A transition of sorts Part 2

I’m into my fourth week of happily settling down with Mom. Here are some pictures of my new music/computer room. All pictures were taken with my Canon PowerShot SX120 IS.

My music and computer room

CD cabinet on the left

The wooden paneling floor seems to have given my Yamaha Clavinova more bloom in its sound. My Creative 2:1 speakers also seem to sound better here. Perhaps it’s just me.

Here’s a picture of my humble bedroom. Not much, but I call it home!

I believe that everything happens for a reason. Moving here and bonding again with Mom has been wonderful…we each talk when we can and during lunch and dinner (pizza occasionally, yay!) and more often than not, we give each other space—Mom likes to be GTTT (you know what that means, Miss Miller) and I like to be glued to my tube too (aka the computer) I’m eating very much like a piglet here, and what with Mom being a fruit fanatic, it’s fruit all the way—apples, mangos, watermelon, bananas (that’s for you, Miss M) etc. And let’s not forget my yogurt and dark chocolate—yummy!

Till the next post, this is your friendly host, signing off…

A transition of sorts

I hate moving. The last time I moved was about 12 years ago. Last month I had to move due to some unusual circumstances—I really had no choice, I wasn’t happy where I was. So I did it. The first day was the worst—the movers showed up late, I was waiting and getting more anxious by the minute. I called them up several times and always received the stock reply: “We’ll be there soon.” They finally arrived about 90 minutes late. Most of my big stuff (like my Yamaha Clavinova) was packed up pretty fast by them. Soon everything was on the truck, on its way to my new abode.

Yes, I’ve moved in with Mom. She has been living alone since my dad passed away more than two and a half years ago. Somehow or other I thought it’d be good for the both of us and guess what, I’m very happy here in my new place. It’s been three weeks since I landed in my new home and so far so good—I’m surprised that Mom allows me my own private space and I reciprocate the gesture too. Did some minor refurbishments to the music/computer room and my bedroom, but that’s about it. I also discovered that the tile and wooden floors were a mess, sticky and with some bug “deposits.” Can’t fault Mom because she’s in her seventies and I don’t expect her to do cleanups on a regular basis. So I took it on myself to do the housecleaning chores. Never knew I could do it with such a vengeance! I swept the floors, mopped with disinfectant, removed all those disgusting bug droppings, wiped the furniture, etc. etc. I got some good exercise and the place certainly looks cleaner now. And Mom is probably pleased with it.

Moving house is a big decision. I’m so glad I did it, but this may not be the last time I move. I’ll just wait and see.

The ABC’s of Me (D-E)

D: Digital, Dell, Drums

I simply love digital stuff—whether it’s a computer, my camera (Canon PowerShot SX120IS, yup), my amazing Yamaha Clavinova, or even my wrist watch, and lest I forget, the humble CD. I was so glad when the compact disc came out in the 80’s because I listen to a lot of classical music, and it’s a sheer annoyance when the record warps, or I’m trying to find the third movement of a Mozart symphony on cassette tape (ah yes, remember that? And that unbearable hiss?) I’m just knocked out with the CD, where one can simply jump forward and backward to any track. And not only that, recordings are clean as a whistle (most of them anyway) without the annoying hiss.

I’ve mentioned enough of my Yamaha Clavinova digital piano in previous posts. Suffice to say, digital pianos beat acoustic pianos flat (excuse the pun) because of several things:

Yamaha CVP-409GP Clavinova

  • No need for tuning and maintenance (yes your piano tuner will hate you for buying one) Just remember that it needs some electricity.
  • The sounds are sampled from a concert grand piano costing more than my house, my car, and all my other worldly possessions combined.
  • Recording can be done on the spot for burning to a CD or uploading to a blog, as I’ve done in My Music page.
  • Lots of other sounds available, plus drum accompaniment, etc. A built-in metronome is included too.
  • Large LCD display for viewing parameters.
  • Now what I need is the kitchen sink.

All I can say is, live long and prosper, digital!

 Dell Studio 15

Truth be told, I’ve been contemplating getting a Dell laptop for the past year, and kept putting it off. Now it seems unavoidable that I get one, because I need it for teaching students advanced music theory when I’m out of the house. I’d originally planned on getting the Dell XPS M1530 but that has been discontinued and moreover it was a little on the pricey side. Now I’ve set my sights on the Studio 15 and it comes with Windows 7 to boot. And *snigger* next time when I spend a night or two at the E & O Hotel I can just bring this baby along—no more Internet withdrawal symptoms!

Yup, believe it or not, I was pretty good on the drums when I was a kid. My dad used to conduct a big band at home, and although I was intrigued by the piano and other instruments, it was the drummer that had me swinging along. When the rehearsal was over, everybody left with their instruments except for the drummer. Then it was my turn to groove. I hopped onboard, imagining myself playing with the other musicians, and pretty soon I was lost in my own world. My folks were amused and mom used to put on a record or two and I’d play in perfect time with the music. I remembered one of my favorites was Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman. I could play a wide variety of drum styles including the rumba, tango, fox-trot, bossanova, etc. Although my dad was pleased with my drumming talents he rightfully had my future in mind for me and steered me back to the piano. However, I’m still a pretty good drummer!

E: Eyes, E & O Hotel

Don’t get me wrong, but I don’t like my eyes. They’re small, they have been giving me trouble since 5th grade and as a result I have been wearing glasses and contact lenses ever since. My vision remained quite stable during my 20’s and 30’s. However, it began to deteriorate after that—I was having a hard time seeing faraway objects. A checkup with my optometrist and ophthalmologist confirmed my fears—cataracts were developing in both my eyes (this was about 10 years ago).

I had thicker glasses made. I wore contacts with a higher power, it reached a point where I was wearing contacts with the highest power available! And everybody knows that you can’t reverse cataract growth, it has to be surgically removed. I put it off until earlier this year, when a visit to Valerie (my optometrist—she’s great) became the straw that broke the camel’s back. My glasses were like bottles already and she said it was pointless to make new ones which would be even thicker—yuck!! She advised me to see my ophthalmologist saying that now would be the right time to have my cataracts removed. Guess what, this time I didn’t put it off. I went straight to see Mr. Lee, my ophthalmologist.

To cut a long story short (see my Eye to Eye posts for the details) I had the cataracts from both eyes removed in June and July of this year. And what bliss it was to be able to see well without those hideously thick glasses! Nonetheless I still had to wear reading glasses because my intense myopia had actually masked my long-sightedness. But reading glasses are fine with me. I just thank God when I wake up every morning that I’m able to see well without reaching for glasses. It has truly been a wonderful blessing for me this year.

Eastern & Oriental Hotel, Penang Dec 2006 004.jpg

Sir Noel Coward has stayed there. So has Douglas Fairbanks, Hermann Hesse, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Charlie Chaplin, and Joan Chen. I’m talking about the E & O Hotel, Penang’s Grand Old Dame. P/S I’ve stayed there too! I feel like I’ve known this hotel all my life. After all my parents were entertainers there for over 40 years, and I used to visit the hotel regularly when I was growing up. During my teenage years I would often take over playing the piano for my dad when he desired a break (but actually he wanted me to gain experience playing in front of an audience, thanks, Dad!) Of course the hotel has changed over the years. Its last refurbishment was in 1997 but due to the Asian financial crisis this had to be put on hold for a few years. The hotel finally reopened in 2001 and the refurbishment has really brought back the shine to this renowned establishment.

One of the main corridors of the E & O

I started work at the “new” E & O in December 2004. I’ve been playing there ever since, on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s a wonderful job, I have a fantastic boss in Mike, and need I mention that the food is glorious (yes, Food Glorious Food!) The rooms are unlike rooms found in any other hotel. You just have to stay at the E & O Hotel to experience and bask in the ambience and glamour of this fine lady. And…I gotta cook up an excuse to ask the boss for another night’s stay again, hee hee!

Back to Basics

Being a piano teacher of classical music and a cocktail pianist allows me to have one foot in each camp. I’ve been teaching piano for over 25 years now, but one of my philosophies has always been this:

If you want a student to do something, you have to be able to do it yourself.

Nowhere is this more true than in the realm of practicing the piano. It’s easy to dish out orders to your students when you’re “in command”—things like “Play with more feeling please,””Could you bring out the right-hand melody?””You ought to practice more carefully” etc., etc.

I teach mainly the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, UK) Piano syllabus, so students do the usual scales, exam pieces, aural, and sight-reading. Modesty aside, I have prided myself on being able to do what I ask my students to do. So when it comes to choosing exam pieces, we pick them and then agree on both of us learning them. Then I do some practice on the pieces myself, so that I can show the student what I want. I’ve always tried to be hands-on, Lord knows how many times I’ve asked students to get up from the piano bench and plunked myself down on it.

OK, that’s the usual stuff, but lately I’ve been digging up some past repertoire and asking myself “Hey, when was the last time I tried out this piece?” Over the years I’ve been playing so much jazz and standards that regrettably, I’ve left the classical stuff behind. I haven’t abandoned it totally—nope. And I still have a humongous collection of classical CDs that gets played in my car. It was only after this year’s Piano Idol that I decided it was high time I revisited this old friend.

So I dug out some old repertoire. I’ve started with my regimen of scales and Hanon exercises, followed with repertoire like:

  • J.S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue No. 5 from the Well-Tempered Clavier, volume 1
  • W.A. Mozart: Sonata in G major, K283
  • Chopin: Fantaisie Impromptu
  • Ravel: Prelude from Le Tombeau de Couperin
  • George Gershwin: 1st Prelude

And guess what? I’m having a whale of a time! I haven’t touched these five pieces for years and years but when I started on them, it was like, “Wow! Good to see you again!” Unlike Jazz and popular music, everything on the page has to be strictly followed, which is why I sometimes think playing classical music is like living in a military camp. Be that as it may, I’ve got to try to play out the composer through the music, doing the proper technique and all the stuff that I’ve been telling and imploring my students to do over the past decades.

My Yamaha Clavinova digital piano has been my faithful ally, since it has the touch of a grand piano, never goes out of tune, and most importantly allows me to record my performances on the spot. This is great because I can play it back immediately and spot my mistakes (I have to be able to criticize myself too). So there you have it. Now excuse me while I go back to play the piano. Ciao for now!

The Yamaha P85 Digital Piano

Yamaha P85 Digital Piano

I was thinking about how nice it would be to play for weddings, cocktails, birthdays, etc. to earn more money (and to enjoy myself too) Thing is, most Chinese weddings here are loud, boisterous affairs, where people usually talk like they can’t hear each other, others get drunk, and the band (there’s usually one) tries its hardest to drown everybody out. Still, I’ve played for a wedding or two where the bridal couple didn’t want any of this nonsense, instead opting for some nice instrumental piano music in the background. However, they have had to fork out extra money to hire a digital piano for me, as I don’t have a portable one myself (I’m not going to lug my CVP-105 Clavinova by myself, that thing would kill my back) So this didn’t seem to be like an ideal arrangement if I wanted future gigs.

It was this shortcoming that made me scout around for a portable digital piano and a few weeks ago, I was in one of the shopping malls here, and stepped into a music store. There it was—the Yamaha P85. I’ve used a lot of Yamaha instruments in the past, and I love their sound and build quality. The P85 is indeed slim and inviting, so I sat down and began to play. And the sound—wow! The thing about digital pianos is that the sound won’t change with age, not like an acoustic one. You have to like the sound from the onset, because you’ll be living with it for the rest of its life with you. The P85 is equipped with only two 6W amplifiers, but the sound was gorgeous—very full-bodied and authentic (well they were sampled from a concert grand). A big plus is that the entire keyboard touch replicates that of a grand piano too, so it was most pleasant to play and imagine that I was performing on a grand piano. Very nice. The P85 weighs about 25 lbs. I think I could manage that without breaking my back, and probably could stuff it into my small car.

I talked to some of my contacts here and they told me that yes, there is a market for a solo pianist at weddings, etc. But I’m going to wait and see whether any gigs show up on the horizon before I plunk down my hard-earned cash for the P85. It costs about RM3000 ($850 USD) I’m also thinking of trading in my aging Korg PA-50 keyboard, as I don’t use it that much. I’d rather play straight piano.

So if any of you are getting married here in Penang, or would like some nice piano music for any event or occasion, do get in touch with me, and I’ll see what I can do.

The most powerful man in Classical music?

Master piano tuner Ulrich Gerhartz at work

The above picture is that of master piano technician Ulrich Gerhartz. He trained at Steinway’s Hamburg factory and is now Steinway’s director of concert and artist services. He is the lifeline when it comes to tuning and maintaining the Steinway grand pianos used by the cream of classical pianists. His mobile has the numbers of every top piano player on the planet. Pianists he has worked with include Alfred Brendel, Lang Lang, Mitsuko Uchida, Evgeny Kissin, Imogen Cooper, Murray Perahia, Maria João Pires, Joanna MacGregor, Richard Goode, Nelson Goerner, Wayne Marshall and Barry Douglas. Not bad, I say.

I was intrigued while reading his interview in The Guardian (UK) website. Simply because not only is piano tuning an art, it’s a science. And a serious one at that. His job is to make the instrument be in as tip-top condition as possible, so that when a maestro plays on it, it feels like music from heaven. Just have a read from these interview excerpts:

With one hand, Gerhartz has isolated a particular hammer. With the other, he is brushing a clear liquid on to its green felt coating. "There was one note here, an F sharp, that wasn’t bright enough," he says. "So I used a mixture of collodium and ether to bring the note out. You apply it right on the nose of the hammer and it stretches the felt, so it makes it slightly harder and gives it a bit more tension." This gives the note more attack and brightness – but the process is not yet finished. From his array of little instruments balanced on the strip of wood above the keyboard, Gerhartz chooses a small screwdriver-shaped device, attached to what looks like a hypodermic dart, and starts pricking the felt of the F sharp hammer nose once, twice, several times.

And another:

Preparing a concert grand for performance is quite a task. Every note has to pull its weight, every hammer, every string, every key. This is why, when Gerhartz gets under the bonnet of a piano, he might not come up for air for an hour and a half. There is regulating, voicing and balancing between bass and treble to do. His fingers trickle neurotically up and down the keyboard playing chromatic scales. Anyone else would be doing this to hone technique. But Gerhartz is hunting for bum notes. When he finds something, he takes a stick of chalk – which has its own smart golden holder – and deftly marks the wood above the offending key.

I was very impressed because Gerhartz was surprisingly nonchalant about sharing some of his secrets in this interview. And also the fact that the piano is probably one of the most complicated musical instruments ever invented. Many people think that just because it sounds when played, then “it’s alright.” This is utter bollocks. OK, I’m no Brendel, or Ashkenazy, or Elton John. But when I play on a wretched piano, it’s absolutely hell on earth for me. Which is why digital pianos like the Yamaha Clavinovas are a godsend (yes, I embrace technology with open arms). I can’t afford to own a Yamaha CFSIII or Steinway Model D (about £100,000) but with the sampled concert grand sound in my Clavinova, I can close my eyes and pretend that I’m playing on one.

Listen to this wonderful conversation podcast where Gerhartz talks to Classic FM’s Bob Jones about his 23 years of experience preparing pianos for some of the world’s greatest performers.