For the last year and some months, I’ve been giving piano lessons to a young boy who is apparently very attention deprived in his everyday life. I came to this conclusion pretty quickly; at his “trial lesson” actually. This little boy had a mind of his own! He’d find everything he could to get himself distracted, he’d make strange squealing and squawking sounds whenever he played a piano key, he’d mock me counting beats, he’d talk back to me, he’d do things he was told not to do just out of spite, when I corrected him he’d say he didn’t do it wrong, and well, that’s just a general overview of all this little boy has done.

Sometimes I sit in lessons and repeat directions for him to get his hands ready to play over and over while he sits there in outward resistance and then 5 minutes later; he finally gives in and gets his hands ready. That should take 5 seconds, not five minutes! Almost every week it is the same thing in one variation or another. I am not sure which is harder; teaching this little boy or doing a triathlon! Certainly, much endurance is needed. Well over a year later, we are still only ¾ of the way through the Faber Piano Adventures Primer Level books. I am sure I have moved him along in them more than he has deserved too! And in case you’re wondering, he is not much better if his mother or babysitter is in the room.

By now, you’re probably asking me why I don’t just give up on this little boy. I have asked myself that same question for a long time… well, since I started teaching him. Something just keeps me going though. Part of me never wants to give up on anybody. I am kind of stubborn like that and I hold a lot of hope and a lot of faith that things will always get better or at least I will learn something great through it all. Part of me says “hey, it’s income!” What teacher doesn’t want a steady student filling a half hour of their week? And yet another part of me wonders if there is some way I could make some kind of difference in his life. This is the most compelling reason I stick with teaching my little misbehaved wonder. There has got to be SOMETHING that I can do for him. Well, I haven’t quite found that something yet, but I have realized that sometimes I just need to settle for the tiny little somethings that pop up once in a blue moon.

One thing I have learned is that my little friend suddenly gets really quiet and focused when he is given theory assignments to do right there in pianos lessons. I quit assigning them to be done at home this past summer because I realized this was what he was mostly interested in and now we do all his theory together right there on the piano bench. These have ended up being the most teachable moments. He still acts a little goofy, but most of his attention gets focused on getting correct answers and following the directions on the page. Oh how I wish he would follow MY directions! We’ll get there though. Baby steps, right?

That one little breakthrough just feeds my hope that more and bigger breakthroughs will come. Until then, call me crazy, but I think I’ll keep teaching this little guy. Maybe someday I’ll be writing an article about what a great scientist or engineer he has become. Maybe I’ll be bragging about something wonderful he’s done with music! Well, I won’t get ahead of myself, but you know what I mean.

The secret to wealth is spending much less than you make.

In “The Millionaire Next Door”, Thomas Stanley and William Danko describe many of the unexpected characteristics of people with a high net worth. The starting point for a financially successful life is first learning to live within your means; spending no more than you earn. After you have mastered living within your means then you need to learn to live on much less than you earn.

We often get caught up in the trappings of conspicuous consumption, we admire the brand new $60,000 car, we are jealous of the vacations to Hawaii our friends take, and we wish we lived in a bigger, newer house. However, that new car probably represents a big hit to someone’s savings or worse, they charged the down payment on a high interest credit card and they have a $600 monthly payment for years before they fully own this depreciating asset. After 5 years their $60,000 expense and $10,000+ of interest payments is worth less than half that amount. They have lost $40,000 in a few short years. Not a very effective way to build net worth.

In today’s world it is very easy to spend tomorrow’s income on today’s life style; just put it on the plastic. Hopefully, you have paid it off by the time you throw it away. The costs of the debt can very easily double the price you pay for an item.

There are two kinds of debt. The worst kind is life style debt. Borrowing to pay for a new television or new furniture, in other words items which rapidly depreciate, will leave you forever broke. If you need a new television, first be sure this is a need and not a want. Getting a bigger set just because it is so much better than what you have, and it is so embarrassing to have anything but the latest model is not a reason to go into debt. If your television has broken and you don’t have the cash for a new one, cancel the cable, and start saving. The same could be said about cars or game counsels. Your life style should be based upon only what you are able to earn today not what you will earn tomorrow. Remember that if you are spending tomorrow’s income, you are going to have a much lower life style tomorrow than you enjoy today with tomorrow’s income.

While supporting your life style is a horrible reason for debt, there are some very powerful reasons to take on debt, even very large amounts of debt. Good debt is used to leverage savings, skills, talents, and ideas into opportunities for greater return. But even here you must start with your own saving which you have accumulated by living on less than you earned. Borrowing to begin or expand a business is the best type of debt you can have. You still need to be careful that the income generated by this debt is sufficient to service the debt and the terms are manageable within the context of your business.

As far as borrowing for a home goes, this can be almost as bad as borrowing for life style. It is very easy to purchase more home than you really need and end up with a mortgage which destroys your credit for years to come. If you do buy a house, remember it is very expensive to sell it and if you don’t plan on living there for at least 10 years don’t do it! If the real estate market turns on you, you may not be able to sell it at all (just ask your neighbors). If you need move to relocate to a better job market you would be out of luck. In addition to the risk of owning a house you also have the lost opportunities that your down payment represents. What else could you do with that money which would be a better idea than buying a house with that money?

Your mother and father have learned these lessons from personal experience and from watching the outcomes of our friend’s decisions. Life is much simpler without debt so be very careful before you take the plunge.

Andrew Remillard

Let’s first address the issue of definition. Piano tuning is a process of adjusting the relative pitch relationship of 88 different pitches. As with politics and religion – everyone has a different opinion as to what “in tune” means, even among professional piano tuners. To add to the difficulty of defining “in tune” is the inherent instability present in all pianos. Piano tuners who are honest about their work say they abandoned a tuning – not finished it. There comes a point in every tuning where further work doesn’t achieve any more noticeable improvement in the tuning. Further work at this point may actually decrease the stability of the tuning. This doesn’t mean that the piano is “in tune”. It just means that it can’t be made any more “in tune”.

Tuning is analogous to cleaning. If the room is very dirty, a preliminary cleaning is the first step to bring order and cleanliness to the room by removing clutter. A second and third cleaning may follow which may begin to clean the dirt and dust to that which is typical of a reasonably clean room. You can continue to clean away but it makes no appreciable difference to the overall cleanliness of the room. Does the dirt still present make the room “unclean”?

So what defines the “dirt” of tuning? In the simplest of terms, it is inappropriate “beats”. Beats or waves are generated by the interference between two pitches. These beats can be present at various speeds and between different notes. Tuning is a process of arriving at some optimized level of these beats.

You can sometimes hear beats within a single note. Play a note in the middle of the piano. Hold it down and listen for a wave or undulation in the pitch. If you hear any movement in the pitch, it is out of tune.

Play perfect 4ths and 5ths. Hold the notes and listen for the waves or beats. You should hear some movement between the notes. Generally, the 4ths will be ever so slightly faster than the 5ths. Their speeds though will depend upon their location on the keyboard.

How long a tuning lasts depends on the environmental stability, amount of pitch adjustment needed, condition of the instrument, and most importantly your standards. A piano can be tuned two or three times a day in a concert or recording setting. One time Sting rented one of our pianos for rehearsal purposes and I tuned it every morning for a week.

So the answer is, yes, your piano is out of tune right now, even if you had it tuned yesterday.

Andrew Remillard

I have found two meanings for this rule, one practical and one life changing.

First the practical. Left to our own devises we will start our work at the beginning and work our way to the end. Cognitive science explains some of the phenomenon we experience with this approach. The two primary challenges we encounter involve issues of interference and recency. Interference occurs when new or old material will block or interfere with recall. Sometimes the new material is similar enough to the old material as to create a conflicted memory. (This happens a lot in music!) Recency is the principle that we remember the most recent event better than older events. If we start at the beginning and play to the end we will remember the beginning well because it is the beginning and had our clearest focus; and the end almost as well because it is recent. But the middle is some kind of vague muddle of notes we know we played but have no idea what we did.

If you begin at the end and work backwards toward the beginning; first leaning the last measure and then the next to last measure, playing both; and then adding another measure and so on; each measure has a chance to be the beginning. Your retention of the middle is greatly enhanced.

A few years ago, while reviewing my repertory list I realized that I had learned about 1/3 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Into my silly head popped this notion that it would be a good thing to learn and play them all as preludes and postludes at my church. It took several years to complete this project of playing the entire set of sonatas sequentially. When I finally completed the project and had a chance to look back on my work and began to do it again, I had a profound sense of what the poet T. S. Elliot meant by:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

Andrew Remillard

One of the most devastating things a fellow student said to me early in my freshman year of college was: “Everybody has to start some place.” The Op. 2 #1 was my first Beethoven Sonata I ever played. It seemed though that everybody else had already learned this work and I was pretty late to the game. We all go to college as a big fish from small ponds, but coming from a town of 3000 I think I felt this even more acutely. And to hear from one of my classmates that she considered me a minnow it just added to my feelings of inadequacy.

Whether it was real or imagined, I felt my classmate’s estimation of my abilities was shared by my teachers as well. At this point I had a choice to make; I could accept what others said was my lot in life or I could set out to make a liar of them. I chose the latter.

Success always requires a significant price, I decided early in my freshman year to pay the price demanded. I believed if I worked harder than anybody else I could make up for any deficiencies I might possess. If two hours of practice was expected I did four or more. I would be there when the music building opened in the morning and would work until I was kicked out at night.

The effort certainly paid off in the end and has continued to pay dividends my entire life. While my playing still has significant weaknesses, the Beethoven Sonatas is no longer one of them.

Self image is just that. The image we have of ourselves. The best part of this image is that it is very malleable. By making a decision to do the work required for success, regardless if we achieve that ultimate outcome, we will know that we were worthy of the effort. Even in failure we learn because our focus is not on other’s opinions, but rather on accomplishing great things.

With each step in this process we grow in stature in our own eyes because we know we are making the effort. The image we hold of our self is based only upon our own choices and efforts, not someone else. All efforts to build “self esteem” are doomed to failure because they are based upon someone else telling us we are great and deserving regardless of our efforts. In our hearts we know this is a lie.

Our self image or self esteem comes from knowing we were in the arena, fighting the good fight. And even if we come out bloodied and beaten we know the value of our efforts and the honor is ours for just being in the arena. This is something no one can give us or take away from us because it has been wholly earned by us alone.

Andrew Remillard

Ever wonder why some pianos say “play me” and others, well, you can’t imagine why anybody would ever want to play them?

Even if a piano action is regulated to an absolute perfection there can still be unevenness from one note to another. Regulation refers to the correct mechanical settings for various functions to occur, but it does not take into account one very important criteria to a smooth and even touch. The weight of various components has a profound impact on the touch of a piano. If you were to weigh each hammer and chart the results you would have a picture closely resembling the movement of the stock market!

How could the touch be even when one hammer weighs 1 gram more than its neighbor? You might think that one gram is not that big of deal, in fact you are right. A gram is equivalent to 2 ½ medium paper clips. Yet when that small amount of weight is acted upon by the leverages found in a piano action it becomes at least 5 grams at the end of the key.

With the typical down weight (the weight needed to depress the key with the damper pedal depressed) about 50 grams, a 5 gram difference represents a 10% variation! That is noticeable.

Difference in hammer weight also has a profound effect on the tone a hammer generates. All things being equal, a heavier hammer produces a darker, mellower tone and lighter hammers will give you a brighter tone.

All weight variations are evened out when a Custom Action Balancing is performed. In addition to hammer weight variations, key weights are also evened out and all leverage problems and inconsistencies are corrected. If you would like your piano to say “Play me” give me a call at 630-852-5058.

Andrew Remillard

1) Take your students to nursing homes to entertain the residents. Remember, the staff often has children or grand children who may be looking for a teacher.
2) Buy an ad in a play bill with a local arts organization.
3) Tell your students that you would happy to teach their friends.
4) Teach one or two days at a music school. You gain a lot of exposure by being part of a larger musical educational setting.
5) Distribute pens with your name on them.
6) Put an ad in the local newspaper. Believe it or not, the local papers are still read and their classified ads are usually available on line so you gain by the additional exposure.
7) Teach a secondary instrument or a different genre of music.
8) Write a blog. This takes time but after you have written extensively you begin to be viewed as an expert and gain a lot of credibility in the community.
9) Give a recital of your own.
10) Promote your students everywhere you go. Don’t brag about how good they are, but do tell of their accomplishments. Take pictures of their performances and put them up in your studio and post them on line (with their permission of course.)
11) Get to know the area elementary and secondary music teachers. Get on their lists of area teachers.
12) Accompany solo and ensemble contests.
13) Participate in an ensemble.
14) Do a fund raising concert for your favorite charity.
15) Promote, Promote, and then Promote some more everywhere you go.

Andrew Remillard

I say this as a lover of speed. I have worn out many metronomes in my life, not from throwing them out of frustration, but from use. I work meticulously to achieve my ambitious tempo goals and then exceed them by 10% to ensure ease. Yet all too often I get caught up on faster and forget there is more to music than speed. Many times there is a lot less music with more speed. Finding the balance between a tempo with brings life and one which crushes music is a constant struggle.

Andrew Remillard

Did you see that “p”? What does “senza sordino” mean? Did you see that accent? Some scores are full of performance instructions and others have no obvious markings. The details can include the obvious dynamic and expressive markings and also the much more subtle harmonic and melodic “markings”. Work to understand every word and symbol a composer uses and also look for the stuff “between the lines.” Every composer has a harmonic vocabulary which is unique to them. Harmony shows the ebb and flow of emotional tension. In order to understand the form and function of phrases you must start with the harmony; which chords contain the greatest emotional tension and where does that tension get released?

Andrew Remillard

This is another great myth of the piano. While cracks, or more accurately: breaks, are unpleasant cosmetically, they usually are meaningless musically.

But before we go any further we must be sure we all know where and what is a soundboard and why it cracks. If you look under your strings in a grand piano or at the back of your upright behind the posts you will see the soundboard.

This mysterious piece of vegetative product is the most misunderstood part of our favorite instrument. The soundboard is made up of fletches of quarter-sawn sitka (usually) spruce. Traditionally tight grained spruce is preferred but with the loss of such old growth trees wider grain spacing has been used more in recent years and increasingly multi-laminate wood products (plywood).

The function of the soundboard is to take the energy from the string through the bridge and transduce that energy so that enough air is moved we can hear the sound. It doesn’t amplify the sound. Amplification implies energy being added to the system. The soundboard actually increases the rate in which energy is used. Without it, the string would vibrate softly for a very long time, slowly using up its energy. The soundboard uses the energy given to the string by the hammer at a faster rate allowing a large enough mass of air to be moved to produce an audible sound.

The soundboard has three primary components; the bridge receives the energy from the strings and provides contact with the soundboard. Underneath the soundboard panel are the ribs which move the energy across the grain of the panel and support the crown or upward bowing of the panel.

There are two methodologies for constructing a soundboard, for today’s purposes we will ignore the more modern method and look at the traditional method of soundboard construction. Traditionally the soundboard panel is dried to a level between 4% and 5% EMC (equalized moisture content) which is simply a measure of the water present within the wood. The panel shrinks in this process. The ribs are then glued onto the panel, perpendicular to the direction of the grain. As the panel absorbs moisture it expands and literally bends the ribs. The ribs prevent the panel from expanding across the grain on the bottom of the panel. The top side is freer to expand and expands more. The effect is the crown of the soundboard. The crown provides the soundboard positive resistance to the downward pressure of the strings.

Both the top and bottom sides of the panel will be in a permanent state of compression. Through the normal environmental swings the levels of compression will rise and fall with the relative humidity. Two things will occur over time from this situation. The first is compression set. While initially the wood fibers expanded and contracted within their compressed state, eventually they will take the compressed state on permanently. After being compressed one too many times during a damp season, during the following dry season the soundboard will release its excess moisture but because the wood had suffered compression set, instead of relaxing intact it breaks along the compression. Sometimes you can feel a compression ridge on your soundboard. This is a grain of wood which has been pushed up during an excessively high compression period. It does relieve some of the compression but you are looking at next winter’s crack.

So that is where cracks come from, what do they mean? Initially they mostly represent just a loss of surface area on your soundboard. In most cases we are talking about a .1% loss. In other words it means nothing. As more cracks develop the soundboard will lose more if not all of its crown which usually sounds like a warm, long sounding piano without much punch. Even a very bad board will still act as a transducer.

However if the ribs break off of the panel, you can see this as a gap between the rib and the board from the bottom or a raised portion along a crack on the top, you can develop some very loud buzzing as the rib, panel and glue residue vibrate against each other. This condition is very repairable and the soundboard can continue in service for many more years.

If you have any questions about the condition of your soundboard or piano, just drop me a note.

Andrew Remillard