Grand Designs

Getting used to the new piano and it’s, well, pretty profound really.

First of all it was epic watching three guys get it up the stairs. In this age of technology it’s still a matter of strength and balance. They ought to make it an Olympic event.

It took a couple of days for me to get used to it being in my living
room. Once we got the rest of the furniture and things that go on the furniture back in place it felt much better. The seating area is actually improved now. The couch and chairs are in an “L” with one end where the old piano used to be.

Of course this has triggered a cycle of rearranging everything. It started with getting some old kiddie videos off a shelf, and moved onto retiring some old origami and deploying some newer stuff. We have two more opportunities to rearrange the furniture coming up: once when the Christmas tree goes in and again when it goes out. But for now the piano is basically at the top of the stairs where the Christmas tree has gone in other years. Only problem is the shelf where I keep my sheet music is across the room. And I need a place to put my drink when I’m playing. (Obviously no drinks on the new piano. As a matter fact Thelonious Monk got banned for life from Birdland for putting his drink on their brand-new grand. So you know it’s pretty serious.)

As for playing – the first thing you notice is the sound is sooooo much nicer. So clear and pure. Every note has a voice and all the voices blend. The first day I didn’t play anything bluesy or jazzy or dissonant, just alot of triads and open chords. Next morning I spent a half hour just playing different voicings of D major, listening the sound interact with the room. Much better action dynamic range too, and different sounds at different dynamic levels and in different octaves all have their own character. Alot to explore in the upper and lower ends of the range. It’s gonna change my whole playing style.

Yesterday I did my first real practice. It felt like I had super speed. Some Keith Emerson passages I’ve been muddling thru for years just flew right out. But even while the action is faster the keys are heavier too. A few hour later typing on the computer it felt like I’ve been lifting weights with my fingers. Gonna take a while to get used to that.

Naturally the kids are totally infatuated. I gave them a lesson or two and now they’re playing Heart and Soul together, and each learning some different songs and patterns and things. Downloading chords from the internet and working the song out. I wonder how long that’ll last. It’d be nice to see them get somewhere.

I’m adding a few new songs to my repertoire, notably some standards starting with Body and Soul. Looking thru the sheet music took out of the old piano bench I found a hand-written exercise of ii-V-I’s on the cycle of fifths that I wrote out exactly 25 years ago. A time-travel gift from my past self. You can do a million things with this idea. So I’ve put it into my warmup.

Bananas for Pianos

I’ve been shopping for a new piano recently. My old piano is a Baldwin upright, built in the 1970’s. I got it in 2001 from a friend who is a professional pianist and upgraded to a grand for his home. I spent almost as much moving it two neighborhoods across Brooklyn as I did on the piano itself. A quality instrument, it still plays fine even though I’ve played it almost every day for many years. It has served me well.

I’ve wanted upgrade to a grand for a long time. I started by looking on craigslist a few months ago and realized there was a healthy market for used pianos, and it looked like there were some decent ones in my budget, but it would require some research and some patience. I looked again a few weeks ago but all the ones I was interested in were gone. So I started going to piano dealers to see how they compare. I figured the dealers would have some inventory and some selection, and their instruments would be rebuilt/refurbished, tuned up and in good shape, plus they’d also have warranties and be able to handle the delivery.

I spent alot of time the last few weeks playing different pianos and listening to their tone and dynamics and feeling their touch and response, as well as looking inside to see how they’re made, and doing alot of reading online about the history, quality and reputation of different brands. And I can tell you once you start listening and get in the zone, there’s alot of variation and you can start to discern what makes a really good piano.

I played a few rebuilt Steinways which were all really beautiful. It’s amazing, some of them were 100 years old and still hold their value. And they all have such great and consistent response and an unbeatable tone that’s well balanced between bright and mellow and mostly distinguished by a sea of lush and resonant overtones. It’s like the aural equivalent of a warm inner glow.

But unfortunately those were all beyond my budget, even the lower-priced ones. So I auditioned a number of other instruments. The one that struck my fancy was Kimball. Shiny black, very nice. It immediately seemed very warm and playable, with a big resonance and nice clear low end, being about six and a half feet long, which is a little longer than a typical baby grand. It has a great tone and response, almost rivaling a Steinway but for about a fifth of the price. It’s 25 or 30 years old but in basically new condition, having spent most of its lifetime not being played.

The better Kimballs are in line with Baldwins in terms of quality. They are regarded as well-built, sturdy workhorses but not a top-tier marque. Of course all piano companies have a long history and not all models or periods are equal, and there alot of Kimballs that are well worth staying away from. Apparently most American companies started manufacturing their pianos in China in the 80’s and 90’s and suffered from low quality in sound, workmanship and materials. It took them a while to really learn what they were doing, but newer pianos from China (almost all American brands except Steinway, which are still made in Queens NY, as well as some Japanese brands) are regarded as better built and generally a good value.

It turns out this particular Kimball is a real gem. It was built in Pawnee, Indiana at the time the Kimball owned the Bösendorfer company (world-class concert pianos from Austria, often regarded as the best in the world, superior even to Steinway) and shortly before they ended American production altogether, one of the last of its kind. It’s a so-called “Viennese Kimball” because its sound and feel are modeled on the venerable Bösendorfer concert grands and they took advantage of Bösendorfer engineering, craftsmanship and know-how in its design and construction. Plus it’s all top-flight materials: spruce soundboard, maple shell, black lacquer, ebony and ivory together in perfect harmony. Hopefully it’ll play great for many years.

The place I got it from is Ford Pianos in Peekskill NY. John Ford is a third-generation piano rebuilder and a really nice guy. First time I was there he showed me around his workshop and told me alot about piano materials and construction as well as the art of rebuilding. He gave me a good deal that included the moving and taking away my old piano as a trade-in. As an added bonus, since I’m a tall guy and my knees don’t quite fit under the keyboard, he’s making me a set of custom risers/casters to put under the feet and raise the instrument up an inch and a half. Very awesome! Turns out he’s also of Hungarian heritage, and his language skills are on the same level as mine, meaning his vocabulary is mainly centered around food.


Things have been going by fast around here. Hallowe’en came and went – we did our pumpkins in magic marker this year, and Lizzy birthday – went out for Japanese Hibachi steak house yum, as well as the clocks shifting, the much-ballyhooed election and a major deadline at work. I put in a few late nights and then took off the following Friday.

More fun: the windshield cracked on Lizzy’s car on her way to school one day so we had to get it replaced. Then it leaked in a rainstorm and we had to get it replaced again. Then Jeannie drove into a curb pulling over for a cop car and and banged up the bumper worse than it was before. Luckily I hadn’t gotten around to fixing that yet. Oy!

In the meantime if October was musical gig month, November has been origami convention month. I went to two conventions in two weeks. The first was OrigaMIT at MIT in Boston. It was alot of fun as always. The second was Origami Heaven at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

As usual I taught a bunch of classes. Since it’s the fall I taught my American Turkey out of my book Origami Animal Sculpture. Actually the American Museum of Natural History asked me for a model again this year for the origami Christmas tree, and the one they wanted was my Turkey, so that was the original motivation to dust it off.

This is a pretty complex model, about 100 steps in the book, with a color change and detailed feet with toes and a fan tail and wattle on the neck and everything. The model always gets compliments, but it’s hard to fold well. In particular it’s hard to get it to balance and stand on two feet. It takes a bit of finesse and you have to use the right kind of paper. In fact I folded a beautiful rust-orange one for the AMNH but the paper was too soft. Ah well. I ended up giving them one out of my OrigaMIT exhibit folded out of shiny paper from origami shop, because Talo was up at MIT and I knew I wouldn’t have time to go down the the museum this week.

Anyway I brought paper with me for the students to use, to insure they’d have a good experience. The class at MIT was quite full, but we got thru it all in the time allotted, and they all did quite well. This guy Zev Eisenberg even folded tiny turkey out of a 3” square. Finished size just over an inch. Then he put it in scene as larger-than-life monster to attack a tiny pirate ship he’d folded.

There’s a sequence in the middle that’s a bit tricky, but it went just fine in the class. I realize I’ve gotten better at explaining complicated origami moves over time. It’s been a few years since I designed this model and my style has developed since then, so I began to think about a more refined approach. I tried a few variations in the design that didn’t work but served to remind me about why I went the way I did.

The other class I taught at MIT was my Flowerball Evolution. This was essentially the same thing I taught at OUSA last June. This class was much smaller and included two sisters maybe 8 and 12 years old, excellent folders. The CPs for this class were published in the collection, and Jason Ku also published a limited edition volume of his own works that includes lots of his better-know models such as the Nazgul. Other highlights included Rebecca Gieseking’s vases and bowls, Wan Park in from Hawaii doing dollar folds, and Hugo Akitaya giving a paper on software he wrote for his thesis that converts CP’s to full-on Yoshizawa-Randlett diagrams

Even though the convention is one day, going up to Boston kills most of the weekend cuz we drive up Friday nite and come home Sunday morning. Still the energy level remained up even though it’s getting colder and darker every day. I even moved my workout from Tuesday and Thursday morning to Monday Wednesday Friday to accommodate the travel.

The next weekend we went to Stony Brook on Long Island for Origami Heaven. This was my first time going to this one although Srikant has been asking me for years. It’s not as technical or academic as the MIT one, nor quite as large, but it has alot of OUSA folks from NYC and was alot of fun. It was at the hotel on the Stony Brook campus and at lunchtime Jeannie and I took a long walk around. Lizzy applied there for college so it was good to see the campus.

I taught my Turkey again, and this time I made a few improvements to it, particularly smoothing out the troublesome middle section and also improving the landmarks and geometry or the tail. Still not totally satisfied but it’s getting there. Someday hopefully I’ll published a revised diagrams for it. There weren’t that many classes so in the afternoon I added one and taught my Adirondack Moose.

In the evening there was a dinner and free folding and a raffle and silent action. Jeannie got a bunch of tickets and we won a few sheets of really nice fine paper as well as the new book and Akira Yoshizawa, widely considered the godfather of modern origami. It’s a beautiful coffee-table book published by my publisher Tuttle. Very nicely done.

The other major thing going on right now is I’m shopping for a new piano. However this post is already kinda long so I’ll save that for another time.