pianist, piano, piano lessons, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Steinway A grand piano, Steinway M grand piano, word press, wordpress.com, you tube, you tube video

One grand piano in, and another out, but not forgotten

My tiny Berkeley apartment had been shrinking by increments with its herd of tight-squeezed grand pianos and digital keyboards. Count in a Baldwin grand acquired in April, 2015; a medium size Steinway grand (5’7″) bequeathed by my father after Oberlin graduation, and two side-by-side digital keyboards–YDP 105, and Yamaha Arius 141. The electronics were fun to play in the wee hours of the morning, with a snug pair of earphones to ensure privacy.

In truth, I had no real need to seal off my practicing from an appreciative audience of neighbors. Many admitted to eavesdropping–pressing their ears against my door, to savor a “free” concert of diverse timbres.

Why, then would I want to add a 6’2″ grand to my overflowing, “colorful” instrument collection?

I had no intention of allowing a tenuous keyboard situation to spiral out of control, until one Saturday, a neighbor’s baritone voice boomed through my door, announcing with urgency that “a Steinway A grand piano” was the centerpiece of a nearby Estate sale.

Instantly, I recognized the Letter “A,” like a dog sniffing out and pursuing a tantalizing beef bone– the impetus of which triggered a Pavlovian response.

I sprang out the door, running like a fiend to the McGee Street framed house only a block away, in hot pursuit of a prized instrument that I’d fantasized about since adolescence.



The ebony grand with lid open, was a 1911 model, making a stately appearance, and begging to be sampled. In a heartbeat, I was seated at the piano bench, running my fingers over its immaculate set of original ivories that afforded a fluid passage from phrase to phrase.

Steinway full view

Ivory keys

The piano sang like a nightingale and was smooth as silk to the touch. It sparked an impulse to possess it that barred a shred of doubt and common sense.

It was a mad love frenzy that sent me scrambling for my check book.

But first I’d dispatch a technician for a piano inspection.

His thorough assessment came within hours, and was so remarkably positive, that I sensed the man’s imminent, if not fantasized desire to rob the cradle of my future piano-playing pleasure.

I responded with a hasty offer aimed to thwart a bid by side-by-side salivating contenders. A few had huddled around me as I sampled the ‘A,’ with servings of Romantic era repertoire– the last offering was the first tableau from Schumann’s Scenes of Childhood. (Kinderszenen, “Of Foreign Lands and People.” )

As I inhabited my ethereal playing universe, a Chinese couple had edged close to the keyboard, breaking a spellbound immersion with a barrage of questions about the ‘A.’ They wanted to know if they should purchase it.

With a tiny, transparent sales slip chugging slowly out of a machine, I quickly sealed my ownership of ‘A’ and promptly contacted the piano movers .

While the logistics of containing THREE grands in a pod-size space were beyond my comprehension, I chose to let my fever pitch excitement abate before making a final decision about the fate of my PIANOS.

Somberly, I concluded that Steinway ‘M’ had to go with its modest, though resonant voice that matched its “medium” size and proportion.

My ads for an adoptive family spread far and wide in neighborhood Online listings. ‘M’ would either be placed in a temporary home with a suitable environment, or be sent to climate-controlled storage in a bumpy ride to Oakland. The latter seemed like a death sentence.

Israel Stein, my retired technician had e-mailed me a set of valuable recommendations that supported the well-being of my ‘M.’ These were borrowed and inserted in my posts.

“1. Keep it out of direct sunlight – always. (“only an hour or so per day” is just as damaging).
“2. Keep it away from open windows and doors (especially in the winter)
“3. Keep it away from heat sources (radiators, heat vents, space heaters, etc.)
“4. Keep it away from steam, vapor, and other excess moisture (in today’s “open” floor plans, pianos often get subjected to kitchen steam and vapor).

“Unfortunately,” he emphasized, “people too often placed pianos in accordance with their home decor needs, not considering what was good for the piano.”

My ardent pursuit of a caretaker took many twists and turns.

One eager prospect, was a song writer with admirable credentials. She and her composer husband who lived about 2 miles from Steinway ‘M,’ almost became its temporary parents, but for their open kitchen in close proximity to the grand. The gas heat, and vapor would swell the soundboard, ushering in a compensatory contraction. Their bedroom was at first a possibility for containment, but ‘M’ could not fit into the small space.

Other wooing adoptive applicants were ruled out by radiators, and very young children. Still, I was clinging to the hope that perhaps my neighbors down the walkway would agree to take my ‘M’ in exchange for piano lessons bestowed upon their chirpy 8-year old daughter who sang past my door each day. It was her dad who had first alerted me to Steinway ‘A.’


Through this whole, foster care-seeking process, I felt more than a shred of guilt for abandoning ‘M’ though I knew that it was time for ‘A’ to claim the rightful space that had been taken up by ‘M’ these many years.

To my great relief, my neighbors came through in the wee hours of the morning with a text that they would take ‘M’! And that’s how the piano shuffle began.

(‘A’ now sits snugly beside ‘B’ (Baldwin) in my music room, as ‘M’ is resting comfortably in her neighboring abode)

side by side piano best


Finally, piano lessons will soon start where ‘M’ resides, and I’ll keep my ties to a piano that will not be forgotten.

Little girl in front of M


piano, piano regulation, piano voicing, XV Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition

Tiers of dynamics, well-regulated pianos, and expressive playing

CherkasskyThe legendary pianist, Shura Cherkassky made triple ppps (pianississimos) melt in his hands through a fluid keyboard approach that encompassed an array of colors and shadings. In Shura’s exemplary performance of Saint-Saens’ Swan the pianist’s multi-voice tier of dynamics was particularly astounding for its repository of textural timbres. Not surprisingly, the artist’s touch sensitivity intertwined with his uniquely vivid imagination and paired with a well-regulated/voiced piano were important ingredients in his lushly expressive outpourings.

In truth, Cherkassky was known to be ultra concerned with the height of his piano bench and whether it squeaked during his normal shift of body weight at the keyboard, but he also made it a point to check out pianos before a concert for their tone and touch dimensions. In his often perfunctory assessments, he’d breeze over 4 or 5 keys, easily dismissing a whole piano because of one unimpressive register, but for the most part he would not fuss over two nearly matched instruments.

The pianist’s innate sense of “feel” allied to his “sound” ideal had been nursed through years of playing and in one media interview tinged with humor, he confessed that his practicing if overheard, would be akin to the keyboard-wide meanderings of a piano tuner. Perhaps he was NOT fleshing out a percussive approach by analogy, but instead a soft range exploration of peak level responsiveness.

Another fine pianist, Seymour Bernstein, was seen bench hopping from one piano to another in the film Seymour: An Introduction as he assessed a series of concert grands at Steinway 57th in preparation for his Rotunda performance. (This was prior to the company’s relocation) While Seymour muttered unkind words about one particular model ‘D,’ he swooned over another as Ron Coners senior Steinway technician observed him at a safe distance, arms folded.

While Cherkassky and Bernstein both enjoyed the opportunity to choose a desirable concert-level piano before a recital, Sviatoslav Richter, Russian pianist icon, often journeyed to the countryside playing any piano he was given, making the most of what it offered, even if notes failed to produce sound, or jammed because of long-term neglect.

Ironically, it’s no surprise that to this day many impoverished pianists with significant talent can barely afford a decent piano, though they valiantly march on, playing deficient instruments and making the best of it. (Lucas Debargue, 4th place winner in the XV Tchaikovsky International Competition is an example)

My own humble dilemma in playing a super-well regulated NEW piano beside one that is currently full of bumps and blubbers poses many philosophical and performance-related issues. It’s not that I yearn for a big, booming, tone-defined piano, but I want the opposite–an instrument that responds at the softest dynamic imaginable to a finger sensitive approach.

In the recent XV Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, a very able Steinway trained tuner from Sydney, Australia,(Ara Vartoukian) was dispatched to Moscow to keep the Concert grand Steinway in peak playing condition for a slew of first round contestants that eventually whittled down to six Finalists. His riveting journal entries about the whole competition backdrop are of particular interest in this discussion. They lend credence to the meticulous pursuit of providing a touch/tone satisfactory instrument as a funnel for expressive artistry.

piano technician


Baldwin, Baldwin 165 grand piano, grand piano, piano, piano blog, piano blogging, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Steinway grand, word press, wordpress.com, you tube

GRAND comparisons

It’s always telling to compare a piano’s tone, resonance and decay in the showroom where purchased to its performance in one’s living space. Unfortunately, one cannot transport the piano to one’s home while evaluating it at the store. In this regard, I can share a pertinent experience where a 7′ ft. Grotrian grand whose bass resonated off the roof in a Los Angeles warehouse environment, died in my arms, or shall I properly say in my hands when it arrived in my small piano room. The question remains, should the room have killed the bass? (while other ranges of notes were quite pleasing)

My new Baldwin 165 (5’5″) was a feminine piano from the start, but its bass and tenor had a more defined presence, boosted by a LIVE acoustic at the piano dealer’s space. Again, it was impossible to factor in the acoustical shift in my box-size apartment notwithstanding its hardwood floors and 1950’s era plaster walls.

Beside the NEW Baldwin grand sits my OLD Steinway M, (5’7″) 1917 that’s about to have two days of meticulous regulation. And despite its current land mines, it has more definition and reverb in all ranges, though I’ll concede that Baldwin 165 has a superior, to-die-for shimmering upper treble and touch perfection along with note-to-note perfection.

Enter, Baldwin Hamilton 1929 that was recently bestowed upon one of my students. It was my Blind Date piano that I purchased after a phone interview. Its profoundly long decay made it an instant Valentine’s Day addition to my piano collection.

Just a snatch of Hamilton reveals a lovely, defined and resonant piano with a decent bass and loving alto/tenor. Its upper range treble however, not sampled in the video below, was like glass due to hammer felt thinning, so it didn’t round out at the peak. Yet it had more character and personality than many shiny new pianos on display in showrooms around the country–(i.e. those nameless cookie cutters that are mass-produced)

Judge for yourself what resonates for you in these Grand comparisons, and add in my student Judy’s Steinway A, 1911, 6’2″ for good measure.

Note in particular, the Bach Invention 1 side-by-side samples.

Bach played on Steinway M (No pedal used)

Bach played on Baldwin 165 (No pedal used)

Same Invention on Steinway, M (No pedal used)

Bam Boomerang, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, Lakewood Estates, learning to read, piano, piano blog, reading tools, Shirley Kirsten, Steinway A grand piano, Walnut Creek

An afternoon with piano student, Judy and her Steinway ‘A,’ in nature’s paradise

How many piano teachers are invited to a student’s lakeside home nestled in verdant beauty?! It was a splendid display of trees, including pines, cedars, spruce, casuarina, maples, birches, poplar, locusis, and sycamores, as well as native oaks.

River otters, deer, and exotic birds, such as egrets and herons are known to inhabit an awe-inspired Walnut Creek, California natural environment that frames a home bundled with a generous serving of early California history. (“Land and water rights in the area were acquired in 1908. Two years later the reinforced concrete dam was built at a cost of $80,000 creating the beautiful lake.” Road construction followed in the course of Lakewood community’s birth)

Better screen shot lake

To add to this gorgeous nature-draped backdrop, a soulfully resonant Steinway A, 1911 grand drew me into its playing universe the moment Judy sampled a few Mozartean phrases for me. While she’s been practicing the Exposition of Sonata K. 545 for less than three weeks, it’s nicely forming with contoured phrasing in back tempo.

best Judy at the Steinway A

After Judy’s dip into a pool of resonance, I was wooed to play a “chorded” version of J.S. Bach’s Prelude in C, followed by my extemporaneous lesson on trills that seemed to lighten up the space.

What an extraordinary piano to explore!


The afternoon had begun with a tour of Judy’s place, an incredible lunch, followed by the centerpiece display of her family’s heirloom grand piano in the “adobe room.”

Judy’s dad, who attended Juilliard, played chamber music with a string of fine musicians on the East Coast igniting his daughter’s interest in music, though ultimately Judy doted upon the oboe.

For a time she studied with Jean-Louis Leroux at the San Francisco Conservatory before embarking for France to become a pupil of her teacher’s mentor.

As Judy’s journey played out, her musical connections led to artistic trysts in Paris with some of the most regaled performance artists of the Twentieth Century, one of which was pantomimist, Marcel Marceau whom Judy met and worked with. He was a source of inspiration for her interest in helping children, in particular, to learn early reading skills in a creative framing.

If we fast forward the clock over decades of Judy’s life, we see how she was drawn into the educational realm, branching out into the universe of helping youngsters with basic reading fundamentals. (Wrap up 40 years of teaching experience and you have a vision realized)

Not surprisingly, a dynamic and creative App, Bam Boomerang evolved for which Judy, her son, Keenan, and assistant Beth became intensely engaged. Over years, they developed and refined what is a well-established and highly regarded teaching tool.

Over a delectable lunch prepared to the last meticulous detail, both Judy and Beth served up a mouthful of valuable information about their reading-based activity that’s obviously their labor of love.


For more about Bam Boomerang, the app that gives kids personalized feedback while they play games and learn to read, check out the Direct Download:

“Bam Boomerang is an engaging app where kids read words into a microphone and get one-on-one feedback while having a blast playing games, earning trophies and buying things for their own animated world.

“No other app gives personalized, effective feedback to students!”

Download and get started free: http://bit.ly/DownloadBamBoomerang




A Home Piano Concert draped in technology (Video attached)


I had a rip-roaring morning! Art, my next-door neighbor, who puts up with my round-the-clock practicing, was invited precisely at 11 a.m. to listen to my rehearsal in prep for my house concert set for next Saturday night. And naturally, as whimsical as everyone knows me to be, I did a MAN in the STREET interview with him following.

This is a Millennium style concert with all the technological accouterments that need introduction, so I grabbed my SONY camcorder and videotaped the MAC screen that would transmit my hands, several feet behind the machine, en moto–or con moto, take your pick, and then I acquainted viewers with Logitech C920 that is specifically angled to capture my digits gliding over a sprawling Steinway grand keyboard.


The prelude portion of my video then transitioned to ART sitting on my futon beside a perfect slice of carrot cake as his reward for glaring at a computer monitor for about 45 minutes.


In this pea pod apartment that’s crowded in with two grand pianos and a Yamaha Arius digital, an unending row of keyboards precludes invited listeners from watching me play though the aural experience is resonantly LIVE by way of Quicktime Player. (There’s NO recording in progress so sound and motions are perfectly synched)

Finally, in the spirit of the MILLENNIUM, tech-based solutions like these allow future home concerts to preserve an intimacy of communication while the pianist’s head is thanklessly buried behind the rack.


The video below demonstrates:


The set-up seating update:

And finally the EVENT!




ABOUT my neighbor, ART:


arioso7, Baldwin grand piano, Berkeley California, piano addict

A Piano Teacher’s Hodgepodge Life with its ups and downs!

Today I was greeted by a rare Piano Ped. Forum Facebook post that celebrated a positive private teaching day. Teacher C. reported that all students had arrived on time for lessons, paid their fees pronto, and actually practiced. Bravo!

Reams of peers LIKED the morsel of good tidings, except for one who JOKINGLY remarked, “Thanks for making me feel like cr-p.”

My Thumbs Up came with a personal supplement: “My Monday was equally gratifying until I was informed by e-mail that a prized adult student with whom I’ve interacted on a lofty musical level through her trials and tribulations of NOT practicing, (about 5 years) had decided STAND-UP comedy trumped piano. It’s no joke.”

But such is the life of a piano teacher with shifting winds, tides and unexpected surprises. Nothing in life is permanent or always predictable.

To compensate for my stinging loss, I admitted to having had a few credits in the up-swing column yesterday.

A new adult student, who embarked upon a musical journey with me turned out to be a perfect fit at the piano, with his bristling enthusiasm defying the clock as it ticked like an efficient metronome. (It was more welcoming than my Tuesday SKYPE student’s OLD GRANDFATHER CLOCK that marks off 8 laborious hours and ends the lesson with a dissonant encore of 9!)

Oops there goes the cat into her lap. Five minutes of more wasted time.

Marie has cat in lap

Back to reality–

Teachers know the excitement of meeting a new student that ushers in a tabula rasa moment. How will he play? Is he a complete beginner? Where do we go from here?

Not being a method book apostle, I was hoping the moment of creation would be the framing mosaic for the very first lesson yesterday…

And it was..

The young man who came with a thick self-made album of masterworks was already well-grounded in the basics with a searing hunger to learn.

All he needed was a bit of phrase sharing, singing tone awareness, and a basic technique to serve the music swimming in his head at mega intensity. I was up to the collaboration.

Here’s a snatch, with me sitting ultra-magnified at my Yamaha Arius as he was perched at the Steinway grand. A penta-scale launched a singing tone tribute as 8ths progressed through 16ths and 32nd notes in LEGATO. Short, crisp sounds followed as contrast.

His defined perky staccato was served back to me in a lovely articulation via the real piano. (No need for the blow-up screen of my digital as an assist. This new player to the roster was in the ball game to stay) And I’m NOT kidding!!

Other Hodgepodge NEWS updates: My second grand (acoustic) is en route to its home since the JOCULAR ex-piano student going Seinfeld, has no need for it. (was on loan to her) Shortly, a 1929 antique, chiseled Baldwin will be betrothed to my 1917 Steinway. Mazel Tov!!

Baldwin Grand

So it’s All’s well that Ends Well for upcoming duo piano playing possibilities.

But will I have a place to sleep, under the groom-to-be Baldwin, perhaps? At the moment, I’m running out of space.


Overall, my Monday was a BIG PLUS, minus the DEAR S letter of withdrawal and career shuffling.

To be sure, Stained glass M., whose art I celebrated in music videos Julie art played up a storm through the middle section of the Schubert Impromptu in Eb, and her framing “A” section in legato triplets was gorgeously fluid in its tempo advance.

E., a piano student perched at her resonant Yamaha in beautiful Rockridge, immersed herself in Mozart’s G Major sonata, K. 283 earning a supplementary video. (Fluffy pooch, Nina, snuggled into a comfy chair, enjoying pleasurable vibrations)

Rockridge piano


And finally, Sam, on Skype from the UK wove undulating broken chords through J.C. Bach’s divine A minor Prelude.

To wrap it up, great leaps of musical progress abounded on a sunny day in Berkeley which I celebrated with a floral video tribute.


The Neighborhood Piano Teacher


Berkeley California, classissima, classissima.com, James Barron, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, New York Times, piano, Pianomania!, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Stefan Kupfer, Steinway 1098, Steinway piano, Steinway studio upright, word press, word press.com, wordpress, wordpress.com, you tube, you tube video, you tube.com, yout tube, youtube.com

Piano Mania! and the Bezerkeley arrival of Steinway 1098!

Pianomania! is an apt title for a documentary about Stefan Knupfer, Steinway piano technician, who gallops upstairs and downstairs in a premier “Vienna concert haus,” trying to meet the needs of performing pianists, recording artists, et al. They demand the kind of perfection in voicing, tuning, aesthetics that’s often beyond human capability. One classic example is a relationship, easily characterized as neurotic that plays out with Knupfer and Pierre-Laurent Aimard. The pianist is gearing up to record Bach’s Art of the Fugue and requires “voicing” for Clavichord, Harpsichord and Organ by individual sections. Try transforming an acoustic piano into a 17th century artifact using more imagination than hands-on intervention, though in truth, Stefan has something up his sleeve that no other tech can dream up. (He’s a problem-solving dynamo)


The assortment of pianos Knupfer deals with is mind-boggling. Steinway grands are numbered like thoroughbreds at the Kentucky Derby.

The numbering, so conspicuously referenced in James Barron’s The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand(book and documentary) also applies to my own assortment of pianos.

Picture this, before I escaped from Fresno to Berkeley, California–

A living room hodge podge of acoustics: (and one digital)

The aerial view:

Fast forward to the latest piano shuffle in Bezerkeley, a sized-down space, that forced two acoustics out the door–one on loan to a piano teacher in Fresno.

The other, a Baldwin Grand, 1929, is housed up in the El Cerrito Hills! (my second E. Bay piano studio) Skyped piano lessons are launched at my Berkeley pad.

piano room where I teach El Cerrito

But Hallelujia! Yesterday, Steinway 1098, a bright-sounding studio upright made it’s maiden voyage to my apartment, displacing Yamaha Arius 141 that was shuttled off to the kitchen! The latter incensed Jakov Corsa, Facebook friend, who just purchased Arius 161, and considers it having altar status. (Kitchen?)

Well, it was better than relocating an electronic to the bathroom, if you consider the economy-sized layout of my digs. (By the way, a hamper joins the blended family, with an ironing board neatly folded into a custom-made cabinet–It’s ready for deployment) Talk about an all-purpose kitchen!

Yamaha Arius 141 in kitchen

Almost center-stage, but still UP-staged by my Steinway Grand, M, 1917, NO. 185152, is 1098, delivered expertly and with panache by Greg McCrea, AA Pianos, Oakland. (Check Yelp and you’ll need no further help)

McCrea piano movers

AA piano movers McCrea



Sitting pretty, all dolled up, and ready for action!

Steinway dim lighting

How’s this for lighting and color framing!

pretty Steinway with blanket

A few camera pans around the room

2 Steinway pianos

Mac back and Steinway pianos

The back story. I purchased Steinway 1098 in Fresno about 7 years ago. A friend spotted an ad for a Steinway upright in the FURNITURE section of the Fresno Bee classifieds. Naturally, I raced to see/play it, and my curiosity was rewarded by years of playing pleasure. The seller, a native Italian, planned relocation to the homeland and desperately needed to find a good home for her sweetheart. I guess it was love at first sight and sound! A match made in heaven!