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The Piano Project – Part 6
There are two things I’m especially grateful my parents did when I was a child: buy us an Apple II computer, and let my two brothers and I learn the piano. Both of these things had immeasurable impacts on what I’ve done since that point. As a direct result of the first – I learned programming as a 12 year old by reading books, programmed my first video game in secondary one, did computing at University, did a PhD centered on video games, and now work in an Information Technology school.
My journey as a result of the second is a little more convoluted: I had piano lessons, experienced a few junctures where I wanted to give up learning, had a wonderful teacher in my later grades who was a much more effective instructor, started listening to classical music, wrote and recorded my own piano music. And now it’s come full-circle – our daughter now also learns the same instrument!
One of the reasons why I wanted the Silent Piano module when looking for our home piano last year came from an interest to record. Like debating: there’s no better way to learn where your mistakes are than listening to your own self performances. There are a couple of ways of recording music on our Yamaha U30BL, each with its own advantages and challenges:
Turning on the Silent Piano module, and recording a piece on MIDI.
Turning on the Silent Piano module, and recording a piece directly via headphone jack.
Using a camcorder LOL.
The first method will only record audio, and using a MIDI sequencer, you’d also be able to correct very minor mistakes in the performance. You’d also get pretty clean audio, no noise, and you can fine-tune the soundscape as you like. Recording via MIDI though is a crazy amount of work though, and while I have a fairly systematic workflow, the process is not something I relish.
I haven’t tried the second method yet. You won’t be able to correct any mistakes and the quality of the sound is entirely dependent on the note samples embedded in the Silent Piano module – which is adequate but not great.
The third method is the most convenient, and as a bonus, I get video to see all my fingering goofs! The acoustics in our living room aren’t really very good, and there’s pretty poor clarity in the lower registers. A better and fourth method would be to record video but use the audio output of the Silent Piano – but I lack sufficiently long audio cables at the moment to run those things about the piano.
So, in the mean time, I’ve been doing some video recordings. Oddly, the Panasonic TM700’s microphone input resulted in heavily muffled audio, while the E-M1 fared somewhat better – though neither methods were producing an ideal audio experience – with limited aural range, reverberations caused by the living room acoustics, creaking from the piano seat, and my next door neighbor moving house LOL.
Learning Music for Kids
Both Ling and I started our formal music and piano lessons when we were in junior Primary school, which is about the age that many parents here today still get their children started at too. Both of us learned the piano using what many music teachers refer to as the ‘traditional’ method: basically, you learn to read notes first before getting onto the keyboard.
Hannah’s piano teacher – who himself is also a Minton resident – has been teaching her using the Suzuki method. There are many apparent differences between this method against the traditional form of learning, one of them being the emphasis of listening to a piece of music extensively to learn how to play it. Which sounds like a perfectly right way to learn – and one that Hannah has really taken to, since she’s inherited one of my old Sony MP3 players and listens to the pieces of her current Suzuki music book whenever we’re in the car. I reckon that even my piano teacher had the chops to teach me all those years ago with such a method, it would had been a lot harder anyway since personal audio players weren’t the norm as they are today.
There’s one other key difference between learning music today yesteryear and today: and it’s that young learners today have access to all kinds of learning aids. Like these:
And that’s not counting music software you can find on on computers and tablets. How I learned music theory was through a lot of rote: my teacher made me draw pages of stave lines for both clefts, and then all manner of notes on them as though I was learning calligraphy LOL. I think our old Lentor family home still has several of these books from more than 35 years ago – and I’ll find one such and scan those pictures in to show Hannah how her parents learned!
The Malaysian publisher Poco Studio has a decent catalog of music books, and their line is carried on international retailers including Book Depository and Amazon UK. The former in particular lists the books from a shade under S$10 to S$13 including shipping. The Magnetic Board is also of interest: it allows young learners to arrange music notations and learn rudimentary concepts of timing and such. This particular board is from Yamaha Music School. Hannah isn’t enrolled in one of course, so we got one pre-loved.
The Piano Project – Part 5
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.
The Piano Project – Part 4
More notes on my returning to the piano after a decade of hiatus!
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.
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.
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.
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!:)
The Piano Project – Part 3
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.
Next post on music, metronomes, and songsheets!
The Piano Project – Part 2
Truth to tell, when Hannah decided that she’d like to learn the piano rather than the violin, I was probably the more relieved – even happier – of the two of us parents. Ling’s neutral since she can play both instruments. On the other hand, I can’t play anything other than the piano and been longing to return to practising for years now. And what kept holding me back was that pianos are not really the best instruments to play in a living room! Possibly because of how small Singaporean apartments are, sound gets bounced around the house, and also that my skills on the keyboard have deteriorated significantly over the years, I was – for want of a better word – embarrassed to return to the piano.
Thankfully, while the basic technology in acoustic pianos have not changed over the years, the add-ons have. Selected piano manufacturers now offer acoustic pianos with an additional module – the silent piano feature – which drive piano sounds to a digital module and in turn headphones, while muting the external acoustic sounds altogether. The digital sounds aren’t quite like what one would hear acoustically and also limited by the tonality of the audio samples used to recreate the sound of each key. But it’s close enough for non-professionals like myself.
With the school holidays starting in just a few weeks, we decided that this would be about as good a time as any to get Hannah started on formal lessons. We’ve been scouting the neighborhood for teachers. We’ve shortlisted a couple, and have been bringing Hannah for trial lessons to see which teacher especially ‘clicks’ with her. With any luck, we’ll decide on her teacher will be in the next week or two. Foremost in our mind too is that we want her to learn as an engaging and enriching activity, and will not have her take exams until she wants to.
As for the instrument, our hunt for it only started a week ago. Yep – a lot quicker compared to the amount of time we routinely spend on large investments, in this case, both in the price dimension also in the literal physical sense! We didn’t have too many requirements: apart from that we were going to avoid South Korean and Chinese makes (good reads here and here), keep to an upper price ceiling of about S$7K, and hopefully something with the silent piano feature.
The last requirement also meant that there were only so few piano models in consideration. At least in Singapore, the piano would likely be a Kawai or a Yamaha, and thankfully both are Japanese-designed pianos. After checking out the showrooms and obtaining indicative prices of new units, our choices were about narrowed down to:
A new Yamaha JU109 Silent Piano for about $5K.
A new Yamaha JX113T Silent Piano for $6K
Both of the above are considered ‘standard grade’ in its sound boards, strings and hammers, and are assembled in Indonesia. Brand new Yamahas silent pianos of higher-grades (e.g. in the U series) would easily bust our budget.
There’s quite a vibrant used piano market here in Singapore too. After reading up online and making some initial queries with a couple of stores, we visited an importer of used Japanese pianos – Asia Piano – over the Deepavali public holiday. And after an hour of browsing/chatting/Hannah playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy on every piano she could get to in the store, we selected a Yamaha piano: a used U30BL with an added SG2 silent piano module. And from what we can see/tell and found out:
There’s a lot of very interesting discussion about the ‘grey’ market for pianos, including here, here and here. All this said, even in the worse possible scenario, the prevailing Japanese climate isn’t exactly similar to Singapore’s, but as far as humidity is concerned, I reckon it’s closer than say the US.
The U30BL is an improved variant of the very popular and well-known U3 pianos, though there seems to be little information on what are the differences between the two models. Beyond that, it’s the same size, built to the same quality and at the same factory – Japan’s famed Hamamatsu factory – as its better-known sibling.
The piano is 131cm tall: which, all things being equal, is always better than a shorter piano on account that a larger sound board can be fitted into it.
Judging from the piano’s serial number against the Yamaha’s database of serials, this particular piano was manufactured between 1989 to 1990.
The piano was made for the Japanese domestic market with its original owners there. The dead giveaway is that the Japanese-styled power plug to the piano’s SG2 module, which will in-turn require a transformer for it to work with local power points.
The SG2 module was added to this unit just a few years ago by Yamaha-certified technicians. Didn’t know that was even technically possible! I’ll have to read up more about it, and see if an upgrade to the newer SH module is also possible.
There was a about same age used U30A model in the store going for $100 more than this U30BL, but offering the older digital module which did not include a recording function. The piano sound was also tonally different and very slightly brighter. Ling preferred the U30BL, though I would had been fine with either – though a recording feature was quite desirable.
The piano was coming with just over a dozen freebies, which the attending salesperson, also the co-owner of the store, explained in detail of. Of particular interest was a soft-fall hinge that he would be installing to the piano (decades ago, my mom on many occasions would thunder at us for letting the piano’s fallboard slam against the keyboard ledge), and also his store’s custom-designed adjustable bench with its innovated seat overlaps, an innovation he seemed particularly proud of.
Comes with 5 years parts warranty, 1 year exchange programme, guarantee buy backs up to 7th year, and two free tunings in the first year.
The piano will be delivered this weekend, so more notes to come on it soon enough.:)
The Piano Project – Part 1
It’s been almost eight years since I last blogged here about piano-playing (have we really been blogging for that long?!). A new home project started though that will likely see an emergence of new posts on this topic in the months to come, and starting with this one below.:)
There was a period of time here in Singapore – perhaps around the 1990s to early 2000s’ – when learning musical instruments was the ‘in’ thing for parents with young kids. Many families would put their children through formal lessons to, for example, learn the piano and obtain the various ABRSM grades over what would normally be around 10 years of training. I remember hearing anecdotally that occasionally, learning the instrument was the expectation of parents than any real, sustained interest in the child, leading to the result that many kids would give up midway, or find formally learning the instrument so much a chore that they end up disliking the instrument.
I reckon I’m one of those oddballs. I didn’t need cajoling to learn a musical instrument. In fact, I made a conscious effort to parents hinting that I wanted to learn – e.g. creating a huge din with the Melodica in front of the TV while my dad watched Big League Soccer when I was six – that they got the message! I began formal lessons to learn the piano in April 1978, and took about ten years to finish all my Piano practical and theory up to ABRSM Grade 8. I had only two teachers during that long stretch. Both teachers were sisters too, with the younger taking me through Grades 1 to 5, and her older sister – Mdm. Ler Hui Siam – taking me through the rest. There were long periods where the training was so intense and preparing for exams so stressful that I hated lessons one particular year, and I vividly recall my mom having to drag me to lessons even. I don’t think my first teacher did much to make me love the instrument either! Both teachers must be in their 70s now and long retired, though I’ve been trying to get in touch with my old final teacher, Mdm. Ler, for years now.
The real change came when I started listening to classical music – at about the mid 80s – and I started doing much better in lessons, and finished the practical and theory with merit and distinction awards respectively.
The piano that I trained on – alongside my two brothers who also completed their ABRSM grades up to a point – was a Squire & Longson that I remembered my parents paid a princely $3,950 for in 1978. That’s a huge sum of money, even more so for its time. I haven’t been able to find much information about this model, apart from bits of information in a Piano encyclopedia that write that Squire & Longson was a highly respected English manufacturer of pianos, and were already making them in the 19th century. Our family piano though has not fared well, due totally to the lack of care for it in the last 20 years now. The keys are badly out of tune, and one or two of them no longer work even. And there are possibly entire colonies of roaches somewhere inside the piano cabinet even!
Which brings us to our new home project. Hannah has also been interested in learning to play an instrument, and I reckon she should credit both her parents’ genes here haha. We were debating for the last two years what instrument to get her started on, since she didn’t mind either the violin or the piano then. We were initially decided on the violin, on account that it’s portable, a less costly investment, and won’t occupy the same space that a piano would in the house. That line of thinking was largely the reason why we gave away Ling’s old piano when we moved from The Rivervale to Minton – a decision that still breaks her heart every time she thinks about it.
It was only a few months ago when we started reconsidering her starting instrument, and Hannah also showed a stronger inclination towards a keyboard instrument. So, a piano it was. More on this in the next post!
A Classical Revival: Part III
It might be the company I keep, but I rarely see or hear of many friends who still listen to classical music regularly anymore, if going by social media posts is any indicator. Just earlier this year, I shared a couple of Youtube videos of live recordings of pieces I enjoyed – including a lovely rendition of Handel’s Lascia Ch’io Piango aria as sung by New Zealander Hayley Westenra – and not surprisingly, very few seemed to respond to it. Not quite like the ‘Likes’ any one of Peter or Hannah’s pictures would routinely enjoy.
I’ve still continued eMusic’s subscription service since my last post about my love for the classics 4 years ago now, and picking up to a dozen classical albums each month under its service package – most of which I’ll go through, select, and pack them into the car audio for listening. If it weren’t for this service, I don’t think I’d ever discover much lesser known classical composers like Johann Fasch, Jean-Marie Leclair, Charles Villers Stanford or Pietro Locatelli. I’ve generally steered away from the well-known works from the mainstream composers on eMusic on the other hand – there are only so many versions of Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s London Symphonies, or Beethoven’s Piano Concertos I want to acquire!
Interestingly and perhaps reflecting also of young people trends, there are fewer manufacturers of dedicated MP3 players these days, what with many preferring to get their music fix via smartphones. Two of the holdouts still releasing updated models regularly are Sony and Cowon. My last MP3 player was a Cowon C2 which I bought from Amazon last year in March and had it shipped here. That little unit produced lovely audio, a very wide range of customization options, and a battery that seemed to run forever – and whose touchscreen zonked out last month. Arrgh. That was my second Cowon MP3 player over the last 5 years, and the first one also failed though for other reasons.
I wasn’t keen to return to Cowon players any time soon again, even though they are still routinely among audiophile’s favorite choices of personal audio units. I was however interested in trying out an Android-based MP3 player, if nothing else that they routinely come with larger touch-based screens, great customization options, and also running off an operating platform I was familiar with and like a lot – if also on the other hand, at the expense of usually shorter battery runlength and also overall stability.
So; in came the Sony Walkman NWZ-F886, and accompanying it a Sennheiser Momentum On the Go – that was picked up early this month. There weren’t that many choices for Android-based MP3 players, quite unlike the almost bewildering range of headphones out there from dirt cheapo ones under $10 to premium ones that have everything and cost a few thousand moola. And after a fortnight of use:
Customization – hooray!
Svelte form factor. Compact, light, and its case that oozes confidence and density – none of that creaky stuff that you get with cheap plastics. Very premium-looking too.
Pretty good audio – and almost as good as the Cowon players.
Android runs well on it. No lag or stuttering observed in music playback. Haven’t quite stress-loaded it with other apps though (no intention to).
Reasonably high-resolution screen for me to squint at the album covers.
On the other hand:
Battery isn’t as cracked up as others have suggested. I’m maybe squeezing about 15+ hours of it with some light usage of the screen and scrolling about albums.
Somewhat low screen viewing angles.
Dated Android OS at 4.1.1, even with the most recent firmware update.
Uses Sony’s proprietary charging and data cables.
On the overall, I’m pretty happy with it – not that I would have had much other choices if i wasn’t!
Learning Chinese Through Songs
Be it pop or kiddy songs, I’m of the opinion that music makes learning Chinese (or any language I supposed?) pleasurable.
We have been quite surprised (and pleased, of course) that Hannah’s kindy has become a positive influence to her liking for Chinese children songs. Despite all the good advice I got from MIL, relatives and friends, I confess that I didn’t really make a conscious effort to converse with Hannah in Mandarin. The best attempts so far were haphazard phrases and naming of objects. The product? An angmo-sounding Chinese toddler. Well, mommy fails big time. *sigh*
Of late, Hannah would try to sing or hum those Chinese children songs she was taught at school. I still have a vague recollection of those childhood tunes but the lyrics were mostly forgotten. I went onto the Internet in hope to find the lyrics to a particular train song she was trying to sing for the past few nights but alas, I had little success. Arghh!!! I don’t even know the title but my guess is that there should be a train somewhere in it. Here I am trying to water the seeds sown by her teachers but I realise that I am a CMI case. I think I shall call her 老师 to find out la.
I wander whether anyone who reads this blog has a good recommendation for Chinese children songs on CD. I bought a couple of CDs a year ago but somehow the singing made me cringe.
It hasn’t been easy to catch Hannah in the mood for singing. Below is one of the rare video recordings where she tried to sing a Chinese New Year song taught at school. She sang off-key. See if you could make the song out LOL :D
Royal Wedding Music
On FRI evening, I received an SMS from Ling:
Am watching the Royal Wedding on Channel 5 now. =)
Ugh. And I was still in school for an event! I did catch the ceremony the next morning though, courtesy of Youtube HD broadcasts. Quite a spectacle, and it looked even better on a large screen Plasma.
What especially interested me though were the music items chosen for the ceremony. Most I recognized, but two I didn’t: the Bridal Processional – ‘I was Glad’ by the 19th century English composer Hubert Parry, and the Signing of Registers music, ‘Blest pair of Sirens’ by the same composer, written for Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee. Absolutely marvelous music, and reminiscent of both Elgar and Brahms’ works! I scouted around at my usual online music stores and found these two pieces only as part of a larger album. Bought the album straight away.