We’ve had our new Yamaha U30BL piano for a few months now, and its usage hasn’t been quite what I initially thought it to be. Specifically, Ling barely touches it, while I have been on it more than I initially thought I would! I’ve been buying and acquiring sheet music from several modern day pianists-performers that I enjoy listening to, including Jim Brickman, David Lanz and David Foster, and practising them too. Hannah is also on the piano about 4-5 times a week for about half an hour each time – and myself slightly less but each time it’s an hour and a half to run through the 35 or so pieces I’m trying to master.

Incidentally, there’s an interesting debate among professional musicians regarding the use of digital devices to display sheet music. The advantages of using tablets like the Apple iPad Pro 12.9 are obvious: convenience, ability to hold a large amount of sheet music, and effective use of technology. The concerns largely lie around the fact that digital devices can fail (e.g. crash) or someone accidentally knocks them over if they’re being propped up on a music stand – both of which would be deadly to an ongoing performance.

The printed song books I’ve bought are typically larger than A4 print, but page turning is tough – since many of the modern day pieces are spread over 5+ pages. So, the 2+ year old Surface Pro 3 has been re-purposed as my preferred digital score display device. This digital display is likewise a challenge too though for different reasons. Swiping right to left to turn pages is much easier than trying to turn a paper edge, but still inelegant. On several occasions, Microsoft’s PDF reader mistook a quick finger swipe to mean pinch-zoom instead of a page turn – which resulted in a thumbnail version of all pages in the PDF i.e. immediately unusable for continued playing. Each time, I’d have to stop playing to reset the tablet display.

There had to be a better, e.g. hands-free, way of turning pages on a tablet. So, after some Googling, I found a small number of companies who make devices that do exactly just that. They seem to be primarily designed for use by professional musicians, and work on the same and maybe even obvious premise: controller device connects to the tablet via wlreless connectivity (e.g. Bluetooth) + musician uses their feet to tap pages front and back.

Evidently and from Internet research, the relatively better known company who manufactures a range of these devices is AirTurn. My needs weren’t particularly complex – I basically just need foot pedals to move pages forward and backward, and it needs to compatible with Windows and iPads. So, their cheapest model – the PED – would suffice. Unfortunately, I could not find the model on sale in Singapore. Amazon listed the device at USD69 but wanted a further princely sum of USD50 to have it delivered here. Ouch.

But after another week of scouting for International music equipment resellers who carry the device and offer options for shipping to Singapore and not cost the price of a return air-ticket, I finally found a UK-based store who was charging a nominal fee for shipping. Total damage was GBP59 + GBP4 for shipping. Total cost savings of about USD54 compared to Amazon’s price – not chump change for sure!

The item took two weeks to arrive, and here’s what it looks like:

The controller box was shipped in a parcel and also further protected by bubble-wrap, though the box itself does not contain foam padding to further protect the controller inside. So, if you want your device boxes to arrive shrink-wrapped with zero dents, you might be disappointed here.

The box contains a printed manual and the AirTurn PED controller itself. The controller exterior is metallic and feels cool to the touch.

Side profile of the controller. It’s sloped from one end to the other.

The reverse side of the controller has anti-skid padding, so no chance of it sliding on the floor. The device doesn’t look like it was entirely machine-made though. I reckon the anti-skid material was hand-glued. Note too: “Manufactured in USA” – a rarity since most of everything is Made in China these days!

The box comes with a small colored printed manual, with the online version available here too. The device offers connects to a variety of devices: including Windows, iOS and Android devices. The manual took a bit of figuring out though – I didn’t find the setup instructions particularly intuitive. But once I sorted it out, the Surface Pro 3 readily identified the device via Bluetooth for pairing, automatically downloaded the device driver for it, and thereafter connected without further hitches. The controller also supports different key associations for each foot press: e.g.up/down, left/right, page up/page down. So, the last step was to configure which of these key associations I need the controller to drive. Since I was using Microsoft’s built-in PDF reader, the correct mode was left/right.

The one down side of the PED: you can only pair the controller to one tablet at any one time. I occasionally use the iPad Air 2 for score displays too, so this is a bit of a dummer.

And that’s it. The device so far is still taking some use to. I have to use my toes to feel for the device and where I should be tapping on, since my eyes are on the song sheet when playing the piano, not on my feet!

I reckon in a few years time when Hannah turns 10, we can do a series of CNY Family pictures to see how the kids have grown every year! As is tradition, here are our family photos on the first day of the Lunar New Year.

 

Normally, most non-techie persons wouldn’t be aware of the in and outs of the smartphone industry. But the Samsung Note 7 battery exploding fiasco of 2016 was so widely reported that it even became talking points for persons who couldn’t normally be more bothered with techno-trends. I wasn’t ever planning to replace the Samsung Note 5 with the 7, since I didn’t need the new features nor did I especially like the more curvy form factor. But the Note 5’s battery has started to become less effective in the last 5 months now – so I reckon a change of phone late this year might be necessary.

Ling is still using her Samsung Note 3 with a relatively still new battery, and Facebook friends with her will see that she posts a lot of pictures and notes on things that fascinate her, including plants, cooking, nature and our two kids of course. The Note 3 offers a fairly good resolution for its sensor type, but like most camera phone sensors and their accompanying lens, suffer also from distortion, noise and other optical imperfections. One thing that Ling has which makes all these normal limitations less significant though is framing. And this is one thing I have to hand it to the wife – she takes more compositionally interesting shots than I do! One could of course attribute it in part to that the Note 3’s camera lens is pretty wide-angled, but I think it’s more that she has that photo-gene that I lack.

So, here’s a small selection of pictures from her camera, and why I especially like them. The aspect ratio of the Note 3’s camera is also quite different from what I normally shoot with on the m4/3s, and there’s no cropping of the pictures below.

Candid shot taken near our old home in Sengkang; slight angle tilt, and that the kids’ posture are in almost perfect sync.

Baking at home; picture is tightly framed, and strong contrasting colors of yellow, purple and white.

Peter’s favorite fetal-sleeping position; notice the booster position underneath his torso, and that that the photo was taken at the body-down angle – very different from how I’d instinctively take a similar shot.

Harvesting baby tomatoes at home; that H is slightly out of focus, and the composition draws attention to the tomato and her palm in the lower half of the picture.

Ling’s current pet project – two lime caterpillars that were feasting on our balcony plants, which the wife then lovingly re-homed them in a container for their upcoming pupal stage lest they are easy pickings for bids. Liked this shot as both fellows are facing opposite directions.

 

The routine of the new 2017 year has settled in nicely over the last two weeks now. Peter is now in his second year at his childcare/kindergarten, and displays none of the separation anxiety he briefly showed a year ago. Interestingly, his teachers at the last Meet-the-Parents meeting said he’s very well-behaved in school and mixes well. But at home, he’s continuing to drive us (or rather Mommy) up the wall with his antics, which include all manner of variations of “not listening”. When we recounted his behavior at home to his teachers, they quipped that it just might be because our second born is socially intelligent, and recognizes that there are different forces at play when he’s around friends, teachers and other people. And while at home, he slips into his normal, real self LOL.

Hannah is now also in Primary Two, and doing pretty well in school – if the couple of academic and study awards she picked up at the end of her first year is any general indication. Though just two months into lessons, she’s coping with her music lessons, and – from what her teacher says – and is very musical, something that pleases us both to no end and we’re both claiming more genetic credit than the other for it! Well, like Daddy at least, she has good musical memory, picks up new pieces quickly and transpose them back on the piano by listening, and can improv – so there.

Funnily, between the two though, it just might be Peter having as strong a music gene as his sister, going with what Ling is observing. P sings and hums. OK, so all kids probably do, but this boy does it a lot. And at his young age, he can also recognize music pieces and say where he heard them. At the moment, much of his recognition comes off the numerous piano pieces I’ve been playing at home, and some of them would seem fairly complex music for young kids to digest.

Photo collage coming out of a bed-time series. The two really enjoy each other’s company, with P especially looking up to his “big sister” (X70 + Meike MK320).

CompassOne, the newly refurbished Compass Point, has re-opened, and it’s been one of our weekend hangout areas. This shot was very near the minimum focusing distance, and incredibly the X70 didn’t trip its AF point.

Beneath that cheeky grin lies a raging force of destruction (E-PL6/17mm f1.8 + Meike MK320).

Both children beds have got new quilts that Ling sewed over the December period. Ya, Mommy pattern like badminton.

The two of us actually compete for time on the piano on weekday evening.

 

Stacy – our family Syrian hamster – is now four months old. She’s also grown noticeably larger from about 8cm when we first got her, to 13cm long from snout to her stump tail. From what we’ve read, this is supposed to be nearly about her maximum size already, but I reckon we didn’t expect her to grow up quite so fast!

Though she’s comfortable with either Ling or myself holding her, she’s still quite shy socially and can be easily startled by movements around the house. She’s otherwise pretty fearless, and spends a good amount of time every night climbing the bars of the cage. On several occasions, we’ve seen her hanging precariously at the top of her cage with just one paw. Occasionally, she’ll be able to swing herself up so that her feet can grip the cage bars. More often than not though, she’ll fall right down, dust herself off, and try again LOL.

One habit we’re trying to break of her though is her chewing of cage bars. And that’s despite her cage having about six different types of materials she can chew – apple sticks, mineral chews, ropes, wood blocks, dog biscuits, and even toilet rolls. It got so bad that she chewed through the coating of the cage bars, and we had to physically fastened chew sticks there to block her from getting near the cage bars.

Left to it, she’d probably gnawing through the bars and onto freedom!

She lets us carry her now, though she won’t remain still even then.

Hamster with spider genes!

The two feet cage has plenty of toys for her to interact.

2016 was a comparatively slow year – new gear wise at least – for the cameras I use. I still keep a expenditure log of items I buy, and over the year, acquisitions were a low half-dozen items that totaled up to about $1.4K and mostly in part from the Fujifilm X70 I picked up in April:

Several MaximalPower BLN-1-compatible batteries for the E-M5 and E-M1

Fujifilm X70

Hoya Pro 1 Digital UV 49mm for the X70

Meike MK320 TTL flashgun for the Fujifilm system

Hoya Circular Polarizer 62mm for the Olympus 12-40mm f2.8

Another Meike MK320 TTL flashgun and for the M4/3, and currently on the way

Of the m4/3 bodies; the E-M1 has gone along not only for two vacations but along for a couple of event shoots (mainly concerts and student graduation events), and ergonomics and utility wise has proven itself as reliable as I can get them within my photography skill level, though I’m still wrestling with getting the best out of its support for Continual AF + Tracking. The almost five year old E-M5 still gets stashed in my everyday bag on account that it’s just much smaller than the E-M1 and nearly as full-featured. The 3 year old E-PL6 though developed stuck shutter problems and has just been sent for repair at Olympus Service Center, and while it’s yet to return, that the repair job could cost as much as $130 was a little annoying considering that many pre-loved E-PL6 can be had for just over $300 now.

Lens-wise; Interestingly, unlike the Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 I had for my old Nikon system, the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 has seen far more use in a year than than the Sigma ever did. The Olympus accompanies the 12-40mm f2.8 for every event shoot I’m on now (and also when a second body like the E-M5 is real useful!), is marvelously brisk and confident in getting AF lock, and very beautiful proportioned too. And of the three main primes, the 25mm f1.4 still gets used the most, followed by the 45mm f1.8 and finally the 17mm f1.8.

Hannah still remains the only other person in our family who seems interested in photography (E-M5 / 25mm f1.4 @ Keisuke Ramen at Parkway Parade).

Learning the piano using the Suzuki Method (E-M1 / 45mm f1.8).

Peter’s Pre-Nursery year-end concert (E-M1 / 40-150mm f2.8).

Supermoon on Nov 15 (E-M1 / 40-15mm f2.8 with MC-14 teleconverter). Taken at the longest end at about 420mm FF equivalent, and had to crop still!

For all intents from the kind of photography I do normally anyway, I reckon that my lens range has remained about complete in 2016. That said, I was wondering if there were still other lenses and things to explore acquiring for 2017. For instance:

E-M1 Mark II: Singapore was one of the two lucky countries around the world to get stocks slightly ahead of other countries. I tried one such unit while at the Olympus showroom, and came out of it impressed: even better ergonomics than the Mark I, quieter and almost near silent shutter release, and very fast AF were the most noticeable traits. From the first reviews, the new model also features substantially better battery life and better C-AF. What’s less impressive though is the camera body size – it’s almost as large as entry-mid level Nikon DSLRs now and also that it costs a small fortune. So no – I’ll pass for the moment, not when the Mark I still suffices for what I do.

Olympus 12-100mm f4: released at about the same time as the E-M1 Mark II above, this one is Olympus’ ‘pro’-grade lens with the kind of focal range that is typically associated with travel zooms. Convenient as it might be when it comes to vacations, we don’t travel as much these days and the 12-100mm range isn’t for my kind of everyday use as well. And it’s a full stop difference between f4 and f2.8. So; pass too.

Olympus 7-14mm f2.8: now we’re talking! It’s been a while since I shot ultra wide-angle, and the number of years I had the Sigma 10-20mm for my Nikons remind me that UWA shots are also not my every-day thing. That said, this is one lens that actually offers a (wide) focal length that I currently do not possess for the m4/3. So this one’s a maybe – if I can find someone selling a pre-loved copy of it for cheap.

Olympus 75mm f1.8: still widely regarded as among Olympus’ sharpest and the ultimate portrait lens, though not quite for indoor use given its focal length. And the focal length is covered already with my 40-150mm f2.8 albeit at a stop slower. Still, tempting – perhaps at some point in the future.

The Fujifilm X70 produces great shots and is usable in good lighting, but indoors it’s a real dog for moving subjects with its AF constantly hunting about. I might just sell it away in 2017. Moreover, while deciding whether it was worthwhile to send the E-PL6 for repair, I did consider if I should just chuck the camera and get an equivalent compact replacement. And of that: the Panasonic GX80/85 is ostensibly a cheaper brother to the company’s top-of-the-line GX8, though funnily, it offers very useful features not found on its more expensive predecessor. However, it’s not exactly a small camera, and its screen doesn’t flip-up for family wefies – so, nope. Olympus has also released its newest iteration in the E-PL line, the EPL8, and it sure looks nice with slightly bumped up specifications and updated features from the E-PL7. I had mixed feelings handling it at the Olympus showroom though: the camera didn’t feel dense and not quite possessing the premium build I expect for its asking price.

So – my wishlist for m4/3 in 2017:

A camera about the size of the Panasonic GM5 with 2016-ish sensor technology.

With sensor stabilization (most of my m4/3 lenses aren’t optically stabilized!)

Touch-supported and flip-up screen for wefies

Going for S$700 or less.

And if not, there are of course the 1″ sensor small pocketable compacts like the Canon G7X II, Sony RX100 Mark V, and the just recently released Panasonic LX10, with the first camera on the list there nicely discounted here though my preference is for a small compact m4/3 still. In any case, more to report next year if something new does come into the radar!

One of the key things I was looking forward to with our new piano was composing again – with the last piece I wrote being just about 20 years ago. Unlike trained composers though, I write while playing on the piano and often with a very large dose of improvisation. And in order for a piece I’m playing off the top of my head to be transposed to a score, the piano needs to have a recording function.

We weren’t about to convert our living room into a recording studio for sure – it would had been logistically difficult and prohibitively expensive to achieve any measure of aural accuracy. Fortunately, the SG2 module on our Yamaha U30BL permits two methods of recording: via MIDI with a good soundfont bank, or recorded directly via the SG2’s audio jack. The SG2 module is the cheaper of the two Silent Piano options currently offered by Yamaha, and uses 30MB of wave memory to reproduce the piano sounds with a Yamaha CFIIS Concert Grand used to record samples. It’s not the highest fidelity sound you can get digitally, but it’s close enough. As for the former: I fortunately still have the very high quality note samples recorded using a Steinway & Sons Type C Grand, purchased from Warren Tracthman from 20 years ago – which I used to create a new soundfont bank for.

The recordings I made in 1996 were assisted by Cakewalk Professional and Encore Music Notation, and interestingly – both products are still around in their new versions, if also slightly rebranded. Thanks in great part because of open source, my software suite is a little different now and comprised of freeware. These might be somewhat gimped in support features, but they pretty much meet my needs. They include Anvil Studio, the ubiquitous Audacity for editing, and VirtualMidiSynth – a necessary item since I no longer have a dedicated Creative soundcard in my home computers.

The result after a first attempt is below: and a couple minutes of my playing Variations from a Theme from Pachelbel’s Canon in D by David Lanz. Numerous mistakes in my performance below, including a particularly obvious timing one at around 1 min 10 second mark.

 

More notes on my returning to the piano after a decade of hiatus!

Scores

Of all the whole bunch of things that’s different today compared to 38 years ago, the forms of sheet music probably offer the largest changes. Scores were largely available only in print bound form, and had to be purchased from stores. My Lentor family home still has shelves of Mozart, Beethoven and Clementi sonata books, Bach Well-Tempered Clavier books, Chopin waltzes etc. The printing quality and notation type sets used were also invariably dated, though I recall that from the late 80s’ onwards, it became more common for new editions of these classical pieces to use higher quality type sets, which in turn made reading the scores less difficulty.

Oh heck no.

Oh heck no.

Much easier to read!

Much easier to read!

Buying these music books from stores today though isn’t the preferred option to obtain sheet music for classical music. There are several projects seeking to make publicly and freely available classical music sheet music, like IMSLP Petrucci Music Library, The Mutopia Project, and Musopen. The databases are well-organized, and all one needs is just a couple of minutes and a good laser printer to get reasonably good quality prints of sheet music. For example, the set of six Clementi Sonatinas that I practiced on in the 80s was from a Schirmer book that’d cost about S$15. The same pieces are available in different editions and publishers through IMSLP – free off charge.

Modern music though is a very different story. Copyright for the well-known ones from the last couple of decades still lie with publishers and authors. Interestingly, there are fan and enthusiast transcriptions of these music. I haven’t read enough to know for certain if such transcriptions aren’t running afoul of music intellectual property rights, but they are certainly a valuable resource, though the amount of music in such transcribed versions are selective and don’t nearly encompass the length and breadth of modern music.

What music

The modern music I played in my learning years included 80s’ pop songs (think George Michael haha!), opening title themes from the local TV drama serials, and the grandfather of 80s’ piano love ballads: Richard Clayderman. I reckon that the latter is still within my current technical playing ability since his pieces were never especially challenging to begin with. That said, I doubt I’d play his music again – on account that very few persons under the age of 30 would have ever heard of him! I’ve instead been trying pieces from more recent modern day pianists, including David Lanz, David Foster, and Jim Brickman. Song sheets and books are available from Amazon and Book Depository at reasonable prices – averaging about S$25 each volume collecting several pieces.

Still, It’ll be several months of continual practising before I can reach the same kind of technical agility I had 30 years ago. And if that point ever comes, there’s a long list of classical piano pieces that I’ve always wanted to play but never did in my learning years (largely on account that up till the mid-80s I hated classical music as a learner!). The list includes Bach’s Goldberg Variations, English and French Suites, Italian Concerto, most of Mozart’s piano sonatas.

Metronomes

The most common type of metronome that were persistent devices for piano learners years ago were the traditional mechanical ones with polished wood, and the pendulum swinging via a clockwork mechanism. Our Yamaha from Asia Piano threw in the same, though the ‘ticks’ it produces are extremely loud. We’re not limited these days to just mechanical metronomes though: there are digital ones, highly customisable metronomes you can install on your smartphones, and even web site-based ones!

The last bit for this post is a perennial problem faced by all piano learners: page turning! The music rack on our old pianos could hold up to three pages of music, while our new Yamaha’s longer rack can hold four. Many scores though are longer than that, and it becomes a real challenge to turn pages of the sheet music while you’re trying to keep up with the playing.

Thankfully, there’s technology to the rescue. Scores can be scanned and digitized as PDFs, and dropped into tablets. And swiping a sheet page from right to left is now much easier than struggling to flip a page, and risking either damaging the book, or having the entire book crash onto the keyboard. There are even Bluetooth devices operated by your feet that will turn pages. Another problem comes up now though: the absolutely minimal size of a tablet for such score displaying is a 9.7inch tablet. Anything smaller and you’d have to squint! There was the Surface Pro 3’s larger 12″ screen which provides significantly more display space than my iPad Air 2’s – except that it needs a Windows-based PDF reader that lets you swipe right-left when in portrait mode. Oddly, none of the PDF readers I’ve tried support that.

Maybe that’s a reason for me to seriously think about getting that the iPad Pro with its 12.9″ screen – and for displaying song sheets!:)

I don’t have the faintest recollection of the purchase or delivery of our first family piano, 38 years ago from 1978. My mom did write in her diary though that the piano cost $3,950 – not $4,200 as blogged earlier – and purchased from Singapore Piano Co., and my first piano teacher, Mrs. Teo, even accompanied us to select the piano at the store.

Our Yamaha U30BL arrived on Saturday afternoon. It was originally scheduled for a mid-morning delivery, but the delivery vehicle’s breakdown led to a couple of hours wait – which thankfully was the only hiccup. The piano works great, and our notes and observations after two days and about a dozen hours on it:

The piano – even at 26 years old – looks exactly like new on the outside, and the interior shows a well-cleaned and maintained unit too apart from some minor stains on the manufacturer steel plate attached near the sound board.

Over the years I took my ABRSM exams, I remembered always being a little unsettled at how different the exam pianos sounded compared to what I practiced on. Neither my teachers’ nor our family pianos were Yamahas, and they produced somewhat brighter tones. Our new Yamaha, likely because of the size of its sound board, produces fairly warm tones and similar to what to the Yamaha piano exam rooms.  This would be a pretty important aspect of exam preparation for Hannah if she, at any later point, prepares for her ABRSM exams.

The SG2 Silent Piano works as advertised and is simple to operate. Power on, connect one or two headphones to the audio jacks, set the reverb and volume knobs to preference, and play away.

Playing with the Silent Piano mode on feels very different to playing with it off. Specifically, the latter requires a lot more delicate and careful playing, and a lot of concentration is required to hit the note with exactly the right amount of pressure to achieve the desired tone weight and volume. Playing on the Silent Piano mode on the other hand is a lot more forgiving, as the dynamic range seems slightly less wide.

One trait of silent pianos though: there’s no soft-mute any more. It’s normal non-dampened acoustics or on silent mode all the way.

The soft-fall hinge works as stated, and possibly maybe even too well. It takes almost 10-15 seconds for the fallboard to fully close with the hinge.

The store’s custom-designed bench is very comfortable with great support for one’s bum. Unfortunately, the bench doesn’t come with a storage facility, so we had to find space in the living room to keep the piano’s maintenance accessories.

Seriously buffed and polished ebony exterior of the Yamaha U30BL.

Seriously buffed and polished ebony exterior of the Yamaha U30BL.

The keys were re-polished again from what I observed in the warehouse a week ago.

The keys were re-polished again from what I observed in the warehouse a week ago.

The soft-fall hinge.

The soft-fall hinge.

Hannah has our genes: she seems able to play by ear.

Hannah has our music genes: she seems able to play by ear.

Next post on music, metronomes, and songsheets!