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El Cerrito “Sushi” cat is a match for Aiden (Videos)

Aiden took the prize for his mini-choreography of Chopin’s C# minor Waltz,

but “Sushi” outdistanced him with an impressive break dance routine on the kitchen floor.

“Sushi,” the house cat in El Cerrito, is always on the move–resistant to stay on the grand piano, or to teeter by the bathroom sink.

Aiden, however, will sink comfortably “in” to a “cool” cat nap after an active morning of cheerleading.

Ah, the life of two adorable cats!

LINK: (More pics of Sushi to the music of J.C. Bach)

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My First Skyped Piano lesson from California to Oregon

I must say I was skeptical going into this until I watched the Skype screen enlarge an 8-year old to nearly life-size proportion as she sat comfortably at her piano. Her dad, a tech savvy parent with an ability to guide me through the basics of Skyping, was co-director with his web cam weaving around at different angles allowing me a full view of the keyboard and his daughter at any given time. Not to mention that the sounds emanating from a Heilun grand piano were robust and resonant. But where was I in the picture? From my perspective in Fresno, I was compressed in a box, while the out-of-town student was center stage taking up most of the screen. From her end of the Skype universe, I was big and she was small.

I had to pinch myself.

This couldn’t be happening unless I had driven for hours on end, hopped a plane, or took Amtrak plus a bunch of buses to the suburban part of Portland. I would have had to scope out the piano, and introduce myself to the new student.

But how did I manage to avoid all the travel and still sack out in my own warm bed by 10 p.m?

Aiden cat was initially perplexed as he viewed himself fleetingly on the i Mac computer monitor but he still got with the Skype hype as he waved to the 8-year-old. After his assortment of flirtations, he stroked a piano key hoping he’d get some long distance pets but that was out of sight.

So what was accomplished during this first virtual lesson that ran for over an hour?

The student improved her singing tone and worked on some technical problems related to the wrist. She polished her legato arpeggios and learned how to melt out cadences with a delayed wrist forward movement as applied her Chopin Waltz. As things unfolded, her playing got better and better as my ears were attuned to every note.

Frankly, I was blown away as I demonstrated a wrist forward spongy motion. Looking at myself in the box beneath the student, I was sure I was in outer space floating weightless around my space capsule. Lift-off anyone?

For certain, I could get hooked on this SKYPE thing to the point of addiction. But so what. It was better than the vile habits of smoking or drinking that destroyed people’s lives.

If everyone jumped on the SKYPE bandwagon when they felt like taking a swig, or grabbing a cancerette, they’d be giving themselves a new lease on life.

I definitely can’t wait for the next virtual piano lesson because I’m itching to go out-of-state again to get a break from the Fresno heat wave. Even if the climate changes don’t register on Skype, I can still pretend and con myself into believing that I took a long delayed vacation.


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The Life of a Cat on April Fool’s Day

There’s no doubt who’s King of the Castle with his Keyboard Crown.

What else would I expect?

He really wanted the whole piano bench to himself:

How did he manage to sneak off with my sneakers? They weren’t there the last I saw them.

He’s decided I can’t go anywhere without him.
Better yet, he wants me to stay home all the time.

Face it, he’s cute even when sleeping.

When he’s awake, what a pretty face.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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 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.

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!!

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.

“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.

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.

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,

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.

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!!

And who could forget the Dream Piano I fought for and won, a French Provincial Baldwin Artist Grand.

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!

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

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

Concluding Bonus Chapter:

Extra: York’s World War II Musical Memoir

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

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Behind the Locked Gate!

Have you ever been a prisoner in your own home? I was, after my return to Fresno from El Cerrito where I had my second piano studio.

My brand new custom-made cedar gate that enclosed my front patio, had endured three days of continuous Valley showers while I was gone. In the aftermath, it just wasn’t closing right and the latch inside was suddenly misaligned. Just weeks before, I had hammered a “Beware of Dog” sign into the stucco bordering the gate, and had put an additional warning sticker on the brick column. To double on the gate and signs, I had purchased a Rex plus fake dog barking alarm that I routinely set before traveling up north. This was my New York City mentality carried over to Fresno.

Back in my Big Apple days, I would conceal mace in my pocket as I took a long walk along Broadway to my job at the New York State Employment Service. Often a released mental patient would just happen to shadow me, mumbling to himself, making some quick, jerky unexpected movements. Nothing really to worry about. Still, I routinely took the precaution to ready myself for danger at any time.

I used to ride the city bus by myself when I was just 7. It was a scenic trip up Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx to my quaint music school that stood on top of a hill. Taking bus #20 came with no fear  attached. In fact, I loved to stop off on the way for a 10 cent pretzel  that I bought from the street vendor.

Being scared of strangers and all that, came along later in my adulthood.

After having graduated the Oberlin Conservatory of music, I had returned to New York City and landed my first part-time job as an Employment Interviewer working for the State. For half the day I sat in a west side office environment. For the rest, I attended classes at New York University’s Washington Square campus to obtain a Master’s Degree.

My civil service assignment entailed sending out household workers to various parts of Manhattan. (Day workers, live-ins, full-timers, etc.) For the most part it wasn’t a pressure cooker job, only when employers who resided on the upscale East Side, like “Mrs. Jason Robards, Jr.” complained incessantly about damage done by a particular cleaning woman. Either the varnish was ruined on a prized dining room table, or liquor was missing from the kitchen cabinet. Nothing to really fear as a consequence.

But when a gun shot blast or two pierced through chatty conversations of awaiting applicants in the day work pool, my co-workers and I suddenly perked up. We were on edge.

The State’s Welfare office had moved into the floor below, and on occasion, an angry recipient whose check failed to materialize would shake the whole building up with a gun pop. Sometimes, if you looked out the window, you’d see pimps in fur coats standing by limousines awaiting clients. In those days, the system was not as vigilant as it is today. It was no surprise that once during business hours, a psychopath squeaked through the lines downstairs, gained admittance to our floor, and out of nowhere, attacked a staff member.

Given this backdrop of a major metropolitan area laden with crime, my having taken mace to work was not considered unusual.

Fast forward to Fresno, a high crime area competing with Los Angeles for the most polluted city on the map.

While I had never been attacked in this Valley community, I considered having a gate to be a necessary addition to my townhouse.

Since everything had hummed along since the handyman erected it and because of its newness, I had not anticipated any problems.

When I came to realize that a mechanical glitch was not going to magically disappear, I decided that I should take the bull by the horns and come up with a practical solution. With my track record of not easily fixing simple things around the house, often digging myself into deeper ditches of disrepair, I should have declined my own help.

I started by addressing the latch misalignment. I would run a cord from outside the gate to the latch, mounting a second nail right near the door closure. Bright idea? I had some dental floss doubled up which I thought carried extra strength, but it quickly snapped. That should have been my red flag not to go further. But I stubbornly continued.

My second hair brained idea was to take the cord from a Redi shade and run it along the same path as the dental floss. This time it was dragged across the flimsy nail that I had mounted very close to the area where the gate closed, and then threaded through the latch.

For about 15 minutes I had been playing with my numbskull invention, getting nowhere, since the latch was still not working properly and the gate seemed to sway with the breeze. It would not open from the outside even with my newfangled, makeshift repair, and a visitor who was staying with me, had to continuously assist by prying open the gate from inside the patio. She would manually unlatch the gate.

Finally, I made a last-ditch attempt to shake the gate furiously from the inside, hoping it would straighten itself out once and for all. I also tweaked the latch, jingling it around.

No luck!

Within 5 minutes of my jingle, jangling, and shaking, I suddenly confronted an even greater problem. The gate would not open! I pulled on it, kicked it mercilessly, and tried to pry it open with a butter knife, but it wouldn’t budge. I had to face the music. I was locked in!!!

What on earth had happened? Did the gate magically swell in the few minutes I was playing with it? Did it have a mind of its own? Was it retaliating for all the shoves and slams it had received in the present and past?

How the heck would I to get out? And how would my piano students get in? I had four scheduled for the afternoon and the first would arrive in an hour.

The gate was over 6 feet high and a ladder from the inside would not allow me an easy leap from the top. I could fall into the bushes on the patio’s smaller fence to the right, but I was in no mood to plan my complicated escape.

My students couldn’t be expected to scale such heights even with their young agile bodies.

The only solution at hand was to call Management and get “Bill,”
the gate builder to rescue me. Fortunately, this turned out to be the smoothest running part of the day. Management dispensed the house handyman, who arrived just under an hour after my desperate call. When he did, he made a dramatic entrance, like Superman, scaling the top of the gate and leaping to the concrete patio below–in a single bound!

But what the heck had transpired, I asked Clark, I mean Bill. In a flash, faster than a speeding bullet, he had pinpointed the problem as the second nail that I had hammered into the stucco. It had bent into the door track, jamming it up.

Amazing! I was impressed that this incredible hulk had a brain! But how was he going to deal with the warped gate, and latch problem? I refused to shoulder the blame for the entire misadventure just because I botched the repair.

Bill quickly sized up the situation, added some shims to the gate and stabilized it. He then adjusted the latch and ran my Redi shade cord properly from the outside over a nail placed a good distance from the entrance so everything engaged perfectly.

Abra Cadabra, the gate was fixed!

From that moment on,  a mountain of worry was lifted from me. I could feel safely contained within my house without being a prisoner.

When I reflected upon the day’s events, I realized that even Aiden the cat couldn’t have effectively dug me out of the crisis I was in. With or without a gate, he would never rise to the occasion if a stranger dared to trespass on our property. For this male feline, Life would always be a bowl of Greenies. 

Now that the gate problem had been resolved, both of us felt safe and warm. We knew that  leaving the house would be a piece of cake.

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Aiden the Cat Swoons over Chopin’s music (on You Tube)

I was joined by a surprise visitor while videotaping myself playing the Chopin Waltz in A minor, a composition discovered long after the composer’s death. (Cataloged as “Opus Posthumous”)

I had been tirelessly recording the piece for about 20 times in the sanctity of my piano room, while Aiden had been shuttled off to the bedroom out of collar-bell range.

Feeling squeezed out during my rehearsals of the melancholy Waltz, he knew where my heart was, and it was a no brainer that he wanted to be stage center, getting his emotional strokes.

Artfully, he had slipped out of the bedroom and perched himself squarely on my piano bench, nestling with me for the duration of the Waltz. And at mid point in the composition, I felt his sleek body re-adjust and twitch a bit, before the video indicated that he threw a gaze in the direction of the keyboard. Surely he knew the entire landscape of the piece from having heard it so often, and its culminating climax right in the middle had made a physical impression. As the Waltz ebbed and flowed, there wasn’t a peep out of him.

He’d been just as respectful when he plopped himself on the piano bench beside my 8 year old student, Claudia while she was playing “Doorbell” from Faber’s Primer Piano Adventures. Miraculously, I had captured the duo on video.

Despite interruptions from planes droning overhead to screaming ambulances racing madly to their destination, Aiden had stayed put during our rehearsals and on camera, appearing totally engrossed in the music.

In the end, the fluffy feline turned out to have been my good luck charm. After the last resonating chord of Chopin’s Waltz melted away into silence, Aiden responded with a big, delicious yawn of approval, or was it boredom, stealing the entire show!