In-Spired Music

Last Friday, I walked out of the downtown salon where I get my monthly haircut to the makings of a beautiful late winter afternoon. A few cars motored by on the street, yet nobody blared the horn or blasted the radio. Pedestrians kept their conversations to a low tone.  Songbirds made melody, willing the next season to an early debut.  Above all (literally), the nearby Methodist church bells rang out the hour of the day from the steeple, followed by a cheerful rendition of… “The First Noel”?

Found the culprit on Google Street View!

Last time I checked Christmas was well over two months ago.  Decorations are boxed and returned to the closet, lights are taken down, and Starbucks no longer offers my seasonal favorite Chestnut Praline Latte.  Yet here I was, a block from a downtown church in March, with happy steeple bells daring me to burst into Christmas song. 

Talk about a case of bats in the belfry.  You think I’d pause for such a strange moment.  Instead, I simply took in this carol of the bells with a smile, got behind the wheel, and went on my “merry” way.

So it is with church bells, especially the ones in steeples big enough to broadcast their melodies for miles around.  I find church bells comforting, so much so they can play anything they choose and I’ll be happy to listen.  Even a tune that sounds so three-months-ago.

The church I grew up in, on the far west side of Los Angeles, had a tall steeple with bells.  If you pulled up to the parking lot within ten minutes of the start of the service, the bells were making music.  More importantly, they were telling you (as they’ve done for centuries in older churches) it’s time to get yourself inside for worship, buddy.  I didn’t watch every episode of Little House on the Prarie but I watched enough to remember the steeple bells summoning the people of the small town to church.  Believe me, you didn’t want to be the last parishioner in Walnut Grove to pass through the sanctuary doors, earning a steely-eyed stare-down from Rev. Alden.

Here’s another memory from childhood church.  In “Sunday School” they taught us how to lace our fingers together, tips pointing down, palms face-to-face below, and thumbs side-by-side in front.

Church! Steeple! Doors! PEOPLE!

[Go ahead, I’ll wait while you make your little “church”.]

Then you’d look at your hands and say, “Here’s the church…” (now raise your two index fingers into a point), “Here’s the steeple…”, (now separate your thumbs a bit), “Open the doors…”, (now flip your hands over and wiggle your fingertips), “… and see all the people!”  That little ditty was clever enough to recollect all these years later, the moment I heard “The First Noel” from the downtown steeple.

At least in America, the appeal – ha – of steeple bells is probably because you don’t hear them all that often (unless your neighbor is a church).  Most modern churches can only afford the structure of the steeple, not the complicated mechanism of the bells within.  Just like train crossings, today’s “bells” are often an electronic equivalent, and so realistic you can’t tell the difference.  But you can with steeples.  If the church was built in the last fifty years, the steeple bells probably don’t ring true (ha again).

Charleston, South Carolina is known as the Holy City because you’ll find over four hundred churches in its rather compact downtown streets.  You can’t look in any direction in Charleston without seeing a steeple, and many of them are hundreds of years old.  That means bells; hundreds and hundreds of bells.  Take a walk in Charleston on a Sunday morning and you’ll be “treated” to the overlapping competition of steeple bells.  They’re summoning you to church, of course (but which one, exactly?)

The Sound of Music has a brief but charming steeple scene in the movie, just before or after Maria weds Captain von Trapp at Mondsee Abbey.  The camera points to the very top of a steeple, where the abbey bells are visible just below the cupola.  In the era of the story, steeple bells were rung by hand.  In this scene, the “ringer-boy” is shown holding on for dear life as he clings to a rope, the weight of the bell dragging him up and down like a pogo stick.  The moment always makes me laugh.

One of these days you’ll be walking down the streets of your own town and church bells will ring.  Stop for a second and give them a listen.  You’ll probably hear a melodic hymn.  You might even be gifted with an “unseasonal” Christmas carol.  Doesn’t really matter.  Those big, happy bells make beautiful music no matter the tune.


Lego Grand Piano – Update #9

(Read about how this project got started in Let’s Make Music!)

We are closing in the piano’s insides now, as you can see by the almost complete black frame in both photos. Bag #9 – of 21 bags of pieces – contained a good chunk of the frame curves, including the graceful “S” you can see just beyond the right side of the (future) keyboard.

Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was just about the perfect length for today’s build, with a couple of hold-your-breath moments where pieces from previous builds snapped off and skittered away. They’re back where they belong now,

Running Build Time: 7.5 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G-Minor. Leftover pieces: 2 (tiny unnecessary extras for the frame).

Conductor’s Note: We have a hinged trap door built into the frame now, for access to the battery pack and on/off switch.  When it’s closed, the frame is seamless and you’d never know the door was there.  They have clever people at Lego.

Practice-Makes-Perfect Memories

Classical music has been one of my constant companions since childhood. Piano lessons initially mandated by my parents (but ultimately demanded by me) cemented a love for the timeless sonatas and symphonies of the master composers.  I built up a stock of memorized pieces – my very own repertoire.  I was “hooked on classics” at an early age.


In 1947, a children’s audio story was created for Capitol Records called “Sparky’s Magic Piano”.  Sparky was a little boy who hated to practice the piano but benefited from an active imagination.  One day Sparky’s piano starts talking to him, and declares if he simply runs his hands across the keyboard he will make beautiful music.  Instantly Sparky is playing with the accomplished skills of a concert pianist, effortlessly churning out Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumblebee”, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”, and Mendelssohn’s “The Spinning Song”.  Sparky’s piano teacher and parents want to show the world this wonder, so they book a series of concerts across the country.  But in one of those performances, Sparky suddenly loses his abilities and can’t play a single note.  He demands the music from his magic piano but nothing comes.  He looks out to his waiting audience in horror… and wakes up from a dream.

Virtually the entire story of “Sparky’s Magic Piano” is in his imagination, but the moral-of-the-story ending has Sparky practicing with renewed focus and hopes of some day becoming a great pianist.  Also, the story aged well, as I first heard it twenty-five years after it was created and still loved it.

“Sparky’s Magic Piano” resonates for several reasons.  It inspired me with wonderful piano compositions at an age when I wanted to play outside instead of practice.  My piano teacher helped me learn “The Spinning Song” and the first movement of the “Moonlight Sonata” (alas, the “Bumblebee” is reserved for only the most accomplished of pianists.  Watch this performance as proof: )

Also, whenever I hear the classical music from Sparky’s story I’m instantly transported back in time to my grandparents’ house.  Besides the children’s stories and toys (enjoyed decades earlier by my own father), my grandparents owned a few audio stories.  Their copy of “Sparky’s Magic Piano” was on “45’s”: those 7-inch records that contained a single song on each side.  Sparky’s story required six or seven 45’s (both sides), which meant you had to flip or change the discs every 3-4 minutes to hear the entire story.

Thanks to Sparky I will always remember childhood time with my grandparents.  I can picture myself sitting cross-legged on their floor in front of the living-room “hi-fi” (the size of a small refrigerator back then), listening to Sparky’s story with a focus broken only by the need to flip the discs.  Fittingly, that living room also contained an old, out-of-tune, upright piano, which I was allowed to play every now and then.

Remarkably, “Sparky’s Magic Piano” is still available today.  You can buy a copy for a couple dollars on Amazon Music or iTunes.  Have a listen to a story that was created almost seventy years ago.  Thanks to your iPod you won’t even have to get up to change the discs.  And if you can endure the corny dialogue, you may find yourself captivated by the repertoire of wonderful piano music – truly “classical”.