his promise to buy her a grand piano, like the one she had seen at Delaware University, if she obtained all “A’s” on her report card. How many others would want a grand size piano in their home just because they had been deprived of one early in life.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/16/the-little-knightingale/

In my travels, I had learned that pianos had a wide variety of meanings for different owners. For some, they were not musical instruments at all, but beautiful pieces of furniture to behold. But that might have been because the buyer or seller didn’t know where to begin in assessing the value of something that at one time had a playing life. And from the countless visits I’d made to homes with old pianos, just by playing them, they acquired a new value and meaning for their owners. Maybe there was an important message to heed. Why not bring a performing musician and piano technician to an establishment or home that housed a piano for sale. Why rely on a visual assessment of something that was meant to elicit tones, harmonics, and chords of beauty?

Perhaps the late Anne Meux, whose esteemed Fresno family had been memorialized in a landmark home preservation, experienced an awakening when her pianos came to life the afternoon I had played them. Prior to my impromptu visit, these musical treasures might well have been regarded as decorative furnishings, appreciated only for their external beauty.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/15/anne-meux-her-pianos-and-my-visit/

Pianos I’d encountered that were pretty but without musical value:

So many piano owners found themselves with antiques of the square or parlor grand variety that were quite ornate looking but could not play worth a dime. And when it was time to sell them, they confronted the hard reality that as play-less instruments and artifacts of the past, that no one wanted them in the present or future. So what was purchased for $5,000 some years back would sell for $200 or less in the private party marketplace. Some of these age worn and ill maintained pianos might have had to be donated out to a favorite charity. As Terry Barrett poignantly said, “An antique piano was just a different animal.”

“Sam” Torcaso, owner of Chesterfield’s in Fresno, brought it home that the older uprights were just not selling and the whole marketplace of antique pianos was abysmal. She pointed to the bleak housing situation with foreclosures abounding and the dearth of interior decorators that would be consulted to design the insides of newly acquired homes as reflecting part of the problem. But despite her registered cynicism about the universe of antique pianos, she had always known to advise her customers to bring in a technician before they made any kind of “all sales final,” piano purchase at her establishment. This recommendation showed her respect and concern for those who would buy a piano from Chesterfields and then pass it to their children to learn on.

***
More stories from Dream Piano:

FUJIE had the patience to await the arrival of her dream Kawai K 15 studio upright model piano housed at California Piano,


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/05/fujie-finds-her-dream-piano-but-buyer-beware/

and “Sharon Cooper” allowed me to include our clandestine tryst in the seedy parking lot beside Ag Hardware where a cash drop was made for a dream piano.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/19/a-high-stakes-piano-finding-adventure-or-was-it-a-sopranos-tv-episode/

Not to forget Dan Bates, who stole off and bought a Petrof piano, while in the grip of his obsession over the Steinway 1968. May the best piano win!!

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/03/a-battle-of-two-steinways-a-yamaha-and-a-spoiler-petrof/

And who could forget the Dream Piano I fought for and won, a French Provincial Baldwin Artist Grand.
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/fighting-for-a-dream-piano-hopefully-it-should-not-come-to-this/

On the last lap of my journey, I also stumbled upon “Victor Thasia” who was the first person I had ever met who changed his mind about selling his piano, and was ready to love and cherish it forever. Thanks for sharing your epiphany!

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/16/5007/

And what an opportunity came my way to record on a Dream Piano compliments of the Visalia Piano Gallery:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/13/recording-on-a-sleeper-dream-piano/</a

To “Patricia Frederick,” of the Fredericks collection in Ashburnham, Mass., and Thomas Winter, early piano restorer, San Francisco, my sincere appreciation to you for having provided scholarly words of wisdom about period pianos. What a rare opportunity came my way to play a 19th Century Dream Piano that turned up at the American Cancer Society Discovery Shop.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/27/the-fritz-of-vienna-chopin-reincarnated/

And another period piece that was beautiful on the outside but proved to be a pathetic tonal disaster!


https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2010/12/28/the-ghost-of-fritz-was-i-dreaming/

Concluding Bonus Chapter:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/dos-and-donts-for-piano-buyers-and-sellers-dream-pianos-last-chapter/

Extra: York’s World War II Musical Memoir
https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/01/06/yorks-wwii-story-in-writing-and-on-video/

More People to Thank:

Terry Barrett, RPT, Fresno gave countless hours detailing pianos for me and helped me write about them from a more technical perspective. While he sometimes disagreed with York about the significance of moth damage and the value bridle straps, he contributed loads of piano related information that enhanced my stories and also assisted sellers in learning more about their pianos.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge all those piano students who gave me my first opportunity to help them find their first real, 88 note, playing pianos. “Michelle” now happily practices on a lovely Baldwin, 1970’s console that had its first tuning, and tweaking by YORK, and my youngest pupil, “Claudia” enjoys her resonating Yamaha studio upright 1992 that I found in the former, Old Hilton Hotel in Fresno where a salvaging company was selling it. I remember how I had managed to get there just at the right time before word got out that two practically new pianos were accumulating dust in a second floor banquet room. Oddly, the Yamaha sat for too long after it was purchased and couldn’t get down the elevator to the ground floor until inspections were made and certification papers filed with the County. In the end, when the piano descended to the first floor level for transport, it was shipped gratis to the base of steps leading to the new owner’s second floor apartment. That’s when a challenge arose! “Elaine,” Claudia’s mother could either pay a whopping $400 to move the piano up two flights of stairs or enlist the help of able bodied neighbors. I wish I could have been there to see how they managed to turn the corner on the landings and push the 700 plus pound piano into the apartment. It must have been quite a sight to behold!

Some piano owners had been luckier than others in moving their pianos. York had told me that the Salvaging company owner, who sold Elaine the Yamaha, tipped over a Kawai piano while he was steering it into another banquet room. “The whole thing just came crashin’ down all at once,” he said. I had dispatched him to give the Yamaha a once over appraisal before it was purchased, and according to YORK, “it passed with flyin’ colors.” While he was at the hotel, he happened to look at the action assembly of the neighboring Kawai console and discovered that the hammers were over-sized and not fitting right. York always knew his stuff when it came to pianos and their interiors. He was also an ace evaluator of piano finishes and could rub the tips of his thickly padded fingers against the grain and ascertain what percentage was veneer.

The old man had done just about everything where it came to pianos. He tuned, repaired, refinished, and moved them. He was quite the master of all trades and he allowed me a share of his knowledge under careful supervision!

Finally, thank you to those who might not have gotten into the pages of this book but who added to my knowledge about pianos of all shapes, sizes, and vintage. I am beholden to “Martin Sigley,” a brilliant player piano restorer who loves what he does like a poet who crafts every word as a jewel. I was so impressed by his little shop that housed an old Behr Player and an “Angelus Orchestral,” and how intensely he worked. The world should regard him as a heaven sent angel. In a universe that values big cars, and expansive, designer homes, there is sadly little room to think about old world type restorers who will someday vanish without the appreciation they deserved in life.

In conclusion, a warm and grateful hug for my 96 year old mother, Jessie Taft Smith who sat relentlessly on the phone in the wee hours of the morning and listened to each Dream Piano chapter as it unfolded and voiced hard fought criticism that drove some periodic changes in my writing. I couldn’t have done it without her.

PS Additional acknowledgments: Peter Wolf, recording engineer, Wolf Sound, Fresno, CA
Bill Sayre, owner, Fasttraxx recording studio, Fresno, CA Heyner Oviedo, Fresno Piano,
The late Anne Meux, Fresno, CA