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Tickling the ivories - John C. Kirk

Mar. 1st, 2008

03:36 pm - Tickling the ivories

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When I was at primary school, I played the recorder for a while (like most children), but I was never very good at it. My main problem was that I couldn't read the music, so I relied on copying the teacher's finger movements, which meant that I was always half a note behind everyone else.

When I went off to secondary school, I took up the piano, and this worked a lot better. Actually, I initially wanted to learn the violin, because that's what Sherlock Holmes played, but my parents encouraged me to take piano lessons instead so that I could sing at the same time. Looking back on it now, CH had very good music facilities, which I didn't fully appreciate at the time. For instance, lessons in any band instrument were free: this meant that there was a good pool of talent available for the school band. (That's marching band rather than rock band.) Also, if you were in the band or the choir then you got free lessons in any instrument. After a few years I passed the Grade 3 test, but my music teacher felt that I'd peaked there, so I wouldn't be able to pass Grade 4, and I stopped taking lessons. Still, I kept my hand in by playing for fun, and I kept this up when I went off to university; both places had practice rooms available where I could get free access to pianos.

After I graduated, I got a bit out of practice, so I decided that the best solution was to get a MIDI keyboard for home use, and in May 2000 I bought a MIDIPro 49 key keyboard (4 octaves). I deliberately chose a keyboard which couldn't make sound by itself: I figured that my computer had a decent sound card and speakers, so all I needed was an input device, then I could effectively say "play middle C" and leave the computer to figure out the notes. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a bit of a false economy, and I haven't used it much.

There were various problems with this keyboard:

a) In order to play music, I need to have an appropriate piece of software running on the computer. However, all the applications that I've come across (e.g. Cakewalk) are very complex. Some of them are free (or bundled with a soundcard), but they're really aimed at composers, so that you can record the keys you press and generate sheet music. I just want something where I hit the key and the computer goes "bing" or "bong". I'd be happy to choose an instrument the first time I ran the program, and say "Be in piano mode until further notice", but it gets silly when I've got a screen full of staves (?) in different voices, and I have to start recording in the appropriate place.

b) A "real" (acoustic) piano has 88 keys, and the MIDIPro keyboard isn't long enough for everything I'd like to play. You can shift octaves up and down, but that's no good for something like "Mission Impossible" where you need both extreme ends in the same piece.

c) The volume is too low; even with the MIDI input on max, I have to really hammer the keys to be audible. If I turn up the speakers high enough for decent piano playing then I get deafened by the "new email" chime. In theory there may be a workaround by setting the general volume high and then setting everything except MIDI input to low, but I've never got round to faffing around with that.

d) It's not really portable. I've been to a few gatherings where people perform "party pieces" (e.g. on New Year's Eve), and it would be nice to play some music. I could physically carry the keyboard easily enough, but I couldn't take it to a friend's flat unless they also have a computer with the relevant software. (A laptop might work as an alternative, but I don't have one.)

I've now replaced that with a Yamaha P-85 stage piano, which works a lot better. I read the review at UK Pianos, and followed their advice to buy it from Thomann Cyberstore. I'm impressed by their service: free shipping from Germany, and it arrived in three days.

a) "It just works". I can turn it on, press a key, and get a sound, so I can start playing immediately rather than arsing around. It has sockets for MIDI input and output; I haven't tested them yet, but I should be able to link it to a computer and do composing/recording if I want to. USB output would be nice, but I can get an adaptor cable instead, and it's not worth buying a high end keyboard just for that.

b) This is a full size keyboard (88 keys), so I can concentrate on playing the piece of music rather than adjusting the equipment. The MIDIPro keyboard is touch sensitive, i.e. the harder you press a key the louder it is; the Yamaha keyboard goes a step further with "hammer weighted" keys. This means that the high keys feel lighter than the low keys, corresponding to the different sizes of the physical hammers in an acoustic piano. It's subtle, but I like it. The new keyboard supports three pedals rather than just one ("sustain"), so that should allow me to play more advanced pieces.

c) The volume is fine, and I can use headphones to avoid disturbing neighbours if I practice late at night. I'd probably need an amplifier if I was doing a gig in a huge room, but that's not exactly an urgent issue.

d) Since it's a "stage piano", this theoretically means that I can carry it around elsewhere, although I'd keep the stand at home. Having said that, the instructions suggest screwing it to the stand, which makes it semi-permanent. Also, it's a bit heavy to lug around: this weighs 12kg, as opposed to 3kg for the old keyboard. So, it's something I could do on special occasions, but I wouldn't want to carry it around on a daily basis.

e) There's a music stand built in to the keyboard itself. My old stand only supports the keyboard, and I kept meaning to buy a separate stand for music but never got round to it, so I wound up keeping the music on my knees which wasn't very comfortable. Also, having the music on top of the keyboard (rather than behind it) means that it can be positioned closer to the wall, conserving floor space.

I considered a couple of alternatives, but I think this is the best option for me. Looking at piano rehearsal rooms in London, they seem to charge about £10/hour. So, assuming that I did one practice a week, I'd pay more than the cost of the piano within a year. There's also the hassle of travelling time, and I think it's better to do "little and often"; 15 minutes per day is better than 2 hours once a week. Even if I just do simple scales, it will help me to keep my hand in.

It would be nice to get a real piano, but they're bigger, heavier, and need tuning at regular intervals. Where I am now, I don't think it would be physically possible to get one up the stairs to my flat, and I wouldn't be able to practice silently. Maybe in 10-20 years I'll get myself a house in the countryside with a dedicated music room, but for now I'm better off with a digital keyboard. For now I'll just use a normal chair, but I'd like to get a proper piano stool; that would have the fringe benefit of giving me extra storage space for music. However, they're quite expensive, and I'd prefer to buy one from a local store so that I can sit on it first.

The only problem with the new keyboard is the power supply. It comes with a PA-5D adaptor (230V input, 12V output), and it's also compatible with the PA-150. However, this adaptor has a 2 pin plug, so the only place I can plug it in is the shaver socket in the bathroom! I used to have an adaptor (so that I could recharge my shaver through a normal wall socket), which should still be around here somewhere, and presumably that would work here? However, it feels a bit odd to be chaining two adaptors together. I don't know whether there are equivalent Yamaha adaptors for a UK power supply, so I'll investigate that. I think that this is an issue for all their instruments (e.g. drum kits), so has anyone else encountered that?

Anyway, I don't need the old keyboard anymore. I don't think it's worth the hassle of selling it on eBay, so would anyone like it? If not, I'll Freecycle it. I also have a stand and sustain pedal available.

Looking at the ABRSM website, I was surprised to see that piano exams are only valid for two years, so my "grade 3" status has now evaporated. Mind you, that's probably fair: looking through my sheet music, I have forgotten a lot about the theory involved, and my sight reading is now appalling. As I recall, the music I played at school would have words like "Allegro" at the start, to indicate the style of the piece. Looking at the sheet music I have now, they mostly use English words instead, e.g. "Moderately" or "Fast". However, the Avenue Q sheet music takes this a step further, with descriptions like "Funky ass groove" and "Manilowesque"!

More generally, I'm not really a fan of classical music in general, but I do like orchestral music in films like Star Trek. Aside from scales, my sheet music collection consists of:

Actually, there seems to be a thriving genre of YouTube videos along these lines, e.g. MacGyver on piano. Anyone want to start a band? We could perform cover versions at weddings and Bar-Mitzvahs! Ok, maybe not...

Anyway, it's good to be doing something creative again.